Some say language immersion programs are a fad. But their steady pace of worldwide growth suggests otherwise.
For a glimpse at the future: just look at Canada, the birthplace of modern immersion. About 8 percent of the public school students in British Columbia are enrolled in French immersion, according to the Vancouver Sun.
Increased competition for qualified teachers has contributed to a foreign language teacher shortage. In Ohio, demand for immersion teachers has long outpaced supply, according to news reports. The shortage is especially acute for Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Portuguese programs, in part because businesses, hungry for bilingual workers, woo educators away from classrooms with the promise of higher earnings.
Utah isn’t immune to the shortages. But our reputation and leadership role has given it us an edge in recruiting, says Utah Chinese Immersion Program Director Sandy Talbot. “We receive applications from across the country. Universities tell their graduates, ‘If you’re interested in teaching immersion, look to Utah.’ But a lot of [college education degree programs] don’t have the qualifications we require.”
Some states, including Oregon, are remedying the problem by going virtual and having teachers conduct online lessons from their homeland.
China, which struggles to recruit English teachers, is deploying a similar strategy.
But Utah – taking a longer view, and benefitting from the mistakes of others who have been doing immersion for far longer – started growing and grooming a local pool of teaching talent from day one. The state’s five major universities offer an endorsement for immersion teachers. Talbot says corporate head hunting groups have also offered to help recruit teachers. To be hired as a non-native speaker, you must first pass a PRAXIS test, “a difficult oral interview and reading and writing test,” of a person’s fluency, she said. State education officials also do open houses to encourage foreign language educators-in-training to consider jobs in elementary schools. Previously, the only option was to teach in secondary schools.
“It takes time. You don’t just do this overnight. But we are starting to see the fruits of three years of work,” said immersion director at Canyons School District, Ofelia Wade.
Today the state employs close to 100 Chinese teachers, about a third of them from overseas. These guest teachers enrich the program culturally and expose children to native accents, which is especially important with a tonal language like Chinese. But they come here on J-1 visas and by federal law can only stay here for up to three years with approval from the district. Most stay for one or two years because they have jobs and lives to get back to at home, Talbot says.
Another pathway to teaching for native speakers is through universities. Students from other countries who complete graduate programs in the U.S. can stay and work here for one year under an F-1 visa. They call this occupational training, and though limited to one year, it is a pathway to another visa known as HIB and later, a green card, which allows them to stay longer. The University of Utah has a master’s of world language program with seven native speakers on the F-1 track, says Talbot. The process is expensive, however, and often requires getting a lawyer involved to handle paperwork.
High teacher turnover has been a concern in some immersion classrooms.
“Guest teachers are not the long term solution,” but will remain part of the solution, said Talbot. “We won’t do away with the program, because they bring a cultural component.”
Among the unsung benefits: Teachers recruited through the Hanban, a division of the Chinese Ministry of Education, go through two months of cultural indoctrination and classroom management training – six weeks in China, two weeks at the University of California, Los Angeles and two weeks in Utah at the AUDI conference where they’re exposed to the curriculum and lesson plans, Talbot said. These teachers also come with a $13,000 stipend. Some districts take a portion of this off the top of their salary and use it to hire classroom aids or interns.
The teachers are solicited and the top ones picked by the Hanban. They are among the best educators in their country, reliable and expected to be good ambassadors for the country, said Talbot. “Last year 3,000 teachers applied in China and only 300 to 400 accepted [by the Hanban].” Talbot is on a national Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Language appointed by the College Board to fly to Beijing once a year to interview and place these teachers in program across the country. “Last year I interviewed for Utah and seven other states,” she said. “We place all of the teachers in the schools while we are in China. I go there knowing what the schools need.”
Of the eight Hanban teachers hired in 2012-13, only one returned home at the end of the year, said Talbot. “The rest are staying for another year.”
Previously Utah also recruited out of Taiwan, but has temporarily suspended its memorandum of understanding with the country. The government there decided it could not financially support the program, said Talbot.
Each school district also appoints officials – a welcoming committee of sorts – to help guest teachers get settled. But parents, too, should reach out to their principals with offers of help. Try to imagine the obstacles these teachers face when they get here. Little things like securing and furnishing apartments, getting a driver’s license and opening bank accounts.
You can help by inviting your teacher over for dinner or for a weekend getaway to the mountains or southern Utah dessert. Offer to be on-call to answer questions. The experience is bound to be personally enriching and teachers will, no doubt, remember these warm gestures when they return home.