Mimi Dabajo recalls eating meals of rice and salt growing up in a poor family in the Philippines. She knew education was the “only ticket to being successful.”
Now, the 34-year-old science teacher finds herself half a world away from her home country, teaching high school biology to students in rural Lexington County.
“I’ve always shared this with my students: that they have to value what they have here because they’re very lucky,” Dabajo told The State recently at Batesburg-Leesville High School, where she teaches.
Dabajo is one of three international teachers the Lexington 3 School District hired this year and one of 430 working in school districts across the state, according to the S.C. Department of Education.
The trend of employing foreign teachers is growing at the same time that education officials warn school districts face challenges finding enough qualified teachers to fill their classrooms, a problem that only will get worse.
At the start of the 2014-15 school year, S.C. school districts reported having about 340 positions they had not filled – a 25 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement at Winthrop University.
Vacancies are especially hard to fill in rural districts. Those districts often are unable to offer competitive salaries and the community amenities that young teachers want, rural district administrators say.
While international teachers make up roughly 1 percent of all teachers in S.C. public schools, the percentage is much higher in some districts.
Superintendent Martin Wright of the rural Hampton 2 School District told a state Senate education panel recently that attracting and retaining a high-quality workforce is a continual struggle in his district.
“We have more international teachers than anything else,” said Wright of his district, which has 60 teachers, including seven from outside the United States, according to state education data.
But the foreign teachers are not always the right fit for students, he said, citing “two barriers: language and culture.”
The state Education Department first looked to international teachers to fill classrooms in the late ’90s, said S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman. “We had a really severe teacher shortage, and there were just not enough candidates for the jobs.”
Districts also value bringing on international teachers to expose their students to cultures other than their own, she said.
But, Spearman added, “There are schools that have to rely very, very heavily on international teachers, and that’s not the ideal situation.”
Addressing weaknesses in the teacher workforce is one of several problems the S.C. Supreme Court identified in November 2014, when it ordered lawmakers and rural, impoverished school districts to work together to improve the state’s schools.
But school districts face immediate, recurring teacher hiring challenges each year, as they tally the number of teachers leaving and assess their teaching needs.
Lexington 3 was running out of time in July, trying unsuccessfully to find quality candidates to teach middle school Spanish and two high school science classes.
“It was already into late June and July, and I was getting really nervous about finding two science teachers,” said Batesburg-Leesville High principal Pat Padgett.
“We didn’t have a large number of applicants when we started looking,” said Ralph Schmidt, Lexington 3’s assistant superintendent for personnel and administration.
“I don’t know how many phone calls I made,” Schmidt noted, adding he kept calling prospective teachers “with the hope that they would say, ‘Yeah, I’d love to come look and see’ ” about teaching in the district.
Schmidt then recommended looking for international teachers to fill the positions. His goal, he said, was to make sure the candidates hired had solid English language skills, which would help bridge the gap between the teachers and rural students.
Schmidt and other administrators watched videos of the candidates, then conducted interviews using video-chat online.
Long term, hiring international teachers is not a solution for filling vacancies, Schmidt said.
The teachers’ work visas limit their stay in the United States to three years, providing some opportunities for extensions, he said. But there also is no guarantee the teachers will stay that long, he added.
However, hiring international teachers might become more of a necessity, he added.
Having worked in Midlands districts for decades, Schmidt said he has noticed districts are “not getting the same applicant pool of teachers” for vacancies, especially in math, science, foreign language and special education.
Bigger, more urban districts, which pay more and offer more amenities, have a competitive advantage over smaller districts, he added. “When they’re applying for jobs, there are a lot of teachers who know that they’re in demand, so they can do some shopping around.”
Sharing culture, perspective
Thus far, Lexington 3’s international teachers are working out, administrators said.
Dabajo’s students are excelling on tests.
Bouncing around her classroom with a big smile, Dabajo keeps a chattering, lively classroom of students on task as they conduct an experiment.
A former administrator for a Catholic private school in the Philippines, Dabajo said she loves interacting with students while teaching biology, her passion.
Both Dabajo and Rayon Grant, a 32-year-old science teacher from Jamaica, say teaching U.S. students is different from what they are used to back home.
For example, the Lexington 3 students have access to much more technology than Grant’s Jamaican students, who had to take a two-hour field trip to a university to use an oscilloscope or other equipment, he said.
Another benefit to having international teachers is the curiosity it sparks in students, who ask the foreign teachers questions about their countries and cultures. The teachers spend time answering questions and, sometimes, dispelling myths.
Grant’s students asked him, for example, why he does not have dreadlocks, the signature hairstyle of the late Jamaican signer Bob Marley.
Padgett, the high school principal, said the community also has benefited from having the international teachers.
Helping them find housing and, in Dabajo’s case, watching her learn to drive and work toward getting a driver’s license, has been both challenging and rewarding, he said.
The teachers arrive in the district with hardly anything more than their clothes, he said, allowing the community’s residents to reflect on their own lives.
“We can’t really fully appreciate how we live.”
International teachers in Midlands districts, compared to total number of certified teachers:
Kershaw 1: Less than 1 percent (1 out of 695)
Lexington 1: 1 percent (19 out of 1,856)
Lexington 2: None (out of 657)
Lexington 3: 2 percent (3 out of 142)
Lexington 4: 1.3 percent (3 out of 239)
Lexington-Richland 5: None (out of 1,299)
Richland 1: 4 percent (82 out of 2,037)
Richland 2: None (out of 1,975)
Statewide: 1 percent (430 out of 52,676)
Districts with the highest percentage of international teachers compared to their total teaching work force:
Hampton 2: 13.5 percent (7 of 52)
Lee 1: 10.3 percent (15 of 146)
Bamberg 2: 10 percent (5 of 50)
Clarendon 2: 7 percent (11 of 159)
Orangeburg 3: 6.5 percent (12 of 185)
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Education