This is the story of a boy in pursuit of The American Dream. Born and raised in Hawaii, Alan Lee is leaving the teacher profession after only two years. Like many before him, he has discovered that teaching in Hawaii does not afford him anything more than the ability to merely survive, something that is not an option given his family responsibilities.
In a recent discussion with a colleague leaving the profession after two years in the classroom, it became evermore clear that America has began the slippery slope into educational mediocrity and teacher dissatisfaction through a lack of appreciation and professional autonomy. For the sake of anonymity, this teacher will remain unnamed. His parents immigrated to America from China in the 1980s with the idea that he would have the American dream: a great education, reasonable working conditions, a professional salary, and the pursuit of happiness.
Alan’s parents came here with two suitcases and the dream of finding the financial fortune that others before them had. They were both born into poverty and viewed America as the land of opportunity, where they could move up through the social classes and break barriers that China’s economy wouldn’t allow. His mom worked as a seamstress, sewing aloha shirts, and his father worked as a cook. As the American economy shifted from manufacturing on the home front to abroad, his mom had to make the switch from seamstress to working at McDonald’s and then to Burger King, where she still works today.
Growing up, his parents scrimped and saved, eventually able to buy an apartment. Having something that was their own was what they had always wanted, but it did not come without other things being sacrificed: there is no retirement fund, no money for future medical expenses, no vacations, no nest for emergencies…. but the place was theirs, and that was more than enough.
As he grew up, it was ingrained in him that he was expected to do well in school and get an excellent education. It paid off, as he ended up getting a full ride to college. He graduated and decided to become a teacher in an attempt to give back to the community while building a career in education. Teaching is a revered profession in China, so it definitely would be in America, right?
He was surprised to find that his future as a teacher would be rewarded by a poor salary, lack of autonomy, and poor working conditions. He had existential moments of wondering what it was all for. He would never be able to give back to his family and provide for them. How many more years could they continue working 16 hour shifts? He had to come up with a plan that would allow a large enough salary for him to be able to support them. He is the oldest son, the torch-bearer to make things better for his family that had sacrificed so much to make things better for him. While his parents never expected him to feel the need to provide for them — they always wanted him to do what would make him happy — he feels that providing for them makes him happy. He stated that he feels that there are two ways of looking at this situation: does he want to provide for his community or provide for his family? Providing for his community means sacrificing himself at the cost of not providing for his family, giving pieces of himself on a daily basis to many who can’t grasp the great fortune of their free education.
He described America’s view of teaching as it being “a teacher’s responsibility to sacrifice for the intrinsic reward.” A ‘real teacher’ doesn’t need a lofty salary in order to do their job, because their love of educating is payment enough. But is that really okay? Excellent performance from doctors, lawyers, and other professionals results in excellent pay. We cannot create a great medical system by paying doctors purely in their love of healing the sick. We can’t equate teaching with being paid just enough to survive, with the yearly bonus being only the love of education. It is currently the bargaining chip — in America, it’s a teacher’s responsibility to sacrifice themselves and their families.
When asked what would make him stay in education, he said that the two most important factors would include a drastic increase in salary along with the ability to be considered credible as an intelligent contributing member of society. Currently, America views teachers through the lens of, “those who can’t do, teach,” instead of those who are intellectuals and experts in their fields share their knowledge to create an educated society.
The American Dream is still being sought out by this family-oriented, kind, intellectual first generation American, but not in the field of education.
His story, though incredibly unique, is similar to so many other teachers who teach in Hawaii; it is living-with-the-bare-minimum survival as a teacher here. Every five years, the Hawaii DOE has a turn over rate of 56%. This alarming statistic should be at the heart of discussion regarding how to increase teacher satisfaction through autonomy, pay, and classroom support. From a macrocosmic perspective, we need to analyze if the American Dream is even attainable as a teacher in Hawaii.
Though Hawaii’s beginning teacher salary is similar to that of many other states, it’s dollar doesn’t go nearly as far. If a teacher in New Jersey is earning $42,000 per year, he/she must earn $53,922 to maintain the same standard of living. For a teacher in Arizona also earning $42,000 per year, he/she must earn $74,882 per year in Hawaii to maintain the same standard (www.payscale.com). The only problem is that teachers in Hawaii with a Bachelors degree in education begin at $43,759, while teachers with Masters degrees start at $47,259. Throw a PhD in there and you’ll get a whopping $56,350. So, to maintain the standard of living you had in New Jersey, you’ll need a PhD to teach in Hawaii, or to maintain the standard in Arizona, you’ll need a second full time job along with your PhD. Can The American Dream be attained for those of us staying in education and wanting to build our life in the islands?
But what is the modern day American Dream? It would appear that The American Dream now consists of eternal roommates, credit cards for groceries and gas, and marital discussions of if we can afford children rather than when. In the words of Geddy Lee from Rush (arguably the greatest American rock band of the 20th century), it’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit.
Is there any question why teacher retention in paradise is so low? When exactly will this become a priority to be tackled?
To the teacher in this article, thank you for sharing your story with us.
For the rest of us, we need to do something. How many great educators will we have to wish bon voyage to?