MAY 2002
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Immigrant Teachers:
A Whole New Lesson Plan For New York City’s Foreign Teachers.

By Joanna Sufin

It’s a rainy Monday morning. Renate Drescher, dressed in a blue shirt tucked into dark navy jeans, stands still in front of the dusty blackboard, holding a hole-punched sheet of paper — one of the handouts she distributed to her students a few minutes ago.

"Let’s look at this trilobite," she says with a soft voice, pointing to a picture of a striped bug-like creature at the bottom of the page.

Today’s class is about fossil formation, and the audience gathered in room 415 in Brooklyn’s Midwood High School is a group of freshmen who are required to take biology in the first year of their studies.

Drescher has been teaching biology here for four years. She likes her job although the beginning was difficult, perhaps more difficult for her than for any other teacher at Midwood. Why? Because, being originally from Vienna, she is one of the foreigners who took up the challenge of teaching children in New York City schools and has gone through the pains of adjusting to the new culture and the new school system.

"It was difficult in the beginning, especially doing the preps before every class," she says recalling her first weeks working in the American high school. "But now it’s better."

Drescher came to the United States four years ago through the New York City Board of Education program that recruits teachers from abroad, addressing the shortage of teachers in the New York City schools.

Today Drescher can stand in front of students appearing as confident as any other teacher. She does have an accent but speaks English fluently and clearly enough to pronounce the word ‘trilobite’ with the full assurance that she will be understood and not ridiculed.

Now that she has polished her language skills, she says she does not feel there is a big difference between what she is doing here and what she did while living in her own country, where she taught biology for eight years. "Teaching is teaching. It’s the same subject, just in a different language," she said.

The Austrian teacher is generally liked by her students, even by those who get F’s and fail her exams. "She’s got the accent going, but she’s ok," said Diana Huseinovic, one of the freshmen girls in her class.

According to Kevin Ortiz, the spokesman for the New York City Board of Education, the recruitment program operates in many different countries. This year about 500 teachers are being recruited from countries like Austria, Germany, Sweden, Canada and the Caribbean to come and empower the New York schools with their knowledge and skills.

However, the teachers who end up working here through this program are not the only ones that create diversity among the staff at the New York City schools. There are many immigrant teachers who taught in their home countries and after they immigrated to this country decided to obtain the license in the traditional "American" way and thus continue with their profession.

Ron Davis, the spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, says there is a high percentage of teachers that come from countries all over the world. The immigrant teachers, however, are treated equally with everybody else. "We don’t categorize them that way," he said.

Yulia Garmil, 39, has been teaching at Edward R. Murrow High School for seven years now. She doesn’t work by contract as Dresher does, but started the job on her own accord. Garmil is originally from Kiev, Ukraine, where she taught Russian. Here she teaches the same subject; the difference is that she teaches it as a foreign language at Murrow. For Garmil the first year was also hard, yet right after she started teaching she discovered some pleasant surprises.

"I didn’t expect students to be that motivated," she said. They are actually interested in learning Russian.

Alfred Ologan, 39, has been a biology lab instructor at Midwood High School for five years now. He is originally from Nigeria. Although he has spoken English since he was little, the Yoruba dialect is so unique that it is often difficult to understand certain words.

"Sometimes the students don’t understand me, so I always try to repeat what I say," he said. "But I also show them videos, so even if they don’t understand me they can’t complain."

Jainluca Scattoni, 34, became a teacher in a similar way Garmil did. He was raised and educated in Perugia, Italy and moved to the US about 10 years ago. Although he studied physics back home, at Murrow he teaches Italian. However, Scattoni did not become a teacher right away. It took him a while to learn the language, and even if he speaks English well now, there are times that he is reminded he is different from other teachers.

"I still have problems saying 33 in English," he said. "Students laugh at me but not in a derogatory way. They tell me how to say it and I challenge them to say it back in Italian."

Like other foreign teachers, it was difficult for Scattoni to teach in the beginning. He’s been teaching at Murrow for a year and before that he was a teacher at Dewey High School for one year. He is still in the process of adjusting.

"I find the job challenging," he said. "Every day you have to come in and prove yourself. You have to deal with students talking back to you. It’s not like an office job, where you have a set schedule. But as a teacher, even though you have your lesson plans, there are situations you have to deal with that you did not expect."

 

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