Jonathan Okamura: Hawaii Is Aggressively Recruiting Teachers From The Philippines - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Bringing in new hires from the Philippines could help with our teacher shortage. But the DOE also should look to qualified Filipino teachers who are already here.

Filipinos were first recruited to work in Hawaii in 1906 as sugar plantation laborers, and about 126,000 came to the islands during the subsequent 40 years.

Earlier this month, a very different kind of labor recruitment from the Philippines occurred with the arrival of 80 teachers who were hired by the state Department of Education for the school year starting in August.

These Philippine teachers represent a significant means to alleviate the chronic teacher shortage that has plagued Hawaii’s public school system for decades. They also will increase the low percentage of Filipino educators (8%) in the DOE.

James Urbaniak, the DOE’s lead recruiter, said the department decided to hire teachers from the Philippines, its first international recruitment initiative, because Filipino students are the most numerous in its schools, at 30% of the overall student body.

“Our research shows that we need to have educators who are reflective of our student population. That’s so powerful in being able to inspire and motivate a student when a child looks up and sees a teacher who reminds them of their family, their grandparents, their community,” Urbaniak added.

Another significant factor is that students in the Philippines are taught in the English language, in addition to Pilipino, beginning in elementary school and through college so that the recruited teachers are thoroughly fluent in English. Having taught at a Catholic university in Manila for three years in the mid-1980s, I can attest to the English language abilities of college-educated Filipinos.

Since most Filipinos in Hawaii are of Ilokano descent, the teachers were recruited especially from Ilocos Norte province in the northeastern Philippines because of their language and cultural background. This cultural similarity may enable the teachers and the immigrant parents of some of their students to communicate more effectively with each other without having to use translators. 

The DOE works with an international employment agency, Foreign Cultural Exchange Consultants, which has an office in Metro Manila, to recruit and evaluate its teacher applicants.

Urbaniak, who is highly enthusiastic about the Philippine recruitment program, says the agency interviewed hundreds of applicants for the DOE program in a “very competitive process.” The competition for Philippine teachers also includes other states where they already have been teaching for years, such as Florida, Nevada and Arizona.

Urbaniak notes that the DOE recruitment program began in 2020 with 10 teachers but was halted because of the Covid-19 pandemic. For the upcoming school year, 80 teachers have arrived and will be distributed to all of the islands, except Molokai, with 50 to Maui because of its greater need.

For the 2024-2025 school year, the DOE plans to bring in 200 teachers who, like those in the current cohort, will instruct students in math, science, English and special education at all grade levels.

Philippine teachers Filipino teacher shortage Jonathan Okamura column
Teachers who were recruited from the Philippines listen during an orientation at Farrington High School soon after their arrival in Honolulu. (James Urbaniak/DOE/2023)

Urbaniak describes the teacher recruits as “high quality certified educators,” who have graduated from educational programs that have been designated as equivalent in academic standards to those in the U.S. They also must have at least two years of teaching experience.

He remarks, “Our (school) principals are begging me for more teachers from the Philippines. The work ethic, the cultural connection, the competency, the training are incredible.”

The teachers enter the U.S. with J-1 visas issued by the American Embassy in Manila, which allow them to work in Hawaii for up to five years, and they are required to make a three-year commitment to working in the DOE. As a requirement of the J-1 visa, after the three- to five-year period, the teachers are required to return to the Philippines and must work for at least two years in public schools. In this way, the Philippine educational system will benefit from the knowledge, training and experience they gained while working in Hawaii. 

The teachers with doctoral or master’s degrees in education and multiple years of teaching experience will have starting annual salaries between $70,000 and $80,000. 

The Philippine teachers are employed on the same salary schedule as other DOE teachers and receive the same benefits, including health insurance, and membership in the Hawaii State Teachers Association. Urbaniak says that the teachers with doctoral or master’s degrees in education and multiple years of teaching experience will have starting annual salaries between $70,000 and $80,000. 

One of the obstacles that has emerged in the recruitment program is that the Philippine teachers lack a license to teach in Hawaii. Until they are issued a teaching license by the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board, the DOE provides them with a permit to teach.

The HTSB requires the teachers to pass three praxis exams in basic skills, pedagogy and content knowledge to be given a license. Fortunately, the exams are available online on a monthly basis, and the DOE will reimburse the teachers for the cost of taking them, so the licensing issue can be readily overcome.

Upon receiving their licenses, which should take a few months, the Philippine teachers will be eligible for bonuses that other DOE teachers receive in addition to their base salary. They include the salary differential for teaching in difficult to staff locations of between $3,000 to $8,000, with the latter figure for those assigned to Lanai, Nanakuli and Waianae. The DOE also will pay up to $2,000 in relocation costs to the teachers.

Even before they have started working, the teachers have been receiving assistance from the local Filipino community.

“The Filipino community is already galvanizing to help the teachers feel welcome. Groups like the Filipino Association of University Women are organizing to help the teachers with whatever household items they need in their new home,” said Bennette Misalucha, executive director of the state Workforce Development Council. “These efforts are being duplicated on all the islands. I think it behooves all of us to support them through their transition so they can be set up for success.” 

Filipino community members have especially assisted the new teachers in finding housing. 

A successful Philippine teacher recruitment program might make it possible to resolve the long-term teacher shortage problem in the public schools. Asked to comment on the program, Osa Tui Jr., the HSTA president, responded, “Until we can turn away recruits because there are too many, these are the lengths the Department (of Education) will have to go through to make sure there is someone available to teach our keiki. We also hope to see more efforts to get those with local roots into the profession so that we don’t have to resort to various temporary, stopgap measures to fill educator vacancies.”

While I fully support the hiring of teachers from the Philippines, I also am aware that in Hawaii there are already hundreds of, and probably more, Filipino immigrants, who are former teachers with college degrees in education and teaching experience. The DOE should consider recruiting some of them to become public school teachers.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

I am a fully-credentialed teacher with over 10 years of teaching experience, and I have left the DOE, because they fire teachers for being intelligent, articulate, independent-minded individuals who want to do what is best for children, parents, and the community. For years, I walked a fine line, trying to both comply with DOE regulations while still teaching with integrity. Then, when COVID hit, I found compromise impossible. I became patriotic. I read our U.S. Constitution and understood it was intended for times like these. I was outspoken against mask and vaccine mandates, and only wanted to teach in-person. I spoke to my administrators and fellow teachers, wrote to the BOE, as well as legislators, presenting my concerns about the harm being done to students, by continuing the COVID mitigations. I spoke out because I love America, and I put the needs of children first, because they depend on us to nurture and care for them. That was enough for me to be deemed "ineligible to work" in the DOE. So the DOE refuses to hire patriotic, American teachers like me, but they'll hire from the Philippines, and pay for all their expenses. This is appalling.

Lizzy · 2 months ago

Hawai`i should pay teachers a living wage rather than stealing teachers from the Philippines. The kids in the Philippines need teachers too. it is expensive for the education system of PI to teach these people to export them to subsidize the US education system because the US is too cheap to pay a living wage.

kahoola · 2 months ago

For the sake of Hawaii's children, this arrangement is better than none even when it is feeling like a neo-plantation scheme. Now, it is important that they are welcomed and supported by the education community. It is still the economics of it that drove DOE to recruit in the Philippines and for young teachers to leave their homeland. For the longest time, DOE recruiting budget was spent in the US continent. Eventually, perhaps, the world's education system is headed towards a more global education system where students learn from the land around them but also go online to learn from the best fit teachers around the world. In response to looking at teachers from within, the Filipino community might want to look into the underemployed educators who are now within the DOE. They are assistants who could become full-fledged teachers and teachers who could be principals. Unlike the Filipino nurses who have some peer support in preparing for licensure exams, Filipino teachers do not have one. The State workforce development system and HSTA should work together on increasing licensed teachers from this pool.

Ca · 2 months ago

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