Sometimes there’s no letting reality get in the way of a good sales pitch.
That’s a good thing to remember for the many people seduced by stories gone viral on the internet this month about Hawaii’s incredible job opportunities for eager beach-goers willing to do a stint as a teacher.
The story of Hawaii’s supposed hiring spree became popular enough to inspire well-read versions everywhere from Woman’s Day to the New York Post, which told readers that “Hawaii will pay you $50,000 a year to work in paradise.”
While locals might simply laugh — or shrug — off such posts as misinformed clickbait, such popular posts are having real-world consequences for public education in Hawaii.
For one, it is making the recruitment of suitable teachers by the Hawaii Department of Education more difficult, thanks to the large number of frivolous inquiries from aspiring teachers with their dreamy visions of aloha.
“It’s really unfortunate,” said Hawaii Department of Education spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz.
“We are taking this recruitment very seriously, so when we get calls that are based on a story or a blog about ‘You’ll get paid just to move to Hawaii’, that really is not something that we want to attract.”
Hawaii’s natural beauties, like Waipio Beach on the Big Island, can convince people to move to the islands even when they can’t afford to.
The Department of Education is submerged with job inquiries — not just from current and aspiring teachers around the mainland, but from across the world.
The problem isn’t just that many applicants don’t hold teaching qualifications; it’s that many don’t even have a work permit.
Selling The Hawaii Dream
There is little doubt that Hawaii’s annual mainland recruitment effort has gotten sucked into some sort of viral online vortex.
Astute websites, recognizing the readership potential of a story that taps into people’s dreams of living in a tropical paradise, have been churning them out, picking up hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of clicks.
The problem is that many of them don’t bother to verify what is and isn’t true, or in many cases, to add even a modicum of context.
“It seems like a pretty sick deal, to be honest: you get to mold the leaders of tomorrow, and, in your off time, hang out in one of the most exquisitely beautiful places on earth.” — Matt Hershberger, writer
In a Matador Network post entitled “Unemployed? Hawaii wants you to move there so it can give you a job,” writer and blogger Matt Hershberger of New Jersey offers a vision of a glowing future for unemployed American college graduates — if only they would succumb to the siren call of teaching in Hawaii.
If they sign on for a well-paid public school teacher’s gig, he suggests, they can enjoy a stress-free life of surfing, diving or just hanging out with their toes in Hawaii’s delicate sands.
“It seems like a pretty sick deal, to be honest: you get to mold the leaders of tomorrow, and, in your off time, hang out in one of the most exquisitely beautiful places on earth,” he writes.
The Matador Network post, which has been shared more than 190,000 times, is just one of the many online twists on a widely published Associated Press article about Hawaii’s efforts to hire 1,600 public school teachers.
The Department of Education is stumped as to why the job openings have garnered so much attention and interest now. The state has been facing a teacher shortage for more than two decades, and has made recruiting trips to the mainland for years.
But there are few signs of popular interest slowing down. The department received more than 600 inquiries last weekend alone.
Since April 1, more than 8,300 people have created a new account with the Department of Education’s application system.
Some of those have come from across the globe.
As of Monday, the DOE had received more than 450 applications from Canada, 300 from the United Kingdom and more than 200 from Ireland. Those are just a few of the countries from which people are submitting applications, Dela Cruz said.
If there’s one thing the teacher recruitment unit would like to make clear, it’s that applicants have to be eligible to work in the United States.
“The move doesn’t need to be permanent, either, but an extended working vacation.” — Melissa Locker, for Travel + Leisure
Hershberger, who also writes a blog on ethical tourism at Don’t be a Dick Travel, wrote about his own experiences in the Matador post. “The last time I didn’t have a job, I would fantasize about just getting up and moving to someplace tropical. But then I’d think: I don’t have the money to do that. And then, when I get there, I’d still need to find a job.”
While there is no sign Hershberger intends to take Hawaii up on the amazing offer he wrote about, he argued that Hawaii is “providing a pretty sweet solution” for people in such situations, because “they’re trying to get unemployed people with college degrees to come move to Hawaii so they can work teaching jobs, no teaching certificate or experience required.”
In an apparent attempt to nail down his seductive argument, Hershberger noted that the “average pay” for a teacher in Hawaii is about $54,000. He neglected to mention that the starting pay for unlicensed teachers is $34,231.
And although it is possible to teach without a teacher’s license, the Department of Education has been trying to cut back on the use of “emergency hires” and increase its pool of highly qualified applicants.
Beyond the amazing surf and the beaches, Hawaii is a complex, nuanced place that presents challenges to many incoming teachers.
Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
Hershberger wrote that Hawaii needs to recruit so many teachers because of a wave of retirements.
In reality, retirement is one of many factors, including high teacher turnover rates. There has also been no big spike in vacancies this year.
Teachers often speak of financial hardships as they try to get by in the islands, while some also point to what they feel is a lack of support from the state’s school system, among other laments.
“Hola buen día,” starts one lengthy foreign-language inquiry by an aspiring teacher.
Perhaps most disconcerting of all is the emphasis in many articles on teaching in Hawaii as a relaxing way to enjoy an extended vacation.
“The move doesn’t need to be permanent, either, but an extended working vacation,” Melissa Locker wrote in Travel + Leisure. “Hawaii has one of the highest turnovers in the nation, according to Hawaii News Now, which notes that the Department of Education says 40 percent of teachers leave within five years.”
The irony, of course, is that one of the reasons Hawaii has such a high turnover rate is that mainland recruits are very likely to go home after a few years — something that can exact a toll on schools in hard-to-staff areas.
“The constant turnover, especially in poor communities, is very demoralizing for students and even teachers,” Waianae High School Principal Disa Hauge told Civil Beat last year. “It makes you feel you are not valued or important if people are constantly leaving you.”
“We are not looking for people who want to travel to Hawaii,” Dela Cruz said. “We are serious about looking for qualified teachers for the positions.”
Near the end of the Matador posting, Hershberger offers a rare acknowledgement that everything may not be perfect in paradise.
“Hawaii does have a relatively high cost of living, and the state has struggled with turnover from mainland teachers who have been placed in rural areas (which is more likely for first-time teachers)” but, Hershberger concluded, that’s “better than unemployment.”
That high cost of living, which we have detailed in an ongoing series, means that the average local teacher’s salary of $54,000 doesn’t have anywhere near the buying power in Hawaii that it does in the vast majority of the country.
In raw numbers, accredited teachers’ salaries here run from $44,538 into the low-$80,000s for highly educated teachers with decades of experience. Hawaii may be in the middle of national rankings for average teacher pay, but when the cost of living is factored in, teachers’ salaries in paradise drop to dead last.
If more people were aware of that, Hawaii might not be getting so many applications.
The Department of Education has temporarily increased the number of employees tasked with vetting teacher applications and inquiries from eight to 15 — and workers are still having a hard time keeping up.
“At this stage, it’s like a needle in the haystack,” Dela Cruz said. “On the other hand, we don’t want to delete 600 messages that come in (because) there might be an incredible teacher that we might be able to use to fill a vacancy.”
At the core of the search for teachers are the students, like these at Waikele Elementary School in April.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Some International Job Inquiries
In the following inquiries, all the typos are faithfully reproduced from the original emails:
One man wrote the Department of Education to say he is a “Dentist graduated from Egypt with german citizenship,” and ask “Can I work in my field There?”
Another wrote: “Howdy! I’m a qualified Hairstylist and I am interested in working in Hawaii! Is there any postions available ?Regards.”
“Good day,” wrote one citizen of the Great White North. “Do you hire Canadians?”
A fourth aspiring teacher wrote: “I have read on Hawaii State Department of Education that you are looking for teachers. At the moment I am working as a teacher of French and I also cover Enhlish classes in a primary school in London. Please find attached my CV.”
“Applying for teacher in hawaii is there an age limit? What are other requirements to be meet. and benefits.”
Another, whose name was removed by the DOE, wrote: “hey i am ______ from delhi, india. i read an artical regarding vacancies of job in hawaii so would like to know if my qualification can fit in for any kind of job. Qualifications: +2.”
That resident of India, who apparently has a certificate in human rights, is “pursuing b.sc fashion design, batch 2014-17 from amity university.”
Some of the people who are applying do have experience teaching — in Spanish. “Hola buen día,” starts one lengthy foreign-language inquiry by an interested teacher.
If you buy the dreamy vision of Hawaii that such media are promoting, perhaps your frothy mai tais await you on the oceanfront — assuming you can afford them on a beginning teacher’s salary.
For a sobering perspective on myth-making posts like Hershberger’s, it is worth checking out the comments on his post by people with actual experience living in the islands.
Or better yet, check out Civil Beat’s story about how actual teachers get by, entitled, Living Hawaii: Can You Afford To Be A Teacher In The Islands?
You can read personal stories about the human impact of Hawaii’s high cost of living on our Connections story page, and then click on the red pen and share your own.
And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.
About the Authors
Eric Pape is a former editor for Civil Beat. you can follow him on Twitter at @ericpape.
Jessica Terrell is Civil Beat's podcast and multimedia editor. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.