Queena Lee Chua Saving The World One Student at a Time

“Students these days are distracted by so many things,” bemoans mathematics and psychology professor Queena Lee Chua.

In her twenty years of teaching at the Ateneo de Manila University, she has discovered that more than television and computer games, family problems and relationship issues also stand in the way of good academic performance.

Many times, students would run to her not for help in homework but to seek advice about a father having an affair or parents not having the time for them. Learning all this was “shocking,” Queena says, and she admits she was not prepared to deal with the issues at first. “If it was just mathematics, it would be easy,” she observes, which is what led her to study psychology.

In her columns in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Queena shares her classroom discoveries, and parents would do well to read it, if only to help them understand their children more. While she gets loads of e-mail and thank-you cards from students, this 2003 Metrobank Outstanding Teacher awardee would not think of herself as inspirational. For someone who didn’t even start off wanting to teach, what has kept Queena going all these years is the thought that there might be a student this semester who could be saved.

PinoyCentric caught up with Professor Chua while she was giving an exam to a math class. At the back of the room, she was watching her students while answering, in whispers, our questions about school, life, and everything else in between.

People say you’re exceptional because you’re good in math and the sciences, and you’re also a good writer. But is there something that you’re hopeless at?
Queena Lee Chua: Drawing. I’m extremely happy that my son is good in drawing. At three years old he was already drawing very well. My husband and I don’t draw at all, but it hasn’t stopped him from checking my son’s drawing. In the summer, we encourage him to draw. When he was younger, we used to send him to art classes. He’s nine years old and he draws anything, especially cartoons.

What other things are you not very good at?
I would love to learn cooking. I don’t think I’m hopeless at cooking. I used to get a decent grade in cooking class, but I never really had the time to do so. So I said when I retire several years from now, as a pasttime that’s what I’m gonna do. I want to learn to cook all the meals I love to eat: Italian, Chinese food.

When you were younger, did you ever think that boys were intimidated by you because you were intelligent?
No. And it was a good thing. When I grew up, I found out that older people think that. But in our generation, in fact, I’m happy to say that many of the decent guys prefer women who are smart.

This semester, I did a survey of my psychology classes, because we were talking about gender relations, and asked them, “What do you look for in a girl? For guys, is it looks?” The number one was intelligence. The women wanted sense of humor. Physical appearance wasn’t even in the top ten.

Men said they wanted women who had a life outside of them. They say, “We dont want them to cling, we want them to have their own lives.” That’s very enlightening.

It must be so inspiring to be teaching them and constantly being exposed to these young people.
They can be a trial at times, but they need guidance. I am disturbed that many of their biggest problems aren’t learning math or science. Their biggest problems are relationships and parents.

It shocked me because when I started teaching twenty years ago, family problems were very rare. Now they would come to me and say, “My parents are separated” or “My dad is having an affair,” and those things affect their grades. In order to make them perform better in school, I had to tackle these problems, and that’s why I went into psychology.

At their age, 17, 18, they’ve become quite cynical. They distrust the government and politicians. They complain that their parents are not there, and it was one thing I wasn’t prepared to discover.

They get excitement from extreme sports and risk-taking behavior. I used to think Ateneo was sheltered, pero hindi na, and these students come with a lot of baggage. Their priorities aren’t studies but simply to get on with their lives.

Kung ang problema is math, ang dali-dali. If their life were perfect, if it’s just the math, with some practice, kaya yun. Sometimes, they don’t do their homework. They drink more coffee than I do. It shocks me. They come to me and tell me they can’t sleep.

Bad study habits, bad sleeping habits. Distraction from the media.

Like the Harry Potter book. Everybody likes it, but I told them, why do you have to line up for it the first day, especially when you have exams the week after? It will not go away. The bookstores will not run out, trust me. If they do, so what, you can order from Amazon.

Instant gratification. They want things fast, speedy, which is the opposite of learning. You can’t get that A in math fast kung careless kayo. I tell them to slow down.

Those are the things occupying my mind. It’s not so much the math anymore, so when someone comes to me, crying, I have to prepare myself. They also have problems with romantic relationships, but mostly the issues are really with parents.

What do you find enjoyable or inspiring about teaching?
Many of them have overcome great odds. There’s this book, Magaling ang Pinoy, a study we did that showed how public school students excel. Many of my students are public school students.

Von Karlo Sinence was my best student in mathematics last year. He was not Filipino Chinese. He didn’t come from Ateneo or Philippine Science High School or from the schools we think are “good.” He came from Parang High School in Marikina.

I don’t want to say I am inspirational, but that’s what they tell me. I get tons of cards and e-mails from my students. I’ve been ninang [godmother] in their weddings or the baptism of their kids. I’ve written more than 500 recommendation letters. They visit me even if they’ve moved forward. I give a lot of talks, and in many of my talks, I would see a past student waving and saying, “Ma’am we came here to see you.”

It makes me happy to see my students successful, to see them happy, to see them in good marriages, good jobs, to think that during the formative years of their lives when they were making decisions, I could help them make good judgments.

I once taught a course in creative writing. Martin Villanueva was my student in one of those. He was a sophomore and was quite raw, but he had great dedication. I required that arts class to write a science essay, but I said, you wanted to write, and you know my reputation. Besides this should be the only time in your life that you’re doing this.

There were no science majors, predominantly humanities. A couple of management people who wanted to write. I told them to do the science writing. They weren’t too happy about it, but they were nice kids so they didn’t drop the course. We guided them, even with choosing the topic. We brainstormed over them.

Depending on their topic, I put them in contact with people who could help them. For example, one kid wanted to do forensics. Somebody wanted to do insulin because his grandfather was diabetic. Martin wanted to do chemotherapy because it was a personal thing. He knew someone who had cancer.

I told my class, it’s okay to do it, but this is not a research paper. It’s a creative writing paper, which means your topic is quite difficult to understand, you need to make the reader understand.

So Martin used metaphors for it, and it was very good. It took us months. We have a Yahoogroup and each person is required to put his or her essay there. I told them when you critique, don’t just criticize. You must have a better way of doing it. That year the school decided to do a science writing contest open to everybody, so I required my class to join. Sabi nila, “Kalaban natin ang mga science majors.” I told them just join, and they swept the awards.

After they did that, I told them, we should think about joining the Palanca awards, and they started laughing. “Kalaban namin mga professors,” they said. I said, you know I have been a judge of Palanca, I know what they’re looking for.

In August that same year, I got an e-mail from Martin Villanueva telling me, “Ma’am, you won’t believe it! I joined the Palanca and the essay on chemotherapy won third place!”

He got so inspired. He was a fine arts major, and he was into poetry. Very stereotypical writer, but after that, he said he was shifting into nonfiction, including science writing.

He’s still here. He’s doing his thesis. I told them I couldn’t be his adviser because I’m doing many things, but I was so happy I recommended him to the Silliman Writers Workshop and he got in.

So that’s what keeps me going, and I’m lucky enough that every semester, I have a success story. I think they just need guidance. I tell them I expect high performance. Naiinis ako sa mgamediocre students.

Even with some students who are not in the sciences, I tell them I expect them to be able to get an A in my classes, but they have to work hard. No excuses.

But with those who, no matter what I say, won’t study, I tell them, “That’s your life. You’ll soon be on probation if your attitude is like this. You’ll be kicked out. You’ll be out of school, and you won’t get a good job.” I make it dramatic. But the majority really work hard.

In the US there was a study in 2006 saying that Latino and black boys were behind in math. In the Philippines, is there a specific demographic that we need to focus on in terms of improving performance in math and science classes?
You would have thought public schools are, but no. Last year the team that topped the competition was from a public school. I have been a judge in many math competitions, and last year Sister Coronel [president of the Math Teachers Association of the Philippines] told me, “Natatalo na ang private schools.” It used to be public school [that were having difficulties catching up].

I asked Von Sinence, and he said what drives the students in the public school to excel is that they have more to lose, whereas the wealthier students don’t have that motivation. So the private schools remain where they are. Sometimes they even go down. Poverty is not a hindrance to doing well in school, I’m happy to say.

Students from Philippine schools have been winning in math competitionsrecently. Does this mean we are not behind anymore? If not, what should be done about this?
We are in the bottom. Very few people win. I highlight the ones who do win. In the international studies, we are at the bottom, if not, we’re second at the bottom in terms of math and science.

It’s not the government or the educational system. It’s the culture that we should change. We should stop fearing math. We should take out the stereotypes, like “Only the Chinese are good in math.” That’s stupid. That’s irrational. Or “Only males should go into sciences.”

We should learn to think with our brains rather than with our hearts. We’re a very emotional people. Emotions are okay, but in the modern world, relying on emotions backfires.

We use emotion to make political decisions. We use emotions to choose our leaders. Enough of the emotions. Our culture is so soap operatic. Always tugging at the heartstrings.

I have this student who’s very idealistic. He wants to change the world. Galit siya sa global warming, sa poverty. It’s great to talk to him. It’s so nice to have someone like that. There’s just one problem. He was averaging a C in my course, and one day I couldn’t stand it, I told him, “You know, you want to change the world, that’s good, but what you should do right now is get the best grades that you can. Learn the best things you can. Your heart is in the right place, but you need to develop your mind.”

Just because we want to do it, we think we’re nice poeple. Yes, you want to change the world, eh kung bagsak ka nang bagsak, wala kang alam sa buhay, wala rin. Kids these days are tired of studying, which is what one actually needs to do to get ahead.

So I say enough with misplaced empathies. Enough with the emotions.

We should be rational about how we use our resources. We should plan on how to genuinely help people. It’s not about doling out money here and there, kasi naawa ka. We have existed like that all of our lives. We should be more rational people, which is what the sciences and mathematic promote.

If we become better in these fields, we improve our reasoning, and our mindset changes. One of my students was very good in physics and went to the Philippine Science High School, and she said she had to fight her way to go into physics here because her father told her, “If you go into physics, you won’t get married.” We gave her daughter a scholarship.You don’t have to spend anything. Finally he agreed, and she graduated magna cum laude.

This antiquated stupid notions of what’s proper and what’s improper–it doesn’t work in today’s world.

We should learn not from America this time–because we are learning bad things rather than good things, from it. We’re becoming slaves of technology rather than its masters. I know some people who cannot do fractions without calculators. America is creative, it’s the promised land. But the way they treat their parents . . . some of the TV shows are horrible, but there are excellent ones. I love Heroes, but it can be too graphic.

We should learn from our Asian neighbors: the discipline they have, the can-do spirit, the determination, the respect for elders. This is the Asian century, and we’ll be left behind. We should learn something from them, and the fact is, they’re actually willing to teach us.They’re giving us scholarships. China and Korea are expanding. We should develop closer ties with them rather than just go to the US.

But magaling ang Pinoy, regardless of school.

You mentioned in a column that parental support has a lot to do with a child’s achievements in school. How were your parents supportive of you?
My parents were both medical doctors, but my mom declined to practice because she said if she would be on call, what if something happened to us? Many of her friends were aghast because she graduated top of her class in UP medical school. She told me many years later that when her friends were doctors would come to her and complain about how their kids were flunking, she would say, “See? The sacrifices I made were worth it.”

My mom was my first tutor. I don’t believe in professional tutors. I’m anti them. There are many tutors across the street and it’s not helping. My mom fostered study habits in us.

The kids of today are so into computer games. They’d be studying at ten o clock. My parents did not have PhDs in education or psychology. They just relied on common sense. They made sure we got enough sleep. They made sure we never crammed for examinations.

Cramming is such a great thing among students today. If you know what is happening every day, you don’t have to study for a test. I don’t see how people stress so much over a test. I actually watch a movie before a test. And if you really know the lesson, you won’t forget it. That’s the key. My best students never cram. My worst students always cram.

How do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as somebody who tried to make the world a better place, but I do it one person at a time. If I can save one suicidal student or encourage one student to do well in school despite personal problems, I’d be happy. If I can do another Martin Villanueva, I’d be happy.

You just have to empower these kids, because when they are, nothing can stop them.
They have ambitions, they just have to implement it.

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