LIHUE — Elias Gonzales knows what it’s like to take a chance and move to Kauai.
“I felt that Kauai took a chance on me,” the Texas native said. “I couldn’t wait to get my first full-time teaching job, and I feel honored and blessed being here.”
Gonzales is chorale director at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, and this is his first year teaching on the island.
“It’s exciting, and I’m loving every minute of it,” he said.
Kauai reminds Gonzales of home.
“I’m from a small town, so I feel very much at home here,” he said.
But moving to the island came with challenges.
“There was little housing options, and the cost of living is high, compared to Texas,” he said.
Michelle Molina, a first-year social studies and math teacher at Kapaa Middle School, faced different challenges.
She and her husband returned to Kauai in June after living in California for five years.
“I was born and raised on Kauai, so transitioning to the island wasn’t a challenge,” she said. “It was more of a challenge getting used to running my own classroom.”
The 2015-2016 school year saw a record number of teachers hired across Kauai.
Almost 90 teachers were hired to fill vacant positions on the island, said Diane Nitta, personnel regional office for the Kauai Complex Area.
The number of hiring has increased over the last few years, added Caroline Freudig, Kauai resource teacher for the Kahua Kauai New Teacher Program.
“It’s been higher than normal,” she said. “The lowest number has been in the 60s every year for several years.”
Statewide, the Hawaii Department of Education is recruiting teachers from the Mainland to fill as many as 1,600 vacancies expected next year, according to the Associated Press.
Position vacancies include special education, secondary mathematics and secondary science.
The salary for teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $46,601. Teachers with a master’s degree have a $50,328 salary. Teachers who receive a doctorate have a salary of $60,010, according to HIDOE teacher’s salary schedule.
On Kauai, the HIDOE is in its second vacancy posting process, so it is hard to say how much of a need there is on Kauai, Nitta said.
Reasons for the higher number of filling vacancies include hard to fill positions, the economy and the island itself, said Bill Arakaki, Kauai Complex Area superintendent.
“We need to find people for specialized classes — like math and special education,” he said.
But the Kauai environment is a challenging factor in recruitment, Arakaki said.
“It’s a small, rural island, so you have to love the outdoors,” he said. “So working with teachers about background knowledge of Kauai is important.”
One way to provide new teachers with that background knowledge is putting them through the Kahua Kauai New Teacher Program, which offers a crash course in Hawaiian culture and so they can better connect with their students.
It also serves as a way for teachers to come together and share their individual teaching methods.
Both Gonzales and Molina participated in the program.
“I’m rather new to the culture, and have more to learn, so it’s been a great experience,” Gonzales said. “It offered me growth opportunities and ideas to inspire my students.”
For Molina, the program allowed her to see the island through a different lens.
“I’m seeing the island in a new way because I’m seeing places, like Kokee State Park, as a resource, not a sixth-0grade field trip,” she said.
Because of the cultural ties, potential teachers from Kauai have priority over Mainland teachers, Nitta said.
There are two vacancy posting periods. If, after all Hawaii applicants are hired, and there are still vacancies, the district will recruit to the Mainland, Nitta said.
“It’s important to know if teachers are born and raised on Hawaii because they understand the culture and the lens we are looking through,” Freudig said.
Of the 90 new teachers hired on Kauai this year, about 53 of them called Hawaii home, she said.
Recruitment for the next school year begins in October.
“The goal is to hire this year for next year,” she said. “By October, the schools know what their projected enrollment will be next year.”
Positions have already been filled at Waimea High School and Waimea Canyon Middle School, she said. There are rarely vacancies on the North Shore.
“It goes to show, depending on what environment they want to be in, whether it be the Westside, or in a city like Lihue, people will look at what positions are open in the area they want to be in,” Arakaki said.