From left to right: Katherine Giliz Cusa, Almera Jane Amindato, Missi May Flores, and Shelamie Santillan are several of the new teachers who are starting the new school year with Willmar Public Schools after being hired through an international teaching program. Credit: Hannah Yang | MPR News

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This story comes to you from the MPR News, through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

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.

Shelamie Santillan organizes books inside of her classroom at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar, Minnesota. Having come from the Philippines, Santillan was one of the newest hires for the school district. Credit: Hannah Yang | MPR News

“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.

Almera Jane Amindato, a new teacher in Willmar Public Schools, poses for a photo. Credit: Hannah Yang | MPR News

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.

A group of new teachers from the Philippines are going over some forms with Roosevelt Elementary School Principal Lori Lockhart. Willmar Public Schools hired several new teachers through a program that connects credentialed instructors from around the world to teach in the United States. Credit: Hannah Yang | MPR News

“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.”

Missi May Flores, a new third grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar Public Schools, decorates a blackboard in her classroom for the new school year. Credit: Hannah Yang | MPR News

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.

From left to right: Shelamie Santillan, Katherine Giliz Cusa, Tammy Barnes, Almera Jane Amindato, and Missi May Flores enjoy a day at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 2.

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman contributed to this report. 

Hannah Yang

An award-winning journalist, Hannah Yang joined the MPR News regional team in December 2019 as the southwest Minnesota reporter. Having extensively covered the southeast part of the state, Hannah has experience...