International teachers bring global perspective to NoVa classrooms

Sarnia Thompson, a third-grade teacher at River Oaks Elementary in Woodbridge, guides her students while they work through math problems Dec. 20. Thompson moved from Jamaica to Virginia to continue teaching through a program offered by Participate Learning that recruits teachers from across the world.

After moving from Jamaica to the United States, teacher Sarnia Thompson shares her life experiences with her third-grade students, including the food, the weather, and what it was like growing up in her country. 

She shared the games she remembers playing in her childhood, including how she says “futbol” instead of soccer.

“It’s an opportunity for them to make connections,” she said. 

This is Thompson’s fourth year teaching at Prince William County Public Schools, and she has been teaching for more than 12 years overall.

“River Oaks Elementary School is perfect — diverse with students from the Carribean, Pakistan and Mexico,” she said. “Everyone comes together. Kids learn cultural appreciation, especially at River Oaks. The students respect each other’s culture and they’re eager to learn. Staff and students are interested in learning about my culture.”

Diana Gulotta, the division’s spokeswoman, said the division has worked with an organization called Participate Learning for more than two decades to recruit educators from abroad. Based in North Carolina, Participate Learning helps teachers from around the world move to Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The program aims to improve student’s skills in a second language and provide students with a global outlook, according to the company.

This school year, the division hired 33 teachers through Participate Learning, including teachers from Jamaica, the Bahamas, South Africa, Columbia, Spain, Romania, Chile, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela and Argentina. 

Participants of the  program represent a small percentage of Prince William’s 6,360 total teachers. 

Thompson said she thinks students and parents can see her as a role model, because her journey shows people can adapt. 

“We are all part of one big world, even if we’re from separate places,” she said. 

This time of year, she and her fellow teachers share their holiday traditions with each other. They also share each other’s methodology and approach to education.

“It strengthens the curriculum and students get an opportunity to excel,” Thompson said. 

Aerica Williams, principal at River Oaks Elementary, said her passion for hiring international faculty comes from her own childhood when she lived in Hawaii and Japan.

“It gave me value and appreciation of cultures.”

River Oaks students speak more than 25 languages, Williams said, and more than 200 of the 615 students speak a second language. 

“It’s important to have role models who can connect with [students],” she said. “In the same environment, teacher and kids are learning.” 

Another teacher hired through Participate Learning, Lorena Ortega teaches Spanish at Potomac Senior High School. This is her second school year with the division, and she has been a teacher for 10 years.

Ortega was looking for a job outside of her home country of Venezuela due to the turmoil there when she learned about Participate Learning. “It was a life-changing opportunity,” she said.

Ortega uses her experience teaching English to Spanish speakers to teach Spanish at Potomac. “I find those strategies and adapt,” she said. “They’re interested in music. I take advantage of that. It’s been an amazing experience.”  

Ortega said her students are curious and willing to learn about her, and she can teach them a global perspective. “You see other points of view.”

Ortega said participating in the program was a miracle to her, because it meant her family was safely able to move.  

The program helped her throughout the process as her family relocated to the United States. The program lasts for up to five years, and Ortega said she’s grown as a teacher through this experience.

“Wherever I go, I’ll put into practice what I’ve learned,” she said.


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