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International teachers fill special education vacancies in Florida

Danielle Prieur

Florida started the year with 7,000 teacher vacancies, according to the Florida Education Association.

Florida started the year with 7,000 teacher vacancies, according to the Florida Education Association. 

Ahead of the next teacher count in January, WMFE’s Danielle Prieur checked in on a school in Orlando that's using international teachers to fill the gaps.

International teachers step in to fill special education shortages

It’s shortly after 12 noon on a Wednesday, and Dr. Ilene Wilkins walks me around Bailes Community Academy in Orlando, as students and teachers wrap up their lunch.

Dr. Ilene Wilkins says she's hired 40 international teachers this year at her eight charter schools in Orlando.
Danielle Prieur
Dr. Ilene Wilkins says she's hired 40 international teachers this year at her eight charter schools in Orlando.

Dr. I, as her staff calls her, says her charter school, which caters to K-8 students with and without disabilities, struggled to fill its open teaching positions this year.

For the third year in a row, she’s using international teachers to help fill that gap. Dr. I hired 40 international teachers at her eight schools across Central Florida. That’s about five percent of her staff.

"I mean it’s the national shortage of teachers in general and special ed is a special passion," said Wilkins.

Special education is a critical teaching shortage area in Florida

Rollins education professor Jie Yu said bringing in international teachers is actually pretty common.

"So I believe hiring international teachers is a very efficient short-term solution to address the teacher shortage in the state," said Yu.

But Yu says it's important to address the underlying causes of the shortage, like low teacher pay and the high cost of teacher certification programs and exams, in order to solve the shortage permanently.

Dr. Jie Yu of Rollins College was once an international teacher herself in New Orleans. She says international teachers are a good short-term solution to Florida's teacher shortage.
Dr. Jie Yu of Rollins College was once an international teacher herself in New Orleans. She says international teachers are a good short-term solution to Florida's teacher shortage.

According to the U.S. State Department, the number of international teachers employed in the U.S. jumped by 69% between 2015 and 2021.

And the Florida Department of Education ranked special education as the top subject area where teachers were critically needed in Florida this year. 

Yu says hiring international teachers doesn’t just alleviate teacher shortages in the classroom, as these teachers bring a unique set of skills.

The life of an international teacher in Orlando

Natalia Bordalo, a first grade teacher at Bailes agrees. She is an international teacher from Brazil. And she uses the questions her students ask her about her home country, to supplement their learning.

"It was funny when they realized that when it's winter, here, it's summer there, those little tiny things that we can also add to what we're learning and see how different places are in comparison to where they are currently living," said Bordalo.

A classroom at Bailes Academy. About five percent of staff at the school are international teachers.
Danielle Prieur
A classroom at Bailes Academy. About five percent of staff at the school are international teachers.

Bordalo said she’s happy to be teaching in the states, but says the experience isn’t without its challenges.

"Trying to adapt, feel like a little bit more of a sense of belonging and how to like get your driver's license or find the food items you’re used to finding in the supermarket aisle, you know, those little tiny things," said Bordalo.

For her part, Dr. I says her schools completely support their international teachers.

She says the visa sponsorship for each of her teachers runs between $2,500 to $4,300 dollars.

But she says it’s worth it to have a qualified teacher in her classrooms. Still, she says there’s the occasional pushback from some parents until they learn that most of these teachers have master's degrees and significant classroom experience.

What's at stake if the teacher shortage continues

Dan Goldhaber at the American Institutes for Research says it’s not clear how international teachers impact student learning outcomes. But he said the detriment to students without qualified teachers is clear.

"That if we don't do more to address staffing challenges that again, tend to be more acute with certain subjects and in certain schools that we're likely to see more inequality in society over the long run," said Goldhaber.

Back at Bailes, Natalia Bordalo is still deciding whether she wants to continue to teach in Florida or go back home to Brazil.

"There are times that you feel like this is great. I want this to last as long as possible. There are other times that you feel like homesick and you want to you know, be in touch or I mean physically close to people who are very beloved," said Bordalo.

The Florida Education Association doesn’t expect that the teacher shortage will have improved much beyond the 7,000 vacancies at the beginning of the year by its next count in January.

Copyright 2023 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

Danielle Prieur
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