Noor Alam wasn't prepared for the discipline problems. After all, back in India, even with 40 children to a class, it wasn't difficult to keep the students focused on math. Then again, his Indian students would never welcome him back with hugs the way the American children did after a week's absence.
His chance to compare cultures started with an ad in a Calcutta newspaper. School districts in Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Newark, N.J., were looking for math teachers, and without knowing quite what he was getting into, Mr. Alam signed up.
He and Latha Sanjai were among the 15 whose destination was Newark. They planned to arrive last August, but visa delays meant they didn't start teaching algebra and foundational math at Newark's West Side High School until late September, when the school year had already started and the shock of Sept. 11 was still fresh.
Their rocky start included difficulties with the company that brought them to the US, which eventually embroiled them in a lawsuit against the company. But they had no choice but to plunge into their new jobs with a mere week of orientation to guide them.
The transition was anything but easy.
"Because we arrived late, the students maybe thought of us as substitutes," says Ms. Sanjai, who previously taught math for six years in Madras, India, and another six years in Malaysia. "It was hard to get them to listen to us."
As they reflect on their first year here, Sanjai and Alam agree that the experience has been exhilarating, exhausting, and jampacked with lessons.
Newark officials agree it's been a steep learning curve, but say it's worth the effort. "We've gotten some fine teachers through this process," says Perry Lattiboudere, general counsel for the Newark Public Schools.
As the teacher shortage in the US has deepened, many school districts particularly urban ones have looked abroad to bolster their staffs. New York led the charge about 10 years ago by bringing Spanish teachers from Spain, but since then, districts have recruited in at least a dozen countries, ranging from Mexico to the Philippines.
The experiment has not been without its difficulties. Most international teachers land in troubled urban schools. Inadequate preparation, culture shock, and language differences have turned some cases into nightmares.
But in other schools the stories have been positive. International recruits can bring a superior level of content knowledge to their jobs, in addition to offering cultural enrichment.
Now, though, even the successful recruiting programs are threatened in many districts because of tight funds and post-Sept. 11 visa restrictions. "We can't even think of it for next year," Mr. Lattiboudere says.
In his new school, "so much time is wasted," laments Alam, who taught for 14 years in Calcutta. "That's my biggest problem teaching here. Only about 25 percent of my time is actually used for instruction."
He and Sanjai were surprised to learn about practices such as detention and suspension, but their jobs became easier as they began to use these disciplinary tools. They also were amazed when administrators told them to call students' parents to tell them about problems. "That would be so rare in India," Sanjai says. "Such problems were few and always worked out within the school."
The mores of a large urban school were another source of culture shock. Alam says he was stunned when a 15-year-old told him she was pregnant. Eventually, he knew of so many pregnancies that they began to seem normal.
He also had to adjust to the sight of kids in baggy jeans. "Such an advanced country," he says, "and yet no school uniforms?"
Once they got their grounding, though, both teachers found that their jobs came with many rewards: Sanjai marveled at "the resources, the technology, the interactive and activities-based styles of teaching."
Indian students tend to absorb more math content than Americans do, the teachers say. But they believe their colleagues in India would benefit from exposure to US methods of interacting with students. Alam calls the lecture-only method used in India "monotonous" for students and instructors.
Initially they were taken aback by the informality in US classrooms, but they began to appreciate the more personal rapport they have with students. "I was moved to tears," says Alam of the hugs he received from kids who missed him while he was away.
Being a teacher in a large urban US high school is much more challenging than her previous assignments, says Sanjai, but this job has energized her and pushed her to grow.
She is quick to add, however, that she would only recommend the job to those who are physically and mentally strong, and flexible in their methods.
Sanjai says she may well try for an extension when her three-year contract expires, while Alam says he hopes to get a green card and stay "forever."
The two have heard that some of the other districts that recruited from India did not provide the same level of support that Newark did. "You could teach 30 years in India and still not be ready for this experience," Sanjai says.