Classroom Ambassadors


Foreign Instructors Bring Extra Credit to Local Schools

Francisco Marcano enjoys teaching in American public schools—so much that he’s come here from Venezuela to do it twice. At Guil-ford Elementary School in booming, diverse Loudoun County, Va., about 30 miles from Washington, Marcano teaches Spanish to first- through fifth-graders. But his purpose, at a school where the 350 students come from more than 80 different countries, goes beyond his subject matter.

“My main goal is to make people realize our similarities as human beings far outweigh our differences,” said Marcano. “I believe teaching carries out a very important purpose—to transform life through cultural education and bring the world together.”

Marcano holds Friday morning coffees, in Spanish, with parents to discuss school issues. He held an all-school assembly on his home country, and he teaches Spanish to a group of about 25 faculty and staff.

He’s one of about 150 international teachers in Northern Virginia public schools—91 in Loudoun County alone—working through the Visiting International Faculty (VIF) program, a cultural exchange that brings teachers to the United States on three-year visas to work at American schools while improving their own English and teaching skills for use back home.

The Washington area’s deep international ties and rapid growth make it a uniquely positioned teaching destination, including its outer-suburb elementary schools such as Guilford. “It’s a school where diversity is celebrated, and I’m proud to be part of it,” said Marcano.

It’s also a region with completely new schools popping up each year and a constant demand for teachers. South of Washington, Virginia’s Prince William County hires about 850 teachers each year for its 2,000 to 3,000 new students in its 80-plus schools, according to Superintendent Steven Walts, who now has 54 international teachers from the VIF program.

“There’s that sheer need to staff the schools, but it goes far beyond that because we are preparing the students of today to be a part of a very diverse, internationally competitive global economy,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent of school system leaders to do everything they can to provide them with experiences across cultures, to bring the world closer to them.”

At Montclair Elementary near Dumfries, Va., a class of third-graders is studying a pair of countries and their histories—in this case, Greece and Mali—under the direction of Lisa Maxwell, who comes from Australia. A corner of the room, like a shrine to her nation, includes photos of baby wombats. Maxwell’s nationality also comes up in all sorts of lessons, from science (adaptations of marsupials) to astronomy (why it’s summer in Australia when it’s winter in Washington).

“It’s such a great experience to be living and working in a different society,” said Maxwell. “A lot of the things you hear through media and other sources are not quite right, and the most important thing is that you can go back to your own country and share those positive experiences and maybe break down stereotypes you have about each other.”

Elsewhere in the school, 80 kids from around the world are learning English as a Second Language (ESL) from teachers such as Hilda Rodriguez of Mexico. Her own children, one of whom is in middle school and the other in preschool, are with her in the United States receiving their own experience with another culture and language. In Mexico, Rodriguez teaches English to students ranging from middle school to university, so the Virginia experience is polishing her English and exposing her to a different educational system. “You also learn new things, and you’ll be able to go back and share with your people and improve things there,” she said.

At Christmas, numerous children—in addition to her own students—showed Rodriguez their appreciation of her with gifts. “They know that you are here and they know that you have been a positive influence on the kids,” she said.

“Everybody, in my opinion, is a winner when you have those kinds of experiences,” said Superintendent Walts. “They’re risk-takers. They’re willing to leave their country, they’re willing to interact with people unlike the people in their own country, so they usually can forge those relationships with the students in very short order.”

Using cultural exchange visas, VIF now has about 1,700 teachers in the United States and has brought more than 8,000 teachers to the United States since 1989.

“It’s about giving our students international experiences in their schools,” said VIF spokesman Ned Glascock. “We feel it not only provides them info but opens up parameters of their thinking, so they can learn that there’s a big world out there.”

The international learning grows throughout the 20-some subject areas that VIF teachers tackle nationwide, said Glascock. “In the classroom, cultural education takes place in these bite-size teachable moments when you can capture a student’s attention,” he said. “What better way to learn about another country than having someone from that country teaching you?”

And after their visas expire, most teachers return home in what Glascock calls a “brain gain” for the home nations.

“Part of their mission is to be cultural ambassadors, and they are extremely good. Beyond that, they’re extremely good in their content areas,” said Wayde Byard, spokesman for the Loudoun County Public School District. “They see our culture through new eyes too. Sometimes the kids don’t realize how fortunate they are to live in a community such as ours. A lot of students really aren’t aware of what’s going on in the world around them and this is a good reminder of that.”

VIF says it accepts only 7 percent of its applicants to the program, and Byard says the county screens beyond that. “They’re bringing something to the table that a lot of teachers can’t bring, and that is world perspective,” said Byard. “They take a lot of what they learned about instructional practice back to their home country too. It’s just been a very enriching program all the way around.”

For those who want a deeper immersion in international learning, some private schools take the notion even further.

Washington International School (WIS), where teachers come from more than 20 countries, “is a true international school,” said Deputy Head David Merkel. “It is critical for the mission that we have, and for the job we set for ourselves, to have a true international community that reflects the full world, the full range of cultures and backgrounds. So it’s incumbent upon us to hire a range of teachers that reflects the full world in its cultures and backgrounds.”

The school gets most of its teachers on its own, with the school’s Web site serving as its top tool for receiving applications. “They bring more than just their own subject material,” Merkel observed. “They bring perspectives and attitudes and can contribute to an international school community in a way that if we didn’t have them, it would be, frankly, an American school with wrapping paper.”

Unlike the VIF teachers who have to return home after three years, about half of WIS’s applicants already live in the area. The average tenure of WIS teachers is about 11 years, according to Merkel. “We are blessed because the school is situated in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “If we were in Des Moines, Iowa, or even Dallas, Texas, where it’s much more homogenous, we’d have a problem. But Washington is a true world capital.”

Rock Creek International School, which offers immersion programs in Spanish, French and Arabic, also finds teachers with international backgrounds both locally and abroad. “Because we’re very committed to internationalism, we want to have a diverse faculty community that matches the diversity that we have in our student body,” said Carole Al-Kahouaji, head of the school. “The students come from 60 or 65 different countries, so we want to have a great diversity as well in our faculty.”

She’s recruited abroad at job fairs, tapping into a world of educators who use their skills as a vehicle for international travel. “In Washington, we can find international teachers here, but we also look outside,” she said. “You find people who are international themselves, so they understand what it is we’re trying to develop with the kids in terms of the attitudes and characteristics.”

Part of international living is going home again, and the three-year visas of the VIF and other programs mean that there’s frequent new blood in the schools. “Some of them want to stay and some of them are very anxious to get back to their home countries,” said Walts of Prince William County. “It’s not the same set of feelings for everybody.”

On a positive note, he said, for every good teacher that returns home, another one comes to replace him or her. “A lot of what they bring and what they teach not only to children but to their fellow staff members is something that doesn’t necessarily go away when they return to their country.”

About the Author

Sanjay Talwani is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.