To Find the Best Teachers, One Has to Look
The ACIE Newsletter, May 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3
By Karen Terhaar, 5th Grade Teacher, Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School, Robbinsdale, Minnesota
I remember my first immersion workshop as a new teacher nearly twelve years ago. There were a number of well-known faces in the field of immersion in attendance that day, enlightening me with tales of life in an immersion school. One of these famous faces was addressing the issue of hiring French teachers for her immersion schools. She joked about how she would look for teachers anywhere she could find them, in the park or even the grocery store. If she heard someone speaking French she would immediately ask them if they had a teaching license. We all laughed at the joke. At the time I didn't have the experience to know how true that statement was.
Here I am twelve years later, watching my same school of these past years struggle with the issue of teacher hiring. When our school began, we were a very young staff; better for it, we thought. This young staff has grown into a largely thirty-something group, many of whom are starting families. This triggers a rash of family leave requests, and consequently a need for as many as five substitute positions a year. It seems we've learned nothing in these past twelve years. We are still waiting for great teachers to show up on our doorstep, eager to teach in Spanish at our school. Perhaps we believe this will happen because we actually have had this good luck. We have many excellent teachers, some of whom fell into our lap by nothing but dumb luck. We have also found ourselves in the face of crisis time and time again, scrambling to find that warm body to place in the classroom. If we are at all responsible educators, we will anticipate this need for quality teachers and be prepared when the time comes to hire.
A truly gifted immersion teacher is not easy to find. This is precisely the reason that we must take the time to look for him and her. There are a number of qualities essential to an immersion teacher, and unique to immersion itself. Unlike regular education, an immersion teacher needs to be a master of the target language. We need a balance of native and non-native speakers in our schools to ensure the highest quality of curriculum development in two languages. An immersion teacher must possess the ambition it takes to continue growth of his or her language skills. An immersion teacher needs to be intelligent and curious to keep abreast of not only research in regular education, but also specific immersion issues, and be able to apply this information to the classroom as well as to understand it and relay this information to parents when issues arise with students. An immersion teacher needs to have the drive to continue to excel in teaching, even when all of the surrounding circumstances seem to prohibit this. These immersion teachers do exist; we all know some of them. Unfortunately, they don't always stay in the teaching profession. Talented as they are, they sometimes move on to other fields and opportunities. It is our obligation to replace them with an equally qualified person. This may not be as hard as we imagine.
Many workshops and professional conferences I have attended over the years have addressed the issue of teacher hiring. The district central office seems to be a thorn in everyone's side. There are issues of seniority and job pools, which prohibit us from posting positions as early as we would like. We have competition from neighboring immersion schools. We need substitute positions and are not able to hire a teacher on a full contract. All of this can be overwhelming to the point that we just advertise our position and hope for the best. I believe there are ways that we can take an active role in the search for quality teachers despite these roadblocks.
Many immersion teachers are hired following a stint abroad teaching at private or U.S. schools. The Department of Defense has a list of schools abroad, as does the International Schools Services. This information is readily available to any interested party. To overcome the job pool obstacle that prohibits us from posting positions as early in the spring as we would like, another option would simply be to promote our schools where there is a pool of potential candidates. Sending our school brochure and a cover letter would not take a great deal of time or money. This would let licensed teachers of second languages know that we exist. When the time comes for some of these teachers abroad to return to the United States, they would be aware of a unique teaching opportunity where they could continue to use their second language while experiencing the rewards of teaching with people of like mind.
Another opportunity to find teachers would be to visit the Overseas Recruiting Fair in Cedar Falls, Iowa, every February. Again, the point would be to simply inform teachers of our existence.
I feel very fortunate to work with many talented people. There are more of these talented people out there. We shouldn't have to race to find them in the eleventh hour and not only cause ourselves a great deal of stress, but also risk not finding them. We should continue to look to our local colleges and uni-versities for qualified candidates. We should not consider this our only option, however. Our schools are only as good as the teachers in the classroom. It is time we shift our focus from what the district does not allow us to do to what we can do for ourselves, taking an active role in teacher recruitment.