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Do Teachers Make the Grade?


(page 5 of 6)

The Harold K.L. Castle Foundation has donated almost $9 million in education-related grants since 2004. Seen here, executive director Terrence R. George, president Mitchell D’Olier and program officer for education Matthew Lorin.

Photo: Rae Huo

There is an organization in Hawaii doing a great job at luring new talent to Hawaii’s most needy areas, however.

Teach for America, a national corps made up of recent college graduates and professionals who commit two years to teach in urban and rural schools, has been in the state for three years, and has already gained a reputation for providing exemplary teachers. There are 105 actively enrolled TFA teachers in Hawaii schools.

Part of the appeal is that the program attracts the best and the brightest. Jill Baldemor, executive of Teach for America-Hawaii, says, “More than 35,000 people applied this year, and we’re only going to be able to take 4,000. It’s a fairly rigorous process, and there are great, great people applying.”   

It’s not the compensation that draws applicants. TFA teachers draw a salary lower than licensed DOE teachers—$22,000 to $41,000 depending on living situations. What they do get, however, is a rigorous training program, a complete support system and additional tests that help the teachers track the progress of their students, as well as their own progress, over the course of a year. TFA teachers we spoke with who were finishing up their second year of teaching described the program support as being both comprehensive and useful.

TFA also casts a wider net when looking for applicants. “We’re recruiting a different group of people, people who would not ordinarily come into education,” says Baldemor. “We don’t target people with ed backgrounds; we really target people who have had a track record of achievement.”

Those who come aboard, she says, want to be part of a movement, and contribute to the community. It’s enough to make one wonder what the Hawaii DOE could be doing to inspire similar enthusiasm in its own applicant pool. Granted, it’s not precisely an apples-to-apples comparison; the TFA program is a short-term experience more akin to a stint in the Peace Corps than a lifetime career decision (Although half of the first batch of Hawaii TFA teachers who have already fulfilled their two-year commitment have stuck around to continue teaching.).

Once principals get a qualified new teacher in the door, it’s a struggle to keep them on the job for more than a year or two. Attrition is high, and many teachers transfer to more desirable schools once they achieve tenure in just two semesters. At Campbell High, Awakuni says her turnover rate is one-third of her teaching staff every year. (For comparison, Hawaii’s statewide turnover rate is just over 10 percent.)

When a full third of the school’s teachers start from scratch every fall, principals find themselves sinking a disproportionate amount of resources into basic training—an investment that disappears when those teachers leave for greener pastures.

“We train them on everything, because they don’t come with these skills from the universities. They have the pedagogy and the philosophy, but every school is different in its operations,” Awakuni says. “This year we even spent $20,000 to reimburse teachers for university courses, to give them an incentive to get highly qualified. And then there’s no guarantee that they’re going to stay, because of our geographic isolation. As soon as they make their tenure, they transfer closer to home. I’m not even going to get the return on my money. But I have to think that I’m helping the whole system.”

Even principals of schools in districts seen as more desirable can find it hard to keep new talent, thanks to the DOE’s policy of rewarding seniority rather than performance. It’s possible for senior, tenured teachers to bump out promising new ones, simply by virtue of having been in the system longer.

“We seem to treat new teachers worse than most big systems,” says D’Olier. “We have loaded our system in favor of seniority, more than other systems. We force movement in young teachers when other systems don’t.”

Teramae has seen this phenomenon first hand at Kalani High. Budget cuts have led to the elimination of 79 resource teacher positions at the state level of the DOE, but because of tenure privileges, those staff reductions have just been passed on to individual schools, where principals have to make room for the displaced teachers, often at the expense of less-senior teachers.

“I’ve lost a couple of really good non-tenured teachers who worked really well with students, to displaced tenured teachers who were placed at my school,” says Teramae. “It’s a very trying time for our entire department.”

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