Migrant Teachers: How American Schools Import Labor

reviewed by Rick Bonus - June 16, 2014

coverTitle: Migrant Teachers: How American Schools Import Labor
Author(s): Lora Bartlett
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674055365, Pages: 202, Year: 2013
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Migrant Teachers systematically examines the phenomenon of overseas trained teachers (OTTs) in the United States both as an instance of historical and contemporary global migration flows and as a flashpoint for determining the shifting meanings of teaching and the changing values that societies place on schooling in the context of such flows. Basing most of her findings from an ethnography of Filipino OTTs in California, education professor Lora Bartlett astutely argues that any “successful” process of transnational teacher migration—as learned mostly from the cases of Filipino teacher recruitment into the U.S.—is highly dependent on the ways in which such teachers’ work is regarded as a constitutive and long-term part of the receiving country’s educational values and goals. That is, the more opportunities that OTTs receive from their host countries to flourish and endure in their profession, and the more integrated they are into the educational missions of the schools they are placed in, the greater the chances that the receiving country will benefit from their work as imported or migrant teachers.

Something hidden and understudied is afoot here, one that Bartlett raises in the book with some trepidation, but with a great deal of introspection. And that is the rising trend of OTT reliance by inner-city public schools in the U.S.  According to her, there were about 90,000 OTTs recruited mostly by K-12 schools in California, New York, Texas, Maryland, and North Carolina between 2002 and 2008, and mostly coming from the Philippines (22% of OTTs between 1991 and 2006 were from that country), Canada, Spain, India, Mexico, and England. Although 90,000 would seem insignificant compared to the millions of local teachers employed by U.S. schools, many of them have been concentrated, up to nearly a quarter of the teaching population, in some high-poverty rate urban school districts, and their immediate and long-lasting impact may have yet to be fully understood. Bartlett asks, how do students, schools, and teachers in the U.S. experience transnational teacher migration? And how do the teachers themselves experience migration?

Seven chapters in Migrant Teachers are divided into three parts, with the first part concentrating on the local and national contexts of the OTT work force beginning in the 1990s and peaking in the early 2000s. Clearly, Bartlett establishes the fact that OTT work is a global labor migration phenomenon, driven on one hand by a domestic need for a cheaper supply of qualified teachers who can quickly (and oftentimes temporarily) fulfill a federal or state requirement (or else risk funding loss) and, on the other, by the availability of an inexpensive and mobile supply chain of teaching professionals from developing countries whose labor can be easily managed (and usually manipulated and exploited) through strict work permit regulations. Many countries like England and New Zealand have been importing teachers. But in the U.S., as a primary example, No Child Left Behind policies that required fully credentialed teachers have left many resource-strapped and hard-to-attract schools no choice but to import teachers. Migrant teachers prove to be great performers on the job, they tend to be more patient and hardworking, and they are the math, science, and special education specialists that urban schools need most. Extreme poverty in the Philippines, not unexpectedly the result of years of European and U.S. colonization, coupled with greater opportunities to search for better earnings elsewhere and, specifically, the increase of working visa caps in the U.S., have encouraged Filipina and Filipino teachers to imagine teaching in the U.S. as an opportunity to seek. Themselves formally trained in schools modeled after the U.S. educational system, these Filipino teachers would find their way, beginning in the 1990s, into a labor migration nexus that held for them no clear guarantees.  Regardless, the U.S. stood to gain from their inexpensive services—in a way, continuing its colonizing project well beyond formal colonization—while their nation would persist in its brain drain. In depicting such a condition filled with contradictions, Bartlett remarks, “All too often movements of teachers require teachers to rise to the top of the developing country’s teacher labor market in order to ascend to the bottom of the industrialized nation’s labor market” (p. 9).

The middle part of Migrant Teachers concentrates on the meat of the ethnography, using fieldwork accounts to illustrate the complexities of migration motivations and pathways, as well as the nuances of contractual and specialized teaching in another country. There is a most palpable sense of the “economic” in understanding why Filipino teachers move to become teachers in the U.S. The opportunities to be much more well off in an industrialized country setting are simply too important to ignore. Besides, they know as much as their recruiters tell them, that their recruitment is one that is based on the labor needs of the U.S., not one that arises out of some kind of altruistic motivation or offered for greater cultural understanding (even though many of them were made to obtain the J-1 cultural exchange visa). But their stories cannot be told merely in the realm of “making money.” The challenges of dealing with campus climates they are unfamiliar with and powerless to transform, the anxieties of performing well in an environment that is usually unsupportive, as well as the apprehensions of being in an impermanent foreign worker status for many of these OTTs from the Philippines enable us to understand better that OTTs, much like teachers as a whole and in general, cannot be treated simply as paid technocrats who are easily moveable and replaceable. According to Bartlett, it’s the difference between treating OTTs as transients versus treating them as transplants. A teacher whose work is treated as temporary and of little value has greater chances of failing, compared to someone whose retention and success are proactively planned for and enabled.

The final part of Migrant Teachers delves into the larger questions, consequences, and policy implications of the OTT phenomenon. What does it mean for a teacher to be a guest worker?  How are the roles of teachers changed when educational systems place greater emphasis on outcome-driven learning processes, high-stakes testing, standardized forms of pedagogy, and short-term employment of teachers? Can teachers be culturally neutral?  And can their work be easily transplantable? These questions, and Bartlett’s provocative responses to them, bring the debates regarding whether or not to import teachers into levels that are extraordinarily significant especially as they touch on the changing nature of our school systems within the contexts of what is now regarded as global labor flows that will continue to rise. Teachers will continue to be mobile. Lora Bartlett places the main responsibility of acting on these OTT challenges upon the industrialized countries, but it would be wise and just to also include the voices and participation of educators and policymakers from developing countries in responding to the call for educational transformation that would benefit not just the industrialized nations, but also everyone else around the world.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 16, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17567, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 1:58:03 PM

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