Eric Stinton: It’ll take a village to help Hawaii’s teachers

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The latest news regarding public education in Hawaii is sobering.

More teachers than ever are retiring in a state already plagued by a long-standing teacher shortage. Special education students did not receive adequate distance learning services, and assessment data at the start of the year showed a striking but predictable decline in reading, science and math skills during the pandemic.

All of this paints a familiar picture: there is not enough of what we have, and what we have is not enough. Like all Catch-22, it’s hard to find the root of problems, which makes it even more difficult to find solutions, but a good place to start is to recognize that there is a legitimate malfunction.

A friend of mine recently spoke to their manager about some issues they were having, issues that obviously seemed reasonable to me. They were told they were the only ones complaining about this stuff. My friend told me on several occasions that he was considering quitting smoking during or after this year.

It is anecdotal, but it is also representative of the larger dynamics at play in society. Teachers present legitimate problems to the public – a salary so low that hardly anyone in the profession can buy a house on the islands, more responsibilities with less time to take care of them – and in large part, it is said teachers to suck everything and stop complaining. In response, they leave the profession.

If it’s not already obvious, just saying “stop complaining” doesn’t solve anything. It is telling, however, that this answer is not only found in the sympathetic shrugs of politicians or the pits of online commentary sections, but also in the ranks of teachers.

That we have internalized and accepted this line of thinking should be alarming, especially during a trend economists are calling “the big resignation.”

Nor is it a question of individual school management, otherwise the teachers would change schools instead of leaving the profession altogether. The problem is the work itself.

Dalen Izumo, Grade 4 Honowai Primary School teacher, with a large screen and students using laptops.
Test scores may make the headlines, but most teachers are more concerned with the emotional well-being of students. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

Test results grab the headlines, but most teachers are rightly more concerned with the emotional well-being of our students. We see the stress, anxiety and trauma that many students carry. While I sincerely believe in the value of the academics I teach, I also understand that it is very difficult to learn algebra when your mental and emotional health is not in the right place.

And these are only the students who show up regularly to the school. Students who are chronically absent or frequently quarantined exhibit another layer of mental, professional and emotional work; you watch their absences, you prepare material for them, you care for them. It takes a toll.

Covid-19 prevention measures, while necessary, complicate and exacerbate all of the above areas of concern. These are not frivolous complaints from whiny teachers; these are real issues that make the job incredibly frustrating, so much so that more people than ever are leaving it.

Part of the blame rightly lies with the Department of Education. There is a large group of administrators in the department who are not at the school level and do not interact with students. What they actually do on a day-to-day basis is still unclear to me, but in my mind, they are the ones who should be doing the most to resolve these issues.

After all, it is in their best interests to retain teachers and ensure quality education for students, and unlike teachers and school administrators who also share these interests, they are not busy working with students all day long. .

I don’t think there is a conspiracy of wasteful DOE administrators, many of whom are well-meaning and helpful. But at some point, the responsibility for making improvements, even incremental ones, is so dispersed that it ultimately falls on no one and nothing is done.

It doesn’t all depend on the DOE either. Schools are also urged to do more with less, tasked with solving social problems beyond their capabilities.

At one point these are legislative issues, and lately the legislative response has been lukewarm. Schools play an important role in solving problems such as hunger and child poverty, as they can deliver services directly to those affected, but they cannot be the custodians of all problems in society.

It takes a village to raise a child, and schools are a vital part of that village. These are fixable problems, but resolving them will require a genuine cooperative effort by all parties. If we are serious about solving these problems – and we should be, because they affect us all – then we all need to be involved.


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