It’s not uncommon for teachers to remain in the same school their entire careers. Even when they do switch schools, they often stay within the same district. Venturing across state lines for a new teaching job, let alone leaving one’s homeland, was once exceedingly rare. But as school districts seek to address stubborn teacher vacancies and hire educators who reflect the diversity of their student bodies, some are extending their recruiting efforts beyond the United States mainland.
Lesliean Luna, a veteran teacher from Puerto Rico, responded to such efforts, almost accidentally. In 2016, Luna attended an international teaching job fair with a friend who was considering the move. There, she learned about the World Languages program in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, which needed to recruit more bilingual teachers to staff the program.
It piqued her interest, and the single mother of two daughters found herself interviewing for a job. Just three weeks later, Luna had left her home and was in a classroom of 4th graders, teaching in the Spanish immersion program at Laurel Ridge Elementary School in Fairfax County. (She now teaches 3rd grade students.)
This fall, Luna’s oldest daughter, 24-year-old Gabriela Muriente, followed in her mother’s footsteps. She’s in her first teaching job as a 3rd grade Spanish immersion teacher at Bailey’s Upper Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Falls Church, Va. Education Week spoke to the two teachers about their experience of leaving their beautiful island home to teach in one of the biggest school districts in the mainland U.S. Read their interview below, edited for length and clarity.
Education Week: How did you learn about the opportunity to teach in Fairfax, Virginia?
Luna: I went to a job fair in Puerto Rico with a friend. There I heard about a Spanish immersion program in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools where the kids, starting in kindergarten, learn Spanish while they take English content in the dual-language program. I was like: Wow, I never heard of something like that before. It was fascinating to me that the students in the program became bilingual. When I heard they were looking for a Spanish-teaching speaker, I got very curious.
Education Week: How challenging was it for you to become employed in Virginia?
Luna: Because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the U.S., it was easy for me to transition here. Within three weeks of interviewing, I was hired. I had the feeling from the beginning that this was going to be good for my life.
Education Week: What was most attractive to you about moving to Virginia for a teaching position?
Luna: The salary. I received a big raise, three and a half times more than my salary at home.
Education Week: What did you leave behind?
Luna: Everything. My family, My friends. I moved here basically knowing no one. Puerto Rico has some of the happiest people in the world.
Education Week: How did you get acclimated to your new job and life in Virginia?
Luna: Teachers, parents, the community. I say they are angels. I have a student from Korea, China. Their families became my family.
Education Week: What about basics like transportation and housing?
Luna: The first month or two I stayed with a teacher from the district who opened her house to me, because I didn’t know where to stay. Then I leased an apartment very close to my school, then I got a car. My younger daughter’s middle school was two blocks from my school.
Education Week: Gabriela, you decided to study for your education degree in Puerto Rico before moving to Virginia to take a job this year as a Spanish immersion teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools. How did you feel about leaving your home for the mainland U.S.?
Muriente: It was hard to leave my family and my island. My father, my brother, and my grandmother live in Puerto Rico. No one ever wants to leave [Puerto Rico]. That’s where you’re from. But I was also prepared to teach here. In Puerto Rico, most of the things we learned in college came from the United States. Many of the teaching strategies they showed us [during college classes in Puerto Rico] were actually from schools in Virginia.
Education Week: Lesliean, what are some of the differences you’ve noticed between teaching here and in Puerto Rico?
Luna: The families in Puerto Rico are super helpful to teachers. They love the teachers. They want their children to learn. But resources in Puerto Rico are very limited. The schools have no air conditioning, limited computers. When I came here, my principal gave me a tour and showed me the teacher supply room. It had construction paper, markers, everything. I said to her: I can use everything here? I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have to paint my classroom here, either. In my old school in Puerto Rico, I painted every year.
Education Week: How do these differences affect you as a teacher?
Luna: Now, I can just prepare my classroom and get ready to teach the students all the things they need to learn.
Education Week: Any other differences that stood out to you when you first started teaching in Virginia?
Luna: The data. Here, you know everything ahead of time because of the [standardized] assessments that students take. You know exactly the needs of your students. In Puerto Rico, I never saw standardized tests before I taught students.
Education Week: What about differences in the students here compared to those in Puerto Rico?
Luna: As far as behavior, kids are kids all over the world. The things they try to do in Puerto Rico, how they behave, is the same here. Outside of school, kids have more freedom in Puerto Rico. Because it’s a small island, they can do things on their own like go to the beach.
Education Week: What could Fairfax County School System learn from the school systems in Puerto Rico?
Luna: Fairfax County has an amazing school system, but I think something that is missing is the cultural part. I love the diversity here. But I would love to see it exhibited more. In Puerto Rico, we have Puerto Rican day where we exhibit our culture’s traditions, music, food. I would love to see more of that here.
Muriente: I agree. We have a lot of students from different parts of the world where I teach; maybe each month we could have a different “show where you’re from” day.
Luna: Related to that, I would love for the Spanish immersion teachers here to make friendships with students in Puerto Rico so that they [students] could meet other students of the same age, do Zoom videos with them, get to know them.
Education Week: Do you consider Virginia your permanent home now?
Luna: Yes. Now my brother and sister are here in Virginia, my mother and my youngest sibling live in another state in the United States. I love Virginia. When I moved here six years ago, I was single. A few years ago, I met a man from Puerto Rico here and got married.
Muriente: In the future I want to have kids, and I would love for them to go to school in Fairfax County.