Two of the biggest recruiting challenges facing school districts right now include filling teacher vacancies with qualified educators and boosting staff diversity.
Over the past several years, an increasing number of districts have turned to a particular strategy to help meet these complex staffing needs: hiring international teachers.
The U.S. State Department tracked the number of international teachers granted J-1 visas between 2015 to 2021. Considered “cultural exchange visas,” J-1 visas allow qualified international educators to teach in the nation’s K-12 schools for up to five years. With the exception of 2020, which saw a considerable dip due to the pandemic, the number of international teachers employed by U.S. districts jumped by 69 percent—from 2,517 in 2015 to 4,271 in 2021.
Among the 19,491 teachers from 114 countries who taught in the United States within that six-year period, the greatest numbers have come from:
- Philippines, with 4,338;
- Spain, with 3,614;
- Jamaica, with 2,213;
- China, with 1,816; and
- France, with 1,431.
For districts hiring international teachers, the talent pipeline has been especially critical for hard-to-fill positions in math, science, and special education.
But beyond the numbers are the complicated stories of individual teachers who leave their homelands to teach in a foreign country for a finite amount of time, and the school administrators who hire them.
District administrators interviewed for this story reported instances of international teachers flourishing in their schools—not just filling teacher vacancies, but also helping to improve overall academic standings of schools and winning teaching awards. The teachers who have uprooted their lives to teach in the U.S. mainland share a more mixed experience that includes sacrifice, loneliness, classroom challenges—but also gratitude and the prospect of new opportunities.
Teachers from overseas are lured here primarily by the opportunity to experience life in the United States mainland and to earn a salary far higher than they could in their homeland. Multiple years of experience as educators in their homeland—only teachers with a minimum of two years teaching or similar professional experience can apply for a J-1visa—doesn’t always prepare them for living and working in the U.S.
Smitha Pulparambil, 42, arrived in Florida last school year with 15 years teaching experience in her native India and Maldives. She left her husband and teenage son, whom she hasn’t seen since leaving India, to work as an 8th grade inclusion math teacher at Denison Middle School, a high-poverty school in Winter Haven, Fla.
Now in her second year teaching at Denison, Pulparambil recalls her initial experience: “I was alone in the school; I didn’t see anyone from my community here. I was so sad,” she said. “But the school and teachers here were so supportive.”
One of her teacher colleagues offered to give Pulparambil a ride to and from school. This year, that same teacher drives three additional teachers from India—friends of Pulparambil who have joined her at Denison Middle School after she encouraged them to apply for a J-1 visa. The women share an apartment, a more cost-effective option than last year, when Pulparambil bore the expense of renting an apartment on her own.
That was an improvement, however, over her first three months in the U.S., when she says she could find no housing choice other than to rent an expensive Airbnb that lacked basic amenities including a kitchen. She still has no car, but the apartment she shares with the other Indian teachers is within walking distance to Walmart, one of the few places they have gone outside of the school where they work.
Pulparambil has navigated challenges in school as well as outside of it. When asked about classroom management, she acknowledges that she is fortunate to have a lead teacher in her classroom who offers her support. Nevertheless, she describes differences in students’ attitudes toward teachers in India compared to the U.S.
“In India, you cannot disrespect a teacher. Students do not talk back. Here, there are kids who are really good. But some kids,” she said, her voice trailing off before adding: “To get connected with the students takes time.”
But Pulparambil says the challenges are worth it. “If I can save $1,000, that’s a lot there. I am supporting my family [back home],” she said. “I would love to teach here for five years.”
Raising academic achievement
And Denison Middle School would love to continue that pipeline.
Denison’s principal, Teri Christian, says that her school is considered in “turnaround” mode, and its low student achievement and overall performance grade made it particularly challenging to recruit teachers locally.
“Last year, we were able to bring on two international teachers,” she said. “And our school went from a D to a very high C. It was a wonderful, positive experience.”
This year, the school welcomed seven more international teachers. “They work really hard. They give it 100 percent. I couldn’t ask for more committed people,” Christian said.
The nine international teachers at Denison Middle School are just a fraction of the 140 working in the Polk County Public Schools; they hail from the Philippines, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and India. To coordinate the hires, the district contracts with Educational Partners International, LLC and TPG Cultural Exchange. Both organizations are State Department-designated K-12 visa sponsors for its cultural exchange visa program.
The cultural component
Brian Warren, the associate superintendent of human resources for the Polk County district, refers to the international teacher program as “an exceptional answer to the school district’s teacher vacancy challenges.”
Additionally, he says, the district’s students benefit from learning from teachers from around the world and their different cultures.
It’s the latter objective that TPG Cultural Exchange spokesperson David Voss insists is the driving force behind the J-1 visa program. “We will continue to focus on cultural exchange. If it also helps fill vacancies, so be it,” he said. The origin of the J-1 visa dates to the Fulbright-Hayes Act of 1961, which is intended to strengthen international relations between the U.S. and people around the world via educational and cultural exchanges.
TPG Cultural Exchange contracts with school systems to provide detailed logistical support for the J-1 visa teacher candidates, from coordinating interviews with districts to expediting the teacher certification process required for international recruits to teach in the U.S.
Voss says the retention rate for the international teachers they place hovers around 95 percent. “Think about it: What kind of teacher is going to come to America for three years? Only the most adventurous and ambitious,” he said.
One reason retention rates are higher is because the visas are reserved for experienced educators. The salaries—usually significantly higher in the U.S. than they make in their home countries—is also a likely driver, as Pulparambil and other international teachers acknowledged.
Support for success
But you can’t place a price on effective support for international teachers as a key to their success.
For the first time in several years, Baltimore City Schools last year welcomed 27 international teachers, primarily from the Philippines, to lead classrooms in high-need content areas, according to Sarah Diehl, the district’s executive director of recruitment and staffing. This year, the district brought on an additional 41international teachers among their 650 new teacher hires.
Diehl said she’s not aware of any onboarding programs the district offers specifically tailored for the international recruits, but that coming to the district as a cohort likely provides a source of support for teachers as they navigate their new environment.
Strategic academic placements have proven valuable in getting new international teachers acclimated. Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, for instance, has a robust World Languages program. Teachers from Puerto Rico, who are U.S. citizens and don’t require any kind of visas, have thrived in that environment, as they bring their native speaking skills and customs to their Spanish immersion classrooms. The well-matched placements also yield student success. Five of the eight teachers nominated for the district’s 2021 Team Excellence Award came from Puerto Rico.
Sherry Wilson, assistant superintendent of human resources at Fairfax County Public Schools, says the district is currently exploring new partnerships with schools in countries off the U.S. mainland; namely, Barbados.
“We’re having conversations to look at what opportunities are out there. We want to be very strategic in how we move forward,” Wilson said. “We want to be able to support these teachers fully.”