Limestone County Schools Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk

The state of Alabama is facing a growing teacher shortage, but a local school official believes the solution may involve thinking outside the box, or at least outside the United States.

Limestone County Schools Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk is as concerned as anyone about schools producing fewer and fewer teachers, but he said his system doesn't have a shortage, for now. He's concerned about the future, however.

Several months ago, Sisk and two other superintendents met with Jack Hawkins, the chancellor of Troy University, and discussed setting up a partnership between Troy and colleges in the Philippines in hopes of training future teachers.

Sisk said the Filipino students would enroll at Troy virtually, take (online) courses to meet the Alabama teaching requirements in the first semester and the Praxis exam in the second semester. The exam determines a would-be teachers knowledge and instructional skills.

Once Filipino teachers receive their teaching certification, Sisk said, they could be student-teachers where shortages are the most dire, including in Black Belt counties. He said those teachers could travel to Alabama with H-1B visas, which is common for educated immigrants with a specialty career like teaching.

“In doing so, they become employable in this country, but they are certified in their home country,” he said. “They could then go back to their native country, finish their (teaching) requirements and come back as a teacher in a critically defined area.”

It's worked before

The idea of Filipino teachers in Alabama may seem like a far-fetched idea, but Sisk is confident it can work here because it has worked in other places like the cities of Baltimore, Los Angeles and Dallas and states like Arizona and Georgia. According to a report by The New York Times, more than 2,800 Filipino teachers came to the United States in 2017. The report said most of those arrived by J-1 visas, which allowed them to work in the U.S. temporarily but without a path to citizenship.

Sisk has seen it work firsthand in Alabama while he was employed with Baldwin County Schools in South Alabama. His system needed 20 math teachers in 2007, but the University of South Alabama produced only two that year. Sisk said Mobile City Schools hired both of them.

He then traveled to the Philippines to interview potential candidates and ultimately hired 16 teachers.

“We had access to 300 math and science teaches over a six-day period,” he said.

In addition to filling critical shortages, Sisk said there are other benefits for school systems, including financial — it would cost much less for a system to employ a Filipino teacher.

“In 2007, Filipino teachers were making $4,200 at home and (Baldwin County) was going to pay them $36,000 (annually),” he said.

The minimum salary for a public school teacher in Alabama with a bachelor's degree in 2019 will reach $40,000 for the first time this year, when a 4 percent pay raise goes into effect Oct. 1.

The other benefit would be for students in struggling schools. Sisk said most failing schools are either not prepared or understaffed. Hiring foreign teachers, he said, could mean the difference between success and failure.

Sisk said he's pitched the same idea to Athens State University, and it has “gotten a little traction,” but he hasn't made much progress with the Alabama State Board of Education.

“It would appear to me that if we are having trouble in areas where we can't get qualified teachers, we should take off our handcuffs and go after them,” he said.

Addressing the problem

In an effort to address the growing shortage, an Alabama Teacher Shortage Task Force was formed. The group met last month in Montgomery and discussed reasons for the shortage. A report by WFSA said some considering a job as a teacher are unhappy with the state's retirement benefits. The task force also found 8 percent of teachers leave the field every year, though only one-third of those are due to retirement.

There are a number of critical shortage in Alabama, though special education ranks first. About 10 percent of all Alabama students qualify for special services. The website lists other shortage areas, including the arts, English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, speech and visually impaired.

Sisk believes Filipino teachers are fully capable of teaching a variety of subjects, and he believes the Alabama Department of Education should give the idea serious consideration.

“I'm not suggesting we supplant American-trained teachers. We should supplement our teaching workforce with teachers from other countries,” he said. “The reality is, we have young Americans who have the skills to teach at the primary and secondary levels, but also have options at higher-paying professions.”

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