From Bangkok, Thailand, to Margaret Pollard Middle School, Francis Salmazan has seen a lot in his time as an international teacher.
He’s entering his fifth year as an 8th grade science teacher at Pollard and he says teaching there has been almost like a dream come true.
“Before I left college, I knew working in the U.S. was something I always wanted to do,” he said.
Salmazan grew up in Tarlac, in the Philippines, before spending 10 years as a teacher in Bangkok. He says he’s loved seeing the world through the eyes of young people, exploring the culture and getting to teach students about his own home.
In Chatham County Schools, Salmazan is one of 53 international teachers. It’s a figure that only continues to grow year after year. In fact, North Carolina leads the nation in international teachers and the number has quadrupled in the past decade. The boom in international teachers may be a solution to workforce shortages that have hurt the county and the state.
According to an analysis by WRAL-TV, North Carolina has allocated $121.4 million in this year’s budget to pay international teachers, six times what it did a decade ago. That funding is why international teachers now make up more than 2% of the total teachers in the state, and 8.5% in CCS.
Salmazan is able to teach in CCS through a J-1 visa, which allows exchange visitor programs between countries. The visa lasts three years but is frequently extended by two years if the teachers meet performance goals.
At the conclusion of this school year, Salmazan will have to return to the Philippines because his visa will expire.
He wound up finding Pollard through a North Carolina-based international teachers company called Educational Partners International (EPI). The company helps teachers file visa papers, find housing and other basic needs in their new schools and help identify jobs they’re qualified for.
EPI is one of several programs utilized by CCS. Others include the Chapel Hill-based company Participate Learning, which is how Siler City Elementary 2nd grade teacher Sandra Rincon ended up in CCS.
“We came here to teach the students, but it’s more fulfilling than I could’ve imagined,” Rincon said.
Rincon is from Colombia and teaches at a dual language school, meaning half the education is in Spanish. She said bringing her culture into the classroom has helped the students grow.
“I have a student who entered 2nd grade not knowing any Spanish, even though her family is Hispanic,” she said. “By the end of the year, her mom called me and said she was finally able to speak to her grandma — that’s more important than any lesson I could teach, because that’s going to last forever.”
Rincon said especially at her school, which has a high Hispanic population, she can be an asset because she connects students back to their cultural roots in Latin America. She said international teachers are given the freedom to infuse their home cultures into lesson plans through dances, presentations and holidays.
“We provide a unique mindset,” Rincon said. “We can teach culture as part of the curriculum or teach the curriculum as part of the culture.”
That kind of impact and cultural awareness is something CCS sees as a major benefit to its students and it’s why the district continues to bring in international teachers. JoAnna Massoth is an international teachers coach with CCS. She’s seen firsthand the benefits of increasing international teachers in the district.
“I started doing this work in 2018 and I had 10 dual language teachers,” Massoth said. “Last year, I had 46 international and dual language teachers and there are even more in the county.”
Massoth helps supplement the role of the companies by assisting with housing and helping the international teachers get acclimated with specific cultural challenges in CCS.
While the growth in international teachers has overall been successful, it isn’t without its challenges. Those challenges have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the rapid growth in the county. Massoth and teachers both said helping teachers find housing and transportation became much harder this year due to rising costs in both markets.
“Last year, it was a nightmare to find a car or make the necessary paperwork appointments we needed,” Rincon said. “It was not easy for us.”
Massoth said these challenges are likely short-term and caused by the immediate fallout from COVID-19. Overall, she believes the district will be able to continue growing its international teacher program, and the state supports them doing so.
CCS recently announced it was adding three more international teachers from Colombia ahead of the new school year to help at Jordan-Matthews High School. The district is able to support international teachers through Massoth and an additional coach, which is something that most districts don’t have.
North Carolina had the most new J-1 visas last year, with 830 new visas for teachers. Each year, North Carolina receives about one in five to six of the new visas granted.
With fewer people graduating from N.C. college teaching programs, the state is looking at international teachers to help fill the need. According to federal data, 4,228 students completed a North Carolina teaching program in 2020, down 36% from 2012.
“As an international teacher you’re already different from others,” Massoth said. “We want to support creating a community here for them to thrive. When we do that we really help the district, these teachers and most importantly the students be more prepared to be global citizens.”
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