States across the nation look to foreign lands to bring in bilingual teachers

YAKIMA, Wash.—Seventh-grade teacher Diana Weehuizen Beltran’s classroom is decorated with a map and several travel posters from Spain, and her students ask questions about the island of Mallorca, where her husband’s family has a restaurant.

She teaches in English, but can explain the mysteries of parallelograms and quadrilaterals in Spanish, too.

Beltran is one of hundreds of teachers recruited from abroad as U.S. schools search for teachers who can speak the languages of an increasingly diverse U.S. student body. The Yakima, Kent and Tacoma districts alone have brought 21 teachers from Spain in the past three years. “There is a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers,” said Eduardo Tobar, who coordinates the teacher program between the government of Spain and the state of Washington.

The National Education Association says Maryland has gone to India, California to the Philippines and New York City to Austria for bilingual teachers. Washington state has recruited from China.

Twenty-five states work with the government of Spain to import Spanish-speaking teachers in the program which began 15 years ago in California, Tobar said. The program now has 1,000 Spanish teachers in the United States.

The Latino Educational Achievement Project in Seattle has been promoting a proposal to develop in middle school – with college tuition incentives – future bilingual teachers who speak any language in addition to English.

But project director Ricardo Sanchez believes importing teachers is an acceptable way to address the language needs of immigrant students, who potentially could miss out on the fundamentals of education while they learn to speak English.

“You have to credit the school districts for doing something,” he said. “I think they’re setting the trend.”

The NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union, says it would like to see school districts recruit at home, providing training and mentoring to talented people interested in becoming teachers.

“In a country as diverse as ours, there is no shortage of people who are Spanish speaking,” said NEA spokeswoman Melinda Anderson in Washington, D.C.

The issue is less one of a teacher shortage than one of teacher retention, and that’s the problem that really needs to be addressed, she said.

“The districts are looking for shortcuts that won’t pay off in the long run,” Anderson said.

Originally, there were some fears that importing teachers would take away local jobs, but the need is greater than can be addressed at home, said Ben Soria, superintendent of the 14,400-student Yakima School District.

“There’s a huge need in the Yakima Valley for bilingual teachers,” he said. “We need some major help.”

Beltran, 44, moved with her husband and two teen-age daughters last year from Palma in Mallorca to this central Washington city to teach math, language arts and reading.

Beltran had never been to the United States, but she wanted to see Washington’s Mount St. Helens volcano, which erupted in 1980, and she was eager for her daughters to learn English and experience a different culture.

“I actually teach in English, but to the Hispanic kids, I speak in Spanish for their individual work,” Beltran said.

“I found out at the beginning of the year, some of the kids didn’t want to speak in Spanish. They felt a bit ashamed of speaking in Spanish. But then they found out it was a nice thing to speak in the mother language.”

When Spain exports its teachers, it saves their jobs, anticipating they’ll return with new ideas and new skills, she said.

“We are copying your educational system,” Beltran said. “You are 10 years ahead of us.”

The teachers can stay in the United States for up to three years, but not all of them do. Beltran hasn’t decided whether she’ll do a second year.

Soria has also recruited informally in Mexico and hopes an agreement similar to the one with Spain can be made to bring more teachers here.

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