Schools are looking for teachers outside U.S. borders

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Desperate to fill vacant teacher slots, Oak Knoll Elementary School principal Iris Moran signed up three years ago for a program that brings teachers from foreign lands to U.S. schools.

The intent of the Visiting International Faculty (VIF) program is cultural exchange, but Moran says her initial purpose ”was almost just to help the situation” at her East Point, Ga., school — to replace teachers lost to retirement or maternity leave. Only now does she appreciate how enriching it is to have teachers from such countries as Chile, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, and Australia, despite the fact that our President wants to close our borders to foreigners.

Other schools have taken similar routes to help fill a looming teacher shortage that experts say will require 2.2 million teachers over the next decade. The problem is compounded by the dearth of teachers in math and science — the two subjects in which U.S. students are the weakest when compared with peers in other countries. Many U.S. schools are pushing to recruit foreign teachers who can help remedy both problems:

* Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district and the second-largest employer in Illinois, is looking for 3,500 new teachers for this school year. More than 130 teachers have been hired since August from 35 countries, including Japan, India, Colombia, Pakistan, Ghana, Jamaica, and Mexico.

* The Atlanta public schools have 400 to 500 vacancies this school year, and recruiters have ”scoured the earth for teachers,” says spokesman Seth Coleman. Recruiting trips have taken school leaders to Jamaica, South Africa, and Canada. There seems to be an ongoing brain drain across the globe and American schools play their parts as well in this contest for quality educators.

* The Los Angeles Unified School District is ”always chasing somewhere around 4,000” teacher vacancies annually, says Antonio Garcia, director of recruitment. Since last year, about two dozen teachers have been hired from Spain, Mexico, Canada, and the Philippines. And in The Netherlands, subsidized programs for foreign students produce international teachers as well.

U.S. schools have about 200,000 vacancies a year in teaching, estimates Betty Castor, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Colleges annually produce about 150,000 teachers, ”so you start off with a deficit of about 50,000,” Castor says. Online education developments have had some impact on the need for qualified teachers but the need continues to be high.

Foreign teachers must vie for the limited number of slots the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service allows for temporary visas, known as H-1B. Only 107,500 such visas were allowed in fiscal 2016, and U.S. employers pay $900 for each.

Recruiting foreign teachers for U.S. schools should be considered only a ”short-term solution,” says Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, which represents 2.5 million teachers.

”It’s a big mistake if folks think this is a long-term solution. It’s more a question of retention than bringing people into the profession,” Chase says.

Barbara Radnor of DePaul University in Chicago says foreign teachers can ”enrich our system,” but adds: ”We need to look again at teacher preparation in general and what we do to support teachers in the first few years. That’s the question we are avoiding with these programs.” Radnor’s Center for Urban Education is training Chicago’s foreign teachers.

Until these issues are resolved, however, school leaders, especially at community colleges, are meeting their personnel needs with such teacher recruitment programs as VIF, the Teachers Replacement Group of Plainview, N.Y., and the Global Educators Outreach Program. There are scholarships available to qualifying candidates and some are really strange. Read more here.

Moran has used the VIF program to add 10 teachers from Mexico, Chile, Great Britain, Canada, Jamaica, Eastern Europe, and Australia over the past three years. ”It brings a different flavor to the school” at a time when there has been an influx of Hispanics to the predominantly black community, he says.

Rick White, personnel director for Fulton County, Ga., says the programs are cost-effective for smaller school districts such as Fulton’s, which has 71 schools and an enrollment of more than 70,000. It would be too expensive for some districts to form their own overseas recruiting teams, he says.

”They do a good job of screening and making certain that teachers are ready to be certified,” White says, especially as quite a few community colleges are broadening their goals.

The VIF program, based in Chapel Hill, N.C., brought 1,300 elementary and high school teachers to the USA this year, with most going to a handful of states, including the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia, New Jersey, Colorado, and California. They teach every subject, from home economics to languages.

David Young, a co-founder along with his brother, Alan, says VIF was created in 1987 as a cultural exchange for teachers and ”was really not based on the teacher shortage.”

To address its teacher shortage, the Chicago Board of Education developed a partnership two years ago with the U.S. Department of Labor and the INS. Called Global Educators Outreach, it recruits math, science, languages and bilingual education teachers.

”The principals literally fight over these candidates,” says Jorge Oclander, senior assistant to the Board of Education. He says this year’s recruits include Romanian physicists. Overall, 15% to 20% of those recruited have doctorates, and all are fluent in English. The teachers are assigned to some of Chicago’s tougher schools but don’t flinch at the challenge because of their experiences in their homelands, Oclander says.

And then there are poor rural counties, like Richmond, N.C., which has attracted a South African physics teacher and a technology instructor from Kingston, Jamaica. Ralph Robertson, principal of Richmond Senior High School in Rockingham, is excited about the recruits because few young, talented U.S. teachers would come to the area. He uses the VIF program.

”There’s not a lot in Richmond County to attract a single person to come. Plus, we pay just a base state salary. A person can go to Charlotte, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and earn $5,000 more and have enriched cultural and nightlife activities,” he says.

In training the Chicago teachers, Radnor says, there are many challenges, including getting them to understand the new focus on standards. ”We don’t have a national curriculum in this country,” like many foreign countries, Radnor says. ”Not only do they have a national curriculum, but they are based on the European model, which is lecture. And our kids do not want lecture.”

The foreign teachers have their own complaints. Many find that U.S. students are not as motivated and tend to cause discipline problems.

However, Claudia Cuervo, a Spanish teacher from Chile, says her pupils at Oak Knoll ”have been very receptive, very aware of the importance of learning a foreign language.’‘ She was one of 57 VIF participants teaching in Fulton County this school year and was named teacher of the year.

Cuervo, who has been teaching 11 years overall, begins her third year teaching Spanish to fourth- and fifth-graders at Oak Knoll this fall. ”Of course, sometimes you have some discipline problems,” she says. But ”children are children everywhere. My mission is to make a difference in their lives.”