Educator, Caretaker, Writer, Filmmaker: Meet Teacher Zal

Rosahlee Bautista – the kids know her as Teacher Zal – is the head teacher here at Little Hearts. She studied education at the Philippine Normal University and became a licensed school instructor, but her path from her native land to the doorstep of Little Hearts has been anything but conventional.

Her work in the Philippines included teaching children of various ages, from kindergarten to secondary school, as well as teaching outside the classroom, such as training school dropouts in community theatre. But she has also had a diverse career as a writer – she has penned comics, graphic novels, screenplays, radio and drama scripts, and magazine articles.

A few years ago, mourning the loss of the mother to Covid and needing to find a new direction in life, she came to Cambodia. Here, her writing interests drew her to journalism – she reported for the Khmer Times and wrote for several English-language periodicals. She even scripted and directed a short film that placed well in an international film festival. Ultimately, however, her first love and true passion – teaching – prevailed. After a chance encounter with our former caretaker and teacher, Ilse, she decided to follow her heart and applied to be Ilse’s replacement. Since Ilse’s departure, she has been acting as English teacher; the head teacher responsible for curriculum design as well as overall academic performance and tutoring; and a residential caretaker to our kids – a role she shares with Roxanne.

Wearing three hats is no easy task, she says. Immediately upon arriving she realized that this would be a job unlike any other she had held in the past. Working with children is always rewarding, but also challenging and exhausting – emotionally as well as physically. It never lets up, because her responsibilities as a caretaker mean that she is switched on to the kids’ needs at all times, ready to address the myriad issues that arise each day in a household of 40 people. The rewarding part is that you learn quickly to be an efficient multi-tasker. And, of course, you’re always in the company of children, whose creativity, originality and zest for life will never cease to amaze you.

Being the lead teacher, too, requires patience, flexibility, the ability to innovate, management skills to supervise both kids and teaching staff, and the organizational capacity to prepare curricula for the whole year as well as lesson plans for each day. Collaboration with the teaching staff (both here at Little Hearts and at the kids’ day school) is a key part of her job, as well as monitoring the educational progress of every child and recommending appropriate learning plans for students who are struggling. The toughest challenge, perhaps, is working for a motivated and committed boss like Tony. He won’t let you do anything half-heartedly, says Rosahlee; you’ve got to be 100% reliable and consistent, … and be strict whenever it is necessary to do so.

And then there is the more straightforward task of being the English teacher. Rosahlee teaches Level 3 English and often fills in for Level 2 as well. She gives additional classes to kids who have fallen behind and tutors them in their regular school subjects as needed. It is in these teaching activities that her past experiences as a writer and a moviemaker come in handy. Preparing a lesson plan, she explains, is not unlike writing a film script: revealing the mechanics of English grammar, for example, is a gradual process in which the student understands more and more of the plot with each new episode, just as if she were following a murder mystery. Directing a movie, too, has much in common with teaching in a classroom: you stand before a whiteboard instead of behind a camera, but you must still zoom in on individual students sometimes, as if they were characters in a movie, or zoom out to take in the classroom as a whole and pay attention to everything that’s happening in the frame.

And when it comes to the interpersonal aspect of teaching, managing a classroom full of kids is akin to trying to direct a play full of different actors, some of whom are boisterous and energetic, while others are quiet and withdrawn and need to be coaxed into playing their part convincingly.

What’s next for Teacher Zal? Every move she made, every job she held, every project she’s been involved with, she says, changed her life in different ways, but everything ultimately conspired to bring her to a place where she can make her most meaningful contribution to education: right here at Little Hearts.

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