When Renee Dufault was preparing to leave the military in 2007 after more than 30 years of active duty, she knew exactly what she wanted to do next.

“I already knew I wanted to teach,” said the Big Island resident.

Through a federal program that helps people leaving the service find classroom positions, she got connected from her post in Maryland with a Hawaii Department of Education recruiter. Their telephone conversation would determine her career trajectory for the next decade and beyond.

“He said, ‘We don’t have enough money to travel to the mainland. But if you can be here by Thursday, we can interview you.’”

Dufault, then 49, didn’t hesitate. She jumped on a plane to Hawaii and was immediately referred to two principals — one at Naalehu Elementary in Kau on the Big Island and another at a high school on Maui.

Ex-service member Renee Dufault came to teach in Hawaii a decade ago through the Troops to Teachers program. Courtesy Renee Dufault

She chose the Big Island school because the area was more affordable and she wanted to work with a Native Hawaiian population.

The federal program that facilitated her quick transition is called Troops to Teachers. Now, the Hawaii Department of Education has received a $600,000 federal grant to help it find more teachers like Dufault over the next five years.

The program, established in 1993, helps place transitioning service members into K-12 teaching positions around the country. It also helps with financial assistance to help them meet state teacher licensing requirements and offers incentive pay to teach in hard-to-staff areas.

The program helped bring Dufault to Hawaii, but in the last decade the state DOE hasn’t had a dedicated military recruiter to reach out to service members.

That will soon change.

DOE will use its Troops to Teachers grant to establish a full-time position to recruit military veterans. The goal is to get 100 possible candidates referred to the program. “We anticipate that perhaps only 40 to 50 percent will actually enroll in a teacher ed program, complete it and then get hired,” said DOE communications director Lindsay Chambers.

In many ways, Hawaii is a suitable place to tap into the pool of service members who envision a teaching career.

Home to large military installations such as Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay and Schofield Barracks, the state has an active duty population of about 36,600, the ninth-highest in the country. It had another 18,000 military civilians and 9,400 reserve forces as of September 2017.

“Kids love me, and part of it is that the military does teach you how to manage young people because you’re taught to be a leader.” — Renee Dufault

Since its inception, Troops to Teachers has helped more than 20,000 veterans nationwide move to a career in education, according to the Defense Human Resources Activity, the division of the U.S. Department of Defense where the program is managed.

Hawaii School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has said teacher recruitment and retention are high priorities. Her talent management office has sought new ways to woo teachers to the islands and convince them to stay, including partnering with the University of Hawaii to help “homegrown” teachers obtain their teaching certification and sending principals to the mainland to forge connections with new recruits.

The DOE also plans to conduct a compensation study in the near future to compare teacher pay in Hawaii with elsewhere in the country. The single-district state education system, which serves about 179,000 students, had roughly 1,000 vacancies among the 13,320 teaching positions in K-12 schools statewide at the start of the current school year.

Troops to Teachers fits squarely into the DOE’s vision of reaching potential teachers who are willing and able to serve students, according to a recent DOE news release.

Dufault, who currently teaches special education at Kau High on the Big Island, said that without placement assistance through her Troops To Teachers recruiter contact, it would have been hard to get a teaching post so quickly.

She said her military training prepared her well for a career working with youths.

While on active duty — Dufault served in the Army and Navy before moving on to the Public Health Service — she was able to partake in student teaching with saved-up leave time.

“I never had a problem managing a classroom,” she said. “Kids love me, and part of it is that the military does teach you how to manage young people because you’re taught to be a leader.

“I went through leadership training. Your job is to mentor them.”

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