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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Jamaica fears brain drain as teachers leave for US schools

An English language and literature class at Campion College in Kingston, Jamaica, Sept. 19, 2023.

By Simon Romero

Okeef Saunders loves his job teaching history to high school students in Jamaica’s capital. But he is getting ready to leave for the United States, where a teaching job with a much bigger paycheck in North Carolina awaits him.

“I have four kids to support, a mortgage, bills for food, water, electricity,” said Saunders, 49, who teaches at a Kingston high school. He said he plans to start out earning about $50,000 a year in United States, doubling his current salary after working as a teacher in Jamaica for the last 28 years.

“When an opportunity like this comes up, you go for it,” he said.

Saunders is joining an exodus of thousands of teachers from Jamaica in the last two years, primarily for jobs in the United States, Canada and Britain, as schools in those countries step up recruiting of foreign educators to address increasingly severe staff shortages.

In the United States alone, nearly half of all public schools have been operating without a full teaching staff, according to the U.S. Department of Education, as enrollment in teacher preparation programs plunges.

But the race to fill vacant teaching positions is creating havoc in the education system of Jamaica, the largest English-speaking country in the Caribbean, reflecting how school staffing challenges in rich countries are spawning a brain drain in parts of the developing world.

The scope of the outflow of teachers from Jamaica became clear last year, when more than 1,500 Jamaicans left their jobs in the first nine months of that year. The crisis seemed to wane somewhat this year when only 427 teachers had announced plans to resign from the start of the year through mid-August.

But just before classes were to begin in September, an additional 400 teachers submitted their resignations in less than two weeks, stunning education officials and school administrators. Overall, the sudden rush for the exits meant that Jamaica has lost about 10% of its teachers in just the last two years.

“You can imagine what anxiety that created in the system,” said Fayval Williams, Jamaica’s education minister. “School boards have to be scrambling.”

Adding to the stress on teachers who remain in Jamaica, administrators in parts of the country had to place even more students into already overcrowded classrooms.

Authorities also responded by allowing retired teachers to return, authorizing teachers scheduled to retire to continue teaching, hiring part-time teachers and allowing teachers on leave to return to classrooms — while being paid for their leave and for teaching.

Grace Baston, who is retiring this year as the principal of Campion College, one of Jamaica’s top public high schools, said her school lost 16 of its 85 teachers in the last two years. Most went to the United States, she said, but others went to Canada or other countries in the Caribbean, such as Turks and Caicos and the Cayman Islands.

“They’re going wherever the U.S. dollar is being paid,” said Baston, who has worked in education for 40 years. “It’s not like ‘I got my papers, yay, I’m off to North Carolina.’ Very often the teacher is weeping when they say they are migrating.”

In the United States, foreign teachers get J-1 visas, which allow them to work temporarily in the United States, like au pairs or camp counselors. Nearly 5,800 teachers obtained such visas last year, up from about 2,800 in 2017, according to the State Department.

States in the Southeast, including North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, are among the top destinations. Guilford County Schools, North Carolina’s third-largest school district, hired 42 international teachers this year, the largest such group in the district’s history. Thirty-two are from Jamaica.

Jamaica is especially coveted for such recruiting, which is often carried out by U.S. companies that specialize in locating and hiring foreign teachers.

Jamaica has a large pool of skilled English-speaking teachers, making them well-suited for working in other English-speaking countries or in places like the United Arab Emirates or Japan, where English proficiency is prized. The Caribbean country also boasts an array of respected teaching training institutions.

Tuan D. Nguyen, an associate professor at Kansas State University and an expert on educator shortages, said the influx of teachers from abroad is one key way to address teacher vacancies in the United States, which have increased sharply since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vacancies shot up to 55,000 positions this year compared with about 36,000 last year, Nguyen and other scholars determined, finding that more teachers in the United States are leaving the profession than ever before.

The reasons include stagnating or declining salaries in much of the country, a surge in job-related stress during the pandemic and laws in many states that make teachers unsure of what they can say in classrooms because of new legal limits on conversations about racism and other contentious topics.

Nguyen said the rush to hire foreign teachers was without precedent during recent times. “There’s the moral and ethical issue of what this means,” he said. “If we’re taking teachers from these other countries what happens to students in those countries? They also need teachers. We need to consider the net effect.”

Devon Thompson, 28, a Spanish teacher who in 2021 took a job in Macon, Georgia, said he was motivated not only by low pay but by the dysfunction he saw around him in Jamaica: overcrowded classrooms without air-conditioning and teachers who were being “thrown under the bus by administrators.”

But Macon, where he estimates that about 40 other Jamaican teachers have also recently found jobs, came with its own challenges, like bad behavior and students ill-prepared to advance to higher grades.

“The level of disgust that we have in how education is created in our country — it’s the same way American teachers feel about their own system,” Thompson said, citing the low morale he’s seen among teachers in both countries.

Still, he said he felt Jamaica could do more to retain teachers, starting with raising pay, an issue that the main teachers union has consistently been agitating for.

“I get that we’re not a first-world country so we can’t get certain things,” he said. “But it’s not that we don’t have the money. We’re just not using it wisely.”

Others disagree, noting that Jamaica already spends more than 5% of its gross domestic product on public education, which is relatively high compared with regional peers, according to the World Bank.

For Jamaican teachers who are undecided about leaving their country for work, the issue often boils down to money.

Donovan Edwards, 47, a high school science teacher from St. Catherine, near Kingston, said he needs to make improvements to his home and pay for his daughter’s university studies.

He is planning on moving to Britain.

“I’ve seen a lot of teachers who are retired and they are in poverty,” Edwards said, explaining that after 22 years of teaching he was still earning less than $24,000 a year. “I reached my breaking point.”

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