Foreign Language Teachers Are in Short Supply. How to Find, Attract, and Retain Them

Schools across the country, regardless of location or size, have reported difficulty in hiring teachers—particularly those with specialized skills, like special education teachers. Also on the list? Foreign language teachers.

They have been just as difficult to find, although the topic has gotten less attention, said Amy Anderton, world language director for the Dallas school district. Foreign language educators require extensive training (usually about 800 hours of instruction, immersion experiences, and other opportunities) and a mastery of the language they’re teaching, which can take years. That makes recruiting new hires particularly difficult, Anderton said.

Less than one-quarter of students are exposed to a foreign language before they graduate from high school, Anderton said, and about half of the states do not require students to take a foreign language class before graduation. Students are less likely to pursue a career in world languages ​​if they aren’t exposed to it early, she said.

For years, research has shown that students who are fluent in more than one language tend to have higher test scores than their peers who only speak English, have better memory, and have a better understanding of cultures outside of the United States.

The number of college graduates with foreign language skills is declining, Anderton said, so relying on the traditional pipeline probably won’t be enough to fill districts’ vacancies.

Given those factors, Anderton offered some tips to find, recruit and retain foreign language teachers.

1. Look beyond the college classroom for potential hires

It’s important to be nimble and creative when searching for candidates.

There may be employees in the school—perhaps bus drivers or paraprofessionals, for example—with unique language skills that the district can support in getting teaching credentials, Anderton said. She suggested districts connect with local colleges and make “student helper” opportunities that bring college students into the classroom to help and get experience in exchange for volunteer hours or course credit.

There also might be community members who can step in.

If a locally based international company downsizes, some employees with foreign language experience may be looking for new jobs, which could lead them to the classroom, Anderton said. Forming a relationship with a nearby international chamber of commerce can help plug district leaders into the local hiring market.

Having a person in a leadership position who is involved in professional organizations like the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages, and investing in those people attending conferences and other professional development opportunities can help, too, Anderton said. Often, if people have to move or are looking for jobs in specific areas, those connections can help lead to potential hires.

“Those networks of people helping people are extremely valuable,” Anderton said.

2. Value and reward the unique skills foreign language teachers have

Teaching a foreign language is a specialty and should be treated as such..

For many classes, like math, teachers of other subjects can fill in temporarily and keep the class on track and moving forward. But most cannot fill in for a foreign language teacher and continue teaching content.

“If I put you in front of a class with a geometry textbook, most of you would be able to figure it out enough to get by,” Anderton said. “But if you were put in front of a class with a Korean textbook, how many of you could teach Korean? I couldn’t.”

Valuing those employees starts with competitive salaries, Anderton said. Those salaries could be supplemented with bonuses for study abroad experiences or obtaining international degrees. Sign-on bonuses or annual scholarships can also be helpful.

And there are ways to show foreign language teachers that they’re valued that don’t carry a weighty price tag.

Districts can give them a dedicated classroom instead of having them share space or float between rooms. That arrangement pays dividends not just for teachers, but also for students.

“For so many of these students, they’ll never leave the country, so you have to bring the country to them through things like posters and realia [objects from real life that are used as teaching aids], which you just can’t have in 10 different rooms around the school,” Anderton said. “It takes away from the teaching experience and undercuts and undervalues ​​the foreign language teachers.”

3. Treat foreign language teachers as equals

Too often, Anderton said, foreign language teachers aren’t treated like they are as valuable as other classroom teachers, and are asked to do more with fewer resources. That’s a recipe for high turnover and difficulty filling positions.

A small step towards making foreign language teachers feel appreciated is to include them in the mix of teacher of the month or year nominees.

Ensuring classes aren’t too large—20 students maximum is a good rule of thumb, Anderton said—is also important. Classes that are too large are difficult to manage, and foreign languages ​​are difficult to learn without individual attention.

Understanding that students will show progress slower than in other courses helps diffuse tension between school leaders and foreign language teachers, which can curb burnout and increase job satisfaction.

Usually, there won’t be measurable progress until there has been at least 50 hours of instruction, which spans several weeks, Anderton said. So, giving foreign language teachers the autonomy to implement their curriculum as needed and understanding the differences in how outcomes are achieved is critical, she said.

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