Almost 11 years ago, my then-boyfriend and I were hired to teach on Kauai, where he was born and raised. We were in our mid-20s, fresh out of grad school, ready for adventure, ready to feel real and important in the world.

In many ways we’ve grown up and together with school as a backdrop. Seven classrooms, six principals, five houses, two kids, and one marriage later, we’re still here.

For us the delight and challenge of working with young people outweighs the many demoralizing aspects of being educators. We remain optimistic that our state can make changes that will, for example, help our own daughters maintain access to inspired and creative educators, curriculum, and instruction.

But our optimism is in spite of the fact that Hawaii has intensified teacher recruitment efforts in response to a record number of vacancies. Just a few months ago, viral ads called for teachers far and wide to come and work in the islands, and national news sites covered the teacher shortage.

Within the DOE, the story wasn’t news at all; Hawaii consistently struggles to recruit and maintain teachers. Clearly, having the best school system in the nation, as Governor Ige publicly claims as his goal, is a long way off unless long-term efforts to nurture and properly compensate our best teachers gain attention and action.

Apple and stack of books

There is one particular policy regarding teacher retention we must raise our voices to improve if we are going to rise to Ige’s challenge.

What do we, as a community, want? As a parent and educator, I can at least volunteer this answer: great schools for our keiki, which necessarily means high-quality, reflective, committed teachers who want and can afford to stay in the profession. So, we must attract and hire well-prepared professionals and provide opportunities for them to continuously improve their practice while also addressing the low-pay problem that disproportionately affects teachers with five to 20 years in the system.

We can kill two birds by significantly expanding the annual bonus for National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) and subsidizing the cost of certification. Contract negotiations, though sometimes ambitious, reinforce a system that provides few financial incentives for teachers to stay in the classroom.

A highly motivated teacher who has already earned a master’s degree might regularly take professional development courses to crawl up the salary ladder, but the returns are certainly slow and paltry for even the most devoted teachers taking classes beyond their regular workload. Young, new, energized teachers might begin their teaching careers in Hawaii thinking the low pay is manageable (get roommates or live with family, bike to school, work a second job), but when the fact of wage erosion coincides with fairly typical 30-something ideals like attempting to buy a house or car, starting a family, or wanting to be recognized for career success, the incredible challenges of teaching combined with Hawaii’s low pay become untenable.

Hawaii law currently provides that NBCTs receive $5,000 paid out over the course of 12 months, with an additional $5,000 bonus if teachers are working at DOE-determined hard-to-staff, “high turnover,” or priority/focus schools. But this bonus deserves some scrutiny.

First of all, our contract (separate from this policy) already does provide extra compensation to teachers in hard-to-staff schools, and somehow, according to recent reporting from HSTA, the DOE says “no schools have met the high turnover rate criteria this year.”

Finally, only 14 of the Hawaii’s 290 public schools are considered to be in a “focus, priority, or superintendent’s zone.”

If the goal of the policy is truly, as it states, “to recognize and support exemplary teaching practice by supporting public school teachers,” then now is the time to make sure it’s meeting this objective.

To put this in perspective, there are approximately 12,600 teaching positions in Hawaii public schools, and there were 1,600 vacant positions at the end of last school year alone. It’s clear that our state is in a perpetual teacher recruitment and retention struggle, with around 50 percent of newly recruited teachers leaving within five years.

Right now there are more vacant teaching positions in Hawaii public schools (531) than there are National Board Certified Teachers (481). Each year we find the funds to pay hundreds of emergency hires without a teaching degree to fill vacancies, but we have to fight to pay our most prepared, dedicated and passionate teachers a bonus they certainly deserve.

It seems we ought to agree that Hawaii public schools collectively are hard to staff, have high turnover, and yet require highly effective teachers. Teachers spend years working to earn National Board Certification, so they also tend to stick around once they’ve earned it.

Let’s provide that additional $5,000 bonus to all NBCTs working in Hawaii public schools to send a clear message that retaining exceptional teachers is a top priority and that there is a way for ambitious, committed teachers to survive here in this otherwise economically stagnant profession.

To be clear, there are plenty of highly effective DOE teachers who are not National Board Certified, and the NBCT label doesn’t mean everything.

But we can certainly think of it as a proxy for an important combination of traits that Hawaii parents, community members, and policymakers want most from their teachers: experience, loyalty, professionalism, content mastery, and enthusiasm. At the very least, we must encourage and enable more teachers to become certified and then provide a bonus that allows them to live here. After all, the DOE has invested time, money, and energy into professionally developing its teachers, an investment that is lost after a teacher leaves the DOE but can be incredibly economical and fruitful if a teacher stays.

We know that the most competent teachers are compelled or asked to do the most within the school community; they are quite often the teacher leaders. And, the research on NBCTs bears this fact out: NBCTs are more likely than other teachers to stay in the profession and to take on needed roles as teacher mentors, instructional coaches and recruiters for other potential NBCT candidates.

We have all had that one teacher that made an earth-shaking difference in our life. We seem to accept that it’s a rare individual who possesses all the traits we most want our teachers to have, and yet we have precious few ways to reward those who do. A thoughtful expansion of the NBCT bonus and consistent funding to help individuals get certified is something we can and must take action to ensure if we want to create and retain extraordinary teachers.

Financially and academically, we can’t afford to keep “leasing” brand new teachers who effectively “retire” in one to 4 years. In fact, data from the Department of Labor suggests that attrition costs employers 30 percent of the employee’s salary. That’s a whole lot of money we ought to be investing in the teachers who are committed to serving Hawaii’s keiki.

We need all of our teachers to feel that this profession offers growth opportunities and recognize that teachers can’t just be paid in good feelings. As much as my husband and I often feel real and important in our students’ lives, that sentiment doesn’t pay for insurance premiums or preschool tuition or the cost of commuting to work everyday.

If we’re going to have the best schools in the nation, we need the teachers hired here to dig in, be supported in their first few years, and then see not only an avenue for becoming masterful but also be rewarded fairly for their commitment, professionalism, and contribution to making our schools the best they can be.

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