Hawaii public schoolers return to the classroom on Monday, but their teachers have already been there for days and weeks — in some cases months.

Many teachers never left campus after school ended in May.

“As a teacher, you can’t just show up for class and expect to get good results,” explained Debbie Arakaki, curriculum coordinator at Palolo Elementary School. “There are a lot of details involved with getting the physical environment ready and making sure you’re ready for every student.”

But this Thursday and Friday — the last two days before students burst back on the scene — the state has told teachers not to come to work. That’s because it has no intention of paying them to do so.

It was a condition of the contract imposed on them by the state beginning July 1. The union is protesting the state’s actions with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, but meanwhile, teachers must follow the new contract.

Thursday and Friday are the first two days of “directed leave without pay” — in other words, furloughs — for the coming school year. Most of Hawaii’s 12,500 teachers will take seven and a half furloughs on non-instructional days. A few 12-month teachers will take off 10 days.

Some of those furloughs are designated for days otherwise set aside for preparation, collaboration and professional development. Days the Hawaii State Teachers Association fought hard to get into its members’ contract. There are eight of them, total, and this year’s furloughs coincide with three.

Lots of planning already happens on teachers’ own time.

“Planning doesn’t stop,” said Christie Russell, a second-grade teacher at Palolo who has been on campus readying her classroom and lesson plans almost every day for a month. “I plan here, and then I go home and plan until midnight.”

The scenes this week at both Palolo and Kaiser High School in Hawaii Kai paint a picture of what these days are all about and why teachers find them so important.

Making Kaiser I.B.

Tuesday morning, scores of teachers from the Kaiser Complex gathered in the cafeteria at Henry J. Kaiser High School to learn how to help fulfill their collective goal of becoming an International Baccalaureate complex.

When educators don’t get their scheduled planning and learning time together, the learning process gets pushed back for students, too, said Kelly Bart, vice principal at Niu Valley Middle School.

Many at the training day expressed determination to move forward and make the best of what they have.

“The other stuff that swirls around us, let it swirl,” Kaiser High School Principal John Sosa told the cafeteria full of educators. “You focus on that student engagement that matters so much.”

Sweeping Classrooms, Wiping Down Desks at Palolo

The office at Palolo Elementary School bustled with activity Wednesday morning. Boxes and computers in transit littered the furniture and floors. Someone had perched a box of Elmer’s Glue on the counter.

Classroom doors lining the main courtyard were opened wide, and inside the rooms you could see teachers moving furniture, arranging supplies and cleaning.

Cleaning, by the way, is not in their contract. That responsibility, according to the contract, falls on the shoulders of the Department of Education. But teachers end up doing it anyway. Some even recruit family members to help.

Teachers also study data on their incoming students and talk to counselors and other teachers so they know those students’ strengths and growth areas. Classroom rosters can change up until the day students arrive, said curriculum coordinator Josefa Vickey.

Everything is geared toward making students feel welcome. And there are so many learning types in one classroom that teachers have to prepare for.

“Every teacher wants to be fully prepared for every single student,” said Arakaki. “On day one, it really shows whether you’re ready or not.”

Russell said failing to prepare can result in chaos in the classroom.

When they weren’t in their rooms, teachers were meeting both formally and informally with their colleagues in other classrooms or on walks between buildings.

“These days are about doing a lot of sharing,” said Arakaki, a curriculum coordinator. “You’re taking care of all the little details. Wiping down furniture, making name tags, gathering all the materials you need and making lesson plans.”

The planning process is time-consuming, said fifth-grade teacher Janice Lock, but crucial, especially in keeping up with new state and federal requirements.

“The public doesn’t see all these changes that happen behind the scenes,” she said. “They just see contracts and test scores, but there’s so much going on beforehand that affects those things.”

Principal Ruth Silberstein said her teachers are committed to doing whatever it takes to start school on the right foot.

“It’s not about what I want, it’s about what needs to be done,” she said. “The kids will benefit, and in the long run, the teachers benefit from the kids learning.”

She keeps one small but meaningful ritual in the month before students return: opening the school gate every morning from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. so teachers can come on their own time to get ready for students.

She plans to open the gates on Thursday through Sunday this week, despite furloughs and weekends — because she knows her teachers will come.

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