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“Friend, tingin mo ba papasa tayo ng LET? Random thought.” (Friend, do you think we’ll pass the licensure exam for teachers? Just a random thought.)
This was the message pinned on top of the Facebook Messenger chat thread of Chelsea Tiaga and Dulce Arellano.
Tiaga and Arellano met as freshmen under the Bachelor of Special Needs Education program of the University of Santo Tomas (UST). Both alone and friendless during their orientation, chatty Tiaga approached timid Arellano and said hi.
They had been inseparable ever since, in classes and in break times. From performance tasks, to seatwork, and all other assessment activities in school, being partners was never a question. “Kahit hindi magka-partner, gagawin naming mag-pair, ganoon (Even if the activity didn’t require going on pairs, we still worked on it as partners, like that),” Arellano quipped.
Tiaga and Arellano shared many things: class notes, a love for Korean dramas, the knack of exploring new places. They also had the same passion for early childhood education.
Arellano was born to a family who was part of the international Catholic association Couples for Christ. She joined as a member of Kids for Christ, growing fond of her big brothers and sisters who played with kids during church assemblies.
When she became a teen, she joined Youth for Christ, and soon became the big sister taking care of the kids.
“Ang gusto ko talagang service or ang gusto ko talagang gawin is mag-alaga ng bata. Like, ‘yun talaga ‘yung na-inspire ako, bakit ako nag-teacher,” Arellano said.
(What I really wanted to do as a service is taking care of kids. That’s what really inspired me to become a teacher.)
Meanwhile, Tiaga saw the gaps in the special education (SPED) system in the Philippines.
“Nung first year pa lang po ako, pangarap ko na po i-contextualize sana yung special education sa Philippine setting…. Nakita ko po yung gap nung mga batang may kapansanan sa mga typical na bata, kung gaano po kakonti yung opportunities nila para pumasok sa school, na hanggang ngayon pa rin naman,” she shared.
(Since my first year in college, it has been my dream to contextualize the special education curriculum in the Philippine setting. I saw the gaps between kids with disabilities and those without them, how few opportunities are for kids with disabilities to go to school, which still does persist today.)
Outside classes, Tiaga and Arellano were members of the Guild of Thomasian Speducators in UST, organizing activities together for people with disabilities, in partnership with national organization Special Olympics Pilipinas and other college departments in the university.
“Sobrang saya…. Makaka-meet ka talaga ng mga people with exceptionalities na sobrang galing sa sports. Parang hindi mo i-expect na — siyempre, bilang student, hindi ka pa super exposed sa ganoong community,” Arellano said.
“Tapos ‘yun ‘yung maging unang experience mo [sa] pinapasok mo na profession. Kaya sobrang nakakatuwa rin na makita ‘yung ganoon avenue or ‘yung opportunity para sa lahat na ma-experience ‘yun.”
(It’s so much fun. You get to meet people with exceptionalities who are so good at sports. Somehow you don’t expect that — of course, as a student, you’re not yet that exposed to that community. And then you get to have that as your first experience in your chosen profession. So I find it really fun to see that kind of avenue or opportunity for everyone to experience that.)
Soon enough, in June 2022, Tiaga and Arellano got their college degrees. They then entered their first jobs, and enrolled in different review centers to prepare for their licensure exam.
They lost touch with each other after that.
There wasn’t any bad blood between both of them, Tiaga immediately clarified.
They had already secured their respective jobs a month before they graduated — Arellano as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher, and Tiaga as a SPED teacher. The transition from being a student to having a job was so fast, it overwhelmed both of them.
“Nung di ko siya mine-message noong first year ko sa work, iniisip ko, wala naman kasi akong mash-share sa kanya na nakakatuwa. Baka mamroblema pa siya lalo,” Tiaga said, citing Arellano undergoing personal struggles.
(When I wasn’t messaging her during my first year at work, I thought, I really didn’t have anything happy to share. I would probably just burden her more.)
Meanwhile, Arellano said she thought Tiaga had already found new friends at work — much to the latter’s amusement.
“Pero alam ko naman kapag minessage ko siya, friends pa rin kami. Kasi kahit saan mo ‘to ilagay si Chelsea, magkakaroon siya ng kausap eh…. Okay lang naman ‘yun sa akin,” Arellano added.
(But I knew that, if I messaged her again, our friendship would still be the same. Because Chelsea’s the type who would find someone to talk to wherever she’d be. And it was okay for me.)
In October 2022, Tiaga reached out to Arellano.
“Parang sinabi ko sa kanya, friend, ba’t kailangan mag-isa ulit tayo? Eh four years, magkasama tayo?” Tiaga shared. “Parang ang hirap lang na mga work mag-isa. Parang ang hirap mag-review mag-isa. Baka kako nag-struggle tayo, kasi biglang hindi na tayong magkasama.”
(I think I told her, friend, why do we have to be alone again? When we were together for four years? It felt hard to work alone. It felt hard to review for the exam alone. And we were probably struggling because we were suddenly apart.)
That same month, Tiaga enrolled Arellano in the review center she was at. “Nilagay ko ‘yung name ko as guardian (I even listed my name as her guardian),” she said in jest.
They were supposed to take the licensure exam in March 2023, but realizing their friendship still had a lot of loose ends needing tightening, they decided to take the exam in September instead.
Since then, they reviewed for the boards together.
Recalling their review process, the girls joked that they shared the same brain.
“‘Yung atake namin sa questions…kapag mali kami ng sagot, parehas kaming mali (When it comes to our approach to the questions, whatever one would get wrong, the other would get wrong, too),” Tiaga said.
Both would take practice exams and mark questions they were unsure how to answer, then get on video calls to brainstorm. Most of the time, they had marked the same list of questions.
“Ang problem lang, dahil same kami kung paano mag-isip, kapag mali naman kami parehas mag-justify, eh ‘di mali din ‘yung answer,” Tiaga said in between laughs.
(The problem was, because we both think the same way, if we had the same faulty justification for our answers, then we wouldn’t arrive at the right ones.)
Sharing one way of thinking, and many other things in common, would eventually manifest the day the licensure exam results came. As it turned out, Tiaga and Arellano didn’t just pass the exam. They didn’t just earn a spot in the topnotchers list, either.
They now shared one more thing: the top one spot.
“Nung sa board rating din, kasi may parts ‘yun, may general education, may professional education… Kahit ‘yung sub-parts, same din kami ng score. Same din ang ranking. Same din po ng final average,” Tiaga detailed.
(When we looked at our board rating, well it had different parts: there was general education, then professional education… Even at the sub-parts, we shared the same score. The same ranking. Then the same final average.)
Finding out they both ranked first was “surreal,” said Arellano. But they also knew it was just the beginning.
They now look forward to working on their shared dream: to help build the special education (SPED) system in the Philippines.
“Kahit na nag-top kami, part lang ‘yun. Pero malayo pa kami doon sa goal talaga namin nung college — ‘yung makatulong talaga. Hindi lang makatulong sa isang session, pero makatulong sana ng long-term,” Tiaga expounded.
(Even when we topped the licensure exam, that’s just one part of it. We’re still far from our goal since college, which is to actually help. Not just through one session, but helping for the long term.)
“‘Yung bata talaga, may pathway siya para magkaroon ng practical life skills, para mabuhay hindi lang naman sa academics, pero mabuhay talaga siya bilang tao tapos ma-include siya sa society.”
(A kid has their own pathway to learn practical life skills, for them to thrive not just in academics, but also to live life as a person and to be included in society.)
Arellano currently works as a SPED teacher at the MAGIS Rehabilitation Clinic in Parañaque City, holding weekly one-on-one classes with students with disabilities. Meanwhile, Tiaga works at the Polikids Center for Development in Bulacan as a play school teacher, holding classes for kids with diverse backgrounds.
They also hope to become college professors in the future, or at least teach college students on the foundations of inclusive education.
“Naisip po namin na kung hindi naman namin maturuan lahat ng bata, puwede namin kahit papaano ma-share ‘yung alam namin sa mga magiging teacher nila,” Tiaga expounded.
(We’re thinking that, if we won’t be able to teach all kids, then at least we can impart what we know to those who will teach them.) – Rappler.com