SEN. Francis Tolentino has been churning out proposed bills that really make a lot of sense. One that caught my attention was his proposal to assure free graduate education for all teachers, and in addition, provide scholarships for their children. This is a proposal that if approved into law will greatly compensate for the hapless situation that our teachers have found themselves in. It will render the teaching profession an attractive career option.

If there is one thing that Filipinos value, it is the education of their children, and ensuring that the children of teachers will have theirs free, whether it is in public or private schools, and at all levels as long as they qualify for admission, would undoubtedly elevate the status of the teaching profession.

I would even suggest that in addition to this proposal, free hospitalization and medical treatment for teachers, and making the retirement benefits of teachers in government schools at par with the retirement packages of judges and armed personnel would further boost teaching as a profession. After all, enabling the learning of children is as important as protecting them from harm and injustice. Our encounter with armed threats, and our need to run to the courts to seek their interpretation of laws are not a daily matter, but our need for knowledge, which education provides, is a persistent necessity.

Teachers are also the most overburdened despite being underpaid among the classes of professions. Aside from actual classroom teaching, which by itself is already challenging enough, public school teachers are doing teaching-related administrative work. Many end up producing and procuring their own teaching materials. Beyond this, they serve as census-takers and surveyors, election officers, social workers and health workers. Often, they become guest relations officers to visiting dignitaries, entertainers to guests and caterers for athletes during sports meets.

Overburdened but underpaid, many of them end up becoming petty merchants selling things, from underwear, clothing and bags to insurance and life plans. Many end up as prey to loan sharks. And their cohort has a high vulnerability to upper-respiratory infections such as tuberculosis and other stress-related illnesses.

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Their exposure to risks cannot be underestimated. Beyond the disease they can contract, they are exposed to other risks when they perform their duties as adjuncts to other government agencies. They brave walking long distances, through flooded rivers and even stormy seas when they work as census takers, or when their services are conscripted to assist the activities of the Department of Health or the Department of Social Welfare and Development. They always face the constant risk of election violence when they serve as poll clerks and election officers. And even when they are working as teachers, and in the absence of adequate security measures provided to protect them when they work in remote areas, they can fall victim to crime and violence, as what happened to those teachers who were attacked and raped in Camarines Sur while they were preparing for the opening of classes.

Congress passed a law that would have rendered as tax-free the allowance teachers get for serving as election workers, but President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. vetoed this because of its alleged distorting effect on our tax system, and that it would be inequitable and unfair to other people from other professions who are performing the same role. Marcos nevertheless committed to providing additional benefits to teachers that will not tinker with the country's tax system. It is hoped that this would include further increasing the salaries of teachers to make them at par with global standards and to pass laws such as the one proposed by Senator Tolentino.

It is also a good move by Education Secretary, Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio to direct the easing of the load of teachers, to ensure that they are freed from performing administrative work so they can concentrate on actual classroom teaching. Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian talks of uncluttering basic education by just focusing on key learning areas.

The teachers, overburdened and underpaid as they already are, end up being blamed for what ails the educational system. We forget that they themselves are victims of a flawed system and a bureaucracy that is so large it finds difficulty in reforming itself. Curricular reorientation which is badly needed is saddled by too much institutional inertia, aggravated by the appointment of key decision-makers who are resistant to innovative approaches, effectively drowning out those voices proposing reform. Indeed, rank-and-file teachers so used to the traditional ways tend to oppose or resist change. This is why they have to be retrained so that they can learn the new, relearn the updated and unlearn the outdated. Teacher education should also be reformed. These will require not just resources but top education officials who are reform-minded. There is much focus on bringing back mandatory military training in senior high school when the priority should be strengthening the curriculum and the capacity of teachers. We cannot equip teachers to become enablers of learning in the internet age if they do not have internet access, and if the computers we provide them are not just lacking in number but also in capacity despite being excessive in price.

It is amid this backdrop that we watch Social Welfare Secretary Erwin Tulfo paint a bad image of teachers when they are asked to help his agency distribute assistance to those in need. It was quite painful to hear him generalize teachers as a cohort who would prioritize relatives and friends when they dispense benefits. Tulfo's attempt to free teachers of an added burden, and his intent to be sympathetic to teachers who would be wrongly accused, instead turned into a passive-aggressive embodiment of prejudice. It was probably the way he said it, that the sympathy he wanted to express turned into a patronizing kind of insult that painted teachers as prone to petty corruption.