International teachers help fill educator gap in Milwaukee Public Schools

MPS welcomes more than 200 international teachers this school year

Ervis Veliu, an international teacher hired by Milwaukee Public Schools, poses at his desk
Ervis Veliu is one of more than 200 international teachers hired by Milwaukee Public Schools since 2022. Corri Hess/WPR

When Ervis Veliu first stood in front of a classroom 16 years ago, he never thought he would end up teaching students in Milwaukee 5,000 miles away from home.

Veliu is part of a growing number of international educators who have come to the city, as district administration looks far beyond Wisconsin’s borders to fill staff vacancies left by the teacher shortage.

Veliu was hired last year as an ESL teacher at Milwaukee Public Schools’ Audubon Technology & Communication Center Middle School.

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He moved his wife and two young sons from Tirana, Albania for the opportunity. While it took some time for Veliu to get used to life in the United States, the boys immediately adapted.

“They already knew English because of the influence of YouTube,” Veliu said. “Even their friends didn’t know they were newcomers. My struggle now is to keep (them speaking) Albanian.”

For the last 15 years, MPS has recruited about a dozen teachers a year from around the world to teach Spanish, French, German or ESL. But starting last year, the district broadened the search.

Veliu was one of 60 teachers hired. This year, the district will have more than 200 international teachers. So far, 78 have started, and the rest are coming in the next few months.

The international teachers fill nearly all subject areas at schools across MPS, said Michael Harris, senior director of talent management for MPS.

Because MPS already had relationships with teaching programs overseas, Harris said they got more aggressive with their recruiting efforts to bring in more teachers from outside the U.S.

“It was really our strategic plan to say let’s see if we can build this up on a larger scale,” Harris said.

MPS held an online information session two years ago inviting about 70 countries.

“Of course, there was criteria to meet,” Harris said. “We want experienced teachers. We want them to come in to learn how we teach here, but they know the pedagogy, the mission: Let’s provide our kids with a great educational experience.”

International teachers have a three-year work visa and can then apply for citizenship, Harris said.

When the teachers arrive, MPS assists them with finding housing and other resources.

Veilu said for him, one of the hardest things was learning to drive on the opposite side of the road. But as far as teaching, it feels “more or less” the same, Veilu said.

“I worked in an American private school of languages. Here is a public school, so the numbers (of students) are much bigger,” Veilu said. “There, I taught English. Here, we have to focus on all school subjects such as science, math, social studies, so it’s a more generalist approach. It’s good — they will all apply in high school and later in life in university.”

Harris said MPS is continuing to recruit locally and abroad to make sure all openings are filled. There are still about 200 teacher vacancies in the district.

“We want to make sure every school is providing our kids with a well-rounded education,” Harris said. “So we want the schools in 53206 (one of the state’s poorest zip codes) to have the same opportunities as those kids sitting in the Audubon school.”