Teaching at Varnett: Experience, Learning, and Sharing

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” - Walt Disney
Maria Christina Advincula is one of five teachers to be returning to the Philippines after three years at Varnett. This past year, 96 percent of her kindergarten students passed the Stanford reading test and 90 percent passed the math test. "She understood what it took to get through to each child," said Abiola Willoughby, K-2 curriculum coordinator. Ms. Advincula talks about her Varnett experience in the following Q&A. 


Every one of us were mostly annoyingly curious when we were kids—always wanting to know why things are the way they are, what is such a thing we see, how certain food tastes, what is there behind a door, or where a path is leading to. This curiosity thing has never really ceased in me. On the contrary, it has rather grown and evolved into also looking at things I do not know as great opportunities. That is why even with a stable job and flourishing career in teaching elementary and preschool students back in my home country, the Philippines, I had very little hesitation about coming to America, particularly here in Houston, Texas to teach.

Q: How would you describe your three years at Varnett?

A: I felt very honored meeting Varnett’s very own founder and superintendent Dr. Annette Cluff and her husband Mr. Alsie Cluff, Jr. during our preliminary interviews back in the Philippines, and very much more meeting her again along with rest of Varnett administrators during our orientation of work in Houston. That was the day we also learned which campuses we’d be assigned.

I am glad that my three-year teaching assignment, Pre-K4 for the first two years and Kindergarten for the third year, in Varnett were all at the Southwest Campus, primarily because I was able to live in an apartment just across the street. It is somehow eye-opening for me that in Texas, and many other states, going to places is not easy without a car.

Of course, first-timers commonly get that adjustment period so my first year was considerably about learning the school’s rules and regulations, meeting other teachers, learning to get along with the parents, or the school community in general.

It also was a grand experience that during my first year I went on a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico with Varnett’s board members and other three teachers because I won the school’s fundraiser.

Q: What is the most important thing you learned while being in Houston?

A: I admired Houston’s wonderful environment, landmarks, places, people, and saw that America is really a land of opportunity.

Q: What was your secret in getting your kindergarten students to perform so well?

A: At Varnett, I have once again proved that the most important skill a teacher should have for her to be effective is classroom management. Other abilities like lesson planning, instruction delivery or providing nice classroom activities become possible and meaningful only if the teacher has first gained control of the classroom.

I believe this is the reason many schools, as they recognize this key skill, see to it that the overall school administration system creates an environment that empowers their teachers to gain respect and authority in the classroom from among students, peers, administrators  as well as parents.

Q: What is your most memorable moment at Varnett?
A: My Houston days have been challenging and wonderful, too. One of the pressing challenges was the need to pass the Texas teaching certification requirements known as TExES™ (Texas Examinations of Educator Standards™) otherwise we may not have been able to continue with the teacher-exchange program. I pride myself that I passed it in one take. Meanwhile, at the Southwest Pre-Kindergarten Campus, I kept on doing what I can to contribute to the improvement of the academic program, school activities like the graduation program, and some reporting processes. This probably was among the reasons  I was chosen as the Pre-K Team Lead during my second year. This was also the year I was chosen as the Teacher of the Year for PreK at the Southwest Campus.

I did not lose sight of pursuing more ways to grow professionally. I attended actual seminar workshops, made possible through the kindness of our then-Director, Ms. Melissa Cluff. One such workshop was the “Frog Street Educators’ Annual Conference.” When at home and during available time, I enrolled in online workshops sponsored by Texas Education Agency (TEA)—the ones I completed and liked a lot were the book reviews for the Essential Understanding series by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

Back in the classroom, I dare to claim expertise of using the ActivBoard, our online applications like the Treasures curriculum, and turning students’ misbehavior into productive learning, especially during my year in the Kindergarten.
Q: What are your plans after you return to the Philippines?
A: When I’m back to my home country, I will share this knowledge and experience I gained to fellow teachers as I have usually done. I plan to continue writing books for elementary and preschool children and conduct seminars and trainings. I also intend to open a tutorial center that focuses on Early Reading, Mathematics, and Arts and Crafts for preschool pupils. I believe these plans would be richer and lively because of the experience I gained from Varnett, Houston and USA in general.
Q: What lasting impression would you like to leave on your students?
A: I deeply hope that my students, with the help of their parents, will keep growing in knowledge and virtue, realizing that education is very important, that it is not just the work of the school but it’s both of the school and the home, and that education is truly rewarding.
In conclusion, I shall say my three-year stay here in Houston has been very fruitful. I am very grateful about it and I am eagerly looking forward to continue contributing to the growth of Varnett and being part of an effort to provide a quality American education.      
Bottom Photo: The five teachers who will be returning to the Philippines after working at Varnett for three years are, from left, Nenita Santoyo, Rebecca Llera, Arturo DeLuna, Maria Advincula and Laarni Ancheta.
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