Immigrant teachers boost bilingual education in Arizona classrooms

(Photo by Elisabeth Niman)

By Elisabeth Niman

It’s lunchtime for the second- and fourth-graders. Young children swarm everywhere, chattering about what they have brought for lunch and what they want to do after school. They pull out brightly colored lunch bags and eat salad off of plates. Some of their conversations may sound foreign to the ear because these Arizona children are speaking to each other not only in English, but in French in Spanish as well.

Scottsdale’s International School of Arizona implements a unique language immersion curriculum for its students, made possible in large part because of ISA’s teachers who come from all over the world.

According to the school’s chairwoman Carolyn Gladwell, ISA students who range from 2 years old to the eighth grade are taught all subjects in a “target” second language, typically French or Spanish, in order to grow up fully fluent in that language. Students also receive some instruction in English to ensure understanding and improvement in all subject areas.

The school’s teachers come from all over the globe, from France to Colombia, in order to teach the languages authentically using curriculum straight from standard French and Spanish education departments. Gladwell said this curriculum ensures a unified education because students are given the same curriculum in other countries. For example, a class in France, Lebanon or Montreal will learn the French curriculum on the same schedule as ISA children, to the day.

The majority of ISA teachers are not American-born, making up part of the 8 percent of teachers nationwide who were born abroad. This  number has steadily increased since 1960, according to data compiled by the University of Minnesota and reported by the Brookings Institution.

The March 2017 study said the percentage of foreign national educators reached a peak in 2015 at about 8 percent of the teaching population. Arizona’s numbers may be higher, between 6.45 and 9.87 percent, according to the study.

In the case of ISA, its teachers are a boon for the education of the children, administrators say. French immersion teachers have advanced experience teaching French curriculum from the French Ministry of Education, and are accredited by the ministry. Spanish immersion teachers have advanced teaching experience and represent the diversity of Spanish-speaking countries in Europe and South America, though their accreditation comes from The Cervantes Institute in Spain.

ISA isn’t alone in its endeavor to raise bilingual children. Tucson Unified School District now has 11 public elementary and middle schools offering bilingual and language immersion classes, which are popular with parents and almost always filled to capacity.

Tucson’s Bloom Elementary language immersion teacher Martha Pursley has 30 years of experience with bilingual, English as a second language and immersion teaching. She sees “long-term benefits” of Spanish immersion in former students, even into their college education and careers. “I still remember a student … who told me, ‘You don’t know how much the Spanish helped me when I went to study to be a doctor.’”

A 2009 study reported that young bilingual children struggled with vocabulary in both of their languages. But newer research published in 2012 challenges those claims.

Another study finds bilinguals are more adept at problem-solving and multitasking activities, according to York University research. And a study published by the journal of the American Academy of Neurology on bilinguals may indicate a resistance to dementia later in life.

Being bilingual also reaps other rewards. A wider, global job market is open to individuals who are comfortable with more than one language, and those jobs typically lead to greater salaries and benefits. According to an article by the Chicago Tribune, jobs for bilingual speakers are in high demand, especially in government, finance, information technology, education, social services, health care, law enforcement and hospitality.

Teachers born abroad, like the ones at ISA and others spread across the country, bring multicultural perspectives into the classroom and the schools where they teach.

Raxha Bhagdev, a high school chemistry teacher in the Chandler Unified School District, originally from England, said many American teachers feel pressure to give students undeserved As in order to preserve the student’s record and their own work record.

Bhagdev said she believes the non-standardized teaching methods and curriculum within American public schools lead to discrepancies in the students’ learning and grading, whereas in England, every teacher within a school is “highly organized” and collaborative.

According to a Brookings report, the rates of immigrant teachers working in America have quickly increased in recent years. “If we were to severely restrict immigration as some have proposed, we might be facing a critical teacher shortage a few years down the road,” Brookings report author Dick Starz wrote.

In Arizona, the teacher shortage is among the worst in the country. A Learning Policy Institute study gave Arizona the lowest teaching attractiveness rating of any state with 1.5 out of 5 points. If the state’s plans to solve the teacher shortage (like pay raises or hiring second-profession teachers) fail, immigrant teachers may be needed more than they already are.

Teachers in bilingual education reflect on their experiences.

(Photo courtesy of Activ-Michoko on Pixabay)