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CASA GRANDE, Ariz. – After growing up in the Philippines, Rizza Casabuena always wondered what it would be like to come to the United States.
In 2014, she was given the chance, through an unlikely opportunity: A job teaching mathematics to teenagers at a small high school outside of Phoenix.
“I came to the point in my life where I wanted to try something new. I wanted to try to improve myself. Because teaching in the Philippines is hard,” she said. “You don't get to enjoy the perks of being a teacher."
For Casabuena, it was a fresh start. But for Superintendent Shannon Goodsell, it was a desperate attempt to fill more than a dozen vacant teaching spots in the Grande Union High School District, many of which have been empty for at least two years.
It’s a problem for schools across the U.S.: Teachers are leaving classrooms in large numbers, whether because of low wages, poor conditions, testing requirements or retirement.
In Arizona, which ranks among the lowest states for education funding — $7,208 per student, compared to the national average of $10,700, according to U.S. Census numbers — the outlook is particularly grim.
In the 2013-2014 school year, a quarter of first-year teachers and 20 percent of second-year teachers not only left their positions, but also teaching in Arizona for good, according to a 2015 report from the Arizona Department of Education. About a quarter of Arizona’s educational employees will be eligible to retire within the next four years, the report says.
Educators have been scrambling to find ways to recruit and retain qualified teachers to fill the classrooms across the state. For Goodsell, it meant going overseas.
The teaching shortage has been particularly devastating in Goodsell’s district. With several open positions in subjects like English, chemistry, and math, and no qualified applicants in state, he started to recruit teachers across the country to join his teaching team.
But with budget cuts and low salaries to offer, Goodsell said his district could not compete with larger places that could afford to pay more.
“Our only option at that point in time – in order to fill our positions – was to look internationally,” he said. “Both as a parent and as a school superintendent, I just cannot tolerate putting a substitute teacher or someone who’s not licensed or highly qualified in that classroom.”
He started to look for teachers in the Philippines, a rigorous search that included Skype interviews, along with previews of the teachers’ educational style via YouTube. He eventually hired 17 teachers, including Casabuena, whose educational background included seven years of teaching in the Philippines on top of extensive training, licensing and certifications.
At the time, Casabuena hadn’t heard about the teaching shortage in Arizona, but when the chance came to take a position at Goodsell’s school district, she jumped at the opportunity. The salary, she said, was at least five times what she would have made overseas. It was a perfect opportunity for her to provide more for her family.
Goodsell and Casabuena say they both have experienced some backlash – Goodsell from the parents, and Casabuena from the students.
Some parents were upset “simply because they were a little bit leery of someone coming from another country to come and teach their children,” Goodsell said.
Students sometimes tell Casabuena they cannot understand her mild accent or try to take advantage of her by telling her the American teachers allow them to get away with certain things.
“I know that discrimination will be there no matter how discreet it would be,” she said. “People would tend to treat me differently because I’m a foreign teacher.”
Still, she’s planning to stay for at least one more year, the last in her three-year work visa. She’s hoping to secure another visa that would allow her to return, but as of now, hasn’t received approval — which means Goodsell could once again face high turnover.
“We all know that turnover in any organization is not good, and we want to try to provide stability for our students,” Goodsell said.
In that way, teachers like Casabuena are a temporary solution.
“Ultimately, for the state of Arizona, we have got to be able to provide our citizens with a decent wage … in order to teach our children,” Goodsell said.