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Arizona schools look overseas for teachers to fill vacant positions

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WASHINGTON – Shannon Goodsell looked all over the state this spring for teachers to fill vacancies at Casa Grande Union High School District, where he is superintendent, but still came up short.

With nowhere else to turn, his school district decided to look overseas and, working with an international staffing agency, it found 11 Filipino teachers who started teaching in Casa Grande this fall.

“They have arrived in our community and have done a wonderful job and are really good teachers,” Goodsell said, noting that the teachers are all qualified and some have master’s degrees or are nearing completion of doctorates.

“It was a really big bonus to us to not only have our teaching positions filled, but have them filled by people who have such wealth of degrees for their subject matters,” he said.

School districts across the country have turned to international recruiting to fill jobs, get bilingual teachers and help expose students to diverse cultures, say education organizations. And looking overseas has become a “last resort” to fill ongoing vacancies in Arizona, where teacher turnover went up as salaries and benefits went down in post-recession budget cutting.

“We don’t have much of a choice right now,” said Leeann Jones Wieser, president of the Arizona Federation of Teachers. “I think school districts are needing to be as creative as they need to be to find teachers to fill their classrooms.”

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, agreed that districts have been forced to seek out alternatives because of state budget cuts that have created a teacher shortage.

“Districts who must have people in their classrooms to teach students are resorting to things that they normally would not,” Morrill said. “It is an indicator of how far we’ve fallen in our support for the education profession.”

Morrill blamed salary cuts, freezes and benefit reductions for driving so many Arizona teachers to leave the profession. Teacher shortages have “been a problem since the economy went downwards,” said Heidi Vega, director of communications at Arizona School Boards Association.

“It’s difficult for school districts all across Arizona to attract and retain good quality instructional staff when there is no salary increases,” Vega said.

In 2012-2013, Arizona was in the bottom 10 of states for starting teacher salaries in the country, at an average of $31,874 – more than $4,000 less than the national average – according to data from the National Education Association.

Not all schools are turning overseas out of desperation: NEA senior policy analyst Andrea Giunta said in a written statement that districts across the U.S. have recruited internationally for a number of reasons, from a need for bilingual teachers to a shortage of domestic candidates.

The Arizona Department of Education was not able to say this week how many teachers are here from overseas. A spokeswoman said the department’s system “does not allow us to track teachers coming in from out of country to teach full-time.”

But Ligaya Avenida, president of the California-based agency that Goodsell used to hire his teachers, said that other Arizona school districts – mostly those in rural areas – have come to her for help filling their schools.

“I think many districts use us really as a last resort when they don’t really have any other candidate pool,” Avenida said.

Avenida International Consultants Inc. recruits professional teachers from other countries to come to America to train and work in public and private schools here. Those teachers are required to have at least three years of experience and are interviewed by the school districts before they are hired.

For the foreign teachers, Avenida said, it is more about being immersed in American culture and learning about education in the U.S. than it is just about the job.

Morrill said that experiencing an American classroom could be difficult for some foreign teachers and he worries that those teachers could be on a “shaky limb” in terms of their jobs, because they are here on a work visa. They could be forced to leave the country if they are dismissed from their teaching position for any reason, he said.

Goodsell said hiring foreign teachers this year was a last resort – but it may not be the last time he resorts to it. He said he plans to do the same thing next year that he did this year, starting his search for teachers locally and then looking internationally.

“As far as for our school district, we would prefer to hire and retain local teachers,” Goodsell said. “But if we cannot find the available teachers that we need, then obviously you have to expand that search.”