May 06, 2024

Teacher Shortages Prompt Texas Schools to Recruit Worldwide

Reporting Texas

Fifth-graders work on a math exercise during class with their teacher Trina Robles at J. Houston Elementary School in Southeast Austin. Reporting Texas/Michelle Lavergne

Never in her wildest dreams did Trina Robles imagine that she would one day get a teaching job more than 8,000 miles away from her home in the Philippines.

But after 10 years of honing the young minds of Filipino students, she now finds herself teaching fifth grade at  J. Houston Elementary School in Southeast Austin. 

“I needed to go outside of my comfort zone and learn new things,” said Robles, whose first exposure to Austin came through the TV show “9-1-1: Lonestar.”

“The whole experience was difficult at first, but it was rewarding,” she added.

Robles is among thousands of visiting international teachers who have been recruited to help fill the teacher shortage in Texas. According to the Texas Education Agency, the attrition rate for teachers in the state rose to a record high with 13.4% of educators leaving the profession between fall 2021 and fall 2022.

A Teacher Vacancy Task Force, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in March 2022 to investigate teacher retention and recruitment, recommended raising teacher pay, expanding training and improving working conditions for teachers. The Texas Legislature’s attempts to raise teacher pay stalled late last year amid a yearlong fight over vouchers for private schooling.

As the shortage worsened, more school districts started turning to the Visiting Teachers Program, which recruits certified educators from other countries. Through that initiative, international educators who are actively enrolled in a J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program approved by the Texas Education Agency may receive a temporary visiting international teacher certificate. The certificate is valid for three years and can be extended for up to two years.

While the process to obtain the J-1 Visa can be grueling, Robles said that her interview in the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines eased her worries.

“The consul who interviewed me appreciates teachers,” Robles said. “After he approved my visa, he told me, ‘Thank you for teaching our children!’”

Sonaya Vazquez, assistant director of recruiting and staffing for the Austin school district, welcomes having another pipeline of teacher candidates. She said the district has worked for about 10 years with a program that helps to bring in teachers from Spain and in 2022 began working with Alliance Abroad, which matches employers with international workers in a variety of fields, including teaching.

“Right now, our main focus is making sure we have different avenues of teacher candidates and that we are bringing in quality teachers from each of those pipelines that we have,” Vazquez said.

Jennifer Dunn, who recruits teachers for elementary schools in Leander, said her school district started recruiting overseas three years ago when the COVID pandemic decreased the number of new college graduates certified to teach. 

“A lot of teachers were in alternative certification programs, so they were not ready to teach right then,” Dunn said.

Starting with two international teachers in its elementary schools three years ago, Leander has now recruited 33 across all grade levels. Dunn said the district has recruited teachers from the Philippines, Australia, Jamaica and Colombia. 

“International teachers bring diversity in experience, education and ideas that are critical for the success and well-being of our students,” Alonso said. “The cultural exchange opportunities are so valuable for our school culture and climate. Hiring international teachers strengthens our commitment to creating a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for our staff, students and families.”

Austin resident Anthony Kamau has a child in middle school and two in high school.  International teachers have helped provide a stable classroom environment, Kamau said.

“The schools were having to go through a lot of substitute teachers, which was affecting the students,” Kamau said. “Now Texas has a few teachers from the Philippines and they have been able to do a good job. When I talk to my kids, they tell me Filipino teachers are good because they are focused on what they do.”

But for Robles, teaching in the U.S. also came with struggles, including a cultural difference between American and Filipino classrooms.

“One of the challenges was learning how to handle the students’ behaviors during classes,” Robles said. “The students here are more opinionated. But I learned to adjust. Being a teacher doesn’t mean we are just teaching the students because the truth is, we are also learning from them.”

Robles realized she could use her students’ expressiveness to improve communication with them, which led to a friendlier relationship with her fifth-grade students.

Robles also established an open line of communication with the parents, whom she also struggled handling in the beginning. 

Trina Robles helps students through a math problem during class at J. Houston Elementary School in Southeast Austin. Reporting Texas/Michelle Lavergne

Jesserene Bantolo, a seventh-grade science teacher at Canyon Ridge Middle School in the Leander district, would also sometimes run into tricky encounters with the occasional parent questioning her credentials. 

But international teachers say they’ve received support from school administrators and parent-teacher associations.

Bantolo said that the principal at Canyon Ridge helped her find housing for less than $1,000 a month. 

“When I arrived at my apartment, it already had some furnishing,” Bantolo said. “They also helped me find a teacher I could carpool to the school with. I relied on that teacher for a year, and I helped pay for gas.”

Dunn said that because their district does not have access to good public transportation, their administration tries to be strategic when it comes to finding housing for their international teachers. 

“We make sure they have housing that’s close to their school,” Dunn said. “And for our community, all we have to do is tell them what we need and they will show up with beds, TVs, and gift cards. It’s unbelievable what our community has been doing for the last three years.”

Because of the support that Leander gives to their international teachers, Dunn said many foreign teachers now want to come to the district.

The Austin school district hired Blanca Galvez-Perez to be its international teacher liaison. She has been helping set up teachers from overseas for 10 years.

As an international teacher herself, she understands how difficult it is to relocate to a new country and start from scratch. She estimates that about 100 international teachers are working in the Austin district.

“I pick up the teachers from the airport and help them find places to live,” Galvez-Perez said. “I also help them set up their bank accounts, get phone service and process other important documents and identification.”

Cristina Ramirez, a Spaniard and a kindergarten teacher at Becker Elementary in Austin said Galvez-Perez’s mentorship has helped her adjust to her new environment.

“The introductory sessions provided by Ms. Blanca helped me get ready for the culture shock and be mindful of my students’ needs,” Ramirez said. “Her guidance made the process easier and made us feel safer and welcome. All of this made an impact on me as a teacher and, consequently, on my students.”