International teachers work hard to adjust

ECISD has teachers from the Philippines, Ghana, Colombia, Spain and India

Making up about 10 percent of Ector County ISD’s teacher workforce, international instructors have become part of the district’s tapestry.

Human Resources Director Sandra Banda said they work with a J1 exchange visitor company that handles different kinds of visas and has partnerships with recruiters in different countries.

When someone from the Philippines or India is interested in an exchange visitor program, they go to a recruiter and say they’re interested in coming to the United States, Canada or wherever whatever country they want to go to.

“The recruiter has a partnership with the J1 sponsor. They get their information, they vet them, they make sure that they have met the requirements for the J1 visa,” Banda said.

They have to have taught at least two previous years in their home country. They have to be a certified teacher, have their credentials up to date, no blemishes on their record and be able to meet the qualifications for the visa. “Once the recruiter submits all those names to the J1 company, the J1 company passes them to us. We go through and we think about what areas we want to support with this initiative, and then we interview them to see if they’re a good match for the needs that we have, or the goals that we have. Then we allow principals to interview them and then we invite them to come based on those interviews,” Banda said.

Many times the interviews are virtual, but they did take one trip to the Philippines before COVID. During that trip, Banda and another recruiter interviewed for two straight days from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. back to back.

“That was really tough. But this year we actually interviewed for a span of about a month. It’s tricky because … I think the Philippines are like 13 hours ahead of us. A lot of times we were trying to do the interviews as early as we could on our work time and they were doing the interviews at 10 or 11 p.m. their time,” she said.

Banda said the ones who are interested in the exchange program are really happy when they’re selected to be interviewed.

The district also has partnerships with India, Colombia, Mexico and Ghana, so those are different time zones as well.

“It’s a very rigorous vetting process because the J1 company wants to make sure that the candidates are high-quality, but also we want to make sure that they meet the criteria we have as well for any teacher who’s going to work with our kids,” Banda said.

How well the teachers do depends on the individual and where they’re placed.

“… Some countries, for example, do better at the high school level just because they have high advanced degrees. That’s what they taught in their home country. The main part that we look for is what is your experience; what subject area have you taught. We try to match them as closely as possible because we want them to be successful. If they are successful, our kids are going to be successful. That’s the approach we take in matching people with the correct placement,” Banda said.

At one point, ECISD was recruiting teachers from Spain and Puerto Rico.

“We have not gone to Puerto Rico in a little while. That is on our agenda for to look at this year. We actually contacted the universities in Puerto Rico last school year, and the recruitment fair had already happened. They have a major recruiting fair in Puerto Rico in March. So by the time we contacted them in April-early May, they had already had it, so we’re on their list for them to send us information,” Banda said.

“The only thing about that is, of course, the travel. You have to pay for recruiters to go interview. They don’t do the virtual. But it’s very competitive because a lot of districts go from across the United States, not just Texas. We’re looking into that to see if it’ll be a viable choice for us to continue recruiting there. We do still recruit from Spain every year. It’s a good place where people sometimes even return. They came one season and then they went back to their home country and now they’re back. We have about two of those who just wanted to come back to Odessa,” she added.

The J1 program is a cultural exchange program. The purpose is to expose children to other cultures and so the teacher can take what they’ve learned here back home.

Each teacher has to submit a cultural enrichment activity every month that they do with their class. They can write letters to students in the home country of the teacher. The teacher can introduce the students to different kinds of food, music or dances.

“They’re actually responsible for writing up a report that they send to the J1 company that they’re fulfilling that part of the cultural exchange program,” Banda said.

She added that the program introduces students to how people live in other countries. In Mexico, she said, education is only free through the sixth grade; after that you have to pay.

Initially, the length of the program is three years.

“Thereafter, a district can request for a teacher to stay an additional two years on a one-year extension for up to two times. So we can actually get a teacher who’s here for up to five years on a J1 program. …,” Banda said.

There are a few teachers who seek out H1B visas, which are another temporary visa based on specialty occupation.

“… The requirements are much, much higher for an H1B,” Banda said.

The candidates who come through the program ECISD works with get what’s called a visiting international teaching certification.

“They meet the criteria of the visiting international teacher by meeting the requirements of the J1. They’re a certified teacher in their home country. They have at least a bachelor’s degree. They have at least three years of experience with the immediate two prior years teaching in their home country,” Banda said.

The Texas Education Agency looks at all those things and determines that a teacher meets those criteria and they can have an international teacher certification for the length of time they are here — either three years or five years.

“Anyone who is wanting to stay thereafter on an H1B has to pursue certification the standard way. That means a bilingual teacher who wanted to stay would have to pass the TOEFL, the English certification test. Then they would have to pass the EC through six core, the PPR (the professional test that every teacher takes), the science of teaching reading, the bilingual supplemental and the BPOBT language proficiency (test) before they can even be considered to be a candidate for an H1B,” Banda said.

The J1 company has specific criteria that the government has for them for orientation.

“… Once they get here … they are part of the new teacher orientation. … They also get a mentor because they’re a new teacher regardless of where they’re from, whether they’re from Oklahoma or the Philippines. They’re new to teaching in ECISD, so they are supposed to get a mentor. …,” Banda said.

Systems of support are different everywhere.

“… I think ECISD has a very systematic approach to ensuring that teachers get the help they need so that they can be successful. Regardless of whether they’re from here, or from another country or from Oklahoma, they’re going to get that support,” she added.

Sometimes they are going to assimilate quickly and sometimes they may not be used to teaching sixth grade at the middle school versus at an elementary.

Everybody who needs assistance is going to get it, Banda said.

The cultural differences also are an adjustment. Some teachers walk everywhere or rely on public transportation or Uber. Others may quickly get a driver’s license.

“What I’ve seen the most, though, is a lot of them miss their families. It’s very hard for them, especially when it’s a mother and she leaves her children behind or her spouse. The great thing is that J1s can also bring their spouses and their children on a J2. That takes a little bit of time for the J1 company to get all that paperwork done and make sure everything is up to par with them. It has nothing to do with us, but it’s a service they provide,” Banda said.

She noted that the J1 company is responsible for ensuring there is an eclectic pool of teachers.

“They really do have a responsibility to go all over the world and that’s how we end up with teachers from El Salvador, Ghana … Nigeria. So many countries that can offer such a great gift to our kids,” Banda said.

Sonia Ayers is an English, special education and English as a second language teacher at Bowie Middle School and a house mother for the Chancellor House where 11 international teachers live. They have to be single; the rent is $600 a month including Wi-Fi and everything that comes with the house.

The other teachers’ housing is Killian House.

This is Ayers’ third year of giving of her time in this role. She said she gets to live rent free and she never feels lonely with a house full of people.

The teachers are in a new country, so they have to learn etiquette, rules of the house and getting used to all the meetings and expectations like not driving a car without a license or insurance.

Teachers often don’t bring sheets or pots and pans. The house provides that, but sometimes they need a little extra and Ayers will share with them.

She provides answers about transportation and helps them set up bank accounts, with cooking, writing lesson plans, studying for their certification exams and many other things.

Finding what people are used to eating is another aspect. She may take African teachers to a Nigerian grocery store or help them study for the certification test.

She also tries to prepare them for what to expect from the students who might say they talk funny.

Eventually, they get used to the differences.

“… They have people from their own communities here, people from their countries and so they adjust, especially the Filipino teachers adjust really well because they have a support group or they have family that’s here,” Ayers said.

Raissa Renacia, an eighth-grade math and algebra I honors teacher at Bonham Middle School, is from Dumaguet in the Philippines. This is her fifth year in Odessa and she is working on getting her visa extended.

In the Philippines, she was the head teacher at a senior high school, which is 11th and 12th grade. Renacia said the head teacher position is like a principal.

“I still wanted to become a teacher and I wanted to experience something different, so I decided to come to the U.S. I was torn between going to Japan or here, but I decided to come in the U.S. instead,” Renacia said.

She said the teachers’ preparation training is a bit more rigorous in the Philippines. Here it is a teaching certification, but there it is a license. Prospective teachers work off campus their senior year.

“Since I’m secondary, I took three exams for 12 hours just in one day,” Renacia said.

At first it was challenging teaching middle school because of the culture.

“How it is in my country is very different. How they treat teachers is very differently. You can walk in a classroom as a teacher and everybody would just be quiet and wait for you to start teaching, but here you’ve got to get everybody’s attention for you to be able to teach. So it’s a challenge at first culturally,” she said.

“But at the same time, I easily was able to adapt to it, because I can relate to how these kids would act and I kept on telling myself wherever I go, I wanted to teach how I wanted my teacher to teach me. I want it to be fun in class. I want my teacher to be happy. Like little things that. I don’t want my teacher to be grumpy in class. I don’t want my teacher to get mad for no reason …,” Renacia added.

One of her administrators told her about three years ago that the kids don’t care what you know, they want to know how much you care.

“That hit me hard because if I if base it on my capacity to teach math, the knowledge I have about the subject and the content, I know I’m pretty good at it. But it made me also realize that that’s not enough for my kids. I came here with a full-blown degree. I got a doctorate degree. It got me thinking that’s just a plus for the adults, but that’s not a plus for my kids. So when I started to understand that, it was easy for me to adjust,” Renacia said.

At first, all she could think of was that this was not how we do it. This is not how kids should behave.

She has noticed that it’s difficult for international teachers to adjust. Renacia is a Master Team REACH Teacher through Opportunity Culture in ECISD, so she coaches teachers at Bonham.

“I’m always assigned to an international teacher and I think somehow that’s a plus in a way (because) I can relate to them,” she said.

Her first year of coaching, she helped someone from Turkey. Last year, she coached someone from Spain and this year someone from the Philippines.

Throughout her time here, Renacia has been amazed at how people who don’t even know her go out of their way to help — with finding food, furniture, transportation or anything else she needs.

She and teachers she came to Odessa with got mattresses, pillows and a lot of rice. Someone also gave Renacia a jacket when it got cold.

Renacia also has received support at Bonham where Randy Lightfoot, now a talent development coach, remains her mentor.

“… He’s always been my help and he always checks my class. …,” she said.