Dr. Edgar Tibayan opens up his “Joy Binder” and smiles. The binder is where he keeps notes, pictures, mementos, and uncommon things his students give him. He pulls out a letter from a former student who struggled in math but is now about to receive her teaching degree and pursue a career as a math teacher. He beams while reading it. He turns to another page and looks down at a candy wrapper, remembering his own pangs of childhood hunger, and how a single piece of candy changed his perspectives on education, and the trajectory of his life (more on that in the video below). Dr. T, as his students know him, keeps this binder nearby to remind him why he does what he does. And how even simple things are so valuable when you are poor, like many Presidio kids and families are. He knows these struggles – not just because he lived them, but because of his strong connection with students and families, teachers and staff. Recently named Texas Middle School Principal of the Year, Dr. T attributes his effectiveness as a public school leader to his close connections with the people in this community.
“I dreamt of finishing college when I was young. That was my dream. But I was given an opportunity to serve the students of the United States of America. I’m giving my 100% service to humanity. Being the principal of the year and Harvard, these are just gifts that were given to me so that I can still improve my craft as an educator.”
Dr. Tibayan, a slight man, sits at his desk in a black Polo shirt and tan slacks. He makes jokes about being short. His boyish charm and playful smile light up a fairly plain and sparse office.
Upon learning more about Tibayan’s life and all he’s endured, you might wonder how he remains so dynamic and charismatic. He is a widower; his wife passed away a few years ago, leaving him to care for their three children, the youngest of which attends the middle school he leads.
One of seven children, Tibayan and his family lived and tilled the land on a coffee plantation in the Philippines. The plantation’s owners reaped most of the rewards from each harvest, while Tibayan’s family lived in complete poverty.
When Tibayan was 10 years old, he became a house servant for an elderly woman, working for her every morning from 4 until 6 am. After school, he’d return to the elderly woman’s house to finish the day’s work. On Saturdays he would accompany the family’s landlady to the farm to clear weeds and clean. Every day promised grueling physical work for just 10 cents.
Dr. T grows somber as he reflects on one particular day and the pivotal moment that would change his life.
“There was a case when I was in 4th grade that my teacher told me to buy some materials for a project that we were going to complete. I had that 10 cents in my pocket for lunch. I asked myself, ‘Am I going to buy food for myself – because this 10 cents would be for my lunch – or am I going to buy the school supplies my teacher told me to buy?’ I chose to buy the school supplies. And then, 12 o’clock, one o’clock, two o’clock – I got so hungry, so I asked my teacher to go out to drink from a water fountain. I saw this tamarind candy that I will never, ever forget. It was on the ground, wet. I know it came from somebody else’s mouth. But because of extreme hunger, I got that wet tamarind candy, I washed it by the water fountain, and stuck it in my mouth. I was crying during that time. Why should this thing happen to me? I am just a child. But I told myself from now on I would study very, very hard so that I can change the course of my life. And I did.”
Growing up on a coffee plantation in the Philippines, Edgar Tibayan (top row, fifth from the left) worked for hours before and after school each day to help support his family and pay for school expenses. “Education will change me,” he would tell himself. “There is no other way for me to change everything, unless I study.”
The city of Presidio in west Texas rests beneath a big, bright, Texas sky near the majestic Chinati Mountains and Big Bend hills. Isolated is an understatement; Presidio is 87 miles from the nearest McDonald’s, 150 miles from the nearest Walmart, and 242 miles from the nearest Starbucks. The city, a total area of 2.6 square miles, is home to fewer than 5,000 people. It shares a border with Ojinaga, Mexico and is one of the poorest communities in Texas.
The people of Presidio are resilient. They possess a deep sense of family and community, and a fundamental belief that education is the door to opportunity. Dr. T. champions these values with his students. “We share the same background,” he says. “When they tell me they are hungry, that they can’t afford to go to school, or buy school supplies, I tell them, ‘These are not hindrances for you to get the best education.’” His personal journey from abject childhood poverty to Texas Middle School Principal of the Year is a testament to this creed.
Dr. T reminisces about arriving in Presidio: “When I came here nine and a half years ago, I said, ‘Where is Presidio?’ I kept driving, and driving, and driving. I arrived here at night and I saw the lights and I said, ‘That’s Presidio.’” Then he realized, “No, this is Mexico. So I turned back.”
The Rio Grande River provides a natural barrier dividing Presidio, Texas (pictured left of the river) and Ojinaga, Mexico.
Dr. T says that when he arrived in Presidio, he knew he couldn’t tackle the challenges of performance and poverty alone – he needed teachers and staff to be full partners in the process. Some of the things he does are expected, like spending a lot of time in classrooms, observing and coaching and looking for opportunities to support teachers. He also coordinates regular teacher-leader meetings to listen, understand, and inspire those in a position to do the same for other teachers. But he also recognizes that culture is king. He has learned enough Spanish to communicate with staff (and students and families) in their native language, demonstrating his care for them.
Dr. T recognizes the realities of Presidio’s isolation and limited financial resources, and sees the opportunities within those realities to drive academic growth. For the past three school years Franco Middle School has met standard on state assessments, but with few and inconsistent distinction designations. Dr. T plans to change this by promoting shared leadership, placing an emphasis on data-driven instruction to target performance gaps, enacting STAAR Instructional Goal Setting for student ownership, and improving parent and community engagement.
Isolation and poverty mean that schools in Presidio have few resources. The budget does not allow for the best facilities and equipment, but the students make the most of what they have.
Dr. T protects the noon hour of every school day so that he can spend that time with his students. He says this quality time with the kids he serves is the best part of any day.
Every day in both school lunch periods, Dr. T mingles with his students. He jokes. He laughs. He gives high fives. He makes himself completely available to the kids as they eat their salads, sandwiches, and fruit. And during recess after lunch, he’s outside under the bright sun with the Chinati mountains visible in the distance serving volleyballs across a tattered net or playing “Knockout” with a throng of young boys on the concrete basketball court.
“It’s my turn, my turn,” he shouts, and the children will respectfully throw him the ball even though they all know he’s cutting in line.
He explains, “That is the most important period of the day for me – the time I have with the kids. I have a lot of reports to finish. But I see to it that I have time with them, because when you open the communication the relationship with the kids will be better because they trust you.”
Dr. T shares stories about his childhood with his students, knowing that many of them can relate. He tells them that if he was able to succeed, they can, too, despite the hindrances they may face. He shows his students the diplomas and honors hung on his office wall. “I want them to see that this is a labor of love. A labor of life,” he says. “And I show my Joy Binder to them so they can see the good things that have happened to me. And I tell them. ‘This will happen to you, too.'”
In a place where people have so little, the little things can mean so much. Like Dr. T’s jam-packed Joy Binder. Never one to take anything for granted, Dr. T treasures the most unassuming bits and pieces gifted to him, or left behind by his students. Like a candy wrapper. Or an orange and yellow pipe cleaner bracelet. Or a letter written by a former struggling student who is studying to become a teacher.
Dr. T takes one family a cake to sweeten his home visit. Another family insists Dr. T join them for a dinner of quesadillas and juice.
An integral part of successfully leading any school campus is quality family engagement. Border districts like Presidio are exceptional in that many of these students are separated from their biological parents. For Dr. T, the boundaries between school and home don’t exist. His modest home is surrounded by the mobile homes of his students, many who live with grandparents and extended family members.
On a regular basis, the families welcome Dr. T and the school’s family liaison into their homes for food and conversation. Dr. T has fostered meaningful and close relationships with his students, asking them questions about home life, looking through photo albums, and assuring parents and guardians that their children are safe in the care of his staff. Every other Friday, parents gather at the school for “Coffee Talk,” a casual meeting with Dr. T where, over coffee and pan dulce, they can ask questions and voice any concerns, and discuss co-parenting tactics.
Families in Presidio don’t have much, but they are willing to give to their neighbors who have the least. The middle school student council regularly hosts fundraisers to collect money to support various community members or school projects. One of the latest events involved students buying long lengths of duct tape for $2 or $3, then taping Dr. T to the cafeteria wall. The proceeds collected went toward buying Christmas presents for students who weren’t likely to receive gifts from their parents.
Presidio is home to a vibrant Filipino population. Many of them are public school educators who have formed a supportive network. On most Friday and Saturday evenings you will find them together at one of their homes enjoying a potluck dinner and living-room Karaoke.
Dr. T remembers a stormy day in the Philippines when an acquaintance gave him a ride home. His shoes left mud on the floor of the car. The driver berated him and requested he take his shoes off. This humiliated Dr. T who promised himself that after he moved to the United States he would buy his own car. Because he lacked the funds, Dr. T bought a toy car for inspiration. Years later, he bought a car of the exact same make and model as the toy, fulfilling his promise and achieving one of his dreams. That toy car sits on his desk for all of his students to see. “I would like for people to know that through hard work and sweat and tears, you’ll be able to attain your dream even though you are poor,” he says. “You can wish and the wish will come true if you have the determination and compassion to achieve those things. Poverty is not a hindrance to success.”
(In May 2017, Dr. Tibayan submitted his resignation to Presidio ISD, ending his 10-year term with the district. The reaction from district leaders and students was bittersweet; students asked him not to leave but ultimately gave him a farewell letter and lots of hugs. While leaving the district is difficult, Tibayan says he’s ready to expand his horizons “and make a difference on other campuses in the region.” He has not yet publicly announced his next assignment.)