A correction to an earlier version of this article has been appended to the end of the article.
This time last year, John Carlo Chan was teaching students half a world away.
He’d been educating 30 kids on the autism spectrum in his native Philippines for the last five years. But when a friend mentioned the demand for teachers on the other side of the ocean, Chan decided to apply. Less than a year later, he landed a job as a special education teacher at Pacifica’s Oceana High.
“I wasn’t even considering going abroad,” said Chan, 25. “But then I heard about this opportunity.”
With teacher shortages worsening across both the state and region, Bay Area districts are relying more than ever on recruiting teachers like Chan from across the globe, with the vast majority of them coming from the Philippines.
At the Jefferson Union High School District, Chan is one of 15 new Filipino educators who are working at the district’s five schools. At San Jose Unified, 34 teachers from the Philippines 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 settled into their new roles, the result of a Manila-based recruitment fair held by the district last January.
“It came out of having a real lack of (local) candidates,” said Diego Ochoa, superintendent of the San Mateo-Foster City School District. Ochoa said that last year, his team realized that special education students would be starting the 2023-24 academic year without a permanent teacher in the classroom.
“We didn’t want that to happen,” Ochoa said. “So that’s where we drew the line.”
This year, nine out of 10 public schools across the country struggled to hire teachers, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics. By October 2023, just under half of all the country’s schools were still understaffed.
The hardest-to-fill jobs are exactly the ones many candidates like Chan are filling, such as special education, math, and science. An increasing number of international teachers are also filling dual-language roles, an opportunity that’s brought native Spanish teachers from Mexico, Spain, and other Latin American countries. That includes teachers like Mt. Diablo Unified’s Salvador Martinez, who emigrated from Mexico to Concord in 2017.
“It’s hard to get opportunities in Mexico,” said Martinez, who now lives 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 when she first joined the district in 2013, they were hiring around five teachers from abroad per year. A decade later, that number has jumped to as high as 30 annually — and today, the district employs 95 staff members from 19 countries, including Belize, Cameroon, Peru and India.
The demand for teachers is so strong, last week 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. The event that attracted more than 1,200 job candidates from 40 different countries.
“We’re willing to invest in this because it offers a huge retention rate,” said Elliott, whose district is unique in picking up the tab for the $5,000-8,000 immigration costs for each teacher it hires. “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.”
After decades of hiring internationally, some school districts — like the East Bay’s Mt. Diablo Unified — have seen that retention first-hand. Joseph Alvarico, an engineering teacher at the district’s Ygnacio Valley High, left the Philippines for California in 2004 and has been with the district ever since. He was 28 when he saw an advertisement in a Filipino newspaper: We’re looking for teachers in the U.S. There was no mention of a state, school or region, but the former private school teacher’s interest was piqued.
Alvarico didn’t have enough money to pay for the visa costs, which totaled about $4,000 upfront. Even so, he attended a day of interviews in Manila, and ended up landing a job with Mt. Diablo Unified.
His father took out a loan for his visa and documentation costs. His family put up their home as collateral. He said goodbye to his fiancé. Then, he hopped on a plane — and nearly two decades later, Alvarico still hasn’t left. He now teaches engineering, leads the Ygnacio Valley robotics team, and spearheads a STEM club for female students, among a number of other activities.
Last month, the educator was one of five in the state to be honored as Teacher of the Year by the California Department of Education, an award that 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,” said Alvarico. “Filipinos are known for being good caretakers, great nurses. And teaching involves taking care of somebody else’s child.”
Still, that hasn’t always been easy. Alvarico remembers the culture shock of his first Mt. Diablo placement nearly 20 years ago, where he taught biology at a school where more than 8% of the student population were suspended at least one day a year. The behavior issues were unlike anything he’d ever seen in Manila, and he and the other Filipino teachers would regularly have days where they’d break down into tears. His students would laugh at his accent, and every time he left work, he’d pop a pronunciation CD into his car’s stereo system — trying to flatten his Filipino lilt until he sounded like a typical American. On top of that, most of Alvarico’s salary in his first few months was spent paying back the money he’d used to get there, making going home barely an option.
The bureaucratic and regulatory hoops to get and stay here are also not easy to navigate, said Sarah Glasband, the director of talent and recruitment at Oakland Unified. Two of district’s long-time Spanish teachers are currently stuck in an immigration logjam, with their permanent residency applications held up for months on end.
One of those teachers, Daniela Ibarra, has had to travel to and from her native Mexico five times this year alone, separated from her children and husband in Antioch.
“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,” Ibarra said.
Still, many districts have found their way around those hurdles by using third-party companies to smooth out the details. Chan, for example, used a Filipino-based agency to get his five-year-visa, credential transfer, and other documentation. The cost of all that was on Chan. But in his eyes, the opportunity was worth the price.
“It was a huge leap,” said Chan. “But now, if I can get renewed for another five years, I’ll take it.”