Following a 2017 presentation by Hawaii Department of Education officials on the challenges of recruiting and retaining teachers, a state Board of Education member tossed out a suggestion.

Why not recruit teachers internationally from locations that have similarities to Hawaii, former board member Hubert Minn asked. He said the DOE should perhaps consider countries like the Philippines, South Korea and Japan.

Two years later, Minn’s suggestion is coming to fruition.

Earlier this week, the DOE sent two of its recruiters to Manila, Philippines, in its first-ever international teacher recruitment effort.

Kerry Tom, director of DOE’s personnel management branch, and Gary Nakamura, recruitment administrator, earlier this month interviewed over 150 potential candidates for Hawaii teaching jobs at a hotel in the capital city.

Philippines, DOE, Manila, teacher, recruitment, Kerry Tom
Department of Education recruiters spent four days interviewing 150 teacher candidates from the Philippines at a Manila hotel. Hawaii Department of Education

“Although the job fair was in Manila, the teachers came from all over the Philippines,” Tom said in an interview. “Our questions when we talked to them were more education-centric, just getting to know their education and subject matter certification.”

Using the assistance of Texas-based cultural exchange connector Alliance Abroad, the DOE identified at least 40 certified special ed teachers and another 20 instructors who teach in other subject areas across all grade levels during the trip, according to Tom.

The goal is to place some of these teachers in Hawaii by next school year.

“I think this is quite innovative because it’s new for us,” Tom said. “I think only time will tell, but the caliber of teachers was on par or better than us.”

Philippines, The Largest Teacher Exporter

Recruiting teaching professionals from other countries by U.S. school districts to fill shortage areas is not a novel strategy; it’s been happening across the country for at least the last two decades. According to a 2013 academic paper, between 14,000 and 20,000 foreign teachers were working in U.S. school districts across all 50 states at that time through the temporary H-1B work visa and J-1 teacher exchange visa.

But foreign recruitment has risen in frequency in recent years given the shortages of teachers across the nation.

The Philippines, followed by Spain, Jamaica and China sent the most teachers to the U.S. in 2018 through the J-1 visa teacher exchange program, according to U.S. Department of State statistics.

Group of students walking to school in Makati, Philippines
A group of students walks to school in Makati, Philippines. The Philippines sends more teachers to U.S. schools through the J-1 visa program than any other country. Getty Images

Those states that hired the greatest number of international teachers through the J-1 visa program in 2018 were North Carolina, South Carolina, New Mexico and Texas.

In Hawaii, which already depends heavily on teacher recruits from the mainland, looking abroad for DOE instructors marks the newest experiment in its ongoing quest to find more qualified teachers, particularly in areas of special education, math and science.

In a statement provided to Civil Beat, DOE spokesman Drew Henmi said the effort is part of a “multi-pronged approach to teacher recruitment.” The Philippines was identified as a top choice from the DOE’s “extensive internal research and examples from other states that have had success in using the Philippines as a source for teachers.”

“This program aims to provide Hawaii’s students with quality teachers, while encouraging them to think with a more global perspective,” Henmi said.

The department’s strategy to deal with a teacher shortage also includes proposals for paying special education, Hawaiian language immersion and teachers in remote areas a pay differential ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 yearly, as well as giving veteran teachers a boost for their years of service. Those proposals are dependent on winning funding from the Legislature this session.

This year, the DOE also began extending $500 bonuses to DOE employees if they can refer a friend to the DOE. The candidate must first be hired.

In the 2018-19 school year, there were 1,029 teaching positions out of roughly 13,400 total statewide that were not filled by qualified teachers, according to DOE statistics. Among 2,212 special ed teaching slots, there were 154 vacancies and another 198 positions filled by noncertified teachers.

The Philippines is a top choice for U.S. school districts since English is a national language in the country and many teachers are looking for greater economic opportunity in the U.S.

DOE Director Personnel Specialist Kerry Tom during salary session held at McKinley Adult School.
DOE Director Personnel Specialist Kerry Tom was one of two teacher recruiters who visited Manila recently. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There’s a particular connection between Hawaii and the Philippines due to the large concentration of Filipinos in the state. Filipino students comprised 22% of all public school students during the 2017-18 school year, the second largest ethnic group behind Native Hawaiian students.

The top five languages spoken at home among DOE students are Ilokano, Chuukese, Marshallese, Tagalog and Spanish, according to DOE statistics.

According to Tom, the environment for interviewing the Filipino teacher candidates was competitive, since they’re looking at other U.S. cities as destinations.

“What they can bring to Hawaii is their resiliency, their culture,” he said. “A lot of these teachers work in difficult conditions. They have multi-grade spans they teach, maybe self-contained classrooms for (individualized education programs). They have to differentiate their educational programming for kids on a regular basis and for a large student population.”

However, education policy experts Sue Books and Rian de Villiers detailed some of the concerns with this model in their 2013 paper entitled, “Importing Educators and Redefining What it Means to be a Teacher in the U.S.,” noting that foreign teacher recruitment is seen as a “stop-gap measure” that fails to address the core problem of teacher deserts across the U.S.

Such efforts, the paper said, can function more as “a short-term employment vehicle than a cultural-learning opportunity.” Filipino teachers surveyed in some U.S. locations at the time also were not adequately informed about housing, food and transportation costs of their new homes.

Teachers who come to the U.S. on a J-1 visa are only eligible to stay up to three years, with the possibility of a one or two-year extension. Eligible J-1 candidates must have a degree equivalent to a U.S. bachelor’s degree in education or the field in which they teach; currently work as a teacher; and qualify for a license issued by the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board.

Any teacher from the Philippines who comes to Hawaii would be paid commensurate with DOE teachers. Alliance Abroad would help them find housing, Tom said.

Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said the union is not in favor of this initiative.

“Any time there is an issue of a teacher shortage and actually dealing with it, we keep looking for shortcuts to solve the problem,” he said.

The DOE has six upcoming mainland trips planned this year to recruit teachers, including visits to Illinois, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington state.

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