How a national teacher shortage has pushed Eagle County schools to seek talent abroad

Superintendent is pushing back on visa laws at the federal level

Eagle County School District welcomed back teachers to the 2023-24 school year with its annual educator academy. This year's roster of teachers includes an increasing contingent of educators from outside the United States.
Eagle County School District/Courtesy Photo

Like most districts across the country, Eagle County School District has struggled to hire and retain educators amid a national teacher shortage.

Heading into the most recent school year, the district reported it had 41 vacant licensed positions (which includes teacher positions), a statistic Superintendent Philip Qualman attributed in part to the post-pandemic reality that fewer people are interested in pursuing careers in education.

“What we’re experiencing in terms of the challenge of hiring qualified educators, it’s not isolated to us, it’s a national problem,” Qualman said at the district’s Sept. 13 board of education meeting. “We feel it much more than others because of the cost of living here. We have a very hard time hiring people here because nobody can afford to live here.”

As the pool of domestic applicants for open positions declines, the district has pivoted to seeking educators from a growing pool of international applicants.

“We feel it much more than others because of the cost of living here. We have a very hard time hiring people here because nobody can afford to live here.” — Philip Qualman

“15 years ago, when I’m an assistant principal and I’m hiring for Battle Mountain High School, we could have 20 applicants per position, and the vast majority of those applicants would be from domestic education preparation programs,” Qualman said. “A few of the teachers would be teachers from overseas or teachers going through alternative licensure programs.”

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Now, “that proportion has totally changed,” Qualman added. “The vast majority of our applicants are from overseas. We have very, very few applicants for any of our positions who have gone through traditional ed programs, who have done traditional classroom preparation programs.”

As such, the district has begun to rely on J-1 visas to make international hires, Qualman said.

Adele Wilson, the district’s chief human resources officer, reported that heading into the 2022-23 school year, the district has 59 teachers from other countries, 17 of whom were new hires this year. For comparison, the district hired 86 new staff members (44 of whom were teachers) from within the United States. The majority of these international teachers hail from Spain, Colombia and the Philippines.

This number has increased over the last five years, Wilson said: “We used to average around 5 and now we average around 20.”

Wilson attributed the trend to the overall “reduction in domestic teachers across the state” as well as across the country.

The district began recruiting internationally around 20 years ago, Wilson said. In February 2022, the school district told the Vail Daily that its initial international recruiting efforts began when it was pushing to have all of its schools become dual language schools.

Filling much-needed teacher positions on temporary J-1 visas is not a long-term solution to the district’s recruiting and retention challenges.

“We know from the beginning that they are not going to be a long-term employee,” Wilson said.

The initial J-1 visa for teachers is three years and can be extended for an additional two years, she added. The cost per visa to the district is also around $3,000 per visa.

It takes three years, at least, for a domestic teacher to understand the job and become extremely proficient at it,” Qualman said. “So somebody coming in from overseas, it takes a little bit longer because there’s a cultural adaptation that has to happen.”

It’s a problem for which the district is currently seeking solutions, Qualman said.

I’m working with Sen. (Michael) Bennet and his office to talk about the visa laws,” he said, adding that thus far they’ve been “very responsive and accommodating.”

In addition to trying to find solutions to the time restraints on visas, Qualman is advocating for more updates as well.

“What I’m advocating for is to review those laws about these visas and see if there’s any way we could try to insert some flexibility for educators or for individuals who are working for public education entities that may not be serving in a licensed capacity,” Qualman said.

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This, he added, is another limitation of the existing J-1 teacher visa.

“It’s a certified role only. But we have applicants who would like to work for us as technicians in our tech department, who have the skill set to work in other areas in our organization, but we’re not permitted to hire them because they don’t fit into the visa boxes as they’re defined,” Qualman said.

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