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Struggling to find teachers close to home, some Texas schools are looking overseas for help

By Caroline Wilburn, The Texas Tribune

Struggling to find teachers close to home, some Texas schools are looking overseas for help” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Like many Texas school districts, the Aldine Independent School District near Houston has struggled to find teachers to fill its open positions, with local, state and nationwide searches yielding limited success.

So the district expanded its search parameters. Since last year, Aldine ISD has recruited 76 teachers from Colombia, the Philippines and more than a dozen other countries through Teach USA, a cultural exchange program that connects teachers worldwide with Texas public schools.

[Brazosport ISD is training its own teachers. The program might become a model for other Texas schools.]

As Texas continues to grapple with chronic teacher shortages — and with little help from the state — districts like Aldine have had to look for creative solutions, like leaning on programs like these to address their staffing needs. Muzo Unlu, vice president of Global Education Concepts, the company that runs Teach USA, said more schools and districts in Texas have reached out recently asking about bringing international teachers to their campuses.

Scott Dubberke, Aldine ISD’s human resources director, said the 58,000-student district had between 400 and 500 teacher vacancies last year. For the 2022-23 school year, Aldine ISD’s first year hosting international teachers, Teach USA helped the district fill positions for special education classes, bilingual elementary school courses and English and literature classes at the middle and high school levels. The district still has about 150 teacher vacancies.

This approach is “not just filling vacancies, but it also supports our kids,” Dubberke said. “Our kids are not only learning but they’re learning from the culture from where these people are coming from.”

Texas’ teacher shortage has affected schools for years and was made worse during and after the coronavirus pandemic. There were the obvious health concerns when COVID-19 infections soared, prompting frequent school closures. But as infection rates fell, the stress of keeping classrooms up and running only compounded existing problems within the teaching field: low pay, long hours, bad benefits and more debates about how race and sex are taught in schools putting teachers in the middle of the state’s culture wars.

The Texas Education Agency says there is no statewide definition for what constitutes a teacher shortage but it acknowledges that teacher vacancies, which have been hard to fill across the state, point to one.

The agency collects data every year about how many teachers get certified, how many are employed and how many leave their jobs. The state’s attrition rate, which tracks the number of teachers who have left the field in any given year, suggests that retaining teachers has become difficult and schools are having to refill positions each year.

The attrition rate hovered at around 10% between 2011 and 2020. The rate is at about 13% this year, according to state data.

Gov. Greg Abbott created a task force to explore solutions to the shortage, but despite its recommendations, lawmakers passed only one of several bills filed this year to address the problem. Teacher pay raises were among the casualties of the bitter fight over school vouchers and many schools have dipped into their savings to bump their staff’s salaries.

Cultural exchanges have long helped international teachers immerse themselves in the U.S. and take that experience back home. American teachers also travel abroad through these programs, exposing them to new perspectives.

Teach USA lets teachers from around the world visit Texas schools for up to five years through the Texas Education Agencies J-1 Visa Exchange Program. Visiting international teachers are encouraged to return to their home country after the program, though they can apply for an extension of their visa through a different program or apply for permanent residency.

These programs offer “teachers from abroad the opportunity to live and work in the U.S., learning about the country’s culture, values and more,” said Joseph Sam, a spokesperson with Houston ISD, which has been participating in these kinds of programs for over 20 years. “It also provides students, peer educators and administrators the opportunity to learn about other cultures.”

While visiting teachers can teach most subjects, Sam said they are highly qualified and gravitate toward critical shortage areas such as bilingual, special education, math and science teaching positions at all grade levels.

Ilona Cabudsan, a teacher visiting from the Philippines, teaches English language arts and English as a second language at Hambrick Middle School in Aldine ISD. She said she relates with her ESL students from Central and South America who are adapting to U.S. culture.

The biggest difference for Cabudsan is how time-bound and rigid the American school system is compared to the Philippines. For example, she and her students in Aldine have a 30-minute lunch break each day; in the Philippines, school lunches typically last nearly two hours.

Access to classroom supplies is another big difference, Cabudsan said. While teachers in Texas are often responsible for purchasing any organizational tools or decor they use in their classroom, Cabudsan said she was grateful she and her students received computers, textbooks and a state-required curriculum at the beginning of the school year.

“Everything is given, whereas in my country the teachers provide everything that we need to use in the classroom,” she said. “Here, at the start of the school year, it’s like shopping in the mall. We get everything that we need from the office and it’s all free.”

Cabudsan said the transition was not easy in the beginning as she adjusted to her new surroundings and found herself without a car. Janie Ruiz, a former Aldine ISD principal, said the first semester can be challenging for international teachers.

Ruiz serves as a sort of cultural guide for international teachers in the district. Each international teacher is matched with a main point of contact who provides mentoring to help them succeed in the classroom and secure necessities like their Social Security card and a cellphone.

After she left Aldine ISD in 2015, Ruiz joined Houston ISD’s HR department, where she said the district was struggling with a shortage of bilingual teachers, leading them to specifically recruit from Spain. The experience showed her the potential of cultural exchange programs as a way to alleviate the district’s staffing problems.

“I definitely see this being a growing norm for districts, especially bigger districts, because they struggle more to [find] staff than smaller districts,” she said.

However, Sam said Houston ISD doesn’t view visiting teachers as a “staffing solution.”

Because the U.S. Department of State has certain requirements for those employing international teachers, it should not be seen as a quick fix for teacher shortages, said Eddie Conger, superintendent and founder of International Leadership of Texas, a public K-12 charter school system.

Students who attend International Leadership’s more than two dozen campuses in Texas receive academic instruction in English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, something international teachers help them achieve. The system hosted 206 teachers with J-1 visas this year.

Despite the increased demand for international teachers, Conger said his schools cannot exceed the visa quota assigned to them by the U.S. State Department, which is 135. Aldine ISD is only able to host 40 new teachers each calendar year through Teach USA, Dubberke said.

“If [school districts] look at it like, ‘Oh, this is just another jobs program,’ they’re gonna get themselves crossways with the intent of the program and with the State Department,” Conger said. “If they look at it as just another pipeline to fill an HR requirement they’re gonna have some very serious challenges.”

Brian Lopez contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/20/texas-teacher-shortage-cultural-exchange-aldine-isd/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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