Your Turn — Let’s give thanks for our ambassador teachers

Published 2:13 pm Friday, November 25, 2022

Justin Pope

Topping my “thankful” list in our community this holiday season are Kerensa Smith, Raymond Tubojan and all of their fellow teachers from abroad, working incredibly hard for the children of Prince Edward County public schools.

Ms. Smith, from Jamaica, and Mr. Tubojan, from the Philippines, are among 41 PECPS teachers here via a pair of educational partnership programs which help U.S. schools fill vacancies by offering fully trained teachers visas for 3-5 years. Amidst the desperate post-Covid teacher shortage, they account for about half the vacancies that were filled in our district this year, according to PECPS.

Without these teachers, “we would have higher class sizes, because we wouldn’t be able to fill all of our slots,” assistant director for curriculum and instruction Dr. Michelle Wallace told me.

The Herald recently wrote a news story about the program. But I want to make sure our community knows these teachers are doing much more than keeping classroom numbers manageable.

All have very strong teaching backgrounds, in countries, notably Jamaica and the Philippines, where education is revered and teaching jobs are highly competitive, sought out by the very best graduates. In the Philippines, for instance, there are 14 applicants for every teaching post.

I know this firsthand how strong they are. Smith taught my daughter Emilia last year in third grade, and Tubojan is her teacher this year in fourth. These are the teachers any parent would want for their child. They run a tight ship, with firm expectations, and know how to keep a classroom focused.

They are well-trained in important areas like phonics and math instruction. Last year, we knew of at least one student who came in several grade levels behind in reading but caught up by the end of the year. Finally (and essentially to academic success) their classrooms are filled with love and joy and singing and physical movement. Emilia and my older daughter Aliza have had other teachers in this program, too, and all have been strong. An added bonus is students learn, and get excited about, other cultures.

Their path isn’t easy. Imagine leaving family and friends, alone, to move to an unknown town, with a new climate, cuisine, and culture. Then imagine yourself at the front lines of schools where large numbers of students are confronting trauma, difficult home situations and pandemic-related learning loss. And I’m sorry to say they haven’t always been treated by community members with the same respect as other teachers, and the way any teacher deserves.

Smith, now in her fourth year in Prince Edward, told me she remembered those hard first few days. Arriving from Kingston having taught for nearly 10 years, knowing no one, she slept on the floor of an unfurnished apartment. She was frank about the shock of adjusting to a culture where education feels less valued, and teachers aren’t always as respected as back home. “Some parents think that because we’re from a small island we are lacking in pedagogy,” she said, even though her teaching results clearly belie that. The school administration has been supportive. But she can’t help but wish some in our community better understood “we’re not here to take anyone’s job. We’re here because we want to educate children, and have children loving school and learning.”

Still, like so many, Smith, who is also a published poet and rarely lacks for a smile, has come to love our community.

“Farmville is beautiful,” she said. “I’m a city girl at heart. It took Farmville to slow me down.” As for the classroom, “the good thing is children are very receptive. Kids are kids wherever you go. That was an easier transition.”

We are lucky Smith and her fellow teachers are here, and that PECPS had this pipeline in place when the teacher shortage hit nationwide. Now we need to keep it. We must make sure they feel supported, stay – and encourage friends and colleagues back home to consider coming here, too.

So if you’re among those eager to help our schools, one place to start is to thank these teachers when you see them. Write them a thank-you note. Invite them into your home for a meal.

Maybe we can throw them a parade. That’s something on the scale of how much good teaching matters, and how thankful we should be that these good people are part of our community.

Justin Pope is Vice President and Chief of Staff at Longwood University. He can be contacted at popejn@longwood.edu.