A national teacher shortage, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, left the Lower Kuskokwim School District scrambling this summer.
With only a few months before the start of this school year, the district had dozens of teaching positions to fill.
So it looked out of the country for solutions.
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Over the past few weeks, new teachers for the Lower Kuskokwim School District have been arriving in Bethel exhausted after 36 hours of flying in from the Philippines.
Socrates Embesan is one of those Filipino teachers. He’ll be teaching math and science in the remote community of Chefornak, about 100 miles from Bethel. In the Philippines, Embesan had been a college math professor in the landlocked province of Tarlac.
“It is quite a remote place because we are situated in the highland. No neighbors, no big numbers around. It’s just like this,” Embesan said.
In Tarlac, Embesan shared a home with his parents, his sisters, his brother, and several nieces and nephews. He said that his family keeps growing.
“And my salary is not increasing that much. So when I got this opportunity, I think right away, ‘This is a chance for the life that we have at the moment, the life of my family,’” Embesan said. “That’s the heart of the Filipino people. We are very close to our family.”
Embesan showed a picture on his phone of his 9-year-old nephew, who he has adopted as his own.
“That’s him,” he said. “So he’s a big boy now and I entrust him to my sisters.”
In return, he’ll send his sisters a portion of his salary.
Embesan and two other teachers from the Phillipines said they’re earning four to five times more in Alaska compared to what they made in their home country. The average income in the Philippines is around $4,000 per year, according to the World Bank.
Out of 82 new teachers that the Lower Kuskokwim School District hired this year, 10 are from the Philippines. This is the first time the school district has recruited and hired teachers from outside the U.S.
Andrea Engbretsen, human resources director, said the district has historically had trouble hiring enough teachers. But in recent years, she said, there has been a severe shortage of math and science teachers nationwide.
“It is really at a crisis point,” Engbretsen said. “Everywhere we go, I mean, just not even applicants. We can’t even find them.”
And then, she said, a pandemic made a bad recruiting environment even worse.
“Many, many said, ‘I need to stay closer to home for family reasons,’ or just a fear of COVID, not wanting to leave their home areas,” Engbretsen said. “Which put us at another challenge of, ‘Okay, now, how are we going to fill these positions?’”
That’s when Engbretsen heard about another rural Alaska school district, the Bering Strait School District, that filled its staffing shortage with teachers from the Philippines. She got on the phone right away.
“But the process is fairly lengthy,” Engbretsen said.
She said that there are embassy interviews and visa applications and lots of paperwork, which is why the first teachers from the Philippines arrived in Bethel in September, after the school year had already begun.
When they arrived, they were greeted by several Filipinos already living in town, including Glenda Swope, a preschool teacher in Bethel who immigrated from the Philippines in 2004. She said she wanted to provide the new teachers with a sense of familiarity. She knows the feeling of arriving in a foreign place.
“It’s like going in a ship and you don’t know who is the captain or, like, you don’t know where you go,” Swope said.
Swope said that at least 20 Filipinos live in Bethel. She said that some work as teachers, like her, and some are at the Bethel Youth Facility, but the largest number are nurses. She said many Filipinos came to Alaska for jobs. Others, like her, came to the U.S. after marrying an American. Swope said that moving from the Philippines to Southwest Alaska is not as drastic a change as it may appear.
“All of them, they said, ‘I feel like I’m home.’ Yeah, like, me too. Like, I feel like I’m home because we grew up in a simple life in a simple way. And we grew up with close-knit families,” Swope said.
There are other similarities between the Filipino immigrants’ old and new homes.
Several teachers said that they brought dried fish in their suitcases, although not salmon or halibut. English is the second official language in the Philippines. And Embesan, the new teacher, said that a big aspect of Filipino culture is respect for one’s elders.
“And the way we show our respect to our elders is by just holding their hands and then putting their hands on our forehead. So we call that mano,’” Embesan said while demonstrating the gesture.
The Filipino teachers said they’ll be exchanging cultures with the communities they’ll be in. New teacher Amparo Faraon said that she is excited to be able to share her cooking with her students.
“I let them taste sinigang and adobo, pancit,” Faraon said.
The new Filipino teachers are planning to stay at least three years on J-1 visas, but first they’ll need to survive their first winter. After coming from a country with an annual average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, Embesan said that he’s excited to feel the cool breeze.