Monday, August 10, 2015

Why Can't We Retain Teachers in Hawaii?

Recently, Civil Beat published an article titled, "Hawaii Schools Begin the Year Short on Teachers - Again."  As I read the article, I could relate to the frustrations of the principals. It isn't easy to find highly-qualified teachers, and I have been in the situation where I am "harassing" our Personnel Officer for a list of applicants for a position because school will be starting the following week. I look back on my first position with the Department of Education, and I wasn't hired until October after school had already been in session for a month.  So it is clear that starting off the year short on teachers is not a new problem.

When I received my teaching degree over four decades ago, there were no jobs for elementary teachers except for those with special education degrees.  At that time, the Department was disbanding their 3-on-2 program (3 teachers with 2 classrooms of students) at all elementary schools. That meant that 1 of 3 elementary teachers was now out of a job. I applied for and was hired to teach with Head Start, but many of my colleagues who graduated with teaching degrees ended up taking jobs in other fields and never became teachers.

Today, we have a different problem:  there aren't enough highly qualified teachers for every classroom.  To address this shortfall, the State has recruited teachers from the mainland and Teach for America.  This is a temporary fix, however, and does not address the major problem of keeping teachers for more than just two or three years. We all get better as we gain more experiences and more confidence. This is true of the classroom teacher as well.

We have a unique situation in Hawaii. When we recruit teachers from the mainland, the cost to relocate is extensive. New teachers probably think it's exciting to be offered a position in Hawaii, but without knowing the culture of this place, it can be a challenging transition.  Trying to find a place to live or looking for roommates to share the cost of a rental then purchasing a car to get to work is not easy when one does not know where to begin looking.  Many times, the teaching jobs are in remote rural locations away from places where they might meet other young people to socialize with. And of course, the high cost of living in Hawaii can be difficult to manage for someone with a new teacher's starting salary.  According to the article, "Why Do Teachers Quit?" 40%-50% of new teachers nationwide will quit within their first five years, and teacher turnover is 4% higher than other professions.  In Hawaii, according to the Civil Beat article,  it costs the State between $6.2-$13.5 million a year to recruit and train new teachers due to attrition.  That is money that could go towards increasing the weighted student formula pot.

So what can we do to truly make some changes so that we don't have to start the year off with a teacher shortage in our classrooms?  I believe the answer lies in our communities. If it takes a village to raise a child, doesn't this apply to our schools as well? We read about organizations or businesses assisting with a school-wide beautification project.  This is great, but schools need more than a one-shot project. How about giving employees time off to go to a school to mentor students who might need an adult role model? This could make a huge difference in the life of a student who may be struggling and needs some support. How about having volunteers go to school regularly to listen to students read or help them with their writing or their math? Teachers don't always have time to give every child the individualized support they may need to to be successful; volunteers could provide that extra support. Perhaps volunteers have expertise in an area that could benefit the school. Gardening? Composting? Aquaponics? Art? Music? Dance? Sports? Foreign language? School is not just about academics especially if we want to develop the whole child.  Oftentimes, schools do not have the funds to provide these extra classes, so having "experts" volunteer would be very much appreciated.

Because housing and/or transportation time can be stressful, the community can help out if they are willing to rent to new teachers.  If several teachers can pool their resources and rent a place, this not only saves them money, this has the added benefit of providing a natural system of support. While having a mentor teacher at school is important,  so is having people to commiserate with outside of school. Additionally, teachers can then support each other as a professional learning community, to share ideas and to reflect on improving their professional practices. It's too bad that most schools no longer have teachers' cottages; perhaps this is something that all remote schools should have in their community or on their campuses to address a real problem for new teachers to the school.

If we bring the community into our schools, teachers would feel more supported, and education truly would become a team effort.  This is especially true for those communities with the most challenges. As an educator for over four decades, I still get defensive when I hear people criticizing our schools and our teachers. I know that 99% of the educators I have worked with truly do care about their students and do the best with what they have.  This is why I hope that more people would get involved in our schools on a more regular basis.  I think it would make the public more appreciative of what teachers go through every day and our students would benefit from the extra attention they would receive from caring adults.

Living in an island state in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has its rewards as well as its challenges. I believe that our students deserve to have positive educational experiences that will prepare them for life whether it is here in Hawaii or elsewhere around the world. Let's join together and be a part of the solution to improve education for our students and our teachers!

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