State Department of Education works to attract, retain teachers

LIHUE — Through March and April, the state Department of Education will travel to the Mainland to recruit teachers to the islands for the upcoming school year.

Travelling to six cities, HIDOE hopes to bring a new crop of teachers to educate Hawaii’s keiki, and hopefully convince them to stay — something that has been a real concern over the years for the state.

“It’s critical, especially in the hard-to-fill areas, that we go out and do look for specific candidates who qualify,” said Complex-Area Superintendent Bill Arakaki.

The mission to increase recruitment efforts is part of the state’s three-year strategic plan, which goes into effect this fall.

According to the new Strategic Plan’s 2020 goals, the state wants to fill 98 percent of teacher positions and have 60 percent of those teachers retained until at least the fifth year of their employment.

On Kauai, while teacher turnover is high, there haven’t many job vacancies. Arakaki told The Garden Island that coming into the 2016-17 school year, there were only 4.5 teacher vacancies on island.

When TGI asked how many vacancies he is expecting for next school year, Arakaki said it’s too early to say.

“We’re into the teacher transfer period where positions are being posted. Until that’s done, we’re not sure what it will look like since we’re still in the process right now,” he said. “Everyone works well together on Kauai to help support an educational need. We’re fortunate to be able to fill positions here on the island.”

While the vacancies are being filled, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are being filled by qualified teachers, according to Corey Rosenlee, Hawaii State Teachers Association president.

“Eleven percent of teachers at Waimea High School are emergency hires. Kauai High has around 9 percent. It’s a little better at Kapaa High, they have a little over 5 percent. To give you some perspective, an emergency hire means that they can not find any teacher to fill those positions,” he said.

Rosenlee told TGI that a beginning teacher in Hawaii makes $45,000, while an emergency hire makes around $35,000.

“An emergency hire is a teacher who doesn’t have a teaching license,” he added. “60 percent of teachers on Kauai have not been at their school for more than five years.”

When asked how HIDOE recruits teachers to stay in Hawaii for an extended period of time, Rosenlee was dismissive.

“That’s not what they’re recruiting for,” he said. “The reality is that they know that the teachers are not going to stay but they have no other choice so they continue to go to the Mainland and recruit, they stay for a couple years, and then leave. And they’re still not able to get enough teachers.”

Retention is a struggle, but Arakaki is a firm believer in producing local teachers to teach local children, and encouraging teachers who begin in Kauai, to stay in Kauai.

“On Kauai, we have a lot of support for the ‘Growing Our Own Teachers’ program where we look to support local teachers on Kauai and provide resources for them,” he said.

Recruiting local teachers is advantageous for Arakaki. Trying to fill teaching positions with candidates who haven’t lived on island is challenging in many ways.

“We provide (the candidates) information regarding what the lifestyle is on Kauai,” he said. “We let them know that it’s a rural community and that there are cultural and traditional traditions that they need to be aware of. It depends on the type of lifestyle and personality that fits with this person. It’s very important that they know what they’re getting themselves into.”

Rosenlee agrees, but says Hawaii’s schools still have a lot more to do than just recruit locally.

“We have to take a long-term view,” Rosenlee said. “The sad part is that the mentality is that we still don’t invest in a quality public school for our children.”

Turnover takes toll

Former Kauai teacher Jodi Kunimitsu, now on Maui, spoke candidly about how difficult high teacher-turnover is on students.

“The DOE needs to focus on retention rather than recruitment. I know we have a shortage, but if we focused on the teachers that we have, we wouldn’t have such a high turnover every year. I think a lot of people come to Hawaii not really knowing the realities of living here,” she said.

As head of a math department, Kunimitsu saw a lot of change among her staff.

“I remember about 14 teachers leaving over 10 years, and that was just in the math department alone,” she said. “We had a teacher who left after a month for a better paying job on the Mainland, then we had to find someone else to replace him, and he left after one semester, so he was there for three or four months. Then we had to hire a year-long sub. Those kids had three different teachers in one year.”

Hiring emergency replacements in this instance was difficult, since the teachers who were hired weren’t ready to teach.

“Many of these teachers aren’t certified. You’re constantly training these teachers to be teachers while they teach the children,” Kunimitsu said. “ It’s a mess. It’s a big mess.”

Kunimitsu agreed that the state should follow Arakaki’s line of thinking and encourage internal growth, producing local teachers rather than rely solely on Mainland recruitment.

“If the DOE continue to (recruit on the Mainland), we’re going to continue to have the same problems,” she said. “It’s a totally different culture here in Hawaii. If you don’t invest yourself in the community and learn about traditions and connect with the students, you’re going to have a hard time. Some of them do want to stay here and invest their time in the community, but it’s so much easier where they came from a lot of times, so they go back. And they have nothing to lose since their families are on the Mainland.”

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