When Verona Holder moved to Hawaii in 2015 due to her husband’s placement in the military, she soon found a job as a fifth grade teacher at a public school in central Oahu.

Even when her husband’s active duty posting ended, she stayed in Hawaii with their children since she had grown so attached to her school and the students at Mililani Waena Elementary, where she still teaches today.

But the Florida native, who moved to Hawaii from California, remembers the early days when she was a newcomer and not knowing much about the islands’ unique culture and geography.

“I was one of the new teachers who had no idea about how different the islands were or the cultures of the islands,” Holder said Monday in a phone interview. “I would have loved to have somebody who I could get in contact with, or a page to peruse it.”

Such a resource is now available.

Portrait of teacher Verona Holder.
Verona Holder, a fifth grade teacher at Mililani Waena Elementary, said she wishes there were more resources to help her acclimate to Hawaii when she moved here six years ago. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The state Department of Education recently launched a new marketing campaign that includes a new informational website as part of an effort to recruit new teachers from both the mainland and within the state, officials said.

The goal is not only to entice teachers to Hawaii, which suffers from a perennial teacher shortage, but to get them to stay. Many teachers who come to the islands from other states don’t reach the five-year mark.

Often, the fleeting nature of teaching in Hawaii is due not just to culture shock, but sticker shock. The average monthly rent for a single-bedroom home on Oahu is at least $1,085, while the average price for a single-family home on the island is $978,000, according to the DOE website’s Oahu fact sheet. Locations Hawaii has reported that the median sale price of a single-family home on Oahu was $1.05 million as of September.

“We have great interest, people who want to work for us, but we want to make sure people have a really good understanding of the cost of living in Hawaii — to give them that information upfront so they’re not shocked” on arrival, said James Urbaniak, the DOE’s lead on teacher recruitment efforts.

“It’s to give people that realistic idea of what to expect, knowing that if you know what to expect, you’ll stay here longer.” — Fifth-grade teacher Verona Holder

Teachinhawaii.org, a website developed by the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based marketing firm Stamats on a $200,000 contract, packs in a lot of practical information in a clean format.

The DOE’s solicitation for this bid said it sought a company that could come up with an “innovative marketing and communications campaign” to boost the DOE’s existing recruitment efforts, which had previously been “limited to social media, advertising through national publications and word-of-mouth.”

In addition to the website, which lists facts, figures and insights about each of the islands, there is also a new corps of “aloha ambassadors,” current teachers who serve as mentors to new recruits; and a private Facebook group where applicants can ask questions to these ambassadors about living and working here.

In addition to housing costs, the site breaks down the cost of the average electric bill, day care and a gallon of milk per island. It also has moving resources like shipping companies to use as well as links to the DOE salary schedule, teacher licensure requirements for Hawaii and how to actually go about applying for a role.

“There wasn’t anything centralized (before). Schools really had been the conduit of sharing that information,” said Urbaniak, who himself moved to Hawaii 16 years ago from New Jersey to be a teacher. “This is new and centralized in our office and coordinated through staff.”

The average teacher salary in Hawaii is $65,000 a year, while a first-year teacher starts out around $50,000. But since Hawaii’s cost of living is 10% higher than the national average, the state’s teacher pay is not competitive with similar jobs elsewhere in the U.S., a 2020 study commissioned by the DOE found.

The teacher salary schedule is determined by negotiations between the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the DOE, the Board of Education and state executives.

Many of the questions posed in the Facebook group deal with the cost and availability of housing, according to Holder, who is now one of the “aloha ambassadors” for Oahu.

“We answer information and relay what’s going to happen when you get here,” she said. “It’s to give people that realistic idea of what to expect, knowing that if you know what to expect, you’ll stay here longer.”

HSTA president Osa Tui Jr. said it was important to “make sure that teachers from the continent are fully aware of what they are getting into when relocating to Hawaii.” He added the DOE must “make similar concerted efforts to recruit our own students and others into the profession who have roots in our islands and a vested interest in providing a quality education for Hawaii’s keiki.”

Urbaniak said the new recruitment push is aimed at out-of-state candidates as well as local applicants who might not be as familiar with the other islands.

The Teach in Hawaii website, which went live in mid-October, also promotes the DOE’s salary differential for hard-to-staff positions, which includes $10,000 for special education teachers, $8,000 for Hawaiian language immersion teachers and $3,000 to $8,000 for those teaching in more remote areas of the state.

The department currently has 255 teacher vacancies out of 12,664 full-time positions, compared with 356 vacancies out of 12,866 total positions at this time last year and 419 vacancies out of 12,932 total spots in 2019, DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said.

Kaunakaka Elementary SPED Teacher Clint Labrador.
California native Clint Labrador, a teacher at Molokai’s Kaunakakai Elementary for the past 20 years, said he wants to impart a genuine aspect of teaching and living on the island as an aloha ambassador. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

She said the DOE received 848 more teacher applications this year than the year before, although the teaching force saw 25% more retirements and resignations last year compared with the number of departures pre-pandemic.

Clint Labrador, who teaches special education for fifth and sixth graders at Kaunakakai Elementary on Molokai, moved to the island directly from California 20 years ago.

He had visited the island twice before deciding to stay long-term. “I wanted to plant myself here, I wanted a life here, I was willing to go for it,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Labrador initially hesitated when he was asked by the DOE to serve as an aloha ambassador for Molokai, a rural island with limited housing and few amenities, because he was dubious about any effort to “sell” Hawaii to newcomers.

But he was assured that his role would be to relay “the real deal” of living and teaching in Hawaii, from the fabric of the community to diversity of the students.

“A lot of mainland teachers, they think it’s paradise, or they come here and want to retire and think it’s going to be easy,” he said. “With Molokai, it has a way of welcoming you and it has its way of not welcoming you. Some people love it, and it’s not for others either.”

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