Every year Sharon Huang, founder of HudsonWay Immersion School, anxiously awaits October.
That is when she will learn if several of the Chinese language teachers at her primary schools will be able to carry on teaching or if they will be forced to leave the country midway through the semester.
“It’s very stressful on everybody,” said Huang, who runs two schools in New York and New Jersey. “We’ve had teachers who were denied visas and then very shortly thereafter they had to uproot their lives. It’s sad for the kids and the whole school community.”
Huang files around half a dozen applications to upgrade her teachers’ temporary graduate visas into something more permanent.
But each year a couple of those will not make it through the H1B visa lottery system.
Though H1B visa sponsorship is expensive, the process is a problem for the growing number of American schools offering a Chinese immersion curriculum, where elementary students take at least half their classes in Mandarin and teachers are typically native-level speakers.
It also points to a broader problem weighing down the buoyant American interest in Chinese language education: a shortage of Americans who are both highly fluent speakers and properly accredited schoolteachers.
This shortage has left the nation’s 1,100 plus schools with Chinese language programmes to draw on a wide range of solutions, from reworking the teacher accreditation procedures to contracting impermanent guest teachers directly from China and sponsoring green cards or skilled foreign worker visas for others.
Schools reliant on foreign teachers are now finding themselves warily eyeing the Trump administration’s tightening of immigration and visa policies, as executive orders and memos have urged stricter administrative control of both the H1B visa process, for skilled foreign workers, and J1s for visiting scholars.
“It’s a double-edged sword, because on the one hand, we don’t produce Americans with high enough proficiency in Chinese to become teachers,” said Shuhan Wang, head of the Asia’s Society’s Chinese Early Language and Immersion Network, who estimates that well over 80 per cent of current primary and secondary school Chinese language teachers are foreign born.
“On the other hand, then we are tightening the process of allowing teachers legal status to teach here.”
That, Wang said, will limit the ability of the programmes to train American students to attain fluency.
The HudsonWay Immersion School faces a constant struggle to secure visas for its staff
There is no data on the number of schoolteachers currently working on H1B visas, but educators are concerned about the current increased scrutiny of this visa category as well as a proposed overhaul of the system.
“It is a reasonable expectation that both these visa restrictions and the chilling effects of these restrictions and other immigration policies will make it harder for districts to find teachers,” said Bill Rivers, executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages-National Council for Languages and International Studies.
At HudsonWay, chief administrative officer Bill Hicks said it was too early to tell the extent to which tighter immigration controls will impact teacher recruitment, but that in the past year their teacher visa applications have been more closely scrutinised by officers at the visa control centres.
“The H1B issue is not just about Silicon Valley workers … we are talking about Chinese language teachers who we need to teach our children a language that is strategically important to this country,” said Hicks.
“Our biggest fear is that the change in direction with the Trump administration could make these visas more scarce and harder to get, or change the requirements,” he said.
Though the administration is working on an H1B system overhaul, proposed last year, no details of larger plan have been released.
But concerns of what is to come may already be impacting aspiring teachers. At Brandeis University outside Boston, Chinese language programme director Yu Feng said application for the masters of education course, which trains primary and secondary schoolteachers, have dropped in the past year.
But the course for college teachers, which is not subject to the same quota caps, has stayed the same.
Feng sees this as directly related to visa anxieties.
“With the Trump administration, we really don’t know what will happen and what will come in the next year. The students are quite nervous … the applications for the master of arts in teaching Chinese declined significantly,” Feng said. “This is a real problem.”
Chang Liu, a Harbin native who graduated from the Brandeis programme, watched as five of her close friends from her Beijing teacher’s college received employment offers from US schools but then ultimately lost the visa lottery.
Only 85,000 of the nearly 200,000 applications received by federal immigration authorities will be approved, with breakdowns within that number further limiting who is accepted.
“I was lucky,” said Liu, who is now starting her third year teaching at a Massachusetts public school. “It’s all about luck, because after we graduated we all took the teacher’s test and we were all qualified, but they had to go back to China.”
With these odds as a baseline, Feng said students were unsure if they wanted to take their chances with a system that looked likely to tighten further.
Students study science in Chinese at HudsonWay Immersion School in New York city
Foreign language teachers are in short supply in general throughout the United States – some 44 out of 50 states report having problems filling positions for these teachers, according to 2017 data from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
But Chinese language, as the fifth most commonly taught language in US schools, has unique challenges when compared with the top four languages, French, Spanish, German, and Latin.
For one, there is a significantly smaller pool of Americans who have gone through the path for study and accreditation that has been typical of the country’s foreign language teachers for decades, explains Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
“This stems from the fact that Spanish, French and German have been traditionally taught in schools, so native English-speaking Americans would have had the opportunity to learn them in school and college, whereas Mandarin hasn’t been central to the language curriculum for that long a period,” said Abbott.
In addition, the US State Department classifies Mandarin as a Category V “super-hard” language for native English speakers, the most challenging tier, which also includes Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Cantonese.
“I don’t particularly look for native speakers to teach my Chinese classes,” said Chaolin Chang, principal of the public Mandarin Immersion Magnet School in Houston. “However they do need to be able to perform at a certain level, and at this moment I have not been able to find teachers who are able to produce Chinese fluency at that level.”
While Chinese-Americans and native-English speaking Americans with high-level Chinese skills do make up a sizeable proportion of Chinese language teachers, many multilingual Americans are not enticed by the low salaries offered to teachers, according to Abbott and Chang.
As a result, Chang, a former international student who started work on an H1B visa 20 years ago, said that half of the 16 Chinese teachers at his school are sponsored on the H1B visa.
Chang says that they have been lucky to never have had a teacher rejected and attributes that to his district’s experience with the process which allows them to maximise their chances of success.
A music lesson at the HudsonWay Immersion School in New Jersey
But the H1B sponsorship, which costs school districts several thousand US dollars per application, is not the only route for addressing a shortage of American Chinese language teachers: schools also find guest teachers from abroad through matching agencies and organisations, like College Board and Confucius Institute, where visa costs are about half of the H1B.
These teachers, whose visas allow them to stay for up to three years, are a major source of educators in Utah’s expansive public school dual language immersion programmes, supplementing American Chinese language teachers and teachers sponsored on H1B visas.
“There are plenty of teachers in China,” said state programme director Stacy Lyon, who recruits around 40 teachers directly from China each year. Lyon has a different perspective on the teacher shortage, saying: “What we don’t have are enough connected channels in China to capitalise on that.”
Institutions around the country have reported increased scrutiny of the J1 visas that enable these teachers to come to America, but Lyon feels more optimistic about the future of teacher recruitment, in part because of the longevity of Utah’s Chinese language immersion programme.
For the future, Lyon, herself a former Chinese teacher, said she is focused not on visa restrictions and government-level tensions, but on opening up channels between schools in US and China.
“Regardless of what’s going on on those levels, we still need to work on these levels to continue to develop our relationships and learn together,” she said.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US policies pose hurdle in hiring of Chinese teachers