Growing up in New Jersey, James Lynch-Urbaniak never considered moving to the far-flung island state of Hawaii or becoming a surfer. But after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees close to home at Rutgers University, he attended a teaching job fair and found himself talking to a recruiter from the Aloha State. Shortly after, Lynch-Urbaniak found himself teaching 8th grade English at Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. Fourteen years later, he is raising his kids in Hawaii and has become a regular in the local surfing community.
“I didn’t know the first thing about anything,” Lynch-Urbaniak said. “But Hawaii is home now.”
He works hard to help make it home for others, too. Having transitioned from classroom teacher to a position as a teacher recruiter with the Hawaii Department of Education, Lynch-Urbaniak not only recruits teachers to the state’s public schools—over half of whom relocate from the U.S. mainland—but also helps them acclimate to their new environment. And while Lynch-Urbaniak has fully embraced Hawaii’s laid-back vibe and outdoorsy lifestyle, making it look easy, he acknowledges that relocating for a teaching position isn’t a decision to be taken lightly.
Herein, he and other educators share their experiences and advice.
Consider financial issues such as cost-of-living differences and relocation assistance
When it comes to considering a new job, salary matters. But it’s not an isolated matter; typically, it’s tied heavily to cost of living. For instance, teachers in Mississippi, which offers the most affordable cost of living in the nation, take home the lowest salaries nationwide. So if you teach in Mississippi and covet the salary of a teacher in New York—which may be double yours—know that the higher cost of living in the Big Apple will consume a big chunk of that higher salary.
That’s why teachers, even experienced ones, who live in more expensive areas tend to spend a disproportionate amount of their earnings on big-ticket items like rent. A recent analysis found that teachers with five years experience who live in Seattle spend 54 percent of their income on a one-bedroom rental; teachers with 10 years of experience spend nearly 60 percent of their pay to afford a two-bedroom in Seattle.
The cost of relocating is yet another financial consideration to weigh. Shipping furniture, traveling to the destination, putting a security deposit on a rental unit—these are just some of the up-front costs you can anticipate when relocating.
Some school districts offer relocation assistance to employees to help defray these costs. If cost is a consideration, find out prior to accepting a job offer if relocation assistance is included. Public school teachers relocating to Hawaii receive $2,000 toward relocation assistance, said Lynch-Urbaniak from the Hawaii education department, and more if they are hired to teach at “hard to staff” schools. Relocation assistance notwithstanding, Lynch-Urbaniak acknowledges: “It is expensive to relocate.”
Assess the cultural fit to make sure it is a good one
When weighing the pros and cons of relocating for a teaching job, there’s more than money at stake. Finding a cultural fit in a new location can bring as much or even more happiness than a salary bump.
“When I talk with colleagues around the country about critical factors regarding relocation decisions, the cultural climate of potential school districts is paramount,” Daman Harris, principal of Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md., said in an email interview.
Harris, co-founder of the BOND Project (Building Our Network of Diversity), a Maryland-based initiative that supports male educators of color, suggests some concrete ways that teachers seeking a relocation assignment can gauge how welcoming a district or school is to teachers of all racial and cultural backgrounds.
Educators may start by inquiring about policies at the state or district level regarding equity, culturally relevant practices, and/or anti-racism, Harris said. Further, he suggests that candidates observe how many teachers of color are on the staff, and that they inquire about their day-to-day experiences around diversity.
“It’s okay to ask,” Harris advised.
Understand teacher licensing requirements before you take the job
Anthony Hernandez wished he had asked more about what it would take to become a licensed teacher in Minnesota before he relocated there from Washington, D.C., for a teaching job. “I was naive on how arduous the licensing transfer process would be,” he admitted.
Hernandez decided near the end of his undergraduate studies that he wanted to become a teacher, and then became licensed to teach in Washington, D.C. through an alternative-route preparation program. After teaching there for a few years, he chose to move back to his home state of Minnesota. He got hired by a charter school in Columbia Heights, Minn. Then, he says, came the licensing headaches.
“There was no articulated series of steps for me to take [to become certified to teach in Minnesota],” said Hernandez, whose combination of being alternatively licensed and from out of state complicated his circumstances. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience.”
After several inquiries and back-and-forth with Minnesota Department of Education officials, he received a waiver the day before the school year started that allowed him to begin his job without a Minnesota teaching license, which he did not get until about a year after his move. Eventually, Hernandez said, a lawsuit spearheaded by an educational reform group (initiated prior to his relocation) led to the creation of a new entity that oversees teacher licensing in Minnesota, providing clearer expectations.
“I think his experience is representative of what many teachers have to go through when they consider moving to different states,” said Eric Cova, spokesperson for Educators for Excellence, a nonprofit that aims to elevate the teaching profession.
Make sure there is extra support to become part of the community
As Hernandez’s experience illustrates, obstacles related to administrative details can hamper teachers’ relocation experiences. So, too, can bigger-picture issues.
That’s why Lynch-Urbaniak coordinated a program for teachers new to Hawaii, called the Aloha Ambassadors. The ambassadors are classroom teachers across the state, on all the islands, trained to answer questions about living and working in Hawaii.
“We’re unique; we’re an island state. We need to provide some extra support,” said Lynch-Urbaniak. “Teachers who find themselves connected to the community stay.”
He knows this to be true from both his own experience and from studying teacher retention data. He also acknowledges that it isn’t always easy. “As a white man, I’m not the majority here,” said Lynch-Urbaniak. “For a lot of folks, that could be an uncomfortable situation.”
“Immerse yourself. One of our teachers said it best: When you come here, don’t think you’re coming to teach something to the locals. Let Hawaii teach you.”