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Desert Companion

‘I couldn’t imagine being here’

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Thomas Ray-Matiaz
Photography by Sabin Orr

Educational Exchange - Teacher Thomas Ray-Matiaz brought his special education experience from the Philippines to America.

Filipino teachers brought over to ease the teacher shortage learn a lesson in culture shock — and embrace their new home

Hiring for public schools during a teacher shortage is like a game of whack-a-mole. Just when officials manage to fill a position in one school, a teacher elsewhere retires, moves to another district, or burns out on the profession altogether. Teachers are an increasingly rare breed these days — and special educators, those who work with children with developmental and learning disabilities, are the rarest of all. Earlier this year, about a third of the Clark County School District’s approximately 800 vacant classroom positions were in special education.

After an extensive outreach and marketing campaign failed to turn up enough applicants to fill the need, Michael Gentry, hired from the private sector two years ago to head CCSD’s recruitment efforts, did something the district hadn’t done for more than a decade. He assembled a small group of principals and district officials — people he thought were “good pickers” — and flew to Manila in April. It wasn’t his first time in the Philippine capital. A former corporate officer at high-caliber tech firm Amkor, Gentry spent a few years managing company affairs there, and, in a later job, recruiting card dealers in the city for a new casino opening on the Pacific island of Saipan.

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The group rented a handful of rooms in the city’s famous Peninsula Hotel, in the heart of the bustling Makati financial district, where they cleared out furniture and set up impromptu interview and waiting rooms.

An agency supplied the hopefuls: about 300 fully credentialed special-education teachers looking to work in an American school. For three days, the group interviewed teachers from dawn to dusk. “It was nonstop, up bright and early,” Gentry says.

Teachers who were declared good fits were sent into another room, in which a contract negotiator offered them a job and outlined the J1 cultural-exchange visa program by which they’d be able to come to the United States. By the end, they had made 100 offers, of which 81 — who all speak English and hold teaching degrees — cleared the final visa process before boarding a plane to America.

*****

Maria Oronos, a 27-year-old from Quezon City, was teaching at a Catholic school in Manila when her childhood friend, Ruby Tugano, told her that American school districts were hiring in the country. She and Tugano, also a special educator, contacted the agency, which sent them to the Peninsula Hotel. They interviewed and accepted an offer from CCSD the same day.

For them and most of the teachers, the decision was an easy one. Starting pay for teachers in the Philippines barely scrapes $5,000 per year, a minuscule amount compared even to a spending-averse state like Nevada, where the base teacher pay is about $40,000. 

“If you were given this opportunity, of course you were going to take it,” says Tugano, who now works at Elise L. Wolff Elementary in Henderson.

After signing their contracts, Tugano and Oronos were rushed through the process of getting U.S. teaching licenses and visas. “It was a whirlwind process,” Tugano recalls. It went so fast, in fact, that they started having doubts. “We were kinda thinking, ‘Is this real?’” Oronos says. “In the Philippines there are so many stories of fake hiring and scams. Because it was just so fast.” But, in July, their plane landed on U.S. soil.

A school district tweet introducing their arrival began with an exclamation, “Maligayang pagdating!” meaning “welcome” in Tagalog. An accompanying photo showed the teachers all huddled under the Las Vegas welcome sign on a clear blue day.

Linnea Westwood

WELCOME SIGNS
Wolff Elementary Principal Linnea Westood, daughter of Filipino immigrants, tries to smooth the transition for new Filipino teachers. Photography by Sabin Orr

Mission accomplished for Gentry and his staff, perhaps — but the beginning of a long journey for the teachers themselves.

“I couldn’t imagine being here,” says Oronos, who now works at Variety School, a special-education facility near Downtown. Like many of the teachers hired by CCSD, neither she nor Tugano had ever been to America.

Baldwin Gutierrez, a native Filipino, wrote a book titled I Survive, a not-so-subtle hint as to the difficulties he faced making the move across the Pacific to teach at a school in Arizona. Landing at McCarran prior to being chauffeured to his new school near Bullhead City, he expected to be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of a strange new city, but was instead met with a blast of hot, dry, August heat. He recounts asking: “Ma’am, bakit ganito kainit dito. Ansakit sa mata at sa balat!” (“Ma’am, why is it so hot here? It is painful to the skin and eyes!”) Her response likened the situation to being in front of a bonfire.

Oronos reports a similar experience, but quickly took a liking to the Strip. In the few months since she arrived, she’s visited some resorts, admired the city’s often gauche architecture, and sampled the buffets. “The city is so open and alive,” she says. “Everybody’s awake.” She’s also been exposed to that venerable Vegas institution, Wet n’ Wild, to which she got free tickets courtesy of the school district. “That’s another perk of being a teacher here,” she says.

Next to the searing heat and culture shock, homesickness also takes its toll. In 2005, the last time the district hired teachers from the Philippines, three out of the 49 educators brought over opted to go back.

“You’re feeling alone, being by yourself. It’s emotional,” says Joseph Uy, principal of Ferron Elementary. Uy came to the United States from Quezon City when he was just 17. He hired one of the Filipino teachers to work in his school. “You have to think now in English, and you have to talk in English. When I first came to the United States it was exhausting.”

“Our (American) culture is just more aggressive,” says Linnea Westwood, a daughter of Filipino immigrants and principal of Wolff Elementary, where two of the teachers, including Tugano, were placed. “Things happen a lot faster.”

Oronos talks to her parents almost every day via webcam, toughing it out despite the 15-hour time difference. Even though she’s only been here for a few months, she still misses home, especially during special occasions like her parents’ anniversary. Her 27th birthday was in September.

“It was my first birthday where I wasn’t with my family,” she said. “They still had a party; I was invited through video. Thank God Facebook was invented.”

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It’s not all frying-pan-into-the-fire stuff, however. The Philippines, despite the differences embodied by its monsoon climate and native island culture, is heavily Christian, and much of the nation’s infrastructure, from its military to its republican-style government, is the direct result of influence by American colonizers. The country’s English-language-based public-school system was centrally planned by the U.S. Army, and in an ironic twist of history, hundreds of American teachers were shipped over at the dawn of the 20th century to deal with a teacher shortage brought on by families rushing to enroll their children.

This influence could be problematic or mutually beneficial depending on your politics, but there can be no doubt of the ties that bind the two nations. Filipinos trust the United States on average more than any other country, according to polls, and the country’s diaspora to American soil is approaching 4 million people, more populous than anywhere else in the world, and the third-largest Asian population stateside. Upwards of 100,000 Filipinos live in Clark County, making them by far the largest Asian nationality in Nevada. The influence of the local expatriate community is ever-present, boasting a long list of Filipino-owned travel agencies, caterers, salons, and restaurants. Seafood City, a popular Filipino market near UNLV, is even an occasional spot for local politicians trying to gain the good graces of the community.

And that community, according to Gentry, was key to making the move comfortable for the teachers.

Within hours of arriving, they were inundated with gift bags, food, and water, and driven to specially appointed corporate apartments. Later, community members threw welcome events.

But not all were impressed. A recurring theme in the public reaction to the news was apprehension. “300 million+ people in America, and we had to hire 70 teachers from the Philippines?” one person wrote on Facebook in response to a FOX 5 story covering one of the community events.

It was a reaction that didn’t go unnoticed by the teachers. “They were nervous,” Westwood says. “They did see the initial reaction, and it was not always positive.”

The teachers themselves call it a win-win. America benefits from having qualified teachers in classrooms that otherwise would be staffed by long-term substitutes, and the teachers have a chance to grow their skills while learning from a new culture.

“I want to show America that we have the heart to work with kids that have special needs,” says Thomas Ray-Matiaz, a teacher with five years experience working with special needs kids in the Philippines. “I’m learning here. It’s great here.”

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The adverse reaction to the teachers’ arrival exposes something deeper. In the dog-eat-dog world of teacher recruiting, a common trope is the public’s casual ignorance of the true, horrible scale of America’s teacher shortage. People simply cannot fathom that a country with a public school on almost every block and a vibrant history of public education can’t find enough workers to staff the system.

On its face it isn’t an entirely unreasonable assumption. One glance at the unemployment rate — around 5 percent in Las Vegas, higher if you count part-time and underemployed workers — might convince some locals that the solution to the problem is hiding in plain sight. But the numbers warrant a deeper look.

Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs has sunk 35 percent since 2009. A report by the Learning Policy Institute found that classrooms in the United States were short around 60,000 teachers in 2015, and are on track to be short 100,000 teachers by next year. In other words, the teachers simply aren’t there.

CCSD’s experience with this problem has been particularly acute. As recently as 2015, district classrooms were short nearly 1,000 full-time teachers. But while recruiters have been able to take a chunk out of that number through hiring long-term substitutes, special educators are the exception. According to Gentry, they tend to leave the classroom at twice the rate as other educators.

And Vegas isn’t the only city to turn its attention abroad. Facing similar shortages in places like Sacramento, Los Angeles, and New York, officials have turned to the Philippines for years.

“School districts are going all over the world,” Gentry says. “Most that have will tell you the place where they’ve had the greatest success is the Philippines.”

Whether or not it proves to be a long-term solution to the nation’s teacher shortage is another question entirely, and one that some experts say is a definitive “no.” However, faced with few alternatives and months of fruitless searching, it’s not much of a choice at all for recruitment officials in larger school districts.

“When you’ve exhausted every other resource, it’s the only thing you can do,” Gentry says. “Tell me where (the teachers) are. I’ll get in the car and drive there tomorrow.”