Hiring Teachers From Abroad

Districts fill critical needs and add instructional value through visiting international faculty by Jonathan Charney

Schools in America, especially in communities far from urban centers, are working harder to find highly qualified and culturally proficient staff to prepare students successfully for an increasingly interconnected world.

Apart from offering teachers more professional development and hiring educators with international travel experience, public schools have begun hosting international teachers for up to three years through cultural exchange programs.

CharneyJonathan Charney manages global school programs for the Visiting International Faculty Program.

The benefits are these: International teachers bring new perspectives to the teaching and learning process; they help students, colleagues and even parents learn about another culture firsthand; and they often end up instilling a lifelong sense of curiosity about the world in their students.

While all school leaders value the high-quality teaching skills international educators offer, school districts must be diligent in exploring the visa options available and support requirements (see related story, page 37). The Visiting International Faculty Program, a 20-year-old organization based in Chapel Hill, N.C., is the largest J-1 visa teacher-exchange program in the United States.

This year, the program has brought nearly 1,500 international teachers to five states. The teachers represent 51 nations and work in more than 800 different schools, educating students about their cultures and countries.

The following case studies in three school districts hosting international teachers in 2008-09 through the Visiting International Faculty Program illustrate the added value these educators bring to students and their school communities.

LilianaLopezvifMexican educator Liliana Lopez teaches English as a second language in Wayne County, N.C.

Bridging a community’s cultural gaps
Wayne County Public Schools, Goldsboro, N.C.

Rosa Romero, an English as a second language teacher, has seen the relieved looks on parents’ faces when they arrive at Spring Creek Elementary School to discover a teacher who speaks their language. Parents from this burgeoning Latin American community in Goldsboro, N.C., greet Romero with hugs and quick kisses on the cheek.

“I was nervous to come to school,” they often confide in Spanish, “because I don’t speak English.”

“It’s OK,” Romero tells them. “I’m here to help you.”

Romero, a visiting teacher from Costa Rica, knows a key to her students’ success is parental involvement, but many teachers in Wayne County often face language or cultural barriers with their limited-English-speaking students and parents.

Agricultural jobs in eastern North Carolina and subsequent residential growth have brought thousands of new families to Wayne County over the past decade, many emigrating from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

The number of English as a Second Language students has nearly quadrupled in the past 10 years, from 383 students to more than 1,500 this year. The growth has spurred the district not only to hire 32 additional ESL teachers, but also to use international teachers as liaisons to parents from other cultures.

“Having a teacher from the same culture that our students are a part of has been most helpful in dealing with parents,” says Hope Meyerhoeffer, who oversees ESL programs for Wayne County Public Schools, which has about 20,000 students. “Parents feel so much closer to a teacher who is from their culture. I’ve seen the difference in the relationships.”

About 40 percent of the students at the school where Romero teaches require ESL or extra help with English, says Charles Ivey, principal of Spring Creek Elementary School. The primary language for nearly all of them is Spanish.

To accommodate those families, Romero has organized meetings for Spanish-speaking parents and even started a Spanish club. Romero also has spent hours making home visits, working at times as a cultural translator. When Spring Creek saw low participation from Hispanic families at meetings and activity nights, Romero approached parents and discovered it wasn’t because they didn’t want to participate in their children’s education. They didn’t know how.

In addition to nine international ESL teachers, Wayne County also hosts 27 other international educators through the Visiting International Faculty Program from countries including Romania, the United Kingdom, Jamaica and the Philippines. They teach subjects including language arts, math and home economics.

Beyond reaching out and connecting to families who recently emigrated, all of Wayne County’s international educators play an important role in broadening the perspectives of their American-born students by introducing them to cultures not common to this rural area.

“Our teachers are able to share so many things about their cultures that our students are just not aware of,” Meyerhoeffer says. “They really do dispel myths. At the same time, students share aspects of American culture to help our teachers adapt to Wayne County. It’s a mutual thing here.”

Anchoring an acclaimed elementary language program
Loudoun County Public Schools, Ashburn, Va.

Eight years ago, when school officials from Loudoun County, Va., were launching a foreign language program for their elementary schools from the ground up, they weren’t just looking for well-trained, experienced instructors. They also needed teachers willing and able to contribute to the design and development of their fledgling program.

CharneyVIFTeacherRowena Coronado, a teacher of Spanish from Venezuela, works at Balls Bluff Elementary School in Loudoun County, Va.

At the time, Loudoun administrators were pleased to find their existing international staff eager to help grow the program into what it is today — one of the nation’s flagship Foreign Language in Elementary Schools programs, offering language study in Spanish to 28,000 elementary-aged children. The suburban district, west of the District of Columbia, has 66 teachers this year from the Visiting International Faculty Program.

“This has really been an international collaboration, and in that sense it’s unique,” said Suzette Wyhs, Loudoun’s foreign language supervisor for the district of 58,000 students. “Through this collaboration, we developed a very powerful program for our students.”

Since the program’s inception, teachers from the visiting faculty program have exchanged best practices with and led professional development for their U.S. and international colleagues. They also help the district bolster the Foreign Language in Elementary School, or FLES, curriculum to include cultural lessons, expanded vocabulary and a stronger emphasis on writing in Spanish.

Last fall, at a statewide conference for foreign-language teachers in Virginia, Loudoun County teacher Edwin Escorcia even taught fellow educators how he uses dances such as merengue and salsa to teach Spanish grammar. Escorcia, who is in his third year teaching in the United States, praised the collaboration among all of the district’s FLES teachers.

“When you need something, you can just e-mail another teacher and ask,” said Escorcia, who is a 10-year educator from Colombia. “If there is something you could improve, other teachers will tell you. We learn from each other.”

The foundation for the FLES program is a keystone of Loudoun County’s growing emphasis on building globally minded students. And although the United States historically has lagged behind other developing countries in requiring second-language instruction for all students, Loudoun County is leading the way with its team of international teachers, Wyhs said.

“The opportunity to have teachers in our classrooms who represent another country every single day — it’s just such a rich opportunity for our students,” said Sharon Ackerman, assistant superintendent for instruction. “Every day the teacher’s culture comes out in the classroom in a unique and memorable way.”

Boosting bilingual Spanish programs
San José Unified Schools, San José, Calif.
Finding educators in California who speak both Spanish and English might seem like an easy task in this richly diverse state. But finding teachers who are proficient enough to teach core subjects in both languages usually proves much more difficult for Norma Martinez-Palmer, director of bilingual education in the San José Unified School District.

To find qualified teachers for San José’s bilingual schools and programs, Martinez-Palmer frequently broadens her search to countries such as Costa Rica, Peru and Colombia to locate native Spanish speakers.

“To have an international teacher who was born speaking Spanish, was educated in Spanish and can deliver the core academics in that language is really a gift,” says Martinez-Palmer, whose San José district, with 32,000 students, has four teachers on board from the Visiting International Faculty Program this year.

A native speaker has a lifetime of learning behind him or her, an advantage over those who gleaned the language from books and limited travel, says José L. Manzo, interim superintendent of the Alum Rock, Calif., Union Elementary School District, a nearby district that employs a dozen foreign teachers through the Visiting International Faculty Program.

“The native speaker recognizes the nuances of the language and draws from a broader knowledge base than the nonnative speaker,” Manzo says.

San José’s bilingual programs largely offer Spanish instruction, but do so in two types of programs. The first is for students who speak only Spanish and gradually replaces their primary language with English.

The other model, an immersion program, serves students who are seeking to add another language to their repertoire. For many, this instruction is their first exposure to the language and cultures of Spanish-speaking countries.

An advantage that native speakers can offer is that they understand subtle differences among the 21 countries in which Spanish is an official language, explains Rosa Molina, a former San José schools administrator who is now a program director for the California Association for Bilingual Education.

“Native speakers provide breadth of understanding,” Molina said. “An educated child in this global economy needs to recognize there are many ways to say the same thing. They need to understand the vocabulary differences from one country to another.”

For the San José and Alum Rock districts, international teachers help fill positions during a time when truly proficient bilingual teachers seem to be in short supply, Martinez-Palmer says.

She links the waning bilingual teacher pipeline to state legislation that 10 years ago shifted the models school districts use to teach students learning English as a second language.

Many districts now place ESL students into total English immersion, diminishing the need for bilingual teachers who can teach core subjects in Spanish. As demand for bilingual teachers declined, so did the supply. As a result, districts that still offer robust bilingual programs, such as San José, look to international recruitment organizations to find high-caliber bilingual educators.

Fresh Perspectives
As each case study exemplifies, international teachers have the potential to add tremendous value and impact to student learning.
Whether school leaders look to foreign teachers to address hard-to-fill positions, value the professional and cultural diversity they bring or are simply looking for practical ways to internationalize students’ experiences, educators from abroad can make a world of difference.

With greater focus on accountability, increased student diversity and a growing emphasis on providing 21st-century skills, U.S. school leaders will likely continue to look beyond the nation’s borders for educators to bring new perspectives and practices that enrich our public education system.

Jonathan Charney is program manager for global schools at the Visiting International Faculty Program in Chapel Hill, NC. E-mail: jonathan.charney@vifprogram.com. Samiha Khanna assisted in preparing this article.