SUGAR LAND – Like almost every school system in the country, the Fort Bend Independent School District is struggling to overcome a severe shortage of teachers.
To help fill the ranks, Manuela Pedraza is willing to go halfway around the world – literally.
Pedraza, 55, travels to Spain to hire instructors who can help make up for the domestic teacher deficit.
Pedraza, associate superintendent of human resources for the Fort Bend district, spends one week each spring in Madrid, where she interviews candidates and hires a dozen or so to teach Spanish and bilingual classes.
“We are selling them on the opportunity to have an adventure over here,” she said.
The program is a joint effort between the Texas Education Agency and the Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture.
While some districts in other states have been recruiting teachers from Spain for as long as 10 years, the Fort Bend district began its program two years ago. Twelve other Texas districts, including Houston, also participate.
Pedraza said there is a national shortage of teachers, especially in math, science and foreign languages.
“There was a time when we were able to recruit out of state and go to Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota, where they had a surplus of teachers,” she said.
She blames the teacher shortage mainly on the strong economy and the fact that teachers are retiring in record numbers.
“We lose a lot of veteran teachers,” Pedraza said. “I tell them they could teach another 20 years and that they are going to be bored playing golf all the time, but they don’t listen to me.”
To make matters worse, enrollment is growing and half of all people who become teachers leave the profession in their first five years, she said.
The recruitment program eventually is expected to work on an exchange basis, with teachers from the Fort Bend district swapping places with their Spanish counterparts.
“That may be a few years from now. Because of our tremendous growth, we cannot afford to lose teachers right now,” Pedraza said.
Pedraza said educators hope the program will give students a better grasp of cultural issues in an increasingly competitive and global economy.
“It’s a small world,” she said. “And it would not be unusual for our kids to be all over the world in whatever job or careers they go into.”
The district now employs 14 teachers from Spain in schools From elementary his second year of teaching eighth-graders at Quail Valley Middle School.
“In Spain I was teaching English. I have never taught my own language as a foreign language. It is a curious perspective,” he said. “There are some things that the English speakers find difficult that I had never thought of.”
Garcia, who teaches Spanish and journalism, said Spanish and American children share many traits, such as their interest in television and music.
“But the kids in Spain are more social,” he said. “They know all their friends and they can name all the kids in the school.
“One thing I noticed here is that my kids can’t name the students in their own class.”
From an academic standpoint, he said, pupils in Spain study harder.
“But here, they spend more time in the class, which compensates for that,” he said.
All of the Spaniards said they were surprised by the amount of time teachers put in each day and they also were bewildered by the mountain of paperwork American teachers contend with.
“The hours are very different. In Spain I only teach 18 hours a week. Here, I am in school from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day,” said Lucia Mari-Cardona, 33, a native of the island of Minorca.
At home, she said, grades are given out every three months, but in Texas, students are given marks every three weeks.
“It is quite a bit of paperwork, much more than I am used to,” she said.
Mari-Cardona, who teaches at Clements High, said she has enjoyed teaching here for two years but is heading home at the end of the semester.
Like anyone who moves to another country, the Spaniards had much to learn about living in a foreign land.
The first thing they noticed was that it was hard for them to understand anyone, even though they had been studying and speaking English for many years.
“We learn ‘British’ English and are used to that accent,” said Garcia with a laugh. “When I got here, I could not understand what people were saying.”
Now, after two years in Texas, he is so accustomed to the American voice that he has a hard time understanding any other type of English.
Another aspect that struck Garcia about life here was the seemingly endless variety of ethnic and racial groups he came across.
“There are so many people from different cultures. Maybe they don’t get together, but they tolerate each other very well,” he said.
Garcia said he and his fellow Spaniards have been warmly received by students, fellow teachers and administrators.
“When we came here the people treated us very well. They were very open to people coming from overseas. Maybe it’s because everyone here is from somewhere else,” he said.
The recruitment of the Spaniards starts before Pedraza arrives in Madrid, where the teachers are first screened by Spanish officials. The sessions, conducted in English, last for a week as Pedraza talks with several candidates a day.
She said many of the teachers are multilingual and have lived in other European countries to hone their skills.
“I recall one young lady who told me that she had gone to Ireland and worked as a waitress so she could practice her English. And, of course, she spoke with an Irish accent,” Pedraza said.
Among their questions about Texas are concerns about personal safety.
“Last year when we were there is when the situation happened in Colorado,” she said, referring to the April massacre at Columbine High School.
“What we tell them is that it has not happened here. We also talk to them about some of the safety features we have here.”
Once the candidates are chosen and the school board approves their hiring, the process of getting them ready for American classrooms begins.
They attend a weeklong orientation seminar in Austin when they first arrive in Texas and then go through the regular Fort Bend teacher induction program.
Their first weeks here are spent with a host family and the district helps them open bank accounts, find apartments and obtain driver’s licenses. The Spanish teachers receive the same pay and benefits as their American counterparts and must pay U.S. income tax.
Pedraza said most of the Spanish teachers live in the same apartment complex, where they can share living and transportation expenses.
Other than the heat and the flat terrain, the absolute necessity of a car was one of the first things that Fernando Lopez-Lopez noticed when he arrived.
“In Europe there is the bus and train, so you can get by. Here the distances are so large you have to drive a car,” said Lopez-Lopez, 29, who hails from Murcia, in southeastern Spain.
Pedraza said he needs 12 to 15 people to fill vacancies for the next school year.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said. “When I get back (from Spain) I always think that is the last time I am going to do that.
“But, it is always very exciting to talk to young people about teaching.”