‘Teaching Is My Calling’

Education Workforce

‘Teaching Is My Calling’

Why a trio of Filipino teachers came to the U.S. to work at a school for special education.

By Rosem Morton     Jun 26, 2023

‘Teaching Is My Calling’
Richard Sagun, 34, Rachelle Evangelista, 31, and Curt Cruz, 28, pose for a portrait at The Children’s Guild School on April 25. The roommates are new immigrants from the Philippines who teach special education.

As they make their way through the colorful hallways of The Children's Guild School of Prince George’s County, Maryland, teachers and roommates Curt Cruz, Rachelle Evangelista, and Richard Sagun exchange waves and greetings with the other school staff.

However, they didn’t always feel this warm welcome.

“It was very challenging. We didn’t receive much guidance from the school initially,” Evangelista recalls.

When the trio of teachers arrived in the United States last August from the Philippines, they say that they were initially denied entry to the school that had recruited them. There was a paperwork mix-up. At the time, the independent special education day school, which serves students who have emotional disabilities, autism, intellectual disabilities or multiple disabilities, was experiencing significant staffing shortages and the administrative team didn’t have capacity to facilitate the newcomers’ arrival. Unable to prepare, they had no idea what to expect on their first day.

That experience highlights the challenges teachers from other countries face when they enter the U.S. education system.

“It was a big adjustment,” Sagun reflects.

Three teachers get ready for work
Evangelista, Sagun and Cruz get ready for work in their home in Beltsville, Maryland.
Two teachers leaving for work
Sagun and Cruz leave for work.

Sagun comes from a long line of teachers, who inspired him to take on the profession. After teaching for 10 years in the Philippines, he was eager for new experiences and a better salary. He decided to migrate to the U.S. to teach special education for the first time.

Like many other Filipino teachers, Sagun is well-suited to teach in the U.S. thanks to his educational background and English proficiency, influenced by decades of U.S. occupation of the Philippines. The U.S. State Department reports that Filipinos are consistently the largest group of foreign-born teachers arriving in the U.S.

Sagun guides Kevin Wendell Dean Jr. during a science class exercise.
Sagun guides a student filling out a science worksheet.

Sagun guides students during a science class exercise.

Despite not knowing each other, Cruz, Evangelista and Sagun happened to contact the same recruitment agent based on recommendations from other teachers. They were able to complete the application process in just a few months with an exchange visitor visa, one of the pathways for teachers to immigrate to the U.S.

Many people who immigrate choose to settle ahead before bringing family over. Evangelista is looking forward to having her husband move in a few months.

For the time being, the three teachers have created a support system for themselves by renting rooms in the same house. Evangelista acts as the driver, while Cruz and Sagun take on kitchen duties.

Cruz teaches math to his 10th grade class.
Cruz guides Noah Benjamin during a math class exercise.
Cruz supports an off-balanced student who jumped from a table to turn on a projector.

Cruz teaches math. When a student jumps from a table to turn on a projector, Cruz reaches out to help the student regain balance.

It’s significant that the trio of teachers took positions working in special education. According to The Council for Exceptional Children, 98 percent of school districts in the country were facing shortages of special educators as of 2020. The organization also reports that teacher attrition rates in special education are increasing even as the number of students with disabilities rises. Cruz, Evangelista and Sagun have heard that The Children’s Guild School is recruiting more teachers from the Philippines this year.

Toward the end of their first year of teaching in the U.S., Cruz, Evangelista and Sagun have found steadier footing. “In the beginning, I was always compared with their old teacher,” Evangelista says. She learned that the previous teachers encouraged free time on Chromebooks. “When we arrived, we put in structure. It was time for learning,” she says.

Evangelista prepares for class.
Evangelista teaches a high school special education class.

Evangelista prepares for and teaches class.

“Nowadays, the students like and expect the routine,” reflects Cruz, shortly after leading a mindfulness exercise, during which his students “melt” on the floor. He continues with his high school math classes unfazed by the loud noises that routinely reverberate through his classroom from out in the hallway, often made by students who are passing by while experiencing distress.

. Students relax on the floor as part of a mindfulness exercise led by Cruz.
Students relax on the floor as part of a mindfulness exercise led by Cruz.

For Cruz, becoming a special education teacher was very personal. “Initially, I wanted to be a teacher for my brother, Miguel,” Cruz says, explaining that Miguel is deaf and experiences emotional dysregulation. “I saw his plight. No one was communicating with him because of the barriers.”

Photographs of Cruz and his family that he keeps at home.
Cruz spends his last day of spring break preparing for his classes.

Cruz keeps photographs of his family at home. He spends his last day of spring break preparing to teach.

After the recent and painful loss of his parents and sister to various illnesses, Cruz felt conflicted with the decision to leave Miguel and move abroad to financially support both of them. “It is a major decision for myself and for my brother. I tell myself it is temporary and it will be a way for us to thrive,” he says.

After seven years of teaching, Cruz reflects that his motivations have become bigger than his family. “I realize that teaching is my calling,” he says. “Despite the most challenging situations, I want to help others.”

Cruz and Sagun prepare food together at home.
Cruz and Sagun prepare food together at home.
Sagun, Cruz and Evangelista share a meal.
Sagun, Cruz and Evangelista share a meal. ⚡

Photojournalism and text by Rosem Morton.

Morton is a Filipina visual journalist, registered nurse and journalist safety trainer based in Baltimore. Her documentary work focuses on daily life amidst gender, health and racial adversity. Morton created this documentary project through photographs and interviews made in the spring of 2023.

Editing by Rebecca Koenig.

This story is part of an EdSurge series chronicling diverse educator experiences. These stories are made publicly available with support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. EdSurge maintains editorial control over all content. (Read our ethics statement here.) Excluding photography, this work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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