Teachers from the Philippines and beyond are filling gaps in Bay Area schools

A nationwide teacher shortage is forcing districts to look further afield for educators.

A correction to an earlier version of this article has been added at the end.

John Carlo Chan was teaching students half a world away at this time last year.

For the previous five years, he had been educating 30 autistic children in his native Philippines. Chan decided to apply after a friend mentioned the need for teachers on the other side of the ocean. He landed a job as a special education teacher at Pacifica’s Oceana High School less than a year later.

“I wasn’t even considering going abroad,” said Chan, 25. “But then I heard about this opportunity.”

With teacher shortages worsening across the state and region, Bay Area districts are relying on recruiting teachers like Chan from all over the world, with the vast majority of them coming from the Philippines.

Chan is one of 15 new Filipino educators working at the Jefferson Union High School District’s five schools. 34 teachers from the Philippines work at San Jose Unified and have made the South Bay their home. And, at the San Mateo-Foster City School District, another 15 Filipino educators — and 25 teacher’s aides — have just begun their new jobs as a result of the district’s recruitment fair in Manila last January.

“It resulted from a serious lack of (local) candidates,” said Diego Ochoa, superintendent of the San Mateo-Foster City School District. Ochoa explained that his team realized last year that special education students would begin the 2023-24 academic year without a permanent teacher in the classroom.

“We didn’t want that to happen,” said Ochoa. “So that’s where we drew the line.”

According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics data, nine out of ten public schools in the country struggled to hire teachers this year. By October 2023, just under half of all schools in the country were still understaffed.

Many candidates like Chan are filling the most difficult-to-fill jobs, such as special education, math, and science. A growing number of international teachers are also filling dual-language roles, which has attracted native Spanish teachers from Mexico, Spain, and other Latin American countries. This includes teachers like Mt. Diablo Unified’s Salvador Martinez, who moved to Concord from Mexico in 2017.

“It’s hard to get opportunities in Mexico,” said Martinez, who now resides in the East Bay with his wife and 11-year-old daughter. “We had a shot to jump into something better, and I wanted to take it.”

Michelle Elliott, the assistant manager of human resources at San Jose Unified, said that when she first started working for the district in 2013, they were hiring about five foreign teachers per year. A decade later, that number has risen to as many as 30 per year, and the district now employs 95 people from 19 different countries, including Belize, Cameroon, Peru, and India.

The California Center on Teaching Careers, the statewide agency tasked with retaining and recruiting teachers, held its first virtual hiring fair specifically geared toward international candidates last week. The event drew over 1,200 job candidates from 40 different countries.

“We’re willing to invest in this because it offers a huge retention rate,” Elliott said, noting that his district is unique in covering the $5,000-8,000 immigration costs for each teacher hired. “It might be a monetary investment upfront, but that’s nowhere near the cost of having repeated substitutes in a classroom, along with the benefits to students of having a permanent teacher.”

Alvarico lacked the funds to cover the visa fees, which totaled around $4,000 up front. Nonetheless, he attended a day of interviews in Manila and was hired by Mt. Diablo Unified.

His father borrowed money to cover the costs of his visa and documentation. His family provided collateral in the form of their home. He bid his fiancée farewell. Then he boarded a plane, and Alvarico hasn’t returned nearly two decades later. He now teaches engineering, coaches the Ygnacio Valley robotics team, and organizes a STEM club for female students, among other things.

The educator was named Teacher of the Year by the California Department of Education last month, and the award was quickly recognized by the Philippine Consulate General in San Francisco.

“I think we’ve made a name for ourselves as people who are dependable,” Alvarico said. “Filipinos are known for being excellent caregivers and nurses.” And teaching entails caring for someone else’s child.”

Even so, it hasn’t always been easy. Alvarico recalls the culture shock of his first Mt. Diablo placement, where he taught biology at a school where more than 8% of the student population was suspended at least one day per year. The behavior problems were unlike anything he’d seen in Manila, and he and the other Filipino teachers would frequently cry on the job. His students teased him about his accent, and every time he left the office, he’d put a pronunciation CD in his car’s stereo system, hoping to flatten his Filipino lilt until he sounded like a typical American. Furthermore, the majority of Alvarico’s salary in his first few months was spent repaying the money he’d used to get there, making going home an impossibility.

The bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles to get and stay here are also difficult to navigate, according to Sarah Glasband, Oakland Unified’s director of talent and recruitment. Two of the district’s long-serving Spanish teachers are currently caught in an immigration snarl, with their permanent residency applications stalled for months.

Daniela Ibarra, one of those teachers, has had to travel to and from her native Mexico alone five times this year, leaving her children and husband in Antioch behind.

“I’m facing the idea of seeing all our dreams and everything we built in the U.S. getting destroyed if I have to move back to Mexico,” she said.

Nonetheless, many districts have avoided these obstacles by utilizing third-party companies to smooth out the details. Chan, for example, obtained his five-year visa, credential transfer, and other documentation from a Filipino-based agency. Chan bore the full cost of everything. But, in his opinion, the opportunity was worth the cost.

“It was a huge leap,” Chan said. “But now, if I can get renewed for another five years, I’ll take it.”

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