In a suburban office building, the boardroom of the Visiting International Faculty Program showcases the typical conference table and an added touch of creativity with two large glass vases filled with pale-green cat’s-eye marbles. These marbles symbolize the roughly 1,850 teachers from abroad who have signed with VIF to work in American public schools this year, according to Alan J. Young, the CEO of the company. VIF stands out as the organization sponsoring the most international-exchange visas for teachers per year in the United States, experiencing a more than tenfold increase in the number of VIF teachers compared to five years ago.
Mr. Young explains the significance of each marble in the vases, representing the dedication and hard work of the teachers. He understands the challenges in convincing principals, who have never seen a teacher, to hire them, or persuading teachers to work for principals they have never met. Therefore, they celebrate when these connections are made. Founded in 1987 by the Young family, including J. Fred Young, a former president of Elon University in North Carolina, the company initially focused on recruiting college professors before shifting its attention to K-12 teachers two years later. Through a partnership with the North Carolina education department to recruit primarily native speakers for foreign language instruction, VIF now places teachers across all grades and specialties in around six states, with a strong presence in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. With North Carolina’s population growth driving up the demand for teachers, a quarter of the state’s public schools are currently hosting teachers recruited by VIF.
Although VIF emphasizes its status as a cultural-exchange program first and foremost, concerns have been raised by some educators. The Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, an advocacy group based in Chapel Hill, views the VIF program as a "shortcut" to the classroom, believing that it does not adequately prepare foreign teachers to be effective in American schools. As a result, the center’s website warns against relying on programs like VIF to address the shortage of high-quality teachers. VIF, however, prioritizes selecting teachers who can excel in the classroom while also being ambassadors for their countries in their host schools and communities. The company claims that only one out of ten applicants is chosen after a rigorous screening process, including essays, interviews, recommendations, and background checks.
Teachers recruited by VIF come from 52 different countries, mainly Canada, Colombia, and the United Kingdom. They must meet specific requirements, such as having at least two years of teaching experience as mandated by their visas, fluency in English, and the ability to drive a car. Many of these teachers stay for up to three years, with more than half choosing to extend their contracts. However, the transition to teaching in the United States is far from easy. VIF teachers face challenges similar to any foreign teacher entering a new country, and unlike teachers in the Fulbright Teacher and Administrator Exchange Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, VIF teachers do not receive salaries equivalent to what they earn in their home countries. They also do not engage in a direct exchange with American teachers. Instead, VIF teachers negotiate their compensation rates with the school districts or the state. In North Carolina, for example, the starting salary for a VIF teacher is approximately $30,000, while the districts pay the company a fee of about $11,500 per teacher. This fee covers various expenses, including annual round-trip airline tickets to the teacher’s home country, insurance, support services, and recruitment costs, as confirmed by company spokesperson Ned Glascock.
"She mentioned that they possess a wealth of experience, are highly adaptable, and have a strong desire to participate in the program," the speaker stated. Principal Myrna Pagan of Brentwood Elementary School, located around 40 miles away in Raleigh, believes that the five teachers from VIF who joined her school this year fit in perfectly. Since assuming the role of principal 2½ years ago, she has recruited numerous VIF teachers from four different countries.
Pagan asserts that the diversity of backgrounds strengthens her school, as it now better reflects Brentwood’s student population. Over the past decade, the demographics of the school have shifted from being 90 percent white and American-born to currently having 90 percent African-American or foreign-born students. François Nel, aged 35, vividly remembers the contrasting classrooms he left behind in Pretoria, South Africa, and the ones he encounters at Brentwood Elementary. Discipline amongst students requires more effort in his new U.S. classroom, though he was forewarned about this during the comprehensive three-day orientation provided by VIF prior to the start of the academic year.
Nel considers himself fortunate to be part of a school with a cohort of VIF teachers. Conversely, his sister, who recently returned to South Africa after three years with the program, had a difficult first year as the sole VIF teacher in a school in Greensboro, N.C. However, he explains that her experience improved when the school hired a new principal. After spending five months in the United States, Nel too believes that his experience is heading towards a positive direction.
"The cultural exchange occurs as we share our personal stories," Nel expresses. "Many of my students have never traveled beyond North Carolina, and now the world is coming to them."