Company Matches Foreign Teachers and U.S. Schools

By Bess Keller — January 04, 2005 5 min read
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The Visiting International Faculty Program’s boardroom in a suburban office building here features the expected big expanse of a conference table and one colorful surprise: a pair of large glass vases filled with pale-green cat’s-eye marbles.

Each of the roughly 1,850 gum-ball-size marbles represents a teacher from abroad who signed with VIF to work in an American public school this year, says Alan J. Young, the chief executive officer of the company.

That number means that VIF is likely the sponsor of more international-exchange visas for teachers per year than any other U.S. organization, and it represents a greater than tenfold increase in the number of VIF teachers from five years ago.

Mr. Young explains that each marble dropped into the vases symbolizes hard work.

“It’s hard to convince a principal who’s never seen a teacher to hire her, or a teacher to work for a principal she’s never seen,” he said. “So we celebrate when it happens.”

Founded in 1987 by the Young family, including Alan Young’s father, J. Fred Young, a longtime president of nearby Elon University in Elon, N.C., the business changed its focus two years later from college professors to K-12 teachers. Building on an arrangement with the North Carolina education department to recruit mostly native speakers to teach foreign languages, the company now places teachers in all grades and most specialties in about six states, and heavily in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia.

The VIF’s 1997 decision to rapidly expand its overseas recruitment effort came as North Carolina’s population growth pushed its need for teachers to a new high. This year, about a quarter of North Carolina’s public schools are hosting teachers recruited by the company.

Company leaders insist, though, that VIF is a cultural-exchange program first and a recruiting business second.

Even so, the company has caused concern among some educators. The Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, a research and advocacy group based here in Chapel Hill, calls the VIF program “a shortcut” into the classroom that is unlikely to give foreign teachers the preparation they need to teach effectively in this country. As a consequence, the center’s Web site warns that programs such as VIF should not be viewed as solutions to shortages of high-quality teachers.

The company looks for teachers who can both be successful in the classroom and represent their countries well in their host schools and communities. And VIF officials say only about one in 10 applicants is selected, after a winnowing process that includes essays, interviews, recommendations, and criminal background checks.

Choosing the Teachers

Teachers recruited by the company have come from 52 countries, the largest numbers from Canada, Colombia, and the United Kingdom. They must have at least two years of teaching experience, as required by the terms of their visas, be fluent in English, and know how to drive a car. The teachers may stay for up to three years, which more than half of them do.

No one claims, though, that the transition to teaching in the United States is easy. For one thing, the practical challenges facing VIF teachers are similar to those encountered by any teacher recruited from abroad. And unlike teachers in the Fulbright Teacher and Administrator Exchange Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, VIF teachers are not paid the equivalent of the salaries they earn in their home countries, and they do not have counterparts from the United States who are in effect changing places with them for a year.

Rather, the teachers are paid according to a schedule negotiated by the company with the school districts or the state—in North Carolina, about $30,000 for a teacher’s first year. The districts, in turn, pay the company a fee of about $11,500 per teacher. That amount covers a round-trip airline ticket annually to the teacher’s home country, health and other kinds of insurance, various support services, and the cost of recruiting, according to company spokesman Ned Glascock.

Sarah Bird, a VIF teacher from Manchester, England, who is in her third year at Selma Elementary School in Selma, N.C., east of Raleigh, remembers her chagrin the fall of her first year here. “I went to the Wal-Mart and couldn’t find any food I wanted to eat,” she said.

Now, as an adviser for VIF in the 24,900-student Johnston County school district, the 26-year-old kindergarten teacher helps the new recruits get settled. She’s compiling a list of what she will miss when she leaves North Carolina—an abundance of sunshine, the sight of cotton and tobacco in the fields, and the colloquialism “y’all.”

Carola Figueroa, a 30-year-old from Tandil, Argentina, applied to VIF because she “really wanted the possibility of practicing my English and learning about other cultures in ways you couldn’t get as a tourist.”

In Argentina, she taught English. At Selma Elementary, she is the English-as-a-second-language teacher and works primarily with children who have just arrived in the United States. About a quarter of the school’s 859 students are Hispanic.

“When they leave my room, their eyes sparkle,” she said of her students. “I feel like I’ve done something good.”

The VIF teachers have filled a big void, says Principal Robin L. Herridge. When she took over the school four years ago, she had 18 positions to fill, and the human-resources office of the Johnston County schools presented VIF as a partial solution. This year, she has eight teachers from the program and a teaching assistant who accompanied his VIF spouse.

“They came with experience, they are very flexible, and they are so eager to participate in the program,” she said.

At Brentwood Elementary School some 40 miles away in Raleigh, Principal Myrna Pagan believes the five VIF teachers working at her school this year fit right in. Since becoming principal 2½ years ago, she has hired a number of VIF recruits from four different countries.

‘My Stories’

The diversity of backgrounds makes her school stronger, she says, in part because it better reflects Brentwood’s enrollment, which over the past decade changed from 90 percent white and American-born to the current 90 percent African-American or foreign-born.

For François Nel, 35, the differences between the classrooms he left behind in Pretoria, South Africa, and those at Brentwood Elementary are fresh in his mind. Student discipline takes more work in his new U.S. classroom. But he said he was warned of that reality in the three-day orientation session VIF provides before the start of school.

He considers himself fortunate to be in a school with a cohort of VIF teachers. His sister, who recently returned home to South Africa after three years with the program, had a miserable first year as the only VIF teacher at a school in Greensboro, N.C. But her experience improved, he said, when the school acquired a new principal.

After five months in the United States, he too sees his experience heading in a positive direction.

“It’s in getting to know me and my stories that the cultural exchange happens,” he said. “My kids, many of them have never been out of North Carolina. Now the world is coming to them.”

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Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.
A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Company Matches Foreign Teachers and U.S. Schools


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