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Teachers From Abroad Filling Critical Void for Territory's Schools

Feb. 1, 2007 — A few months ago, the Department of Education was suffering from a critical shortage of qualified teachers. Since then, recruitment efforts in Jamaica, New York and the Philippines have proven successful, bringing in 42 new candidates to the territory to fill much-needed positions in math, English and special education classes.
During an orientation program held Thursday at Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School on St. Thomas, many of those individuals received a warm welcome from department officials and got some advice from government representatives on how to adjust to living in the territory.
"I’m honored to welcome you to the Virgin Islands," said Dr. Anya Sebastien, assistant commissioner of Education. "Your willingness to leave your home to come here and teach says a lot about you and your commitment to our students."
Acting St. Thomas-St. John Superintendent of Schools Lisa Hassell-Forde added that she was proud to welcome the teachers, most hailing from the Philippines, into the Department of Education "family," and the "best school district in the USVI."
Board of Education Executive Director Carol Henneman also praised the teachers' academic qualifications, extensive experience and "upbeat attitude."
"It's extremely important to have a positive outlook, to bridge the gap between teacher and student with compassion, love and kindness," she said. "Because it's important for you to love our children — they are all we have in the world."
Several of the new teachers expressed their willingness to nurture local students and said they were "extremely excited" to be part of the local public education system. Many also said that they would be looking to stay in the territory after their contracts with the department expired.
"After working for four years in the Philippines, I realized I wanted more," said Jeanette Tajores, now a special education teacher at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School. "So I finished my graduate studies and came to teach special education to the students of the Virgin Islands."
Speaking during a break, Tajores, 25, said she feels "comfortable" living in the territory, which she says is "a lot like the Philippines."
"So far, I'm really liking it here. The weather is much the same as it is at home, and we have a very similar culture. Also, the people in St. Thomas are very kind. In terms of working at the school, it was challenging for the first few days, and the students may have been testing me because they felt like they were around my age," Tajores said. "But I've been handling it well, and I really enjoy working with them. What makes it easier is that the class size is relatively small– I have less than 10 students, and that environment is more conducive to being able to teach special education."
A lack of special education teachers has, over the years, posed a major problem for the department. However, new recruitment activities have replenished Education's ranks, filling "some of the critical areas that have been missing for years," according to Alcess Lewis-Brown, the department's director of human resources.
"Special education, for example, has always had a number of vacancies," she explained. "But now, we're just about covered in that area, and in mathematics as well."
Several new math teachers, with years of experience in their fields, will take up positions at Charlotte Amalie and Ivanna Eudora Kean high schools, along with Boschulte and Cancryn schools.
"In the Philippines, I used to teach math for five years in the high schools," said Severino Garcia Jr., BCB's seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher. "That includes algebra, geometry, trigonometry and differential calculus."
Garcia said he initially decided to leave the Philippines to "earn more money to support my family." And, after responding to an advertisement placed in a local newspaper, he was soon on his way to the Virgin Islands, which Garcia describes as "very beautiful and full of culture."
While excited about the new position, Garcia says that his first month teaching at BCB was challenging. "The culture is different," he said. "And the first few weeks, I had trouble understanding what the students were saying, because we both speak in different dialects. But now, we've become used to one another, and it has become much easier. And the students are responding well to what I'm teaching. Math is a hard subject, but most of them are really keeping up with me."
To supplement recruitment efforts, the department is also encouraging more local residents to become involved in programs at the University of the Virgin Islands — including a mathematics education graduate program and a library science program. “Programs such as these, which are currently under way with some 20 local educators enrolled, focuses on the needs of practicing in the territory and will result in improved teacher quality,” Lewis-Brown said.
Hassell-Forde added that teachers brought in from the Philippines have already proven their credentials, with most carrying at least a master's degree. "They all have an incredible work ethic and are all so very friendly," she said. "The group we brought in last year has already adapted very well and are bringing their families over to the territory to live. We've been receiving the same commitment from this group as well."
So far, 20 new teachers have been assigned to the St. Thomas-St. John District, while 22 will be teaching on St. Croix. According to a Department of Education press release, more new teachers are scheduled to arrive over the next month.
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