Sorry, But Hawaii Isn't Actually Going To Pay You To Move To Paradise

Real life in the Aloha State is more than just beaches and Mai Tais.

In recent weeks, headlines like "Hawaii will pay you to move to paradise," have flooded the internet, waxing poetic about the Aloha State’s incredible job opportunities for eager beach-goers willing to move for a teaching job. 

The viral story of Hawaii’s supposed hiring spree gained enough traction 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.

Alternet called the job openings “a sweet deal,” and Travel + Leisure magazine suggested teaching in Hawaii as a way to “Make Your Vacation Your Vocation.”

While Hawaii locals might simply laugh — or shrug — off such articles 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," she added.

Hawaii’s natural beauty can convince people to move to the islands even when they can’t afford to.
magcs via Getty Images
Hawaii’s natural beauty can convince people to move to the islands even when they can’t afford to.

The Department of Education is now submerged with job inquiries — not just from current and aspiring teachers around the mainland, but from across the world.

And 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

Hawaii’s annual mainland recruitment effort seems to have been sucked into a 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 these sites don’t bother to verify what is and isn’t true, or in many cases, to add even a modicum of context.

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.

Hershberger, who also writes a blog on ethical tourism at Don’t be a Dick Travel, went on to argue that Hawaii is “providing a pretty sweet solution” since “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.

Honolulu's cost of living is one of the highest in the country.
kazhiya via Getty Images
Honolulu's cost of living is one of the highest in the country.

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.

But 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.

Perhaps most disconcerting, however, is the emphasis in many "viral" articles that teaching in Hawaii is 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.”

Beyond the amazing surf and beaches, Hawaii is a complex, nuanced place that presents challenges for many incoming teachers.
Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
Beyond the amazing surf and beaches, Hawaii is a complex, nuanced place that presents challenges for many incoming teachers.

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, with some of those coming 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. 

One man wrote the Department of Education to say he is a “Dentist graduated from Egypt with German citizenship,” before asking, “Can I work in my field There?”

Another 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.”

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.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

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 Civil Beat 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.

Hawaii 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.  

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.”

For a sobering perspective on how actual teachers in Hawaii get by, check out Civil Beat's story Living Hawaii: Can You Afford To Be A Teacher In The Islands? 

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