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May 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 8

Helping Immigrants Become Teachers

The Newcomers Entering Teaching program offers immigrants the support that they need to complete the requirements for teacher certification.

The problems of attracting a diverse, well-qualified pool of teachers reach every corner of the United States. In Portland, Maine—a designated federal refugee and immigrant resettlement area since 1972—meeting the needs of a rapid influx of students from around the world has challenged the schools and community. In 1998, community leaders representing the city's major ethnic groups called for the teaching population to mirror the diversity of the student population. They also sought opportunities for members of their communities who had been teachers in their home nations to return to the profession.
The Portland Public School District heard the call. The Newcomers Entering Teaching certification program supports professional opportunities for recent immigrants and refugees. It enriches the education of all our students with a greater understanding of the experiences of people from around the world and builds the capacity for members of every community to lead and teach.

Community and District Needs

During the past 20 years, more than 5,000 refugees or involuntary immigrants, in addition to many voluntary immigrants, have begun new lives in Portland. In 1987, 179 immigrant students were enrolled in the Portland Public School District. By 2000, language minority K–12 students numbered 1,109 out of 7,914 total students.
Our immigrant and refugee communities are diverse within themselves. The largest ethnic communities are from Ethiopia, Somalia, Vietnam, and Serbia, with students also from Russia, Iran, India, and Indonesia. Many of the adult immigrants were middle-class intellectuals in their countries of origin; many hold university degrees, and some were teachers, principals, superintendents, and university instructors. Very few of their professional credentials, however, are recognized in the United States. The refugees often arrive with a travel debt of $10,000, and because of their minimal skills in English, the only jobs that they can find are seasonal or in the service industry.
Even though our student immigrant population has grown, only 1 percent of the teaching population is minority, reflecting the lack of diversity in the pool of qualified teaching applicants. Our schools do a good job of addressing equity issues: Most minority students graduate—some with honors—and many enroll in post-secondary education. We need to improve our recruitment of minority teachers, however. In 1998, a committee representing the school district, the immigrant communities, and the University of Southern Maine met to address the lack of diversity among Portland teachers. After a year of planning, the school district and the university designed the Newcomers Entering Teaching program.

Newcomers Entering Teaching

The Newcomers Entering Teaching program prepares and supports immigrants who want to enter a local teacher preparation program. The university's graduate-level, full-time, nine-month teacher certification program—the Extended Teacher Education program—follows the professional development school model and includes a year-long classroom internship combined with 33 graduate credits in education. The university courses align with school-based practices and experiences. The Extended Teacher Education program prepares teachers to meet the needs of the school districts in which they are placed. The Portland Public School District hosts a cohort of 16 to 20 interns every year. In recent years, the program has focused on issues of diversity in the student population and on identifying teaching practices that ensure each student's success.
Through the Newcomers Entering Teaching program, the school district and the community help the university identify and prepare promising ethnic candidates who are already working in Portland's public schools as language facilitators, educational technicians, or school and community liaisons to enter the Extended Teacher Education program. The newcomers program also orients the immigrant teaching candidates to the U.S. school system.
UNUM, a national insurance company headquartered in Portland, funds a part-time program coordinator position. The coordinator is familiar with the immigrant and refugee communities because in her other part-time job, she provides training in English and computer skills to recent immigrants and refugees at a local food packaging company. She has worked with the university to identify appropriate coursework and tutoring assistance that will help the Newcomers Entering Teaching participants complete liberal arts requirements and enrich their content-area backgrounds. The coordinator also works with community networks and the school personnel office to identify candidates for the program.
To be fully admitted to the Extended Teacher Education program, Newcomers Entering Teaching participants must meet the same entry criteria as native-born applicants. They must hold a bachelor's degree; have completed the state-required subject-area courses for their area of certification; take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE); and complete an application form, which requires an essay and a résumé. The Newcomers Entering Teaching program coordinator works with participants to help them meet these requirements.
University faculty who work with Newcomers Entering Teaching advise candidates how to negotiate the bureaucracy of obtaining, translating, and analyzing international university transcripts; help with identifying additional required prerequisite coursework; and provide tutoring for the GRE and the Praxis exam. In addition, the faculty created an English-for-second-language-learners section of the university's English composition course to help participants develop skills in academic writing. The faculty also offer advice on courses that students can take to gain word processing and computer skills. Students in the newcomer program also take a seminar to examine the history, philosophy, and issues of U.S. education.
Once the immigrant students are admitted to the Extended Teacher Education program, they often need financial help. Because the candidates must support themselves and their families, they cannot stop working to attend a full-time program for nine months. As a result, the Newcomers Entering Teaching program lasts for two years. This plan lets newcomers continue to work in the public schools as language facilitators and paraprofessionals while they take courses with the Extended Teacher Education program cohort after school. The newcomers take university courses part time for three semesters. During the fourth semester, they take courses full time and complete an internship. Newcomers work full time for the school district for all but the final semester.
The newcomers program culminates in a full-time, 15-week internship, combined with 9 to 12 credits of university coursework. The 12 weeks of fieldwork required of the Extended Teacher Education program students in the fall semester is waived for newcomers because they are already working directly with students and teachers as language facilitators, paraprofessionals, and school-community liaisons. Through their employment with the school district, newcomers have the access to students and classrooms that allows them to complete their university course assignments and practicums.
One of the program's biggest challenges has been meeting the financial needs of its applicants. Candidates in the Newcomers Entering Teaching program must have financial support to attend the Extended Teacher Education program full time. The costs are estimated at $20,000 for each candidate to provide living expenses for their families. At the inception of the Newcomers Entering Teaching program, the design team devoted time and energy to applying for federal, national, and local grants and soliciting local corporations. The dean of the university's College of Education and Human Development agreed to cover some tuition expenses, and the school district covers the cost of one course each semester for each of its employees. Recently, however, funding has not been forthcoming, so the design team has looked for alternative ways to help these students meet academic and field placement requirements.
Six individuals have completed or are completing the Extended Teacher Education program as a result of Newcomers Entering Teaching. Two women whose families could support them financially completed the program in spring 2000 after attending the Extended Teacher Education program full time. Four other newcomers are currently enrolled in the Extended Teacher Education program—two full time and two part time. There are many more potential applicants.

Rich Life Stories

The Newcomers Entering Teaching participants share stories of their lifelong commitments to teaching despite overwhelming obstacles. One man from Sudan taught high school business accounting in Liberia for five years before the outbreak of civil war in bordering countries sent refugees into Liberia. He was trained by the United Nations to be a child-trauma counselor in the refugee camps before he came to the United States. A woman from Serbia had taught high school literature for eight years. A Somalian man had taught at the Somali National University—he held a bachelor's degree in animal husbandry from an Italian university and a master's degree in animal science from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He wants to teach high school life science.
One woman holds two bachelor's degrees from India, where she taught 3rd grade for two years. Another woman was attending university in Iran to become a teacher when her family had to flee to Turkey. She taught English to adults in the refugee camps in Turkey for nearly five years before coming to the United States, where she found work as a language facilitator in the public schools. Both women struggled to pass the Praxis I exam, which is a state requirement for certification. After two unsuccessful attempts, they became ineligible for full certification. They are receiving additional tutoring and will retake the exam this spring. In recognition of their skills, they are both currently teaching as paraprofessionals with advanced standing.

Unique Perspectives

Participants in the program bring unique perspectives that benefit their colleagues and students. In her journal reflections, one woman provided cultural insights that educated her supervisor and mentor teacher. After attending student-led parent-teacher conferences with native-born and foreign-born students, she wrote:Several of the English-for-speakers-of other-language students did not come with their parents. I am going to find out why on Monday. But I have an idea why. They all did not get a good report card, and they know that their parents would be very upset. The worst aspect was the language. We had two language facilitators to assist communication between teachers and parents; four of them (students) translated for their parents. It seemed such a large burden for them to have to do this, yet they seemed to manage just fine. Actually, some of them blushed when praised by the teachers and were too shy to tell their parents. This is a cultural difference—their American peers were not at all shy about being praised; on the contrary, they were very proud.
Cultural nuances can get lost in the daily business of schools and classrooms. Having teachers who are aware of such subtleties from personal experience enriches the educational environment for all students and teachers.
The Newcomers Entering Teaching participants have prepared lessons during their internships that integrate their cultural experiences into the classroom curriculum. For example, one woman developed and taught a social studies unit for a 1st grade classroom that simulated a world tour, with stops in the students' homelands of Vietnam, Somalia, and India. Students' family members came to class to share artifacts and family photos. The teacher organized the curriculum around the goals of understanding how people live and provided an introduction to climates and animal habitats. On the basis of her experience, the teacher was able to look at the curriculum goals in a broad context and provide material to compare and contrast how people live in different climates using Venn diagrams, charts, family stories, and artifacts.
The Newcomers Entering Teaching participants are exceptional role models who inspire those who work with them. It will be exciting to see the classrooms they create and the impact they have as teachers of all our children.
The Newcomers Entering Teaching program provides support to ensure that these individuals can share their personal and professional strengths. The program fulfills the university's mission, the school district's needs, the community's expectations, and the immigrants' dreams. It is a winning collaboration for everyone involved.
End Notes

1 Holmes Group. (1990). Tomorrow's schools: Principles for the design of professional development schools. East Lansing, MI: Author.

Author bio coming soon.

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