At Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar, Minnesota, Shelamie Santillan hangs affirming messages that read, “We can be kind,” and “We can be helpers.”
“You want some? I have extra,” she tells three other teachers, who like her have traveled here from the Philippines to instruct students in math, science, social studies and language arts.
“It’s a big opportunity for us to be here as teachers,” said Santillan, as she readied her classroom for a new year and a new crop of third graders.
She has ten years of teaching experience, but this is her first time teaching in the United States.
It wasn’t an easy decision to come to Willmar. Santillan was worried that she would feel lost once she arrived. But she says district administrators and community members have given her a warm welcome.
“People here are doing their best to help us to be oriented, familiarized,” she said. “They always ask what do you need guys? Do you have groceries? They take us everywhere.”
Almera Jane Amindato, will teach fourth grade at nearby Kennedy Elementary. She reviewed the new curriculum she will be teaching and says it doesn’t strike her as all that different from what she taught in the Philippines.
“It’s just that we have to learn more on technology because in the Philippines, we do not own an iPad, we just use our blackboard,” said Amindato.
This is the first time that Willmar Public Schools has tapped teachers from other countries to fill vacant positions.
When administrators couldn’t find enough teachers locally, the district reached out to the International Teach Alliance program, which helps schools find credentialed teachers from other countries who want to work in the United States.
Candidates were interviewed by Zoom and Willmar school officials filled five teacher vacancies. Another teacher from Nicaragua is expected to join the group in Willmar soon, once his visa arrives.
“And I certainly look at it that if we didn’t have them here, if they didn’t accept these jobs, we would have five more openings right now,” said Elizabeth Windingstad, the district’s human resources director.
The new teachers are in the United States on J-1 visas that allow them to participate in work and study based exchange programs. They can teach here for up to five years. Then they must return home for two years before they can apply to teach in the United States again. Data from the U.S. Department of State shows there were 26 educators in Minnesota last year teaching on a J-1 visa.
“This is a somewhat unique and creative way to address a need,” said Jeff Holm, superintendent for Willmar Public Schools. “I’m hoping we can find other creative means and be thinking ahead.”
Four decades ago, when Holm started teaching, he said there were lots of candidates competing for open teaching positions.
“Things have changed,” he said. “And we need to figure out ways to try and stay ahead of the curve as best we can.”
Like Willmar, other school districts in Minnesota are also struggling to fill open staff positions.
The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a drag on the supply of workers, said Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
“I have heard from superintendents across the state, whether that be in the metro or greater Minnesota, that there are job openings that they are continuing to work to fill,” she said.
Districts are trying a variety of tactics to attract more teachers from increasing pay and benefits to reducing class sizes. But those efforts take time to bear fruit and for communities like Willmar, the International Teach Alliance program helped the district fill an urgent staffing need. It also attracted a diverse group of educators to the community, said Windingstad.
“They’re interested in doing community education classes and sharing some of their cooking experiences. I’m learning so much from them,” she said. “I truly hope if [the program is] a success, that we’ll be able to continue this going forward.”
Since arriving in Minnesota a few weeks ago, Missi May Flores, a new third grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary, says she is already feeling at home.
“We love the place. It’s peaceful and quiet and we are loving the welcoming people here in Willmar,” she said.
Flores looks forward to sharing more about her culture with students and staff. She thinks the experience will be good for her—and her students.
“I would like to be part of a program that will support children who will be aware of cultural differences, and that will equip them to be more effective global citizens,” said Flores.
The group has already taken in the Minnesota State Fair, and they hope to visit an apple orchard this fall and even try ice fishing. But they are a little worried about Minnesota’s cold winters.
“We’re scared. And we’re always joking we’re going to die,” said Flores.
MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman contributed to this report.