Coming to America - to teach

New bilingual teachers in U-46 adjust to a new life

No one knows better than Luz Anguiano that nervous feeling that might be keeping kindergartners from finishing their breakfast this morning.

Two days before she was to welcome her Parkwood Elementary kindergarten class, her room was in such disarray – with boxes and books everywhere – that she didn’t know where to start.

And on Tuesday, the bilingual teacher had to appear in Elgin municipal court for a traffic violation – which she had no idea she committed.

But today provides Anguiano’s biggest test. She will meet the small bilingual kindergartners she will teach the English language to, just two weeks after setting foot in the United States herself.

Sure the teacher, who comes from Mexico, knows her English, but like her first-time students, she also worries if she will say or do the right things.

“I’m nervous not only about trying to set up my classroom and have everything in order, but to also have an idea of the standards of education in Illinois,” she said.

It’s likely the same concern of 46 other teachers who came from foreign countries mostly to fill a void in Elgin Area School District U-46 bilingual classrooms this year. Recruited from Mexico, Spain and Puerto Rico, the group represents the largest pool of teachers the district has recruited outside the U.S. in the last 14 years.

Since they arrived at O’Hare International Airport in early August, the bilingual teachers haven’t had time to completely learn the American way of education.

In the last two weeks, they’ve attended workshops to get acquainted with U-46 and its curriculum. But they’ve also obtained their Social Security cards, set up checking accounts and taken their Illinois driving tests.

Also, in that short time, the teachers have had to find a place to live and buy a car.

Now it’s onto teaching Spanish-speaking children the English language – what they came here to do.

The big attraction

When Anguiano told her mother she planned to leave Cuernavaca, the small Mexican town that is home to most of her family, her mother did not understand, she said.

“Her first impact was, ‘Why are you leaving when you don’t have the necessity?’ ” Anguiano recalled. “I answered, ‘Necessity isn’t only money.’ “

At 32 years old, Anguiano had everything a young Mexican woman could want. She and her husband, who ran a successful satellite television business, owned their own home where they lived with their two children, Gabby, 5, and Lui, 2. She also had a good- paying job herself at the Language Institute.

Yet she decided to bring her two children, the family dog and a full-time nanny to Elgin. Her husband, Antonio, will fly back and forth so he can still run his business.

Anguiano said she knows she sacrifices the daily meals her family shared together, but she said she believes this experience will help her and her family grow in other ways.

“Being in Mexico and teaching English is not enough. Sometimes you need to teach how to live and how things are,” Anguiano said.

“Also for my kids – I wanted them to have a different experience from the one they were having in Mexico. Having an experience like this will let us grow in everything.”

For others, the attraction to come to America is money and a job.

In Spain, the problem is opposite the one in U-46. Because of the country’s low birth rate there are far more teachers than classrooms.

In Mexico, teachers make a fraction of what they make in the United States. In Mexico, school teachers make about $ 7,000 a year, U-46 officials said.

And in Puerto Rico, a veteran teacher on average will make about $ 18,000 a year, said Ori Guerra, assistant director of bilingual education. That is $ 10,000 less than what a starting teacher makes in U-46.

Filling the void

If it weren’t for the abroad recruitment program, U-46 could not fill the teacher vacancies in its bilingual classrooms.

“I couldn’t find 47 bilingual teachers in this country,” said Bob Gilliam, assistant superintendent of human resources for U-46. “We’re all looking for the same thing.”

“The students are coming in at a faster pace than we can produce the teachers,” Guerra said.

In the United States, there are not enough teachers fluent in Spanish to teach bilingual students, U-46 officials said.

Also in U-46, enrollment for the district bilingual program is growing at the same rapid pace as the district’s overall enrollment.

This year, U-46 will see its largest enrollment increase ever with more than 1,800 students – bringing the total enrollment to an all-time high of 38,400.

Of those students, officials estimate about 4,900 are enrolled in the bilingual program. That number is up from 3,672 five years ago.

The recruitment process actually begins shortly after the new school year. U-46 officials coordinate the trip in October with educators abroad. In November they fly to the different countries where they spend a week interviewing and screening teachers. All candidates must pass an English exam to be eligible.

If hired, the teachers are given a temporary visa card to work in the United States for three years.

Even then the job is not over for U-46. Once the teachers arrive, district officials and volunteer teachers help them find housing, get a driver’s license and set up a checking account.

U-46 officials also accompany the teachers to car dealerships to make sure they negotiate a fair deal.

“We want to make sure they get started right,” Guerra said.

The district’s efforts have made their transition less difficult, the bilingual teachers said.

“They are spending (a lot) of time with us, taking us everywhere. Now they are our family,” said 32-year-old Ana Juan from Spain.

U-46 officials said the effort is worth it.

Over the years, the teachers have proven to be quite capable in the classroom, Gilliam said.

“We evaluate them like we do other teachers. Their success rate is the same as it is for somebody we recruit in the states, Gilliam said.

“One of the assets they have is they bring a cultural background other teachers don’t have,” he added.

Before U-46 began recruiting teachers outside the U.S., the school district filled its vacancies with professionals with bachelor degrees who passed the bilingual exam, but did not have teaching certificates.

“The difference we have is the teachers who are teaching kids are certified,” Gilliam said.

But there is no guarantee the teachers will stay the entire three years. While many may decide to make their home here, others will return home before their three years are up, officials said.

Making the adjustment

The new teachers admit they don’t know how long they will stay or if they will make the United States their home.

Already, they have encountered culture shock.

Several of the teachers shook their heads in disbelief when they learned a reliable car was going to cost them more than $ 5,000. Two teachers, who are sharing an apartment, decided the only way they could afford a car was to share it, too.

The rules of the road are also different in the United States. Anguiano learned the hard way – it is against the law to roll through a stop sign like drivers do in Mexico.

And in the schools, the way teachers react with students is a lot different than in the United States, the teachers said.

In Mexico, for example, teachers often hug or kiss a student on the cheek when they excel in something, Anguiano said.

“In Mexico, we are very close with the children. (Here) we can’t touch them. It is something I don’t understand,” she added.

Despite the little adjustments they’ve had and will have to make in the coming months, the teachers seem excited to get to work today.

“The point is that we are here to help children who are having trouble with the English language,” Anguiano said.

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