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Global recruitment in education

International teachers fill shortages and provide worldwide perspectives
  • DIVERSE ORIGINS—Stella Ospina, a third-grade teacher at Elon Elementary School in North Carolina’s Alamance-Burlington School System, is part of a staff that includes teachers from Australia, Colombia, Honduras, Jamaica and the United Kingdom.
  • FAMILY AFFAIR—Tracey-Ann Williams, above with her daughter, came from Jamaica to teach at Brentwood Elementary in the Wake County Public School System.
  • A GREATER PURPOSE—U.S. public districts recruit foreign teachers, such as the educators, above, who work in North Carolina. They not only fill gaps created by local labor shortages, but they also expand students’ awareness of other cultures, languages and ideas.

Longtime Superintendent Bill Harrison started recruiting teachers from abroad in 1997 in the face of a shortage in North Carolina.

“We thought international teachers would not only fill a slot but add a cultural component,” Harrison says.

The then-superintendent of Cumberland County Schools contracted with a company called Visiting International Faculty. Twenty years later, Harrison still hires teachers through the company, but these days the impetus is less about filling vacancies.

While he was chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education from 2009 to 2013, Harrison oversaw an initiative to promote global education that emphasized professional development and renewed attention to language programs in K12.

He is now finishing his third year as superintendent of Alamance Burlington School System in North Carolina, where elementary schools offer Spanish-English immersion programs and teachers introduce kindergarteners to other cultures and traditions.

“We’ve seen what had been good schools really come to life around this theme,” says Harrison, who at one time served as an advisor to Visiting International Faculty, which now goes by the name Participate.

Costs and hurdles

Harrison’s experience illustrates the two sides of the international-recruitment coin. Districts faced with hard-to-fill vacancies—in math, science and bilingual education, among other subjects—look for candidates abroad, often with help from recruiting agencies.

International teachers also bring a different perspective into the classroom, exposing students—particularly in rural, less diverse areas—to new cultures, languages and ideas. But people involved in international recruitment say barriers include fees to secure visas and those charged by recruiters.

There are also limits on how long these teachers can stay in the U.S. based on what type of visa they get—either the H-1B work visa for specialty occupations or the J-1 visa for cultural exchanges.

“From a financial perspective, it can be somewhat costly if you overly rely on these teachers, especially if there’s high turnover,” says Mukul Bakhshi, director of the Alliance for Ethical International Recruitment Practices. Overuse of foreign teachers in hard-to-hire areas can lead some districts to de-emphasize domestic recruiting, he says.

Yet another consideration is uncertainty over what moves the Trump Administration may take on immigration, including limits on H-1B visas. Bakhshi says those looking to hire abroad may already face a perception problem in the wake of political rhetoric surrounding immigration and travel bans to the U.S.

“The U.S. is relatively less attractive today than it was a year ago,” he says. “Even before we get to a law or proposal, you’re going to see fewer people coming to the U.S., even when there’s still a (teacher) shortage.”

‘An agile approach to life’

The first step in the recruitment process is determining a candidate’s qualifications, and districts often rely on third-party recruiters, such as Participate, or state agencies for help.

This year, San Jose USD hired a teacher from Spain to teach in a dual-immersion class through a program run by the California Department of Education and the governments of Spain and Mexico.

Margaret Petkiewicz, who oversees the district’s bilingual programs for pre-K through grade 5, says she’s looking for candidates proficient enough to teach, say, a fifth-grade math lesson in Spanish—explaining fractions, place values, unit conversions—and that can be hard to find without recruiting internationally.

California’s program requires applicants to pass an initial screening by their home country’s education authorities and meet the state’s teaching credential requirements.

That includes an undergraduate or higher degree from a college equivalent to a regionally-accredited U.S. institution, completion of a professional preparation program, and proof of a comparable teaching credential.

The state recruits and screens candidates. Districts can then interview them in-person or via Skype. If hired, the teacher’s J-1 visa application is sponsored by the department of education and can be renewed for up to three years.

Other recruiting programs bring teachers in on a more permanent basis. Since 1992, Houston’s public education service center—which provides extra operational and academic support to city districts—has worked with Mexican universities to recruit recent graduates interested in teaching in the U.S.

They receive training in Mexico and do a one-year internship at an American school while pursuing certification. The district that hires the teacher sponsors the visa.

Participation in the program has dropped off in recent years. This year, it recruited 45 teachers from Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela. In 2017-18, it will bring in 29.

The center runs a similar program recruiting recent graduates from Puerto Rico, who don’t need visas to work in the U.S. “The need for bilingual teachers is there. However, because of the requirements and complexities of the visa, it’s becoming less and less an option,” says Rene Ruiz, the program’s director.

Many candidates have the right credentials; what is harder to find are those with an “agile approach to life” that will help them succeed in a new country, says Participate CEO David Young.

Teachers must connect with coworkers, students and parents, all while dealing with culture shock and logistics such as setting up a bank account, finding housing and accessing healthcare.

Participate, for instance, warns applicants that public transportation may be hard to find, and encourages teachers to be prepared to buy a car. The company also offers driving lessons to new arrivals. “Even if you make a perfect selection, there is a mound of work that has to be done just to get a teacher acclimated,” Young says.

Foreign recruits sometimes have to adjust their teaching style. In San Jose, the teacher from Spain arrived with a traditional approach to classroom management, while the district encourages more hands-on participation from students. He also needed training in the curriculum and standards, Petkiewicz says.

His students seemed to accept the teacher, but parents had to be convinced. “I think there’s a cultural difference between Spain and Mexico and U.S.-born Latino culture,” she says. “It took some time to develop that relationship.”

When it goes wrong

Of course, more serious problems occur. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor fined schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland, $1.7 million and ordered them to reimburse foreign teachers $4.2 million for fees they paid to recruiters.

The following year a jury awarded $4.5 million to foreign teachers in a class action lawsuit against Los Angeles-based recruiter Universal Placement International after it charged $16,000 for each teacher in recruitment fees and threatened deportation.

A 2009 report on foreign recruitment by the AFT included more stories of visa fraud, below-market wages and teachers forced to sign contracts that “bordered on indentured servitude,” according to the report.

“Immigration law is really complex and getting more complex every day,” says Bakhshi of the Alliance for Ethical International Recruitment Practices, which was created in 2008 in response to hiring issues in the health care industry.

“We’re not talking about large hospitals or large universities with large HR departments. We’re talking about districts of varying size.”

In 2015 the alliance issued recommendations for recruiting and employing teachers from abroad. It urges districts to prioritize transparency in its expectations, promised working conditions and employment terms, Bakhshi says.

For instance, the Alliance recommends recruiters and employers ensure teachers are fully aware of the benefits and limits of the visa they’re using, including how long they can stay, the rights of their spouses and children, and if there is a path to permanent employment or citizenship.

Teachers should not be charged fees for visas or the legal services necessary to process their applications.

Such expenditures are considered business expenses and should be paid by the employing district.

To help teachers adjust, the group recommends employers offer professional orientation that covers student demographics, school culture, classroom management and parent relations.

Administrators and staff should also receive training “to anticipate the contributions and potential challenges of recruiting teachers from other countries,” according to the recommendations.

Given the support foreign teachers need to succeed, some districts may decide the advantages aren’t worth the effort. But benefits do exist for those districts that do.

“I don’t think international teachers are the solution to the teacher shortage,” says Participate’s Young, whose company placed nearly 1,000 teachers from 27 countries in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia schools this year.

“International teachers can be highly effective in treating a new shortage we face,” Young says, “which is global competence.”


Abby Spegman is a freelance writer based in Washington.