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Facing teacher shortage, Willmar Schools hire teachers from Nicaragua and the Philippines for new school year

Willmar Public Schools has worked with an Arizona company to hire experienced teachers from other countries to fill teaching openings. The district still seeks more teachers and has job openings in many other areas, too.

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WILLMAR — Willmar Public Schools will have five new teachers from other countries when the school year starts Sept. 6

Once visas and teaching licenses are approved, four women from the Philippines and a man from Nicaragua will be teaching at Roosevelt and Kennedy elementary schools.

All are experienced teachers who speak fluent English. They are expected to arrive in August.

Filling teaching positions and other jobs in the district has been a struggle in recent years. Even with five international teachers coming, the district continues to have multiple openings for teachers, paraprofessionals and other positions, according to Human Resources Director Liz Windingstad.

photo of Liz Windingstad, director of human resources, Willmar Public Schools
Liz Windingstad, director of human resources, Willmar Public Schools

Windingstad first saw a marketing email about hiring teachers from other countries and she took the idea more seriously when a professional association offered a webinar about International Teach Alliance.

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“I immediately reached out and said, ‘Let’s talk,’” she said.

Windingstad said she hopes it will benefit students to have teachers from another culture.

“They’re going to be teaching the same subjects and the same curriculum, and they’ll bring their flavor just like any other individual would,” she said. “I’m excited; ... It’s something so new, to have people from another country under an exchange program like this.”

ITA President Jason Hammond, a former school human resources officer, said in a telephone interview that he worked five years to develop the concept, and his company became a J-1 visa sponsor two years ago.

A J-1 visa allows non-immigrants to participate in work or study exchanges. Teachers are allowed to stay three years with an option to extend their stay for two more years before returning home for at least two years.

Hammond said a teacher shortage led him to recruit at universities in northern Mexico. His efforts grew into ITA.

The company started by placing 75 teachers in Arizona and California schools in its first year. This year, 400 teachers will work in 16 states.

Willmar is the first Minnesota district to work with ITA, Hammond said.

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The teachers are thoroughly vetted, Hammond said. The company screens and interviews them before they are accepted.

They must pass multiple criminal background checks to be accepted by ITA, to obtain visas and to receive a state teaching license.

After joining ITA’s service, Windingstad was allowed to see teachers’ information, including resumes and videos of interviews and of them teaching lessons.

Roosevelt and Kennedy principals conducted interviews over Zoom.

After the candidates were chosen and accepted the job offers, Windingstad started working on the paperwork.

The process takes dedication on both sides, she said, and they’ve come across roadblocks that were “aggravating, but not insurmountable.”

The district needed a letter from the Minnesota Department of Education to certify that it was an accredited school and the teachers would have jobs when they arrived.

The teachers contacted American embassies to be interviewed for their visas.

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College transcripts and fingerprints are needed to get a Minnesota teaching license.

They have applied for Social Security cards but will have to go to an office in person when they arrive in the United States.

The teachers need to pay a variety of fees and foot the bill for their transportation to the United States and their living expenses while here.

The teachers are required to maintain ties to their home countries, give community presentations about their home countries and arrange communication between students in the two countries.

One of the requirements is that they share their culture with their host communities and to make connections between students between Willmar and their home communities.

As licensed MN teachers they will be paid under the Education Willmar contract and will be treated like other employees of the district, she said. Based on their experience, the international teachers will land on the fourth, eighth and tenth steps of the Education Willmar pay scale.

A home for rent is available about halfway between Kennedy and Roosevelt, large enough for the five of them to share. Landlord Gabe Heiling has been helpful and supportive of the effort to bring the teachers here, she said.

Windingstad said she hopes that the school community can help them navigate the culture shock they are sure to feel when they first arrive.

She also hopes other staff members and the public may help outfit the house with gently used furniture and kitchen basics to help the teachers settle in.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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