'The Learning': Foreign Teachers, U.S. Classrooms

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When the United States took control of the Philippines at the turn of the 19th century, one of the first things the U.S. did was send in American teachers. The goal was to establish a public school system and turn the Philippines into an English-speaking country.

It worked so well that two centuries later, American schools started traveling to the Philippines to recruit teachers to come here.

In a new documentary called The Learning, filmmaker Ramona Diaz follows four teachers on their journey from the Philippines to classrooms in Baltimore, where 10 percent of the city's teachers — about 600 — were Filipino in 2010.

"At the height of the recruitment, which was in '05, '06 and '07, they were recruiting from overseas because there was a shortage of math and science and special-ed teachers," Diaz tells Rebecca Roberts, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered.

New Country, New Classroom

One of the Filipino teachers profiled in The Learning is Grace Amper, who decided to teach in the United States because she wanted to improve her infant son's future. But Amper had to leave him and her husband back home for the first year.

In addition to dealing with the anxiety of separation, Amper said, there was quite a culture shock.

"Back in the Philippines, teachers were treated like gods and goddesses and students would keep their mouths shut and they don't make scenes inside the classroom," she said. In Baltimore's inner-city schools, it was normal for students to talk back.

"During my first days, students would say, 'What are you talking about? Why are you doing this?' It was a little shock for me," she said.

But Amper, as well as the other Filipino teachers Diaz profiled, stuck it out. In fact, they are all still teaching in public schools in the U.S. today.

Choosing To Stay

Diaz shot the documentary two years ago, but this summer, in nearby Prince George's County, foreign-born teachers got caught up in a dispute between the schools and the Department of Labor. Hundreds of foreign-born teachers will have to leave the U.S. by the end of the year. And as unemployment and budget pressures have risen, foreign recruiting has stalled in schools across the country.

Amper has four years left on her visa before she might have to return to the Philippines with her family.

"If I want to stay here [I have to] look for a district that will sponsor me for a permanent residency visa," she explains.

Now that Amper's family is here, including her sister who is also teaching, she says it would be hard to go home.

"I'm happy here, I don't want to leave."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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