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DOE teacher shortage draws passionate testimony at Fono hearing

Aab: ”Prepare them, train them, give them a good salary"
fili@samoanews.com

The Education Department’s deputy director for finance Russell Aab says that volunteers from the WorldTeach organization are not the answer to local teacher shortages every year, but for American Samoa to better prepare classroom teachers, who should be given a good salary package.

For more than two years, the Cambridge, Mass., based WorldTeach group has been providing volunteer teachers for the territory and helping with teacher shortages, especially for Manu’a schools.  For the current school year some 30 volunteer teachers are helping classroom teaching in public schools.

During last week’s DOE budget hearing, teacher shortage and WorldTeach volunteers were among the issues raised by lawmakers, after hearing testimony from Aab and DOE director-designee Dr. Jacinta Galea’i that the public education system is short of 17 teachers — although paperwork for these 17 has since been submitted to Human Resources Department for clearance.

However, DOE “has people resigning every year,” Aab added.

Asked about the status of DOE teacher reclassification, Galeai said that as far as DOE knows, all of the ones submitted last year have been completed and those who received degrees since May are included in the new fiscal year budget for the required pay increase.

“So I think we are... in good shape as far as reclassification is concerned,” she said, and noted that it's an ongoing process, as teachers graduate each year.

Rep. Toeaina Faufano Autele said WorldTeach volunteers are the ones that have helped greatly in reducing teacher shortage for public schools, especially for his Manu’a island group.

“When we talk about teacher shortage, sometimes I wonder, if we’re not creating the problem,” said the veteran educator, adding that some teachers have been prompted out of the classroom to other divisions of DOE, including becoming principals or vice principals, when these individuals are needed in the classroom.

Rep. Lemapu Suiaunoa Talo reminded the DOE officials that teacher shortage for the government is a long standing problem and DOE should have a plan in place to prevent teachers from leaving classrooms for other departments after getting their degrees under the Cohort programs.

Lemapu and Toeaina both stated that graduates of the cohort program leave DOE for higher pay in other ASG departments. Lemapu then asked how Galeai plans to prevent this problem from recurring every year, wherein DOE pays the education of teachers to get their degree under the cohort program, and then some teachers, upon getting their degrees, leave DOE to seek jobs with higher pay.

Lemapu, who had worked in DOE for several years prior to being elected to the House some four years ago, suggested another DOE reclassification to raise teacher's salaries, in order to prevent them from leaving DOE for other ASG departments offering higher salaries.

“I agree there should be another hike in teacher’s pay because we compete with other [ASG] agencies that offer higher salaries,” said Galeai, who noted that this is one way to keep teachers after they have obtained their degrees.

The other option is for DOE to review the possibility of having teachers who participate in the Cohort program sign a contract which would require the individual to serve first at DOE “for a certain period of time”. She said these are only ideas at this point to help address this matter.

Lemapu agreed with the option of a contract, saying that the Cohort program was to prepare teachers for classroom work “not for administrative positions, not for counseling positions.”

He recalled that there were previous arrangements in which Cohort teacher graduates served as classroom teachers for five years before they could consider a post outside of the classroom.

Sen. Fonoti Tafa’ifa Aufata  also voiced her disappointment with the teacher shortage and the problem with teachers graduating from the Cohort program, then ending up working at other agencies for higher pay. She said it's the duty and responsibility of a teacher who gets a degree to be in the classroom, but not to get a degree and then sit behind a desk at an office.

Fonoti also inquired about the entry level pay for teachers, to which Galeai said that based on the 2009 reclassification, she believes that an Associate of Arts degree holder starts at around $12,000 while a Bachelor of Arts degree holder is at $16,000 annually.

The higher pay level is for the teachers considered “highly qualified” —  those who have received the BA and passed the Praxis examination. with their pay at around $20,000 plus, she said.

Later in the hearing, Toeaina pointed out that the current teacher shortage of 17 would have been more than 50, if it were not for the WorldTeach volunteers. He said DOE has to prepare for the future in the event this service by WorldTeach is discontinued, and wanted to know of any DOE plans.

Aab replied that WorldTeach “is not the solution” adding that “the way it is now, we are depending on WorldTeach. There are 30 of them this year. And if they decide not to do it next year, we’re in trouble.”

“Two things that we have to do" he continued, is “first, prepare our teachers better and second of all, pay them a decent salary. We still lose most of our qualified ones after a couple of years,” he added.

Rep. Faimealelei Anthony Allen said he concurred with other lawmakers who have spoken about the teacher shortage and that something needs to be done so that they don’t leave DOE.

“We need to take care of our people who are teachers. We need to take care of them. Not only in the way we pay them, but how we deal with them on issues between each division,” said Faimealelei, adding that a lot of teachers left DOE in the last two years and he knows this because he has spoken to some of them, and he too was with DOE in the past.

He said some of these teachers are now working in the Commerce Department but when he talks to them, “their passion is teaching” but they left because they were not treated well by their immediate supervisors, which is something that DOE management really needs to look at, he said.

“...We need to maintain and sustain, the workforce that you have,” he said referring to teachers. “There’s some good teachers out there — a lot of them. But I hate for the Cohort to spend the money, then after a couple of years, they get their degree and then they move somewhere else.”

Others who spoke about this issue during the hearing were passionate about keeping qualified teachers in classrooms, giving them the right pay, and treating them right.



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