Lessons in teacher turnover

LIHUE – Close to 1,000 teachers are recruited each year to work in Hawaii.

Some fill spots left when people retire. Others take the places of hopeful teachers who come to Hawaii but can’t survive on the salaries they are paid.

“We are dependent on teachers from the Mainland,” said Wil Okabe, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

The problem is the pay. Okabe said some school districts even find it necessary to offer bonuses to attract teachers.

“There is no question that the high cost of living in Hawaii affects jobs, especially teaching,” he said.

Hawaii teachers have the lowest annual salaries, adjusted for cost of living, compared to the rest of the country, according to a recent study by WalletHub.com, a leading personal finance social network. The study analyzed all 50 states and the District of Columbia across 18 key metrics, ranging from median starting salary to unemployment rate to teacher job openings per capita.

South Dakota and the District of Columbia ranked just above Hawaii.

Okabe said the association has always felt that the teachers are struggling with the high cost of living relative to their pay.

According to the Hawaii Department of Education, a teacher who completed their bachelor’s degree and a state-approved teacher education program, earns an annual salary of $43,759.

“We are professionals like doctors, lawyers and dentists. We go to school for four years, and in some cases eight, and yet our salaries are so low,” said Joanne Thompson.

The veteran teacher has done duty in Hawaii classrooms for the past 23 years. As a single parent, she said she found it necessary to devote time, money and energy into taking advanced educational classes to earn her master’s degree so she could up her earnings.

That master’s degree currently earns a teacher an additional $3,498 per year.

“I was pregnant at the time but knew I needed to do it,” Thompson said.

And yet, the increase wasn’t enough to cover Thompson’s monthly expenses.

“I used to have to babysit at a Princeville hotel to earn extra money,” she said.

Thompson is not alone in her financial plight.

“I know of teachers living in tiny, cramped studios and working second jobs to make ends meet on Kauai,” she said.

One of those teachers is Judy Waite, a sixth-grade teacher at Kilauea School, who for the past 10 years, has struggled.

“I have trouble paying my grocery bill,” Waite said. “I’ve always had trouble making ends meet.”

Ironically, her former job was in a grocery store as a cashier.

“I’d rather teach than work in a grocery store,” Waite said.

Although she said there are days when a “mindless, simple job where she can punch a time clock and leave her job at work when she goes home at night,” doesn’t sound so bad.

Waite was grading papers at home during her fall break from the classroom when The Garden Island caught up with her.

“If I can rent out a room in my home, I’m fine, otherwise, I’m not,” Waite said.

She compared her job to that of a nun.

“You devote your entire life to it,” Waite said. “Teaching is very hard.”

Inequality of pay

Michael Kline, a special education teacher at Kilauea School, sees teaching as a profession that can inspire youth. He calls the profession one of the most difficult in the world and it stirs up thoughts about inequitable values.

“When I see basketball players making millions of dollars for being able to dribble and shoot a little orange ball up and down a court, I am really confused about what our society and world deems as important,” Kline said.

Salaries for teachers aren’t much of a surprise to Terry Low, now in his 21st year of teaching at Kauai High School.

“When I was in my teacher training program at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, the education professors there made a point of discussing how you would need to supplement your income as a teacher,” Low said. “The expectation was that you might have to work another job. Teaching has always been more than just about money, and teachers know that coming in. Helping students learn and grow is a very rewarding job. I think I’m a better person because I chose teaching as a career. I often run into former students who share their appreciation for what I’ve done.”

Still, Low said inequities in teacher pay have grown since he first stepped into a classroom.

“After our strike in April of 2001, my salary was reasonably adequate to make a living on Kauai reasonable,” Low said. “That was until we were furloughed by Governor Linda Lingle in 2009, and then asked to give up more days — Directed Leave Without Pay (DLWOP) – under Governor Abercrombie. This had a devastating effect on teachers in Hawaii.”

He called Hawaii teacher’s current situation bleak.

“To give you an idea, from 2008 to the present, my pay has only increased by 10 percent.” Low said. “Nothing to make up for the lost wages under the furloughs and DLWOP’s. I calculated that, if I’d been given just a 3 percent cost of living increase since 2008, my gross pay now should be $253 more each month than it currently is. As a result, I am considerably less able to meet my financial needs now than I was in 2008.”

He pointed out that teachers have, in reality, not received raises. He said they haven’t even been given a salary that has kept up with the cost of living.

Kline agreed.

“We may be undervalued,” he said. “We may be blamed wrongly for the so called ills of public education. We may work 10 to 15 hour days, work weekends, and in the evenings. However, in spite of the pay and the challenges we face, we are so in love with what we do, and care so much for the students we teach, that the salary we make takes a back seat to the joy and the overwhelming fulfillment we get from teaching.”

But, he said they need to pay bills, take care of their children and families, and put food on the table.

“I know many teachers who have a second job in order to survive the cost of living in Hawaii,” Kline said.

Thompson feels a teacher’s value is overlooked.

“I don’t think society appreciates us – they think we’re glorified babysitters,” Thompson said. “I wouldn’t mind getting paid $5 per 32 kids in my classroom. I’ll do that. I know of a lot of teachers who would even go for $2 per kid. I also know of teachers who retired and their retirement isn’t enough for them to live on so they are back substitute teaching,” Thompson said.

A Calling

Waite said that, if she had the chance to do it all over again, she probably wouldn’t have turned to teaching. And yet, there is an upside.

“I like the kids. It’s refreshing. The kids are honest. It’s different every day. It’s fun,” Waite said. “But now that they are pushing the standards, it’s less fun than it used to be.”

And then, there is the thought that, at the age of 58, she may not see retirement, ever.

“Not unless my daughter can come live with me and help out,” Waite said. “I can’t retire — I wouldn’t have enough to live on.”

But, at least for now, her days are fueled by one powerful redeeming factor besides seeing the children’s minds expand.

“I love my class this year,” Waite said. “They are really sweet and very polite. They are the kind of kids who will come up and give you a hug. It makes you remember why you are really doing it.”

As far as future generations go, Low said he would discourage those considering the teaching profession.

“Given the financial situation teachers face, coupled with new time demands created by the current Educator Evaluation System and increased minutes in our bell schedules, it is difficult to recommend teaching as a profession for young people. That’s extremely sad and wrong,” Low said.

For Kline, despite the pay inequity, he is proud of the value of a teaching career.

“There isn’t another profession that would be as fulfilling and worthwhile,” Kline said.

Kapaa High School Principal Daniel Hamada has devoted more than 35 years to education.

“The balance is that it is something you enjoy doing, and at the end of the day, you feel enriched with what you’ve done with the kids,” he said.

The Future

Okabe said he doesn’t see the population of teachers available improving.

“If we can’t address this salary situation, we’re going to have a major shortage,” Okabe said.

He said a compensation study is underway to evaluate salaries for teachers.

“Off hand, we didn’t need to see the results of the study (WalletHub) to know Hawaii is on the bottom,” Okabe said. “We can draw teachers to Hawaii with our climate and our nice beaches, but we’ve gotta keep them here. To say the low pay is the price for paradise, that’s baloney.”

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