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Reading, Writing, Arithmetic — and Relaxing

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon
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Retention of new teachers continues to be a problem for Hawai‘i. The state Department of Education recently said it anticipates hiring as many as 1,600 vacancies for next school year. But as HPR’s Molly Solomon reports, educators are looking at creative solutions to keep those positions filled.

On a recent evening, teachers swapped their textbooks for yoga mats. That’s right -- it’s stress-relief night at the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association.

Molly Solomon
Credit Molly Solomon
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Mae Lynne Swoboda, the Manager of the Workforce Wellness program at Kaiser Permanente Hawaii, explains to a group of teachers what stress does to the body.

On the second floor of the teacher’s union building, two therapy dogs tussle over a chew toy. Across the room, calm music can be heard as a yoga class begins and a mobile massage table is set up. The room even smells relaxing: scented candles are everywhere.

All of this is part of the union’s plan to create a stronger support system for young teachers. And hopefully keep them in the classroom longer.

"We're trying from a lot of different angles to retain teachers here because that's a goal for us," said James Lynch-Urbaniak, the union’s Instruction and Professional Development Specialist. He says the group here today is called HYPE, which stands for Hawai‘i Young Professional Educators. They're made up of incoming and first year teachers.

"Really it's just an opportunity for young educators to come together to network," said Lynch-Urbaniak. "And to de-stress, whether it's de-stress from the school year ending, report card grades, talking to parents." Standardized testing, long hours, low pay: It all can start to feel overwhelming.

"I don't think it's a shocker when we say becoming a teacher is very stressful," said Jenifer Evans, a second grade teacher who’s about to finish her first year at Moanalua Elementary.

"When you give a young person 24 young children, and now they are in charge of protecting those children, of leading those children and enriching their minds. It can be kind of daunting."

Molly Solomon
Credit Molly Solomon
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Even massage tables were set up at HSTA's first annual stress-relief workshop for teachers.

A 2015 survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers suggests that many educators share Evan’s strain. About three out of every four teachers reported often feeling stressed by their jobs. Some say that stress stems directly from their students, who are often dealing with their own personal problems. 

"My first year I had a student who had a complete meltdown in my class, like was throwing things in my room," recalls Allison Johnston, a second grade teacher at Nanaikapono Elementary. "I just didn't know what to do. I freaked out, like what am I supposed to do?"

That first year, Johnston said there were moments when she wasn’t sure if she could handle teaching. It was reaching out to her peers and coworkers that made her feel less alone. "Sometimes we'll talk it through and that seems to really help," she said. "Just being able to talk with somebody who has experienced similar situations and who could maybe give advice. I find that really helps."

Johnston says she hopes the stress relief workshops can help her find solutions she can bring back into the classroom. Especially during the end of the school year, when students and teachers can be on edge. 

"They're stressing out and they feel me stressing out. They get the vibe and we just feed off each other," said Johnston. "If I can find something that will help both of us, or at least calm myself down. Then they'll relax more and hopefully do better on their testing."

For now, teachers like Johnston are starting with a deep breath.

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.
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