To Fill Teacher Vacancies, School Districts Are Turning to an Unexpected Source

Bringing in educators from the Philippines is helping some cities solve their hiring problems.

(Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

Oct 8, 2014· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Faced with a slew of vacancies and very few qualified applicants, school district officials in Arizona scrambled to fill teaching positions ahead of the 2014 school year. Their search for top-notch teachers took them to an unexpected place: the Philippines.

The result has been a cross-cultural experiment in one of the state’s rural districts, as a group of teachers from halfway around the world adjust to life in a small, 3,800-student district—and the district adjusts to them.

The Casa Grande Union High School District’s decision to go abroad to staff classrooms, while unusual, isn’t groundbreaking. For decades, districts from New York to Los Angeles have lured Filipino teachers to the U.S. for significantly higher pay than they’d make back home as well as the cultural experience.

It does, however, underscore a significant problem for school administrators in small-town communities, tough urban areas, and other places that struggle to attract quality teachers. More baby-boomer teachers are retiring, but low entry-level pay coupled with tough new requirements—think Common Core curriculum standards—make it harder to fill the jobs with homegrown talent.

Recruiting educators from overseas has an ugly downside, however. Accustomed to disciplined students back home, idealistic Filipino teachers often aren’t prepared for the unruly state of classrooms and disrespectful students they find in some American districts—or the isolated, rustic lifestyles they find in others. At the same time, they’re vulnerable to exploitation from predatory businesses that charge exorbitant fees to handle the immigration paperwork.

A group of Filipino teachers in Baton Rouge, La., recently won a $4.5 million lawsuit against a company that recruited them to teach in America, and then charged $7,000 or more to process their work visas and other documents, as well an ongoing percentage of their earnings.

“Unwilling or unable to address the root causes of a growing teacher shortage, public school systems around the country have begun importing teachers” to meet the demand, according to a recent American Federation of Teachers report on the issue. Those teachers, according to the report, “are being placed primarily in hard-to-staff inner-city or very rural schools teaching the hard-to-fill disciplines of math, science and special education.”

Shannon Goodsell, Casa Grande Union’s superintendent, told the Arizona Republic last week that he had 19 job openings over the summer. But no one applied—not even a fresh-from-college teacher in need of job experience.

"When you have no applicants in your job pool, it is scary," he said.

So Goodsell and others in his district began looking to the Philippines. They Skyped with teachers, reviewed applications, and watched videos of the educators’ classroom techniques. The district ended up hiring 11 highly qualified teachers, including several with master’s degrees.

While the Philippines may seem a bit random, the island nation has been fertile recruiting ground for American schools since 1989. That’s when 300 Filipino teachers who’d been hired by schools in New York and New Jersey formed the Association of Fil-Am Teachers of America, Inc., a support and advocacy group dedicated to improving the profession in the U.S. and in their homeland.

According to a Los Angeles Times report from 2009, the Philippines has an abundance of teachers, most Filipinos speak English and can understand Spanish, and the nation’s higher-education system—set up by American emissaries around the turn of the last century—is similar to that of the U.S., allowing teachers to become credentialed relatively quickly.

And there’s something in it for the teachers too: a career in an American classroom can net up to 10 times as much as they’d make back home, according to the Times. They often end up in some of the most difficult, underserved, impoverished rural or urban schools, teaching kids who are the polar opposite of young people in the Philippines.

“Back home, it’s so different. It’s all obedience and respect,” one teacher is quoted as saying in the AFT report. “Here the students are, um, very direct, very bold.”

Nevertheless, many Filipino teachers say the experience actually makes them better at their profession, while still others learn how to handle—and challenge—their students, growing to love them in the process. Most want to stay in the U.S. when their visas expire.

"I realize we are servants and teaching is more about touching lives and helping students own their own learning," Ferdinand Nakila, 38, a special education teacher, told the Times.

Demographic trends may give them the opportunity to stay. The wave of baby-boomer retirements is poised to sweep over career teachers, creating vacancies and intensifying the competition for top-notch educators. Teachers who began their careers in the 1980s are now in their 50s and 60s, and states like Louisiana, California, and Kansas are reporting a recent spike in classroom vacancies.

“It is a concern,” John Allison, the school superintendent for Wichita, Kan., said in an interview last month. “It’s all about the talent in the classroom, and when we have a large number of retirements across the state, it’ll be about can you replace that talent.”