A surfer on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu Larry Downing/Reuters

Hawaii’s beauty attracts instructors from the mainland, but its cost of living and remoteness lead to high turnover.

No one knows why the job postings went viral. As in previous years, the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) was simply trying to fill its vacant positions. Sure, there were 1,600 of them, but that wasn’t unheard of. The incentives it was offering, especially for special education teachers in Hawaii’s public schools, weren’t out of the ordinary, either.

But in April 2016, following local media coverage of the current vacancies and an Associated Press story, articles with headlines like “Aloha! Come Teach in Hawaii” and “Make Your Vacation Your Vocation: Hawaii is Hiring” flooded social media.

“What if we told you that you could live in paradise while making a living?” Woman’s Day teased, noting an average teacher salary of $56,000 plus bonuses. “If creating a lesson plan while kicking back in a hammock under a palm tree sounds like a dream come true, head to Hawaii’s State Department of Education, and learn more about how you can apply for the job of a lifetime. The beach awaits you.”

Applications to the DOE soared: The department went from getting about 400 applicants a month to more than 6,000 in April alone. If it seemed like the state’s call for teachers had been heard, the reality was that many applicants weren’t qualified to teach—and some couldn’t even legally work in the United States. It wasn’t quite #fakenews, but this bevy of glib, glamorizing posts in effect made the DOE’s job even harder. Among the crush of applicants, promising candidates were now nearly impossible to find.

Despite a population of 1.4 million, Hawaii has a single, statewide school district. (By contrast, Rhode Island, with a land area one-quarter the size, has 66.) Hawaii’s is also one of the only school districts not funded through property taxes, an irregularity that dates back to plantation days, says Corey Rosenlee, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

“When Hawaii’s public schools were in their infancy, most of the land was held by a few wealthy landowners who not only did not want to pay higher taxes, but who knew that their power [relied on] having a population that was [not] well educated,” he says.

Because the DOE’s budget comes out of the state’s general fund, public schools are chronically underfunded, which leads to low teacher salaries, high turnover, and poor student outcomes, Rosenlee says. (Of course, disparities in property values also have contributed to vastly unequal funding for the nation’s public schools.) According to WalletHub, which adjusts for cost of living, Hawaii pays its teachers the least of any state.

This is partly why Hawaii has so much trouble finding teachers. According to the most recent data, only 52 percent of the state’s public school teachers are still teaching after five years. “The amount of teachers that are leaving our system is dramatically increasing, [while] the amount of teachers that are going into the profession in Hawaii is dramatically decreasing,” Rosenlee says. “[Some students] will go years without having a licensed teacher in the classroom.”

Historically, Hawaii has turned to the mainland to fill its teacher shortage, recruiting recent college graduates like Chris Cordell, who moved from Colorado to Hawaii to teach math in 2009. He spent five years at Mililani High School near Honolulu, but recently left the DOE for a charter school, Hawaii Technology Academy.

It’s been “a breath of fresh air,” he says. In addition to the eight percent “teacher-leader stipend” Cordell was able to negotiate upon being hired, the school offers professional development opportunities that public schools don’t.

Chris Cordell at his charter school, Hawaii Technology Academy. (Lydia Stuemke)

Still, Cordell has considered moving back to the mainland. That he’s stayed this long has been due to an interest in surfing and a willingness to live cheaply, as well as his fortune in finding like-minded people. “If you don’t find a group of friends out here that you can call family, especially if you’re haole, you might [feel] isolated,” he says, using a Hawaiian word most often used to describe a white person. (Hawaii is one of four majority-minority states in the U.S., and is the only state never to have had a white majority.)

Some mainland universities have worked to create support networks for those graduates who end up in Hawaii. Brittney Driggs joined Mililani High School shortly after Cordell. A New Jersey native, Driggs graduated from Marist College in upstate New York. She says her professors have, over the years, built relationships with Hawaii administrators. While Driggs was still a senior, they helped set up job interviews and connected her with local alumni.

Thanks in part to these pre-existing relationships, when Driggs and three other Marist grads accepted positions at Mililani, they received a warm welcome. Staff members picked them up from the airport, helped them look for housing, and invited them over for holidays. “They kind of became our little family,” Driggs says.

Not everyone has such a robust support network. Kat Araujo moved from New York City to Hawaii as part of Teach For America in 2010. Suddenly, she found herself teaching fifth grade on an army base outside a small town in central Oahu. It wasn’t “the Hawaii of my travel guide,” she says. Although her principal was supportive, Araujo says she felt like an outsider among the other teachers.

As a Dominican woman who is also black, she was used to being a minority. But this was different. “I felt like there was something I couldn’t quite figure out,” she says. After three years, Araujo left the classroom to pursue other interests.

Interestingly, many teachers cite feelings of isolation, rather than Hawaii’s cost of living, as their primary hardship here. “Hawaii has its own set of challenges because it is remote, and it is very far away from home,” Araujo says. Cordell agrees. He says the DOE needs to provide more support to first-time teachers. The first few years of teaching can be hard enough, he says. In Hawaii, those stresses often are compounded by culture shock and loneliness. “There’s a lot to grow through, and not everybody is up to it, especially if you’re not from here.”

The DOE is trying. In 2011, in partnership with the New Teacher Center, it instituted a statewide mentoring and orientation program. The three-year program is required of new teachers, and mentors also attend mandatory training. It’s too early to tell whether or not better mentoring will have a direct impact on teacher attrition, but Keri Shimomoto, the Hawaii director of the New Teacher Center, says similar efforts already bolstered three-year retention rates, from 57 percent in 2009 to 64 percent today.  

New teachers are taught traditional Hawaiian practices by a kupuna (elder) during a cultural and professional development day. (Courtesy of Keri Shimomoto)

Hawaii is also trying to get more of its own young people in the pipeline through student clubs. It’s a smart investment. Homegrown teachers are likely better suited to navigating Hawaii’s education environment and don’t have the burden of being far away from family. And yet Hawaii’s perennial teacher shortage, along with a host of other issues, has tarnished the district’s reputation. Driggs says she’s heard teachers dissuade kids from going into education. “They know teachers don’t get paid anything,” she says.  

Jim Shon, the director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center, says teacher attrition is being exacerbated by larger trends, such as Millennials’ willingness to switch jobs—even careers. Schools need to acknowledge that the era of the lifelong teacher may be over, he says, and offer salary schedules and incentives to match.

Rosenlee, of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, isn’t convinced. “If that was the case, then the turnover rate at Punahou and Iolani would be the same as in our public schools,” he says, referring to two of Honolulu’s most prestigious private schools. (The former is Barack Obama’s alma mater.) “But I’m gonna bet you that what you’re going to find, at Punahou and Iolani, is that they have a very low turnover rate.”

But Araujo, for one, agrees with Shon’s assertion that millennials are looking for a diversity of experiences, chasing their interests and taking opportunities as they come. “People are not choosing careers the way that they did 20 years ago,” she says. “That is a generational thing.”

For her, Hawaii was a chapter that included, but was bigger than, Teach for America. “I didn’t necessarily make a commitment to Teach for America; I made a commitment to Hawaii, and that’s why I stayed as long as I did.” After leaving the program, Araujo immersed herself in the local culinary and creative scene, with turns as a food photographer, graphic designer, and proprietor of a taco truck. In December 2016, after six years in Hawaii, she moved back to New York City.

Araujo is uncertain whether she’ll teach again. “The idea of showing up to this one thing for the rest of [my] life, I don’t live in that world.” And yet she’s not quite ready to leave it behind either: This month, she decided to renew her teaching license.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Araujo has not yet renewed her teaching license.

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