To Teach or to Eat, That is the Question

18583132“Why don’t you pursue a Master’s in Education?”

Sitting in the office of my advisor, she hands me a file containing all the information I would need. “You’re an English major; you can finish your BA and then apply for it, if Education is a path you think you would like to take. I would highly recommend it.”

“Would you?” I ask. It is a tempting proposal. But it would be incredibly daunting. I go through the requirements as my advisor points them and elaborates on its details. It would mean two full years for a Masters, with compulsory in-class training, intensive seminar lessons and examinations to ensure your qualifications. I sigh. But nothing good ever came easy, right?

“A Masters in Education would open the world to you,” my advisor added encouragingly. “You could work anywhere in any country. Get any position you wanted. Teachers are always needed anywhere, everywhere.”

This was the conversation that struck me as I read about Hawaii schools starting the 2015 Fall semester short on teachers—again. There was no doubt that a teacher shortage was an increasingly worsening problem, with the amount of vacancies increasing over the last two decades. Over the past years, schools have had to rush to hire around 400-800 new teachers each year, with the lack of teachers turning to be a never-ending problem. Why were teachers leaving? I had my heart set on teaching in Hawaii once I had obtained my Masters degree—my ambition, suddenly, did not seem so ideal anymore.

Reports were wild on the factors of why nobody seemed to desire the teaching profession on the islands. Local schools were not turning out enough graduates for the teaching profession. Statistics showed a high rate of teacher turnover, meaning many teachers moved, left their positions of quit their professions altogether. Last year’s data showed that approximately 10% of teachers leave their jobs after one year, the result which meant only an estimation of 60% of teachers held more or less permanent positions for five years or more. Another factor seemed to be the lack of specialty teachers for courses such as special education, Hawaiian language, and vocational and technical classes, most of which would require teachers who are highly trained and qualified. The final mega-factor, or so it seemed to be, was the fact that public school teachers are not paid enough, nor paid for overtime work.

A lower salary would not have turned off quite so many applicants, it seemed, if teachers were actually able to make a decent living off of it. Statistics by the National Center for Policy Analysis show that teachers are paid the worst in Hawaii after the cost of living is factored in, leaving them with the lowest median salary earnings in the US. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also showed that a Honolulu teacher’s salary is 24% less than that of an average household income, meaning many full-time teachers have had to take up second jobs just to make ends meet.  Coupled with the fact teachers are not given overtime pay, the result has many scrambling to pursue their profession elsewhere like the mainland or quitting their jobs altogether. The precious few teachers who dedicate themselves to their work do it purely for the love of their job and for the sake of the children whose education is directly affected by the lack of teachers.

Elton Kinoshita has had to take up the position of teaching pre-calculus, despite not having taken the subject since 1975. Kinoshita taught high school math for the first two months of the 2014-15 school year. His vice principals taught elementary school classes. They completed administrative work after school was dismissed, and then prepped at night to lead classes they had not taught in years — if ever. They worked late. They worked weekends. The workload is a heavy burden unrelieved by the stresses of knowing such dedication and passion would never be rewarded with enough money to allow them to pay rent, gas, and food. Their only reward is to see the fruits of their labors through the success of their students—but even then, with so many classes needing their guidance, many students are still left out in the cold.

The fall semester has public schools in Hawaii starting short on teachers once again, with the Department of Education hiring nearly 700 new recruits to fill in for the 2015-2016 school year. 231 of these recruits have been hired with Emergency Hire Permits, one of the DOE’s solutions to the teacher shortage, as is their methods of hiring teachers from the mainland through programs such as Teach for America. The DOE’s current preferred solutions often include hiring teachers from the mainland and temporary substitutes to fill in vacancies that seem to open up as quickly as they are filled. Many of these teachers leave after only two or three years, leaving another gap to fill and causing a flurry in many school administrations. The reasons are simple: Hawaii is not home to them. Most return home to obligations and family, and also where teachers are not severely underpaid. Others, it seems, leave out of frustration with no permanent solution to the problem, making the burden on current teachers a heavier one.

Jonathan Sager is one of them.

Having taught in Hawaii for the last nine years has left the once spirited 22-year-old college graduate drained and exhausted. It is impossible, he claims, to keep up with the high cost of living with just a teacher’s salary. Exasperated with the DOE’s constant experimentation with solutions to the teacher shortage, Sager packed up and returned home to Texas to be with his family. His dream of making a difference in Waianae Coast has been dashed after years of struggling with the teacher shortage. Cases like Jonathan’s also cast doubt on the motivation for students to pursue an education; for other than the teachers, the ones that bear the heaviest brunt of effects are the students in the public schools of Hawaii. These teachers need to survive, and these students are not receiving the education they need.

These painful situations have left both teachers and students equally drained and discouraged—students often end up receiving half-baked lessons from well-meaning but ill-equipped teachers like Kinoshita or last-minute substitutes who are unqualified to teach a particular subject. Also, with the constant switching of teachers with the high turnover rate, there is no stability or consistency in a syllabus and therefore no motivation for students to do their best. Schools in poorer areas in Hawaii have been hit hardest—and their dropout rates are on the rise.

In addition the programs, the DOE have also introduced Emergency Hire Permits—permits which allow schools to hire teachers for subjects which are deemed absolutely necessary. Statements from the Department have insisted that despite the high number of permits issued each year, the DOE only hires the “best and brightest”, insisting that teachers hired under the permits are qualified and certified individuals. Red flags, however, have been raised over their claim—only 36% of teachers in Hawaii schools have an advanced degree, compared to 56% for public schools nationwide.

This statistic is echoed in one of Superintendent Ann Mahi’s testimony regarding an individual hired under an Emergency Hire Permit. An Oregon teacher, persuaded by a college friend to teach in Hawaii, moved to Lanai to teach in a school. She brought along her husband, a former general manager of a distribution plant, with no experience or qualification in teaching. The school’s desperation for a chemistry teacher led them to persuade the husband to teach 6th grade chemistry, despite his obvious lack of experience or qualification. One can only imagine the crash course in teaching the man undertook, perhaps even his well-meaning hard work to guide his students the best he can—but eventually, the evidence would remain: underqualified, the man was in no position to impart the best chemistry lesson to a class of 6th graders. Would they be able to grasp concepts and understand the syllabus in time for the 7th grade? One can only hope, it seems.

With these short-term solutions gradually flailing and creating yet another host of issues to solve, many senior teachers have expressed hope that a permanent solution to the shortage can be found. Most prefer having “homegrown” teachers, training up local youngsters to take on the profession—but then, why is there a lack of local graduates? If the profession was worth the time, as my advisor told me, then why did not more students pursue it?

Money, it seems, makes the world go round, and despite the cliché, we cannot escape reality. In reality, people need to survive. In reality, people cannot pick passion over next month’s rent. In reality, we need the dollars coming in; and no one is going to teach if the state does not pay them enough and if overtime salary cannot be earned. In reality, the question of money will chase away not just the local teachers, but also the temporary ones hired from the mainland. If we cannot hope to keep our homegrown teachers, what hope is there that we can keep others?

It takes dedication and hard work to be a teacher. The duty of shaping a person’s future—their university prospects, their desires, their ambitions and passions—is a heavy and terribly underrated one. Why should we be compromising on our students’ education and their future when education remains one of the most important elements that shape Hawaii? Why are there no responses to the proposals to increase the salaries of teachers and pay them for overtime? What has happened to the $75million grant won by Hawaii State, meant to boost the education system and improve its teacher shortage? Many have cited a lack of funds for the reason teachers’ salaries remain as they are—and yet, there were promises of bonuses and monetary rewards for teachers after the grant was won. Further reports have stated that money from the grant was used for programs designed to train recruits from the mainland and provide bonuses for them; a futile solution, I believe, when the same money could be used to help all teachers by increasing their salary. Instead, the DOE is providing sessions for new recruits, another short-term solution that will eventually see most of these teachers pack their bags after a few years.

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” This quote by Nelson Mandela reminds me once again why people choose to teach, and why, despite the severe losses and increasing burdens, some teachers in Hawaii stay for the sake of the students. But to teach, we also need to survive. If we do not earn enough to feed ourselves, the passion dies. Treat our teachers like they are professionals, not as the lowest community in society. Help them to empower our students and the minds of our future for society, give them an ambition and a drive to imbue their students with the same kind of empowerment with their education. What will become of the public education in Hawaii if the situation continues, or worse, deteriorates?

To put it this way, I would not work my tail off to earn a Master’s degree in Education only to stay in a place where I would be counting pennies to survive each month. It simply would just not be worth the effort of having to juggle work and worry. Teachers might be needed everywhere in the world, but in Hawaii, it has become a rather unwelcome place to work and earn a living. If we do not change things soon, there will be no quality education left for our students.



3 Comments to “To Teach or to Eat, That is the Question”

  1. I don’t see why the state can’t pay teachers a decent wage. These are the people that are entrusting with developing the next generation. If a teacher can’t make enough money so that they need to take up a second job to pay the bills, then it means they aren’t spending as much time as they should to developing students. With the thought in the back of their minds that they won’t be able to pay the bills without working another job, then lesson plans won’t be as thorough, grading may not be very accurate, and teachers won’t be as motivated to teach. It’s actually embarrassing knowing that the state doesn’t pay their teachers a living wage. No wonder so many of them leave.

  2. In economics you break down three key factors when analyzing this very issue. Wage, leisure and consumption all play a important role in balancing your personal life. Hawaii teachers wages, leisure (time spent off the job) and consumption is so outta whack. Low wages, working overtime hours, and cost of living in Hawaii is a recipe for disaster. I agree adjustments need happen or Hawaii will stay at the bottom of the list for generations to come.

  3. Most of my family members are teachers in the state of Hawaii. I ask them why they do it and the answer is always because they love their job; however, they tell me that I should pursue something else. I think it’s so sad that teachers aren’t taken seriously in this country, especially in Hawaii. My girlfriend is in UH’s double certification program, which gives her a certification to teach both special ed and elementary ed. She is not from Hawaii, but wants to teach here. Two years ago there was a grant that would give students of the double cert. program $30,000 if they commit to teaching in Hawaii for three years. She wasn’t eligible because it was for Hawaii students, which I assume was to keep local students in-state to teach after they graduate. This year she was eligible for the grant, regardless of her residency. I suspect it’s because local students don’t want to become teachers or not teach in Hawaii, so they have to extend the grant to non-residents to attract teachers to Hawaii’s education system. To me, it’s both good and bad. Good because free money. Bad because most people will probably leave after three years because it’s not much of a time commitment.

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