To address the growing teacher shortage in Illinois, Joliet Public Schools District 86 hired three international teachers for the 2021-22 school year.
The teachers are Denise Vuoto of Argentina, a bilingual ELA teacher at Gompers Junior High; Katherine Avalos of Peru, an ESL resource teacher at Gompers Junior High; and Augusto Quiroz-Cardenas of Colombia, a bilingual kindergarten class at Sator Sanchez Elementary. District 86 hired these teachers through the Spirit Cultural Exchange, spokesperson Sandy Zalewski said.
Spirit Cultural Exchange gives teachers the opportunity to teach full-time in the U.S. at an accredited primary or secondary school and share their culture with their students, according to the Spirit website. District 86 is planning to hire five additional international teachers for the 2022-23 school year, Zalewski said.
The teachers are required to stay three years and must have a bachelor’s degree, two years teaching experience and be fluent in English. District 86 provides a full-time teaching position, supervision and mentoring.
“Teachers bring their culture from their countries to the students and give them that exposure, too,” Zalewski said.
Vuoto first came to the U.S. 10 years ago through a summer program when she was a 19-year-old university student. She worked as a lifeguard in Virginia and “fell in love with the States,” she said.
“One of my dreams was to come here and work,” Vuoto said.
When Vuoto returned to Argentina, someone asked her, “Can you teach me some English?” Vuoto hesitated before accepting.
“I had studied English my while life,” said Vuoto, who originally studied fashion design. “But I was not a teacher. Still, she wanted me to teach her the language. So I started doing it as a hobby and then discovered the passion I had for teaching, that I was good at it and enjoyed it.”
That opportunity led Vuoto to study education and sign up Spirit Cultural Exchange. Once accepted, she moved to the U.S. with her husband Ivan Kovalevski and her little mixed breed poodles Oliver and Kovi.
“It was quite an adventure,” Vuoto said. “It was in the middle of the pandemic. Everything was different. The airlines weren’t flying to Argentina. Flights were being canceled. We took a flight to Miami and then needed to drive here with the dogs.”
Vuoto said her students at Gompers are most mostly “newcomers” to the U.S. and Spanish-speaking students.
“I can relate with the students and their culture,” Vuoto said. “I think that we built a rapport. We can always share some facts about our countries – the similarities and the differences – and I really like that.”
Vuoto said the public school system in Argentina doesn’t provide meals, technology and materials for students, as District 86 does.
“Some years ago, they started giving students computers but that is not mostly the case in the schools,” Vuoto said. “If you want to have all your materials and if you want to have technology, your parents will send you to private school.”
Vuoto said she wants to teach for a long time in the U.S. And the goals for her students are to be happy and comfortable, not just in her classroom, but in the U.S.
“I want them to be proud of themselves,” Vuoto said. “I think I would like them to remember me as a teacher who understood them and helped them.”
Avalos came to the U.S. nine years ago after studying English in college and living with a Chicago family for two years through an au pair program. Her best friend had worked as an au pair and felt the program helped her learn American culture.
“To be honest, my mom was a little bit afraid of my coming here on my own,” Avalos said. “But my dad was more supportive. He said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, go and do it.’”
Avalos loved her time here and pursued an education career in the hopes of returning. Avalos worked two years at public school in Peru, teaching first through sixth grade and then worked two years at a high school.
At Gompers, Avalos has her own ESL group and she co-teachers with a science teacher. She helps students with their homework individually or in small groups. Many of her students speak only Spanish but their English is improving, she said.
They trust Avalos because she speaks Spanish, which makes them comfortable opening up to her, she said.
“I enjoy my time a lot with the students,” Avalos said. “We have the same culture, the same language.”
Students in Peru don’t have Chromebooks or the opportunity to work one-on-one with a teacher, so Avalos often reminds her students at Gompers how lucky they are, she said. Avalos is enjoying her own learning experiences, too, such as mastering Google Classroom.
“It’s been a really nice experience,” Avalos said. “All my co-workers are very nice and supportive, especially the seventh-grade team who helps me as much as they can. I’m just glad I’m here.”
For Quiroz-Cardenas, a teacher for 13 years, learning about the Spirit Exchange program was like a dream come true.
“I always wanted to go to another country to teach,” Quiroz-Cardenas said.
The concept wasn’t new to Quiroz-Cardenas, who loves languages (he can speak Spanish, English, French, Turkish and Italian) and education. During his own university years, Quiroz-Cardenas learned from teachers from around the world because the school recruited them to teach.
He said the process of becoming a teacher in Colombia takes eight years. All students in Colombia, kindergarten through high school, start school at 6:30 a.m. They don’t have computers or lunch provided to them, he said. Students also have less family support, he said.
“Many hard things are there in Colombia,” he said.
Despite the cultural and educational differences, Quiroz-Cardenas said students are students no matter where they are.
“Kids are the same every place in the world. Conditions are different,” he said. “I think this is the best country for education and the best place to be a child to grow up. That is what I can see in just one year here.”
Quiroz-Cardenas hopes they leave his classroom with the necessary skills but, more importantly, that they leave as loving classmates. He said the students inspire him and that inspiration helps him plan well at night for the following day.
“We have a very nice classroom,” he said. “I try to learn and every and I enjoy it, too. I think it’s important to give very good lessons, but I think emotional learning is very important, too, from children to adults, their whole lives.”