Today, as we celebrate National Teachers Day, we would like to shine a spotlight on the important role immigrants play as our nation’s teachers and educators. Over the past few years, we have interviewed many foreign-born teachers who have made unique contributions to their communities; here are three of their stories.
In Perry, New York, Jackie Hoyt directs a robust extra-curricular program that includes classes, art shows, and multicultural concerts. Once a schoolteacher in her native Jamaica, today she uses her passion for arts and experience in education to promote diversity in the rural small town she now calls home. “The youth bureau might ask me to teach a drumming workshop to children,” she says. “And I’ve started an art camp through the YMCA.” Hoyt is fortunate in that she gained her citizenship 26 years ago, in what she says was a different time. “Laws that impede immigration status could be stopping someone who is on the verge of making our world better.”
Teachers who have come to the US more recently have not been as lucky. Areli Zarate came to the US 16 years ago when she was 8 years old. Now a teacher, she feels that she is making an impact on the community she serves. Outside of the classroom, however, Zarate knows that her roots as an undocumented immigrant make her career, and life in the US, suspect to change at any moment. When she graduated from high school, Zarate did not even think she could work in the US. But while she was studying at the University of Texas at Austin, President Obama enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA). As soon as it passed, she says, “I just knew that it meant I could work as a teacher as soon as I graduated. I just became a different person–not scared anymore.” However, since there is not a viable path to citizenship for her, she still feels that she doesn’t quite belong. “I feel like I’m in a limbo. The community needs me, but can’t take me in at the same time.”
In Louisiana, foreign-born teachers are crucial to filling teaching positions, and immigration attorney Kathleen Gasparian works to secure visas for these much-needed workers. Although she is well known in her field, she says many people do not know that many of her clients are school principals in need of teachers. Many Louisiana public schools are understaffed, and Gasparian says sometimes there are no applicants for some of the schools in rural areas. “Young professionals interested in careers in education simply don’t want to live in rural Louisiana when they could live in New Orleans.” As a result, immigrants often fill this niche.
In rural areas and urban centers alike, immigrants serve as valued teachers and educators across the country. Whether it’s bringing new traditions to small towns or filling roles in understaffed schools, hardworking foreign-born teachers are a testament to how immigrants are crucial to every sector of our economy. Despite their contributions, however, these educators often experience significant obstacles to obtaining legal status and citizenship. A streamlined immigration process would allow dedicated foreign-born teachers to continue impacting their communities, benefitting the students and families whom they serve.
by Wylie Chang