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Foreign Teachers Bring Experience to American Classrooms


Many school districts around the United States are short on teachers. So officials in some districts have started looking for qualified teachers from other communities - communities half a world away. VOA's Faiza Elmasry tells us how those foreign teachers are adapting to the U.S. educational system and bringing the world to their new classrooms and students.

Two years ago, Naseema Begum left Hyderabad, India, to teach science at a high school in Atlanta, Georgia. She says exploring the differences between the U.S. educational system and her country's has been an exciting experience.

"The curriculum is the same, but the matter of delivery is very different," she says. "American education aims at all-round development. It doesn't stress only on academic achievement. Students like to excel here in sports, music and many other things. The Indian educational system is more rigorous. There is more competitiveness over there to excel academically."

To succeed as a teacher in America, Begum says, she had to get to know and understand her new students.

"Students here are under a lot of stress, not only to perform academically, but also there is peer pressure," she says. "They also need to perform in extracurricular activities."

Because of those differences, science in Begum's class is mixed with a bit of international studies.

"In my classroom, they keep saying me, 'Oh teacher, is it like this in your country?'" she says. "So, it's like I'm bringing the world into the classroom."

Firm Recruits Educators to Fill Spots In American Schools

Begum is one of 85 Indian educators who are now teaching math, science and special education in six public school districts in Georgia. They were all recruited by In Talage Inc., an educational firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. The firm's president, G. Nasreen Haque, says teachers have to meet certain criteria before being hired to teach for three or four years in American schools.

"Ninety percent of our teachers hold a master's degree in education in the field they teach," she says. "They are all highly qualified. They are certified to teach the subject area in their home country, and we make sure that they will be certified when they arrive in the U.S. For certification, they have to have a minimum of bachelor's degree in the field they will be teaching in and an education degree."

And, she adds, they also have to pass some exams before joining the program.

"We test their communication skills - written and spoken English - because that is one of the key areas that they should be very strong in to succeed in the school system here in the United States," she says. "After their screening and interviews, we have an extensive orientation in India, the pre-arrival orientation. Then, after they arrive in the United States, they go through another series of orientations and seminars before the school starts."

Haque's company continues to work closely with the teachers through the first few weeks of the school year.

"We have full-time staff members who are retired as school officials, with years of experience with the public school, administration and teaching," she says. "They go in [classrooms] and observe the teachers in the initial first few weeks. They come up with strategies to deal with problem situations."

Teachers Overcome Language, Cultural Barriers

Classroom management is one of the most daunting challenges facing any teacher, but especially a foreign one, according to Ligaya Avenida.

"That's sort of expected, because many, if not all, of the teachers are not familiar with the students that we have," she says. "They have been teaching in a country where the children have the same culture, same kinds of expectations and same family backgrounds as they do.

"Now they are put in a setting where we have a very diverse student population. But once they come into the school system, once they begin to know and understand and work with the young children - and of course with the support of the school itself and the teachers' ability and willingness and dedication to work with the children - that together helps them leap beyond those challenges."

A U.S. educator with more than 30 years of experience, Avenida has been running an international teacher-recruiting firm since she retired four years ago. She has brought dozens of qualified Filipino educators to teach in schools across the United States. She says communication in some cases can be a problem.

"Sometimes they tell me, 'You know, the children are saying something. At first, I didn't really understand them, and they would laugh at me,'" she says. "You know, that kind of a comment, but they overcome that. That's because still, the acceptable language is standard English. Then they also make it their responsibility to find out what exactly those vocabularies [the slang the kids are speaking] mean."

Expert Says Pay, Working Conditions Contribute to Shortage of American Teachers

Most foreign teachers are dealing successfully with the challenges in their classrooms, says Segun Eubanks of the National Education Association. He says foreign teachers are a short-term solution to the shortage of American teachers in the U.S. school system.

"There are some subject areas for which we have a particularly hard time finding teachers to teach," he says. "But the most significant shortage that we face in American schools is because of working conditions, because of the salary, because of other concerns, we cannot [find] American citizens who are otherwise qualified to enter teaching as profession and to remain there for long periods of time.

"That's particularly true in urban schools and rural schools. Many of those school district find themselves forced to go look for highly qualified teachers in many of the overseas countries."

Economic Downturn May Reduce Demand for Foreign Teachers

That may change, Eubanks says, with the downturn in the American economy.

"As other jobs in other industries that are more lucrative become tougher and tougher to find for American citizens, many of them choose to go in the classrooms [as teachers]," he says. "So during hard economic times there, here in America, we generally recruit fewer foreign teachers into our schools. When jobs become more plentiful, and there are more better economic opportunities for American citizens, we tend to recruit more foreign teachers into our schools."

Ligaya Avenida agrees and says she expects to see fewer foreign teachers in U.S. classrooms in the future.

"Now, there are many more initiatives provided by schools to kind of entice people to come and teach," she says. "I've seen districts who are giving bonuses, for example, for the critical shortage areas. There are so many more incentives, initiatives for young people to get into education.

"There are even initiatives to get retired people, from, let's say, the Peace Corps or other industries, who want to become a teacher as a second career. So all these initiatives are going to be helpful in addressing the teacher shortage."

But for the time being, Avenida says, hiring foreign teachers seems to be the answer to the shortage. The winners, she says, are the American students who get the most qualified teachers and a personal introduction to world cultures without ever leaving their classrooms.