Hawai‘i Department of Education

The Department of Education is beginning to rely heavily on unqualified employees as the teacher shortage in Hawaiʻi continues. 

To cope with a teacher shortage, the DOE has resorted to hiring staff who do not have a teaching license. These employees are known as emergency hires. The DOE issues emergency hire permits to assist in a shortage area or hard-to-fill positions at public or charter schools. These permits last for one year and expire on June 30 of each year. They may also be reissued up to two more times if the employee decides to stay in the position. 

"They need to revisit what they call ‘emergency hires,’” Nathan Murata, dean of the College of Education at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, said. “When you look at it, the label really devalues teaching.”

Murata said that the label brings a negative implication that 'emergency hires' are not qualified, but he said that many of the educators are qualified and would benefit from licensure programs in the COE. 

Teachers have been leaving the state at higher rates, as shown within the past five years. Many factors contribute to the shortage, including retirement and finding a new profession. The most glaring factor of all is that teachers cannot teach in Hawaiʻi, while being able to afford the cost of living here. Emergency hires feel they are getting the shorter end of this stick.

“Emergency hires have the same roles and responsibilities as a certified teacher, therefore, it’s frustrating that they get paid nearly $10,000 less a year when compared to an entry level certified teacher,” said Tysha Freitas, an emergency hire for special needs children at Kamiloʻiki Elementary School.

The DOE struggles to find and keep qualified teachers here in Hawaiʻi. The state does not meet national benchmarks, as Hawaiʻi’s eighth-grade math and reading scores and fourth-grade reading scores were “significantly lower” than the U.S. average, according to the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

Of the 1,116 teachers who left the DOE in 2017-2018, 423 of them moved to another state, a 70% increase from five years prior. At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, 1,029 positions were filled with substitute teachers or emergency hires — employees with no teaching certification. 

“UH Mānoa, West Oʻahu, from all the teacher prep-programs, we push out about close to 400 graduates each year,” said Murata. “If we put all 400 into the teaching system, we still have a shortage of 1,000.”

Schools that heavily rely on uncertified employees — which make up 20% or more of its teaching staff — are shown to be in low-income communities. These include schools on the Leeward coast of Oʻahu and areas in rural Big Island.

Since emergency hires don’t have a teaching certification, the employees feel unqualified for their position, and are afraid that they may lack the skills needed in their specific classroom. 

“My Bachelor’s degree is in Human Development and Family Studies, not education,” said Freitas. “Sure, I had classroom experience teaching preschool, but special education for the DOE is on a whole other level. The first day of the current school year was my first time ever stepping foot in a special education classroom. I didn’t even know where to begin.”

The College of Education at UH Mānoa has also seen a slight decrease in admissions over the past few years, which may be a factor to the overall educator shortage in Hawaiʻi. 

“We still have room to bring in more people, but you know, people aren’t just banging on our doors to come in,” said Murata. “Many students we’ve had don’t stay to teach in Hawaiʻi long-term, they eventually move away because of the pay.”

However, The College of Education has partnered with the Legislature and the DOE to run a program at UH called “Grow Our Own." This program advertises to employees, who don’t have a teaching certification, to go back to school, fully funded by the organizations. It is a three-semester program which allows employees to maintain their teaching job and attend classes simultaneously, and also earn a teaching certification.

Other programs are also offered through UH, which many emergency hires also take advantage of to attain skills and knowledge to excel in their classrooms. 

“I am currently enrolled in the Special Education Post Baccalaureate Program at the UH. With this program and through my courses there, I am becoming more and more confident while in my classroom,” Freitas said. 

The College of Education is also working with the College of Social Sciences and the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at UH to encourage students in those majors to also take education courses during their senior year. Through this program, students with focus majors such as math and biology, can also earn a teaching certification to teach those focus subjects in schools. 

“That’s one way we’re trying to address it in house,” Murata said. “It’s a great way for students to get a feel for different professions, and they can get a job pretty much right away.”

UH and the DOE are doing what they can to minimize and mend the teacher shortage in Hawaiʻi. Although some parents worry for their child’s education, the students continue to work hard in the classrooms. 

“The students are resilient, they’ll make the best of their situation,” Murata said.