Money isn't magic: Supporting Hawaii's teachers beyond pay

The following editorial was originally published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday, August 7, 2022 as part of the “Raise Your Hand” column in the Insight section.

Cora Lau

By: Cora Lau, student at Pepperdine University and a graduate of Kalani High School

As a kid, you adored role-playing as a teacher with friends who would pretend to be students. So, after growing up a bit, you decided to take your love for teaching and become a teacher. Pursuing four years of college as an education major led to a teaching position in Hawaii for $47,443/year. You devoted hours to perfecting your first lesson plan — only to see it flop.

For the next few years, you feel like teaching was a mistake as you struggle financially and personally. This is your dream, but you wonder why reality is so different than what you had imagined. Behind the dire need for qualified teachers in the Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) lies this common scenario. While the vast majority of solutions to the shortage focus on providing greater compensation, school and community- based support for teachers is of equal importance to attracting and retaining local educators.

Given the increase of over 25% in teachers leaving the HIDOE in the 2020-21 school year from the year prior, the need for change cannot be understated. The issue has manifested in approximately 40% of HIDOE students being taught by unqualified educators. Perhaps you’ve even seen the impact in your children’s classrooms.

Of course, low pay is a significant contributor to the shortage. Accounting for the cost of living in Hawaii, the average teacher’s salary is among the lowest in the nation. One HIDOE educator admitted that while teachers’ hearts are for their students, the salaries are simply not enough to meet their basic needs. This issue is being addressed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association through increases in teacher salaries, loan forgiveness and affordable housing programs.

However, a prominent yet often ignored reason behind the shortage is the lack of support for teachers from schools and communities. As one educator stated, “People don’t get into teaching for the money.”

While teachers are aware of the humble pay offered in the field, what does stun them is the lack of support they receive from others. As one educator explained, “The HIDOE supports a large, diverse range of people so it’s hard to address individual needs, leading to a lack of support trickling down to teachers.” Many teachers are unsure of whom to turn to and feel alone in their struggles — forcing them to leave the HIDOE altogether.

While a mentorship program exists to support new teachers, many educators find it difficult to spare a moment. The majority of teachers work long before and after the regular school day. Working through this dilemma means the HIDOE must prioritize the professional development and growth of their teachers. This might happen through traditional one-on-one mentoring.

While the vast majority of solutions to the shortage focus on providing greater compensation, school and community-based support for teachers is of equal importance to attracting and retaining local educators.

— Cora Lau

But informal methods like swapping lesson plans or providing teachers with daily journals they can write concerns or questions in to exchange with other teachers are solutions that should be explored as well. Not only does this lack of support originate from schools, but in our local communities as well. “There has been a cultural shift to people not respecting teachers,” explained one educator. Many individuals no longer regard teaching as a respectable profession due to how overworked and underpaid teachers are. It may sound simple but supporting initiatives of the HSTA or your local schools or simply saying “thank you” to your teachers can go a long way.

While money is a leading issue behind the teacher shortage, rallying support for our teachers in our schools and communities is a simple first step. So that if teaching is their dream, reality does not disappoint.

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