2 Languages But 1 Goal: Education

Foreign countries are providing the experienced bilingual teachers that school districts here need

When Carlos Osorio moved from Mexico City with his wife and three children in August to take a teaching job in an unfamiliar Chicago suburb, he figured the real adjustments would take place outside his classroom.

He would have to fill an empty apartment. Master a new educational bureaucracy. Negotiate a car loan with no credit history.

As for teaching, however, he had no doubts. It is a job that still brings him joy after 22 years.

That experience and enthusiasm are part of the reason that Osorio and 23 other new foreign teachers were hired this year in East Aurora School District 131. But in a district where about a third of the schools’ 10,000 students have limited English skills, more important is their ability to speak Spanish and be a role model for immigrant children.

Such foreign hires are hitting record numbers across the Chicago region, education officials say, because of a dire shortage of trained bilingual instructors. In this school year alone, an estimated 200 teachers were hired from Spanish-speaking countries such as Spain and Mexico, and from Puerto Rico.

In his new 4th-grade classroom at Oak Park Elementary, Osorio has found comfort in keeping up a few traditions from Mexico–his formal dress, the morning calisthenics, his title of “maestro.”

Still, there were some surprises for the veteran educator. One thing Osorio hadn’t counted on was just how unsettling it would feel, in an American classroom, to spend most of his day teaching in his native language.

“They are caught between two cultures,” he said of his pupils, mostly immigrants who struggle to read and write in both English and Spanish. “They still are living like people in Mexico, but in the United States.”

Often, Osorio said, he finds himself wishing he were teaching in English. If he did so, he believes, his pupils’ literacy might improve.

His early impressions reflect not only the cultural adjustments faced by foreign teachers but also a particular irony: Hiring a bilingual immigrant doesn’t always mean hiring a teacher who embraces bilingual education.

Across the Chicago area, more than 100,000 Spanish-speaking children are enrolled in bilingual or transitional language programs. And from Waukegan to Wheeling, from Bolingbrook to Diamond Lake, nearly every district that offers such programs has trouble finding enough qualified instructors to teach them.

Many districts–especially those plagued with high turnover, such as East Aurora–have been forced to staff bilingual classrooms with people who have little or no teaching experience.

Of the 2,500 bilingual teachers employed statewide, more than half of them are working with temporary certificates that give them six years to take the classes officially required to hold those positions. Anyone with a bachelor’s degree and fluency in Spanish can apply for such a job.

That’s why a growing number of districts are turning to foreign hires. The recruiting is expensive, and a lot of hand-holding is required in the first year as the teachers get used to American culture. Still, it’s a different kind of hand-holding from the kind that’s required to teach a first-timer how to manage a classroom or plan lessons that will meet state standards.

“The bottom line is to find the best qualified teachers to meet our needs … and we try to do everything we can to make them successful,” said Carmen Acevedo, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the East Aurora school district, which recruited its first foreign teacher three years ago and now has about 45 among its bilingual staff of 140.

Cicero School District 99 has the second-largest limited English population in the state, behind Chicago, with more than 5,000 students in the bilingual program. Thus far, the district has recruited abroad only in Spain, because the Spanish Education Ministry subsidizes the program and arranges for the teachers’ three-year “foreign exchange” visas.

“The advantage to hiring these teachers is they can hit the ground running and they have very good English skills,” said Cindy Mosca, coordinator of ESL and bilingual programs for Cicero schools. “The downside is they become really good teachers and then they have to leave.”

The state’s largest districts, such as Chicago and Elgin District 46, have recruited bilingual foreign teachers since the late ’80s, but these efforts have become more sophisticated and aggressive in recent years. Other districts only recently have seen sharp increases in their Spanish-speaking student population; officials there often team up with experienced districts to make recruiting trips more productive.

Such efforts are taking place even as bilingual programs nationwide face renewed scrutiny, in large part because of startlingly positive new test results out of California after a voter initiative all but ended bilingual education two years ago.

While Illinois’ bilingual programs have not been threatened, the experience and perspective of foreign teachers do add a new wrinkle to the debate.

“Bilingual education is a foreign concept for foreign teachers,” said Adela Weinstein, who coordinates bilingual and other federal programs for the Illinois Board of Education and has worked with Spanish education officials to bring teachers to the Chicago area. “They don’t have exposure to bilingual education in their country, and they have not had any formal training in this area.

“And while they are immigrants, in a way they are not. They are here as guest workers, and that is a different perspective.”

Despite these differences, school officials find the foreign teachers share a bond with their students–adjusting to this new country.

“The [teachers] are living and experiencing what many of our students are experiencing,” Acevedo said. “That’s a powerful experience, and it definitely creates a connection with the students.”

The teachers, for their part, know that this cross-cultural experience will make them more well-rounded and marketable educators. For teachers from Mexico and Puerto Rico, some of whom intend to stay permanently, the jobs offer stability and a salary schedule two or three times higher than what they earned at home.

The Spanish teachers, by contrast, tend to be younger, single and more likely to see their American jobs as a learning experience rather than the start of a new life. In Spain, salaries are competitive, but full-time teaching jobs are scarce.

Cicero schools got two bangs for their buck when they hired Marta Diaz, a 27-year-old Madrid native who will lead the district’s first-ever bilingual special education classroom. When Diaz first showed up for the interviews in Spain–one of 4,000 teachers competing for 580 U.S. jobs–she had no idea just how coveted her two specialties made her to the American recruiters.

“I really like to work with special-needs children. They are able to do many things, and I want to help them make that happen,” Diaz said. “But being a teacher in Spain, it is very different. Our methods are much more passive … although they are trying to change that, trying to emulate America.”

Mosca said the Cicero school district does what it can to assist the foreign teachers during their whirlwind acculturation, finding staff members who can help them out with rides and rooms in their homes until they get settled.

But although some districts provide other special benefits–hotel rooms, transportation, paid guides, even payroll advances if they need extra money up front to cover apartment deposits and car down payments–Cicero does not, saying those services are not offered to other new employees.

Such extra support can be crucial, said Jack Fields, director of the ESL and bilingual program for Elgin schools, because foreign teachers have only a few weeks to make the transition from bewildered newcomer to confident classroom leader. District 46 hired nearly 50 foreign teachers this year, more than any other year, but still not enough to fill all of its bilingual vacancies.

In East Aurora, teachers Rosa Santana and Lolita Valdez are paid by the district to act as mother hens to new hires from Spain, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

They help negotiate with used-car dealers and steer new teachers to the right apartment complex, depending on whether they have children and pets. They wait with the teachers at the Social Security and secretary of state’s offices, cheering when they pass their written tests. At lunch, they might celebrate the birthday of a homesick teacher or explain the nuances of American sexual harassment policies.

“When I came in 1989 from Puerto Rico I didn’t have anyone to help me. … I felt like some cockroach,” said Santana. “But I think it is great what the district is doing. Our community needs teachers who can teach children in their native language. To do a good job, teachers have to feel like they’re being supported.”

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