Fayetteville, North Carolina – One of North Carolina’s fastest growing teacher populations comes from out of state – well out of state.
Indeed, North Carolina leads the nation in employing foreign teachers in K-12 schools, according to an analysis of data by WRAL News.
International teachers have more than quadrupled in the state over the past decade to more than 2,100 teachers. North Carolina spent $121.4 million this year on overseas teachers, six times what it did a decade ago. During this time, international teachers have gone from 1 in 200 North Carolina teachers to 1 in 50.
The influx of international teachers is due in part to significant investments in global education by Tar Heel State schools – an effort to help prepare students for work in the global corporations that continue to settle in the state. Its growth has also occurred as many school systems struggle to retain teachers and fill vacancies.
Vance County Schools employs about 60 international teachers, Superintendent Cindy Bennett said. It has no global immersion or dual-language programs, but the school system emphasizes preparing students to be “productive global citizens.” Bilingual programs teach content in both English and another language, and schools sometimes add a focus on comprehensive study in content areas in addition to these programs.
“We don’t see international teachers as just a way to fill our classrooms,” Bennett said. “We really look at the added value they bring to the neighborhood. We find that they are very strong in pedagogy. We find that they are very engaged in their community, and our community becomes their community.
Over the past decade, the state has placed more emphasis on global programs, especially bilingual programs. Bilingual programs have grown from approximately 49 in the 2011-2012 school year to 229 today.
International teachers are often bilingual themselves and not as many teachers come from North Carolina colleges. But their roles are more important than that. Not everyone here is teaching another language or speaking a language other than English.
Racquel Graham is from Spanish Dome, Jamaica, and teaches fourth grade at Cumberland Road Elementary School in Fayetteville.
Graham has a J-1 visa, which allows him to participate in visitor exchange programs in the United States. She has just completed her fourth year at Cumberland County School. “I wanted to experience a different culture and learn how things were done differently,” Graham said.
She heard about a Chapel Hill-based company, Participate Learning, that was looking for international teachers, and she applied.
It comes with lots of benefits. Graham makes more money than she could in Jamaica. She has more technology in her class and her colleagues have helped her learn how to use it.
For the school district, teachers like Graham bring new perspectives to their classrooms.
“Our number one focus relates to our strategic goals, as well as our vision of wanting to prepare children to be competitive in a global society,” said Tonya Page, director of human resources for the school system.
The school system’s strategic vision reads, “Every student will have equitable access to engaging learning that prepares them to be collaborative, competitive, and successful in our globalized world.”
Cumberland County schools have 340 teachers on J-1 visas this school year. That’s about one in nine teachers.
Schools tout the benefits of intentional teachers in providing cultural experiences for students. In many cases, students can converse with other children around the world as part of their teacher’s cultural exchange program.
The J-1 visa requires teachers to do cultural exchange activities with their students related to their home country.
It can be writing letters to students abroad or solving problems in other countries.
Graham went on a scavenger hunt with her students one year, where they researched facts about her. She told the students about her favorite things and asked the students to tell her about theirs. She told them about Jamaica and its history.
North Carolina’s population of international teachers is growing as the state struggles to recruit and retain young teachers in the state.
Some education officials in more rural areas told WRAL News they also hire international teachers because they have difficulty hiring anyone else.
Thousands fewer people are graduating from North Carolina college education programs. Interest in the profession has declined, at least nationally. According to federal data, only 4,228 students completed an education program in North Carolina in 2020, down 36% from 2012.
Graham’s headteacher, Michele Cain, said she saw Cumberland Road Primary School as a place of holistic learning, with no language curriculum. It frequently hires international professors and has employed seven this year.
“It’s very beneficial for our students, for them to have international faculty on board because they have a range of expertise that they are able to bring to our school,” Cain said.
A 2013 report by the State Board of Education’s Global Education Task Force urged the state to adopt an action plan to increase global education in state classrooms. The task force recommended integrating global themes into the curriculum, teaching international affairs and, above all, expanding bilingual immersion programs.
The report also called on universities in the state to ensure that future teachers learn to teach global issues and perspectives and foreign languages.
“From teacher preparation to development, teachers must have access to high-quality content and training that enables them to develop their awareness of the global context in which we operate, to integrate an international perspective throughout the curriculum and to strengthen their understanding of how to build the global competence of their students,” the task force wrote. “Only then will teachers be equipped to fully meet the second standard of North Carolina’s new teacher evaluation system: that they establish a respectful environment for a diverse population of students, among others, embracing diversity in the community and in the world.”
Bilingual programs aim to ensure that students are fluent in a foreign language. Research shows that learning a language is easier at a younger age; mastery is more difficult to achieve after age 10. In the United States, many students take foreign language classes in high school but are not able to use the language as adults.
The work of groups like Participate Learning, where Graham applied to come to North Carolina, has taken off in recent years.
Federal government data shows that 2,662 new J-1 visas for teachers were granted nationwide in 2016. In 2021, the U.S. government granted 4,271 new visas.
No one added more than North Carolina last year, with 830 new teacher visas. Each year, North Carolina receives approximately one in five to six of the new visas granted.
The $121.4 million the state has spent on foreign teachers is for their salaries, which are on par with those of American teachers, and any other costs associated with hiring the teachers.
In the 1990s, international teachers were rare. North Carolina spent just $4.8 million on international teachers 25 years ago.
“I view Vance County as a world-changing cultural melting pot that is at the forefront of what education should look like in a globalized world,” Bennett said.
“A Classy Family”
Kadecia Stewart-Faines, now the Vance County Schools International Teacher Liaison, considers coming to Vance County Schools from Jamaica to be the “best experience” of her life.
She taught for eight years in Jamaica before arriving in Vance County, where she immediately found herself intimidated. “My first year here was tough,” she said. “It was an epic fail, as I was not comfortable with my content.”
Graham described a similar struggle upon arrival. The students were different, the culture was different, the teaching approaches were more personalized for the students.
Stewart-Faines was a math teacher but ended up working on an art exhibit, driven by her passion for the performing arts.
“In that moment, I knew that children not only needed Mrs. Stewart as a math teacher,” she said, “but they need teachers who will invest in the development of all possible skills and talents.”
A few years later, she became the North-Central Region Teacher of the Year.
Today, Graham loves his job. She extended her visa.
Her class’ math lesson one recent morning was full of energy. The students played a vocabulary game.
They danced to help them remember what they had learned about shapes and angles. They helped and supported each other in solving problems.
“I try to build a classy family where every time they show that love, it’s memorable to me,” Graham said.
The experience also helped her.
“I learned a lot,” Graham said. “Lots of things I can take with me.”