Bhakta Giri has been teaching school for about 20 years, yet the Bhutanese refugee has struggled to become a certified teacher in Spokane.
Giri was a teacher in Bhutan until he fled his home country in the early 1990s. After that, he spent seven years teaching in a refugee camp in Nepal.
At that camp he was the principal of a school system serving more than 10,000 students, 11 schools and 200 staff members. After that, he spent another 10 years teaching in a highly regarded high school in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu.
He also earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in English literature before coming to Spokane in 2010.
“I was very much willing to get a teaching certificate and to continue as a teacher here,” he said.
But the complexity, cost and pure bureaucratic burden of obtaining a teaching certificate in Washington discouraged him.
Now, he works in the Spokane Public Schools system as a bilingual and language specialist. Although he makes a living with this work, the wages are below those of a fully certificated teacher.
His story is emblematic of what area administrators and educators characterize as an overly burdensome and strict teacher certification process in a state suffering from a teacher shortage.
Heather Richardson, who directs the Spokane school district’s English Language Development Program, said she has 12 language specialists who are overqualified for the positions they currently hold. That list includes mechanical engineers and medical doctors.
Of the 12, four had extensive teaching experience in their home countries, like Giri.
The state’s strict requirements don’t impact only foreign-born teachers, said Sean Dotson, the associate superintendent of Cheney School District.
“Washington has such stringent requirements that we don’t have reciprocal agreements with most other states,” he said.
Instead, teachers coming from most states get a residency certificate that lasts for five years. Within that time they have to take an online assessment, which can cost more than $500, to get a professional certification. Teachers with a professional certification are paid more, Dotson said.
Additionally, if a teacher doesn’t complete the test within the prescribed time, they can lose their teaching certificate.
Only three states have direct transfer agreements: Oregon, Wisconsin and Ohio.
Rob Roettger, Cheney’s superintendent, said he doesn’t fault the intention of the process, which he believes was to ensure schools had quality teachers. However, he thinks the requirements have been taken “too far.”
“Do you improve your practice because of that process? And what you hear from a lot of people is the answer is no,” he said. “And if that’s the case, what have we done by making it more difficult? We’ve just discouraged people from getting into education.”
Jenny Rose, the president of the Spokane Education Association, said she’s seen qualified teachers from other states struggle to pass the certification test.
“Once a teacher graduates from college and has their teaching degree then they have to go back and spend more money and jump through a bunch of hoops in order to be actually certified,” she said.
The strict requirements are additionally problematic because of the state’s teacher shortage, Dotson said. He said he believes that if the process were streamlined it could help alleviate the shortage.
“For an experienced teacher who has advanced certification in another state they might see that as a deterrent to coming to Washington to teach,” Dotson said. “We want to welcome experienced teachers who might want to move here.”
Laura Gooding, the program and certification specialist for the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the requirements are necessary to ensure uniform teacher quality between states with varying levels and types of teacher certification.
“Our office tries to process everything as quickly as we can because we know they are desperate, in some situations, for the teacher,” she said.
Gooding said it is hard for teachers to transfer any background or teaching hours they have in other states. That sort of experience is often used to determine how much money a teacher makes.
The arrangement is essentially the same for someone from another country, Gooding said. However, a potential difficulty is that any degree earned in a foreign country has to be to be translated and shown to be equivalent to an American degree.
“And, of course, if you’re in any kind of war-torn country and you can’t get that document, that becomes a whole ’nother level of we-can’t-help-you,” she said.
Areej Al Abbasi has experienced the difficulty of that process firsthand. The Iraqi refugee has a master’s degree in English language and linguistics. She said she had all of her transcripts from her education in Iraq and had translated them into English. Still, she has been unable to get a teaching certificate.
“It’s extremely complicated,” she said of the process. “It wasn’t at all user-friendly.”
Now, like Giri, she’s an interpreter and translator for Spokane Public Schools.
“It’s hurting me personally,” Al Abbasi said.
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