The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday December 8th

Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe School works toward easier start for international teachers

The PTA of Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe School is planning to make transitions easier for its international teachers in the upcoming 2016-2017 school year. 

Jill Simon, leader of the PTA Council and Advocacy Committee, is spearheading the International Teacher Support Team, which will offer both community and household support for the teachers from the moment they arrive in the United States.

Frank Porter Graham is a bilingual Spanish magnet school which staffed 18 total international teachers this year out of the contracted 32 for the entire district. 

Easing the transition

Simon has been helping international teachers on a smaller scale, with assistance from more experienced international teachers, but she wants to expand her efforts to create an easier transition to the school system and the country. Wilson said the first few weeks teaching can be difficult for international teachers.

"There’s this sort of gap time when they’re kind of nomadic,” Simon said. “It’s not like they all get a few months to settle in before they have to go to work.”

As a former teacher, Simon said she empathizes with international instructors. She said living spaces take time to secure, and to an international teacher unfamiliar with typical U.S. conventions and processes, finding a place to live takes time.

"I can’t imagine not coming home to a comfortable relaxing environment after spending all day with 7-year-olds," Simon said.

Simon said teachers who are stressed end up doing a disservice to their students, which makes it hard for them to perform well and learn. Simon wants to avoid this.

“My hope is that initially it will alleviate some of the immediate stressors that being a new teacher in the country brings, whether that means you have a place to sleep and a hot meal for the first few nights, or you have at least the basic necessities for an apartment," she said. 

Feeling hopeless

Feña Villarroel, a 2nd grade international teacher at Frank Porter Graham, transitioned first from Chile to Fayetteville and then from Fayetteville to Chapel Hill. She said she has seen it from both sides. 

“At the school I used to work at, nobody helped me. I was mostly by myself when I got to the U.S. and didn’t know anything," she said. "When I got here to Chapel Hill, it was better. They were always asking what you need. The PTA always put things together, like furniture you need at home, so we have that available.”

Villarroel said she thinks the support team will be very helpful, especially because the advisors assigned to them are not always the most helpful.

“The advisors contact you before you come to the United States. They help you find an apartment, school, doctor, things like that. That’s good, but not all the advisors are good, especially in my case in Fayetteville,” she said. “What Jill is trying to do is something that the advisor would do, but it would be more helpful.”

Villarroel said the team would help with basic, but crucial steps during the first few weeks. For example, they would set a day for all new teachers to go to the social security office or to the DMV. 

"For example, we are set up with a bank account, but when you are here you realize there are bank accounts that are cheaper or better so you can transfer, or you can find doctors easier. You don't think about that in a new country, but they are important things,” Villarroel said.

Learning to adjust

With a few years under her belt, Villarroel helps new teachers who are just getting started in their adjustment to the school system with Simon. She said everything will be a lot smoother for new teachers coming in.

“I think it will be a great change, because having what Jill is trying to set up makes you feel more secure," Villarroel said. “Being new at a school here is super overwhelming. It’s like one stress over another stress."

Julian Jaimes, a 2nd grade teacher from Chile, has lived in the United States for almost eight years. He said the hardest part about being away is missing loved ones and family. 

“The transition is still hard,” Jaimes said. “I have never worked in an American bilingual school, so the system here in North Carolina was completely new for me." 

He said coming here the first time, especially without family, is very hard.

Long term plans

In any case, Simon plans on the allocation of PTA funding for next year's effort and hopes to raise money through donation on the support team's website. Other services, like the donation of furniture, are to be carried out by volunteers and local business.

Simon said as it gets time for students to move out of their dorms, there is always furniture and household items that are being discarded.

The support team website has Simon’s contact information, and a list of items needed so students moving out can donate something to incoming teachers.

In the long term, Simon has broad goals for the project.

"Hopefully if it goes well next year, the district will then pick it up as a district-wide program for any of the teachers coming into the district. That is sort of the long term plan,” she said. “It can be a community effort, and will help bridge some cultural divides and really make the school more of a family that we know it can be."


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