Lumen Castañeda and the art of teaching from the heart

A teacher for 55 years.

A teacher for 55 years.

By Maricar CP Hampton

In Lumen Castañeda’s time, there was no bullying and there were no female teachers sleeping with their students. Maybe there were, but she never saw any of that. Such incidents were rare and not standard fare in the news as they are today.

Castañeda – Tita Lumen to many in the community – is a retired public school teacher, now the president of the Association of Fil-Am Teachers of America (AFTA) in New York. She taught for 21 years at PS 2 Morrisania School in the Bronx, 55 years if one counted her teaching experience in the Philippines.

“Teachers sleeping with their students is a big no-no,” she said when interviewed by The FilAm. “Where is your respect if you do that?”

Mary Kay Letourneau’s story, if it happened in Castañeda’s time, would have rocked the foundation of the school system. Today, years after Letourneau was convicted of child rape for her relationship with her then 13-year-old student, many other teachers have fallen in line behind the Washington State teacher. Sex scandals are common, the subject of true crime books and made-for-TV movies.

“I am fortunate that I was spared that problem,” said Castañeda, now 78, widowed and living with her youngest daughter and teen grandson in their Jersey City Heights home. The property has a tiny garden where the lively colors from her shasta daisies, peonies, tulips and roses brighten this community leader’s day in the morning and are a reassuring sight at night coming home from her many meetings and fundraisers.

Bullying, she said, she never encountered. “Maybe because I was dealing with ‘babies’,” she said referencing her kindergarten and fifth grade students at the Bronx.

Castañeda used to teach kindergarten kids at PS 2, but on her last year, the school gave her the Grade 5 class to handle. “It turned out I loved it too.”

“At first I was afraid to go to the higher grades. Naku sabi ko mga bastos yung mga bata diyan baka hindi ako makatiis pag fina f—k you, f—k you ako. We Filipinos teachers are not used to that, ”she recalled.

She learned that with fifth graders “as long as you hold them tight and if you give them what they need and try to understand them, they will love you back.”

Reviewing her life, Castañeda never thought she would find herself teaching in the Bronx, one of the low-income boroughs in the U.S. It was the 1980s when she arrived, a time when the Bronx was starting to come back from a long period of blight. Crime was still up and so was joblessness, but buildings were rising and with them came public housing, mass transit, commercial establishments and a growing sense of optimism in the community.

She went to the United States just for a visit after the EDSA revolution. Her children were afraid there was going to be war so they prevailed on her to stay. At the time, she was teaching in a public elementary school in her Marikina hometown. An opportunity opened up when her cousin, a consultant at a day care, offered her a teaching job plus visa sponsorship.

She spent more than five years at the day care before she moved to the Board of Education.

“When I first came here hirap na hirap ako. The first thing is discipline. Sa Pilipinas, sanay tayo na pag tumingin ka sa kanila tatahimik na sila, dito hindi. Luluwa na yung mata mo di ka pa nila pakikinggan unless you call them one by one by their names. Then they will keep quiet for a while,” she said.

Her leadership style would soon emerge. “I showed them I loved them and constantly I told them I love them, and I was able to get their confidence.”

In fact, when her fifth graders learned she was about to retire, Castañeda said they went to the principal and pleaded with her not to let Ms. Castañeda go.

“The principal told me, I think your students love you very much because they are here every day saying don’t let her retire we need her,” she said.

From what she has seen in two decades of teaching, she said American society has problems with discipline and a widening gap between parents and teachers.

“The government is catering to the parents. Whatever the parents say is always right. They don’t see the side of the teachers. And it will be the downfall of America’s education,” she warned.

lumen red pants Castañeda gave a snapshot comparison of the teaching systems in the Philippines and the U.S. “The Philippine educational system was patterned after America’s. In the U.S. they have a good curriculum but the teachers cannot teach it very well because half the time you are asking them (the students) to keep quiet. The difference is that Filipino teachers are good and the children listen,” she said, concluding with “Discipline is a big issue.”

She shared an experience to illustrate. In the day care she was accused of pinching a sleeping pupil. “I told them, Why will I pinch him? How will he know that I pinched him if he was sleeping? So it was found out that I did not pinch him so there was no demerit,” she explained.

Three years into retirement she said she misses her “babies.” But that has not slowed her down. If not travelling twice a year to visit her children and grandchildren in the Philippines, she is active in her church as a lector or eucharistic minister and leading AFTA’s growth. She is active on Facebook posting photos of where she’s been in the last 24 to 48 hours and sharing them with her 400 friends.

Her advice to aspiring teachers? “Always have a positive attitude.”

It’s a guiding principle lived in and out of the classroom. In community meetings, she is always that gracious lady with the elegantly-coiffed do, rosy red lipstick and a happy smile for everyone who greets, “Hi, Tita Lumen.”

The cheerful disposition she attributed to a daily ritual of prayer and asking the Lord for guidance when she wakes up in the morning. “I say to myself, Lumen, you have two choices today: Will you make the day blessed or bad? Being vertical every day is such a blessing.”

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