England goes shopping abroad for teachers

Almost a fifth of the staff in some areas is foreign.

When Yana Buchkova was studying British poetry at her university in Bulgaria, she never imagined what inspiration she would one day draw from those verses.

"My specialism in Brontë poetry has taught me to be more contemplative in my reactions when teaching children with behavioral difficulties," says Ms. Buchkova, now teaching at a school in a tough London neighborhood.

She is among about 15,000 schoolteachers recruited from abroad and now filling shortages in England, where the profession is experiencing an all-time low in attracting new graduates.

The trend reflects a growing global market for teachers, as schools compete for a shrinking pool of talent. A decade ago US schools began importing staff, who now hail from at least a dozen countries, from Mexico to the Philippines. In a report last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned of increasingly severe shortages as the teaching workforce ages. In Sweden, for example, 49 percent of the teachers in upper secondary education are 50 or older.

In a report last month, the British government's inspectorate for schools, called Oftsed, notes that imported teachers make up almost a fifth of the staff in areas where shortages are most acute. Education experts say England's deficits began in math and science but now extend to all subject areas. Vacancies occur more frequently in impoverished inner cities, often home to immigrants.

The National Union for Teachers (NUT) says the shortages have increased annually since the early 1990s, the trend exacerbated by retirements in a profession where two-thirds of its members are over the age of 40. "We're not creating the right conditions to attract new teachers," says General Secretary Doug McAvoy. The reasons parallel those in the United States: Mr. McAvoy cites poor salary levels compared with other professions, work overload,and deterioration in pupil behavior.

Such factors are a sufficient deterrent to the 300,000 qualified instructors who are not teaching, known as the Pool of Inactive Teachers. Ten years ago, more than half of all entrants to the profession were returning teachers. But now they make up only a third of the numbers required.

This year, the overall target for recruiting instructors is the highest in a decade, according to the Teacher Training Agency, which recruits teacher trainees for the British government.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has concerns about filling those vacancies with foreigners, says the union's senior assistant secretary, Kerry George. "First, it highlights that we are not producing enough of our own. And morally and practically, we have a concern about taking teachers from countries which need those skills."

But Ian Penman, chairman of Timeplan, which, as England's largest recruiter of foreign teachers, brings in 3,000 to 3,500 instructors a year – most of them from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Jamaica, and the US – sees the world as fair game.

"We are now in a global economy," he says. "No one can afford to operate a fortress economy."

One London borough that acknowledges a responsibility to developing countries is Tower Hamlets, where about half of the schools have a high proportion of children of Bangladeshi origin. "There has been a decision not to take from developing countries where their need is great," says spokeswoman Eileen Short.

Tower Hamlets also has an active program of "Growing our own" – emphasizing developing links within the local community as a source of recruitment and offering support and training to those interested in teaching.

In its recent report, the government says the teacher shortage is "stabilizing," thanks to measures such as "welcome back" bonuses of up to $6,200 to lure former instructors back into the classroom.

At Buchkova's school, Gloucester Primary School in South London, 17 of the 43 teachers are foreign, coming from eight different countries, including Sierra Leone and China. They were required to be fluent in English and have at least two years' teaching experience, and before arriving underwent three weeks of extra training.

"We were looking for capability and aptitude, with an orientation towards the West," says headmaster John Mann. "But they also needed to have honor and pride in their own country. We did not want people who were disaffected with their own society. We wanted it to be an enriching program, and this is what is happening."

Buchkova works one to one with children who have behavioral and learning difficulties. "I never had delusions that going to work in England would be an easy job," says Buchkova, whose starting pay as an imported London teacher was $32,000.

She says that her study of the poetry of the Brontë sisters, with its emphasis on personal relationships and the exchange of ideas, adds to what she can bring to her job. "It is teaching, as well as counseling and behavioral support," she says.

For Buchkova, leaving a former Soviet bloc country to teach in England has offered not just professional development but cultural insight.

"Coming to terms with the free market is a painful [transition] for us in Bulgaria," she says. "It means taking personal responsibility for yourself from an early age in a way that we never had to do before in a state-controlled society.

"Consequently, in my country we treat children differently than you might do in England or America. We expect children to become adults much earlier. This is a cultural difference that I have had to learn."

In her new posting, Buchkova has found happiness in her personal life, meeting her husband-to-be, Neil, in the poetry section of a London bookshop. "I cannot believe that this has all happened to me," she says. "I now experience such brilliant happiness."

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