Teachers from the Philippines and beyond fill gaps in Bay Area schools

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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.

John Carlo Chan, a special education teacher from the Philippines, instructs Rachel Lee at Oceano High School in Pacifica, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. Chan is among the growing number of international teachers helping California fill its teacher shortage. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
John Carlo Chan, a special education teacher from the Philippines, instructs Rachel Lee at Oceano High School in Pacifica, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. Chan is among the growing number of international teachers helping California fill its teacher shortage. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

“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.”

Teacher and advisor Joseph Alvarico works with students in the robotics program at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. Alvarico is originally from the Philippines and just won a California Teacher of the Year award. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Teacher and advisor Joseph Alvarico works with students in the robotics program at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. Alvarico is originally from the Philippines and just won a California Teacher of the Year award. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

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