As this school year unfolds and we are forced to deal with varying degrees of teacher shortages across the country, many education policy conversations center on finding lasting solutions.
International teachers have and continue to be one of North Carolina’s fastest growing teacher populations. Additionally, this teacher group continues to have the lowest attrition rate of any teacher group, making it an ideal fit. However, the intricacies surrounding how and why these teachers are often recruited and their experiences living and teaching in our schools are much less known.
International teachers are recruited through BridgeUSA, a J-1 cultural exchange program offered by several sponsors approved by the U.S. Department of State. Sponsors recruit qualified teachers, often the best in their schools, seeking professional opportunities, often from developing countries such as Jamaica, Colombia and the Philippines, to teach in the United States for three years.
The impact of international teachers
Having the highest retention rate of any teacher group, international teachers have had significant impact and contributions to the North Carolina public school system. On the one hand, these people allow their students – who might never leave their county, state or even country – to become familiar with the culture and way of life of their home country. On the other hand, the low attrition rate means that these people provide a sense of stability and consistency to students.
My professional interactions have allowed me to engage with numerous administrators across the state, and one of the first questions I am frequently asked is, “Where does my accent come from?” When answering “Jamaica”, I am often informed that administrators have international teachers (especially Jamaican teachers) in their schools who are ranked among the best and most effective. These arguments are also supported by the findings of the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina which, in 2014, found that international teachers were the most effective elementary reading and math educators in North Carolina.
The impact of these teachers has not gone unnoticed. Proof of this is in the many recognitions and awards that Jamaican teachers have received:
- Just recently, Shawna Kay Lawes was named second runner-up for Cumberland County Teacher of the Year.
- Jermaine Howell, a Jamaican teacher at Cedar Fork Elementary School, was named Teacher of the Year for his school and one of ten finalists for Wake County’s Teacher of the Year.
- One of my high school teachers, Pauline Lindo, was named Lenoir County Teacher of the Year for 2022-2023.
- Prior to those two recent wins, Davia Johnson was named Middle School Teacher of the Year and a finalist for Vance County Teacher of the Year in 2019.
- To cap off these accomplishments, Kedecia Stewart in 2018 was named Vance County Schools Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Central Region Teacher of the Year.
Experiences of international teachers
While these accomplishments highlight the impact and effectiveness of Jamaican teachers and, by extension, international educators, the lived experiences and challenges these individuals face, which vary from district to district, are much less recognized and addressed, including:
- Unlike other recruitment programs that often offer relocation allowances, international teachers are often responsible for their own relocation expenses, which include finding apartments and associated deposits, car arrangements, and additional expenses. resulting from accompanying dependents.
- Several of my colleagues and I, although paid on the same salary scale as the Americans, have not were entitled to health benefits and instead had to pay for health, dental and optical insurance through arrangements made through our sponsorship programs.
- Several of my international peers have told me that they were not eligible for Teacher of the Year recognition. This exclusion is a form of discrimination, especially since these teachers work as hard, if not harder, than their native counterparts.
- Colleagues told me of experiences in which programs and administrators used their visa status as a weapon of power. For example, a colleague who had a medical event was told to return to work against medical advice or to return to their home country.
What do international teachers want?
I would like to echo the calls for better working conditions for these teachers. After collaborating with countless international teachers, the following solutions are worth considering:
- One of the main issues facing international teachers is the uncertainty surrounding their future after five years of teaching under the visa program. The creation of pathways that could eventually lead to or even secure green card sponsorship after teaching for three to five years is welcome.
- Equal access and eligibility for state and district funded health insurance and pension plans.
- Relocation benefits will significantly support the adjustment process for these educators and their families, while preventing them from starting their journey with high debts. And while these programs have in the past offered financial aid, these were offered in the form of loans that are deducted monthly from the bank accounts of these teachers.
These solutions represent some of the most pressing issues facing international educators.
As district and school leaders scramble desperately to find teachers, I remind these people that international teachers are more than just solutions to the teacher shortages and retention issues plaguing North Carolina schools. North, and should be treated as such.