Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series looking at the challenges of recruiting and retaining teachers in Hawaii.
WAIKOLOA, HAWAII ISLAND — As a teacher who did not grow up in Hawaii, Rochelle Potter knows that a cultural gulf stretches between her and many of her students.
Potter taught science and math to sixth-graders this past year at Waikoloa Elementary & Middle, filling in for a teacher on maternity leave. The sea of faces in the classroom reflected an array of ethnicities: Micronesian, Native Hawaiian, Filipino, mixed-Asian and white.
The K-8 school serves a diverse population. More than half the students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. Nearly one in five is an English language learner. Some are latchkey kids whose parents work two jobs as housekeepers or hotel workers at the Waikoloa resorts.
Potter, who grew up largely overseas in Japan, has worked as a long-term substitute at several Big Island schools. Previously, she taught English in South Korea. She moved to Hawaii in 2012, initially to work at a nonprofit, but gravitated to the schools due to her love of science and education.
Still, she acknowledges her unique background cannot substitute for the fact that she is not a product of the same place as many of her students.
“Sometimes I think they’re not interested in my story because they can’t relate,” she said. “I am different from them. They don’t say this, but I’ll kind of get the impression of, ‘You don’t understand where we’re coming from.’”
Bridging the cultural divide is one of the major challenges facing teachers new to Hawaii. It takes time to build trust among students and their families, they say, and communication can take various forms.
Those from elsewhere who have stayed in Hawaii, or are committed to more lasting careers in education here, believe a key part of the equation is understanding and embracing the local culture of their students.
“With students, especially in middle school, respect is a big thing,” said Potter, 40. “And the question of, ‘Who are you and do you even know me?’ comes in. It takes time to get to know them, of (conveying), ‘Hey, I care about you, will you kind of help me out here?'”
Hawaii is unique because of its demographics, which is reflected in the K-12 public school population. In the 2016-17 school year, out of 179,000 students, 25% were Native Hawaiian, 22% Filipino, 18% white and 9% Japanese, according to the 2017 State of Hawaii Data Book.
But, like elsewhere around the country, the public education teacher workforce here does not mirror the diversity of the student population.
Hawaii’s public school teachers are largely white (25%) or Japanese (24%), while just 10% are Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian and 7% Filipino, according to the same report. About 26% of teachers also reported their ethnicities as “multi-ethnic.”
While research has shown that students perform better when they have teachers who reflect their race and gender, particularly in disadvantaged, high minority areas, another question arises: Do teachers who have a better cultural understanding of their students tend to stay longer in their roles?
“Adjusting to the culture can be very difficult for mainland teachers,” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association and longtime Campbell High School social studies teacher. “Understanding the culture of their students can help them become better teachers.”
A little over half of new teachers to Hawaii make it to the five-year mark at the same school.
To address the problem of low teacher retention, the Hawaii Department of Education, in partnership with Kamehameha Schools and community organizations, piloted a voluntary cultural induction and orientation program for new teachers in 2007.
Feedback from participants was strong and data showed the program helped teacher retention into the following year, particularly in rural areas of the state where student populations are heavily Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
But only remnants of the program remain today. The only existing statewide DOE induction and mentoring program is focused on classroom and content training rather than cultural training.
At Kealakehe High School, a Title I school on the Big Island with enrollment surpassing 1,300, the student body is 30% Native Hawaiian, 12% Micronesian, 22% white and 14% Filipino. Yet the teaching staff — numbering about 74 — largely doesn’t resemble the students, according to Justin Brown, a veteran teacher of 10 years who grew up outside the state.
A Texas native, Brown originally came to Hawaii through Teach For America but decided to stay on after his two-year placement was over. Formerly a math teacher, he now heads Kealakehe High’s Career and Technical Education and Robotics program.
Brown’s years of experience at Kealakehe High have given him a window into the kind of instruction and support he says his students could benefit from. For instance, will his kids be able to afford to stay and live in the community where they grew up?
“In an island community, the idea that you have things that you’re kind of hustling on and doing, is very natural,” he said, pointing out as examples informal bake sales or the improvised marketing of a family barbecue sauce recipe. “The question is, how do you elevate that so it’s something that can be more than just a side thing?”
He says the school should adapt its curriculum to better the fit the needs of the community.
“Why isn’t the high school teaching kids how to grow and cook their own food? Or build their own home?” he said.
Down the hill from Brown’s industrial student workspace and STEM lab is a building where his colleague, Bryant Sawada, oversees AVID, an elective course for students in the academic middle designed to foster college readiness, plus band, environmental science and forensic science.
Sawada, 31, is a local teacher: he was raised in Kailua-Kona and is a graduate of Kealakehe High, plus its feeder elementary and middle schools. He’s in his fourth year of teaching at the high school after working as a wildlife biologist and animal control officer in Hawaii and Washington state.
“Even when I was going to school, where we had a teacher from the mainland, they never could adjust to the kids,” recalled Sawada, citing the urge of students to be surfing or fishing rather than in class. “I was one of those kids. For me, I kind of relate to that.”
So he may have them physically move around more in class so they don’t get too restless or focus them on discussions of news headlines rather than lecture-style instruction. The exterior of his classroom building features a colorful mural depicting sharks and other wildlife in a cresting wave, above which is written, “Breathe Aloha.”
And when students have to miss class, he already has an understanding of the underlying reasons and tries to work with them by allowing homework extensions or excusing absences when the main office may not.
“A lot of them live in multi-family homes, where they might live with grandma or grandpa or uncle. If one part of the family needs help, they’ll drop everything to help the family,” he said. “I understand that part of the culture to where, yes, family comes first.
“Every time they miss, they always tell me why they miss.”
The Kahua Program, the cultural orientation program for new teachers, grew to include seven out of 15 “complex areas” in the state.
Its pilot took root in the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex area of Big Island. The voluntary program consisted of an orientation to the islands, cultural and place-based sensitivity training and a community mentor to help newcomers acclimate to the islands.
Results following that year-long pilot were telling, according to a report authored by Walter Kahumoku III and Wendy Kekahio. Retention among the 60 teachers who participated in Kahua in 2007-08 was 91% going into the next year, compared with 64% of the non-Kahua teachers.
“Kahua was one of those beloved programs, if I dare say that,” Kahumoku said.
By 2011-12, Kahua had expanded to six complex areas, enveloping 187 teacher participants, 68 academic mentors and 27 community mentors. Trainings included seminars at Lahaina Canoe Club on Maui, in which participants learned to work together to paddle a canoe.
For a seminar at Ka’ala Farm in Waianae, participants learned to make kapa, a type of fabric, to connect “experiential learning” with standards and assessments.
While Kahua expanded into districts like Hilo, Kailua on Oahu, Maui and Lanai, other areas, like the Leeward district on Oahu, were more resistant at first, said Kahumoku, who is now affiliated with University of Hawaii West Oahu.
“Philosophically, understanding a sense of place and the people who live in that place wasn’t really high on their checklist of things to do with new teachers,” he said. “It was really a contrast to the other areas who thought, ‘No, this is exactly what we need to do.'”
A 2014 report prepared by McREL International revealed how strong the correlation was between the program and teacher retention. Close to 95% of participants remained in teaching between one to four years after completing the program and nearly 70% credited Kahua for their decision to remain in the same complex areas, citing two reasons in particular: the appreciation they developed for their complex areas and communities and the relationships they fostered and support received through Kahua.
Brown, the Kealakehe High CTE coordinator, was a participant in the Kohua induction program when he first came to Hawaii in 2009.
“That was absolutely instrumental. It’s unfortunate that program doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “It was really important to learn from and get to interact with really amazing kumu who told the stories of this land and people. That really resonated.
“Certainly without that, I don’t think I would have stayed,” he said.
It’s unclear where in the state the program remains in effect. Cindy Covell, the DOE assistant superintendent in charge of talent management, said she knows it still exists on Oahu’s Windward side.
There’s another powerful argument for retaining teachers through such programs: it saves the DOE money.
In the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years, the DOE partnered with the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit, to phase in a new induction and mentoring program of new teachers in two complex areas: Farrington-Kalani-Kaiser and Campbell-Kapolei, both on Oahu.
A final report from August 2017 indicated that quality induction and mentoring led to a retention rate of teachers going into their third year as 6% percent higher in the Campbell complex and 7% higher in the Farrington complex.
The report noted a potential cost savings for the DOE if this program — which involved full-time mentorship for beginning teachers, support for special education teachers and even coaching of veteran teachers — could be replicated statewide: roughly 60 more teachers statewide would be retained into their third year, it estimated.
This would save Hawaii an additional $1.3 million annually, according to the report.
Collin Shields, a second-year AP History and Modern Hawaiian History teacher at Kealakehe High, has an edge on many teachers coming from the mainland: He grew up in the Marshall Islands and served in the Peace Corps on the island of Pohnpei.
At a school in which an increasing number of students are coming from the Marshall Islands or Federated States of Micronesia, Shields’ ties to that region serve as a bridge to his students and in some ways, as a resource.
“A lot of them want to know what it’s like there, because most of our (Micronesian) kids here grew up here and haven’t gone back to the islands or haven’t visited them,” he said, during a break between periods in his classroom, where Marshallese fabric weavings are hung on the wall. “They also want me to help them identify or figure out the unique things or cool things about where they’re from.”
Formerly a teacher in Colorado, Shields knew he wanted to eventually make his way to the Pacific. “I was looking for the right balance of the population of kids I’ve worked with,” he said. “It’s why I’m here. It’s why the job is so satisfying, it connects me with my own childhood, a lot of what I grew up with.”
The DOE knows that to build a more permanent teacher force, it needs to give a helping hand. It’s partnered with University of Hawaii Manoa to offer long-term substitutes or educational assistants who don’t have a teaching credential but plan to stay in Hawaii tuition-free post-baccalaureate training through the “Grow Our Own Program.”
The program is open to both locals and non-locals: it’s aimed at individuals who’ve been raised in Hawaii or those who’ve established longtime residency, and plan to continue teaching for at least the next three years.
Potter was part of the first graduating cohort of “Grow Our Own.” Moving forward, she will turn to the lessons she’s learned this past year in her Waikoloa classroom, where she set up a halogen lamp in the corner to provide softer lighting and turned desks outward-facing to discourage students from stuffing trash and debris inside them.
She also placed a big blue yoga ball off to the side: it’s what she turned to when a student was having trouble concentrating on a standardized test. She broke up the test into three-question chunks and had him sit on the yoga ball as he worked his way through the exam.
“That kind of intuition, it’s like psychology,” she said. “You’re a parent, you’re a psychologist, you’re a counselor, you’re a therapist. You’re managing not just behaviors of kids but also kids with diagnosed issues.”
Next school year, Potter will be teaching sixth-grade science at West Hawaii Explorations Academy, a science-focused public charter school in Kona. While she won’t be returning to Waikoloa Middle next year, she’ll think back to that classroom and her students.
“I feel I’ve made a lot of good connections with them,” she said. “I told them, make sure you say hi to me when you see me somewhere someday, because I may not recognize you, because you’re going to grow real big. But make sure to say hi.”
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.