Reflections From A First-Year Teacher In Hawaii’s Public School System - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Aravind Byju

Aravind Byju moved to Hawaii to pursue teaching. He taught high school AP Psychology, Participation in Democracy and Modern History of Hawaii. He studied government and psychology at Harvard.

One year ago, I packed everything I owned into one suitcase and moved to Hawaii to become a teacher. During this past pandemic school year, I witnessed students persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and was inspired by the remarkable work of compassionate educators. Nevertheless, I also beheld disheartened members of our education community as well as fundamental flaws in our system.

As we start another school year, it is time to re-examine how we educate our students. At its core, Hawaii’s education system suffers from a lack of accountability. From the highest levels of management to daily classroom life, our education system rejects responsibility at all levels.

It is often argued that Hawaii’s idiosyncratic centralization of power through the singular, unelected Board of Education diffuses responsibility and permits reckless policymaking. The Acellus online learning scandal and the absence of any BOE repercussions is a particularly disturbing recent example of this. However, the deficiency of accountability in our schools does not stop here.

When it comes to school management, Hawaii is the only state with fully unionized school leadership, giving supervisors near-absolute job security. School administrators, the very individuals who are supposed to oversee and ultimately bear responsibility for the success of a school, are untied to outcomes.

On top of this, principals in Hawaii make on average $115,000 annually while our teachers only make a little over half that at $58,000. The fact that this principal pay is $17,000 higher than the U.S. national principal average, while our state teachers are paid $2,500 below the national teacher salary, offers further disturbing evidence of where our state’s priorities lie.

During the pandemic, principals had broad autonomy to determine school re-openings, often with disastrous consequences. At my high school, when unilaterally designing a virtual learning schedule, our principal inexplicably slashed instructional hours in order to “socially distance” students who were learning from their own homes.

For almost the entire academic year, my students were often scheduled to attend school for no more than seven hours a week. Of course, as our school’s failure rate skyrocketed, we could only shrug when it came to assigning culpability.

A mural at Palolo Elementary School. Hawaii Department of Education

Moreover, broken accountability impairs Hawaii’s most vital instruments of education, our teachers. The Hawaii State Teachers Association has been ranked as the strongest teachers’ union in the country, and while it often fights for meaningful change, it too shields teachers from accountability.

Teachers in Hawaii can achieve tenure after just three years of teaching, rendering them virtually immune to regulation. In one year, the union upgraded the performance ratings of 10 out of 13 “unsatisfactory” tenured teachers to “effective,” just because of procedural errors in their cases. As a result, Hawaii falls in the bottom quarter of states for dismissing teachers because of poor performance, at a rate of 1.1%.

So what happens to ineffective teachers?

In Hawaii, if tenured teachers have their positions eliminated — or even simply based on teacher preference — they may “bump” newer teachers from their positions, regardless of teacher quality. I experienced this bureaucratic process firsthand when I was not rehired at my school when my position was taken by a teacher with more seniority, regardless of my “highly effective” performance rating placing me in the top 16% of state teachers.

While this pandemic has taught us the importance of caring teachers, it is also worth reflecting on the harm a dispassionate educator can do. This year I was disturbed to see counselors labeling students “very lazy” and telling teachers to “forget about” struggling students.

I was profoundly troubled to hear a student complain about another teacher calling him “boy,” because the teacher had never bothered to learn his name. Unsurprisingly, in a state survey, only 41% of students felt they were valued members of their school communities.

Unaccountability is a cruel double-edged sword. On one hand, when a system is devoid of accountability, it fails to correct undesirable behavior. But on the other hand, without accountability, we also cannot reward or protect positive behavior.

We tell our children to submit assignments on time and be responsible for their actions. Yet students can pass while barely turning in work or even showing up. When a local highschooler reads at a 4th grade level, can we fairly blame them? Or ought we to examine the system that never once taught them or anyone else to be answerable?

Arguably my perspective is a limited one. But perhaps outsiders are the ones best equipped to question deep-seated and historical systemic failures.

I strongly believe that decentralizing the BOE into smaller elected regional school boards will better utilize specialized community expertise, combat the incontestable status of union groups by requiring multiple localized bargaining contracts and ultimately increase accountability for all.

An accountable system need not be run on a vicious and unforgiving corporate model but can be community driven and cultivate genuine educational practices. Only then can we allow teachers like myself to chase their dream of helping all students achieve a quality education.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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About the Author

Aravind Byju

Aravind Byju moved to Hawaii to pursue teaching. He taught high school AP Psychology, Participation in Democracy and Modern History of Hawaii. He studied government and psychology at Harvard.

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