Teachers sound off at listening session

  • Educators gathered Thursday afternoon in the cafeteria of Keaau High School for the first of two Hawaii Island listening sessions hosted by the state Department of Education that sought to gather feedback to “refine and potentially recommend changes to the teacher compensation system.”. (STEPHANIE SALMONS/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — Big Island teachers said Thursday they want better and fairer compensation, and more respect, trust and support from the state Department of Education.

More than three dozen people gathered Thursday afternoon in the cafeteria of Keaau High School for the first of two Hawaii Island “listening sessions” hosted by the DOE that sought to gather feedback to “refine and potentially recommend changes to the teacher compensation system.”

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Some who spoke Thursday were fairly new teachers in the early years of their careers, others were mid-career and a few had more than 30 years of teaching experience under their belts.

Many spoke about their passion for teaching — and the struggles that come with a career in education.

In a study released Monday by WalletHub, Hawaii was ranked 49th overall in a list of best states for teachers, and had the lowest annual salaries adjusted for the cost of living.

According to information provided by the Hawaii State Teachers Association, teacher pay in Hawaii ranges from $49,000 for starting licensed teachers to about $89,000 a year for those with the most seniority.

Aaron Kubo, vice president of the HSTA’s Hilo Chapter and a teacher at Hilo Intermediate School, said before the session began that many teachers have to hold more than one job to make ends meet.

“And that takes away from teacher planning, prepping and actually just doing the everyday needs of our students, and in general, our profession — and that’s just to make ends meet. … Teachers in general need to live, need to get by, need to feed their kids, in general need to survive,” he said. “And if you’re not paid enough, unfortunately, that is a huge issue.”

It’s disheartening, said Kubo, when friends or family who teach elsewhere, in places with lower costs of living, get paid more.

And if salaries “don’t even at least keep up with inflation, we’re not making enough money to survive,” he said.

Eric Hagiwara, a math, programming and robotics teacher at Waiakea High School, has been teaching for 31 years. Every other profession, “based on experience, you get a pay raise. They respect your experience, and they give you promotions on top of that,” he said.

As a high school teacher, he sees 180 students a year.

“I advise every kid not to become a teacher,” Hagiwara said. “And you know why I do that? Because it would be irresponsible of me to tell someone to go four years and pay (for) a four-year degree or a six-year degree and got to work two jobs. That’s not what I want to do to a kid. … Would you advise your kids to go get a job that won’t make ends meet? That’s what you want to do? No, that’s not what we do. That would be totally irresponsible.”

Kya Simpkins, an eighth-grade special education teacher at Kapolei Middle School on Oahu, happened to be on the Big Island Thursday because she is looking to relocate. She’s been in Hawaii seven years and took a $20,000 pay cut when she moved from Philadelphia.

“And I thought I could deal with that, but then when I found I only got six years credit for 15 years of teaching, I think that that was even a harder hit because I found that a bit disrespectful.”

Teachers should be recognized for the years they’ve taught.

“I don’t know why me teaching in the state of Pennsylvania was not,” said Simpkins.

As a mid-career teacher coming to Hawaii, “I should have been valued. I had many years before I would retire. But that took my retirement investment of nine years, and I think that if teachers were given their years of service, regardless of what state it’s in, or some kind of formula to make it more fair, it would have been easier to recruit some of my friends that wanted to follow me. But after they found this out, they were like, ‘absolutely not.’”

Keaau Elementary School Principal Janice Blaber said she had always wanted to be a teacher.

“When I was in the first grade, I let my mother know that I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “She was very upset. Very upset because … she said that the kids that she raises need to make money, and teachers don’t make money.”

Blaber, though, was supportive when her daughter said she wanted to become a teacher.

“…I ran to her and I hugged her and I said, ‘Oh my gosh! You can live with me! And I’ll cook you dinner every night,’ because I know how hard it is, because I see teachers that I work with.”

Wendy Nickl, a Kohala Middle School teacher and registrar, who does curriculum coordination at the school as well, drove two hours from Kohala to attend Thursday’s listening session.

An educator for 32 years, Nickl loves teaching, but said she has to have a second job.

“Teacher pay,” she said. “We don’t get compensated enough for what we do.”

Housing is also an issue.

“How can we afford to live here when we don’t even make enough money to make a decent down payment on a home and make adequate payments?” she said.

According to Nickl, North Kohala has some of the highest property taxes on the island, “but we still have teachers who have to live in teachers’ cottages, which are clean, but very substandard, because that is the only affordable place in Kohala.”

Although she is heading toward the end of her career, Nickl said she’s worried about those who are just starting.

“We need to take care of our teachers. They’re going to burn out.”

Following the meeting, Nickl said these listening sessions are a positive start.

She said she hopes the DOE superintendent and state Board of Education “seriously listen” to the findings, “because all of the people standing were professionals who give their heart and souls to education, and they’re the ones in the trenches every day working with our keiki, and they know what they’re talking about.”

While Kubo wished there was more advanced notice of the listening sessions, he’s glad the DOE is attempting to hear from educators about compensation.

“My hope is that they don’t just hear us, but they actually listen,” he said. “Our biggest hope is … that they take what we have and it doesn’t just die there. We hope to have something fruitful come of this that’s meaningful to both parties and both sides in this, and we hope that it addresses a lot our teacher shortage issues and salary and everything else that comes with it.”

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For those who were unable to attend Thursday’s listening session feedback can also be provided through an online survey through Oct. 6. To take the survey, visit bit.ly/2mgVFx7.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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