Jesus Gomez and Iris Markle made an unlikely duo as they waded into Newark’s final teacher hiring fair before school starts.

He’s a recent immigrant from Cuba, while she’s been working in New Jersey schools for more than 15 years after immigrating in 1983 from Brazil. She’s fully licensed to teach and in fact already has a job three days a week at East Newark Elementary School, while he hasn’t yet started the process of gaining certification. They’re also from different generations: Markle is the age of Gomez’s parents.

Yet the pair were bound together in two ways: Both were eager to teach Spanish to Newark students. And Markle had appointed herself Gomez’s mentor because of her long friendship with his wife.

“She’s like my daughter, and so he’s my son,” Markle said. “My goal is for him to become a principal. I believe our kids need more of that kind of human being about them, especially a man. A male presence in the classroom is of great need.”

Gomez has a long road ahead if he is to become a school leader in the future. But the path to the principal’s office — especially right now in Newark — typically begins with a classroom teaching position, and so the two headed into Central High School to look for jobs.

With only weeks to spare before the first day of school, administrators sat behind regalia-covered tables waiting to meet prospective teachers. Knowing that many of the most competitive candidates had been snatched up earlier in the hiring season, they were prepared to conduct interviews and even make offers on the spot.

Newark has gotten more and more creative to recruit new teachers and compete with wealthier communities that can offer higher pay and schools with more resources, but ahead of the district hiring fair, at least 23 schools had unfilled teaching positions. On almost all of the administrators’ wish lists were bilingual and special education teachers — and they knew that failing to make a hire before school starts could leave some of their neediest students with substitute teachers.

Making a hire, on the other hand, would mean providing students who are just learning English with an essential lifeline — something that Claudio Barbarán, the principal of Roberto Clemente Elementary, said he knows well. His school is comprised of roughly 80% Hispanic students, and when he immigrated from Peru, he was a bilingual student in the Newark district, where he said that his bilingual teachers were some of his best.

“Having that teacher made your experience that much more easy,” Barbarán said. His experience is baked into Superintendent Roger León’s new district plan, “Clarity 2020,” which calls for the city to recruit and retain more male Latino teachers, as well as bilingual teachers.

PHOTO: Devna Bose/Chalkbeat
Central High School hosted the weekend hiring fair. Tables of school administrators and representatives lined its main hall, looking to fill vacancies at their schools.

Though Barbarán talked to a number of applicants on Saturday, he said many of them weren’t certified, making it difficult to hire them. But he said he is still willing to take a chance on some of the better prospects because the need for bilingual teachers is so dire.

“What I’m trying to do now is if they don’t have certification now, is hire them as substitutes and kind of build from there,” he said. “And then they can complete those assessments.”

As Gomez traveled from table to table on Saturday, he said the message came loud and clear. 

“I need to be certified,” he said. “I heard that a lot.”

He said he planned to begin tackling the process of obtaining the legal right to teach in New Jersey this week. But then, at one of the last tables he and Markle stopped by, he heard some promising news.

At a table draped in blue and yellow, a Science Park High School administrator told Gomez he could work as a substitute Spanish teacher for two days a week this upcoming semester, and Markle could take over the other half of the week. 

The plan worked for all parties: Gomez would have a foothold into the classroom; Markle would have a complete schedule; and Science Park would have an important teaching position filled, if in an unorthodox way, on the first day of school. 

As they walked out of the now-empty fair, behind them administrators closing up shop, and into the midday heat together, Gomez was smiling — he said he’s looking forward to the start of school. And Markle was just happy to help.

“You know, helping someone is always an accomplishment, and he’s going to be great,” she said. “I see the potential in him.”