As our country continues to struggle with historic teacher shortages, we ought to consider an untapped pool of aspiring teachers: Young immigrants who want to become educators.
They can connect with other newcomers by sharing their stories and serving as role models, like the ones I had when I arrived in Queens from Ecuador at the age of 14.
The bustling pace of rush-hour commuters, the tangled mix of languages and the loud rhythm of a sleepless city disoriented me for months.
Thanks to Mr. Bello, my supportive math teacher at Newcomers High School in Queens, I was able to quiet the cacophony with the anonymity of numbers.
Mr. Bello taught me much more than trigonometry and geometry. He taught me about probability, and helped me see that I could succeed as an undocumented student despite the uncertainty of my status.
Mr. Bello, himself an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, helped me build confidence in my potential, which allowed me to face a higher education and workforce system that systemically shuts doors to undocumented immigrants.
Another teacher, Mr. Palau, an immigrant from Paraguay, patiently guided me through my college application process. He made sure I understood that I was eligible for the in-state tuition rate despite my undocumented status.
Eventually, I qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. That allowed me to get a work permit and pursue a career in the immigration research field.
Today, I am the project director at the Initiative on Immigration and Education at the City University of New York (also known as CUNY-IIE), which produces research and resources that center the strengths of immigrant communities.
In this role, I see firsthand the importance and urgent need in our schools for more teachers like Mr. Bello and Mr. Palau.
Congress’s inability to pass any kind of immigration reform that would help undocumented immigrants become teachers makes easing the path of immigrants into educator roles a tough ask, especially as the 11-year-old DACA program is in peril of being eliminated for good by judicial decree.
Currently, immigrant educators may be granted work permits only if they qualify for DACA or Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which has been extended to people from 16 countries. State and local lawmakers and policymakers can and should be creative in expanding options.
The situation is urgent. According to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, the state needs to hire 180,000 new teachers over the next decade to keep up with the demands of the workforce. Enrollment in New York State’s teacher education programs has declined by 53 percent since 2009.
Congress’s inability to pass any kind of immigration reform that would help undocumented immigrants become teachers makes easing the path of immigrants into educator roles a tough ask.
Most disconcerting for our newest students: There is a significant shortage of bilingual teachers. In 2022-23, approximately 134,000 students who were enrolled in New York City’s public schools identified as English Language Learners, yet the United Federation of Teachers reported that the school system had fewer than 3,000 certified bilingual educators.
This shortage intersects with a political and social upheaval in the city. Since April 2022, New York has received more than 116,000 asylum seekers, including approximately 20,000 children who have now entered the public school system.
The majority of these students are from Latin America and the Caribbean and speak languages other than English.
Bilingual education is considered the best approach for immigrant students, according to Tatyana Kleyn, professor of Bilingual Education & TESOL at The City College of New York. Kleyn favors bilingual education because it allows students to continue learning in their home language while they also learn English.
For all New York teachers, an initial certification is valid for just five years. From there, they are expected to get a professional teaching certificate. For a while, DACA beneficiaries were not eligible for professional certification.
In 2016, the New York State Education Department began to allow undocumented students who are DACA beneficiaries to get professional teaching certificates.
Last year, the state expanded that guidance, allowing undocumented students without a social security number (and who are not DACA holders) to do fieldwork in certain schools and obtain initial certification.
These are two steps in the right direction.
However, undocumented educators who are not DACA holders can’t make use of their education degree and initial certification because they do not have access to work permits.
In addition, some undocumented immigrants just missed the cutoff for DACA or have not been allowed to apply due to the litigation battles about the program.
Our working group, UndocuEdu, produced a report in 2021 titled “The State of Undocumented Educators in New York” that outlines the challenges undocumented educators face navigating teacher education programs.
One suggestion in the report is to eliminate testing fees for NYS certification exams for those in financial need.
Another recommendation is for policymakers to create municipal or state exceptions so that our city’s schools can hire educators who have training and certification but lack a work permit.
State legislators and advocates in New York are already discussing the creation of municipal work permits for recently arrived asylum-seekers.
We urge the city and state to embrace these types of solutions and find others to address the current educational need. It’s time to give more opportunities to a group of trained educators who are already in our communities.
Now more than ever, we need to expand our teaching pool for students who urgently need help. Undocumented teachers can become the Mr. Bellos and Mr. Palaus that every immigrant student deserves.
Daniela Alulema is project director of the CUNY-Initiative on Immigration and Education in New York City.
This story about immigrant teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.