Helping Good Teachers Stay in Hawaii

By Sharon Kearney

This past fall, a newly hired teacher at my school had to take another personal day. He needed the time to complete the final walkthrough on the place he was vacating. Before the end of the first quarter of the school year, he had already moved five times.

Throughout the United States, the combined expenditures by school districts for teacher recruitment and retention was 2.2 billion dollars in 2016 (1). I do not know how much of that amount was spent by the Hawaii Department of Education, but I do know their efforts were newsworthy. I received phone calls from friends and family living in various mainland locations every time the Hawaii recruiting efforts were a sound bite on the local evening program.

The Learning Policy Institute has postulated that if the 8% U.S. teacher attrition rate was reduced to a rate of 4% (which is the rate found in other highly educated countries), the current U.S. teacher shortage would end (1).

What would it take to end the teacher shortage in Hawaii? I believe if Hawaii developed the resources to provide housing options for teachers, both new hires and tenured teachers, recruitment and retention would be addressed, and attrition would be reduced. Other school districts are coming to the same conclusion.

“If you build it, they will come.”  Newark, New Jersey did build, and they are coming. Not to a baseball diamond, but to the Teachers Village redevelopment project (1). Four blocks in size, the buildings are a showpiece of mixed use with space for a day care center, retail units, three separate charter schools, and residences with new hire and local neighborhood school teachers occupying 70% of the units. The resident teachers will have natural opportunities to build their own social community where they can share ideas and learn from each other. Funding for the project came from a blend of public and private social-impact investors.

Chicago, Illinois is also willing to build. Using the Newark model, the Humboldt Park Teacher’s Village will be a renovated mixed use structure (2). Plans include a market area with communal seating, retail space, classroom space for community enrichment classes, and resident space a mixture of apartments and townhomes.

The school district in Washington D.C. has purchased the campus of a former Catholic College with plans to convert some of the buildings into housing for local teachers, and to provide a charter school site (1).

The school district in Denver, Colorado surveyed teachers who left the district at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. 10.5% cited the high cost of living as a big factor in their decision to leave (3).

Other states and school districts have chosen to provide teachers with housing subsidies (2), down payment grants , and low, fixed rate home loans (3).

Whether any of these models will work in Hawaii remains to be seen. Numerous conversations at the complex, district, and state levels need to occur. Data needs to be collected. Surveys can be sent to teachers on each island. I think the talking needs to start now so that we can move beyond words to real action.


1. 09/12/17. Patrick Sission. Downloaded 08/24/2018

2. 06/05/17. Kimberly Manning, Downloaded 08/24/2018

3. 12/20/16. Ann Schmike, Downloaded 08/24/2018


Sharon Kearney is the Special Education Department Head at Maui High School within the Baldwin/Kekaulike/Maui Complex where she oversees students in grades 9-12 for Diploma and up to age 22 for Certificate of Completion. Sharon has been at Maui High for 9 years. She has participated as a member of the MHS Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment team, as a MHS WASC Focus Group Leader, and as a WASC Visitation Team member. Extracurricular activities have included being a Special Education Advisor to the MHS Best Buddies Chapter. Sharon has degrees from both California Lutheran University and University of California, Santa Barbara.

A Model for Change: Leader Training and Development

By Robyn Herbig

Teacher Leadership seems to be one of the latest educational buzz phrases getting tossed around by school administrators and district leaders. These days, one can Google “teacher leadership” and find articles that provide definitions, offer suggestions on competencies, recommend tips for teacher leaders to be successful, and the list goes on. So what is teacher leadership really and why should administrators and teachers care?


Perhaps the place to start is a current and common definition of teacher leadership:  according to Charlotte Danielson’s Teacher Leadership That Strengthens Professional Practice, one who extends their skill set beyond their classroom to help in administrative duties is a “teacher leader.” Despite this definition, teacher leadership roles have often been viewed as roles given to teachers who have been at a school for a long period of time and have “paid their dues.” Often, school or grade-level teacher leaders are not necessarily chosen because of their ability to lead but rather based on years served or as part of a rotation among the teachers. These kinds of teacher leaders carry out duties assigned to them from an administrator and ensure the supply cabinet is full and that messages get communicated up and down the chain. They do not typically act as innovative leaders, making real changes.

It is past time to redefine what it means to be a teacher leader and to look at who we are encouraging and empowering to be our teacher leaders. In fact, the best schools and most successful districts have already redefined these roles and reimagined how schools can operate. It is time for the rest of us to catch up.


As with nearly every educational decisions, teacher leadership should be about student learning and wellbeing. If a school genuinely wants to see growth and movement as an organization, teacher leadership needs to go beyond designated roles and delegation of duties. Instead, teacher leaders need to always focus on student voice and student success. With this in mind, schools need to be equipping all teachers to realize they are all teacher leaders regardless of whether or not defined roles exist. Administrators need to recognize that all teachers can be teacher leaders even if it is just to lead their own classroom in supporting their students in rigorous and engaging instruction. However, teachers should feel empowered to reach beyond their classroom to influence a school’s culture which in turn will impact student learning.  


There are many teacher leadership programs and opportunities for professional development outside of a school. Here in the state of Hawaii, teachers can apply to be a part of various teacher leader learning opportunities through the Department of Education’s Leadership Institute. Despite these options, it would benefit the educational system to localize teacher leadership training and bring it to the school level. The University of Florida Lastinger Center offers an 18 month Teacher Fellowship where teachers are identified and recommended by their administrators as teacher leaders. Their approach is job embedded professional development in order to create more high quality teaching staff. This program goes beyond a once a month get together to learn leadership skills and strategies; the Fellowship pairs together academic research and academic practice. All learning is brought back to the individual’s school and implemented with support from the Fellowship.

To grow teacher leaders, schools need to create this type of environment where teachers feel safe and are able to take on leadership roles without fear of negativity and hostility from other teachers or administrators. Schools need to promote risk taking and reflection, where teachers can grow both professionally and personally as well as receive feedback on their practice. If Hawaii is serious about growing our own teacher leaders, we must start having conversations with the stakeholders who can help to localize teacher leader programs and look at innovative ways, some that have already begun in complexes around the State, to continue to build capacity from the inside out.


Robyn is the Instructional Coach, Early College Coordinator and AVID Site Team Coordinator at Waimea High School. As an Instructional Coach, she is a mentor for new and beginning teachers, oversees the STEM Capstone Project and conducts regular Professional Development for teachers. She also participated in the Na Kumu Alaka’i Teacher Leader Academy. Robyn earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Wheaton College in Illinois and Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix.

Give Them Time

By Dulcy Dawson

It happened again last night. A text from a former student thanking me for being there for him during the time in his life that was not as pretty as it is now. Nate was a 5th year senior at a prestigious high school in the midwest. He was placed in my Special Education classes not because of any identified issue but simply because he had failed Senior English again. He could read and write very well. He simply refused to turn in all the work that was required because he did not see the point of it.

I have seen this so often over the years. I’m sure there is a fancy term for it but I call it the “Middle Boy Syndrome.” Once a boy reaches a certain age, they stop seeing the connections between relentless wrote practice, like vocab or math facts, and their everyday life or their future. An easy going kid will turn into a silently or outwardly defiant young man and begin to drive their parents and teachers crazy.

As a parent of one of these boys, and a teacher to many, I understand the frustrations wholeheartedly. Parents begin to envision their son out on the streets with no future because they are ruining their GPA which will in turn ruin their chances at getting into the best colleges and then will ruin their lives. Teachers feel frustrated with the defiance and refusals and sometimes feel that they cannot pass these kids. Even though these boys may be masters of the content, they have not met the requirements of the class, since they rarely hand in homework, and it would not be “fair” to give them a passing grade. School counselors sometimes feel that it is their job to tell these kids the “hard facts” and pass down a verdict at age 15 that they are headed nowhere in life if they do not “get it together.”

I have sat in countless meetings for these boys and I have watched the teachers throw their hands up declaring this one a lost cause. This confuses me. I never feel that way. You see, I have seen these boys once they are able to leave the place that devalued them. Let me tell you about a few.

The young man that I mentioned earlier decided to attend a Computer Technology school in California and then became a motivational speaker for at risk teens. He now works at a reputable computer manufacturing company in the midwest. This despite the fact that there were no computer classes offered at his school. You know, the one that placed him in special ed English because it was sick of dealing with his refusals to do homework.

Another boy, JT, immediately after high school, became a construction worker and eventually owned his own company. This despite the “shop” program at his school being cut.

Craig went to a community college and attended the radio broadcasting program. He now works for the local television company, is married, and has a daughter. His side hustle is his own wedding videography company. He recently sent me his Yelp reviews. It seems people really appreciate how talented he is. Craig’s high school only offered one communications class and he could not take it because he was placed in Special Ed classes that filled his schedule.

Erik joined the armed forces and has been trained in electronics. He did so well on the ASVAB test, he was was able to choose the line of work he wanted to do in the service. He will make more money than I ever will as a teacher. This is the kid that was encouraged by counselors to leave our college preparatory high school because he was not considered successful.

I have some male friends that did very well in school. They did what they needed to do to get the really good grades to get into the college they wanted to attend. It seems they made all the right decisions and academically made their parents very proud. They never gave their teachers a hard time. They graduated with their engineering degrees and landed the good job at the engineering company but they really are not any happier in their jobs than any of the young men I have mentioned. In the long run, they simply did not push any buttons or make any waves. They played the game of homework and school and found access to what they wanted or needed.

This access is a privilege that we deny these other boys who don’t, won’t, or can’t play that game.

I understand that we feel it would be easier if our “middle boys” would just do what they need to do but if you ask them now what they need they might tell you that they need connections and time to let it all make sense. Some boys, many people in fact, just were not ready at 14, 15, and 16 to declare that this all makes sense. Perhaps they hated the books or did not really understand half of what the teachers were saying or the purposes behind what they were being asked to do. They tuned out most of the time because their hormones really only cared about one thing. They loved their car or their new video game and could care less about the latest math theory.

More than anything, these students need TIME and a place where it is okay for things to not make sense just yet. With some more time to grow, explore, and mature, these students will turn out just fine.

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Dulcy Dawson is a High School Teacher at West Hawaii Explorations Academy, a project based public charter school on Hawaii Island. She loves learning alongside her students and continues to be a life long learner. When not with her students, you will find Dulcy with her husband and kids or on a coffee date with a friend.

Navigating My Career Pathway

By Lorna Baniaga-Lee

Ten years ago, after earning the maximum professional development credits and reaching the highest class in our teacher pay-scale, I began to wonder if there was more for me. How could teachers in my situation afford the cost of continued professional development without financial incentive? To think that my current path, my growth as a teacher, might stop there, made me uneasy.

How would I continue to grow so I could provide the best for my students? Becoming an administrator did not appeal to me at the time, but building leadership skills did. So I began  volunteering to take on teacher-leadership roles. Even with the informal teacher-leadership roles that I found, I still felt there were uncharted paths for me. This was about the time that I pursued National Board Certification. In the process of certifying, I was challenged to continuously reflect on my practice in and out of my classroom. Once certified, I continue to grow through other professional opportunities that were offered to me because I was a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT).

10 years later, I received an NBCT letter asking me to renew my certification. I began to question my pathway again. Where would I make the greatest impact with students? Will it be in the classroom with my own students? Will it be with students beyond my classroom walls? How would NBCT renewal fit in?

Each year I still find great joy in building relationships with 90+ students, watching them grow personally and academically. I also find myself evolving as a teacher-leader who enjoys helping other teachers develop. I have found great pride in my work helping others along their journeys of continuous learning, whether in the PD courses for teachers that I facilitate or as a member of the planning team for complex-wide teacher convenings, and I have found continued joy in my own ongoing growth and learning. Is it possible to continue to do all this? To teach, to grow as a teacher, to help others grow?

Should I follow the urging of that NBCT renewal letter or take a look at other pathways? I made the decision to renew.

Once again, I was challenged to reflect on my practices and how I’d grown over the last 10 years as a classroom teacher and as a teacher-leader. The process of renewing encouraged me to bring pieces of my experiences together and helped me to make sense of and strengthen my “whys.”    

After completing the renewal process, I was given the opportunity to be a Temporary Vice Principal at my school. With much contemplation, I took a leap of faith and left the classroom for a semester to take on the challenge. This experience provided such an eye-opening view into the realities of what it takes to manage a school. Each day brought me a new understanding of how our school culture impacts the performance of our students, teachers, and staff.  During my short time in the position, I questioned my impact as an administrator. Was I making a difference? Was this the right choice? Does NBCT renewal help me here?

In January, I returned to my classroom as an English teacher. I embraced my day-to-day challenges in getting to know my “new” students so we could create an engaging learning environment for all of us. On tougher days, I reminded myself and my students that there was a greater purpose for being in my class. It was not simply to perform to get a grade; rather, it was to challenge each other to be better than we were yesterday. Even after all these years, and as confident as a I am, I am continuously asking myself  how I could have done or approached something in a different way.

Renewing my National Board Certification was a personal reminder to myself that I need to continue to be a champion for education, in whatever role I play now and in the future. And in all of roles that I’ve already been in, I’ve come to realize that the hour-by-hour “fires” and the day-to-day tasks of running the school’s operation or classroom as an administrator and teacher are NOT the most challenging part of education. The most challenging part is finding the time for honest self-reflection that should happen at the end of a day or week. It is so easy to get consumed in our daily tasks that we are often too tired to reflect on our actions and experiences, whether good or bad. This gives our own self-doubt a greater power over us and blocks our ability to accept and embrace the unknown to keep us moving forward.

After all these years and all the roles I’ve been in as I navigated my career pathway, I discovered that being honest with myself and acknowledging the things I do that bring me joy are what will lead me through a purposeful journey. The National Board certification process taught me this: that self-reflection is powerful. As leaders of a school or in the classroom, it is imperative that we take the time to look inwards to plot a path for self-improvement. But most importantly, we need to remind ourselves that we have a greater purpose. That providing quality education and experiences for our students includes challenging ourselves to create and be part of an environment where we embrace the value of reflection for all of us.


Lorna Baniaga-Lee is National Board Certified (2009/2019) and has been an English teacher for over 20 years at James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. In addition to being a classroom teacher, she leads the school’s Induction and Mentoring program to support beginning teachers and provides professional development courses to help build teacher leaders. She is also a 2016 Hope Street Group Fellow (HSG) Alumni & HSG 2018 Teacher Advisory Council fellow.

Hi, My Name is ________

By Dawn Taba

Just a small sampling of the names I’ve heard used to describe students in my 16 years of teaching:

Hi, my name is....jpg

These labels can be seen as a form of praise or as a means of identifying students who need extra help, but what else do these labels say? What exactly do these labels do for a student? What do they tell the parent of one of these students? Or the teachers of this student? Is there a point when labels loose their helpfulness and start becoming more harmful? Is there a point when the student starts believing in the labels rather than simply believing in themselves?

In Hawaii, our communities can be very small and close knit. Especially here on Kauai, it seems that everyone knows everyone else. Teaching in a small community can exacerbate the problems inherent in labeling students. I hear it time and again in the school circles, “that must be so-and-so’s brother” or “so-and-so’s sister” followed up by “I hope they’ll be as [insert positive descriptor] as their older brother/sister!” Although unintentional, I imagine the pressure this could place on the younger sibling, to live up to or exceed expectations. Even for an older sibling, knowing they are essentially setting the example and feeling like they must always live up to some idealized version of themselves. Often, this pressure makes the student feel that they must be the label regardless of who they really are.

Teachers sometimes try to make connections to students by initially finding the “labels” that fit them. Who are they related to? What did their previous teachers think about them? Are there any red flags that I should know about? For many years, this was the exact way I would begin my school year. I would get my class lists and go over each name, checking out who their parents were, trying to make connections. I would share my lists with teachers in my department to see if they had any “insider” information they could provide so that I could best prepare for what was to come. Sometimes the information would be positive, many times negative, but either way, it made me feel ready. I thought I knew these students by how I could label them. It made me feel like I KNEW what was coming and that I would be ready for it.

I began to examine my methods and motives when I became a parent myself and when my children entered the public school system. The idea of labeling students and the effects of those labels became something I really started to think about as I noticed my children being labeled by adults at their schools. My daughter, who is four years older than her brother, has always been referred to as “smart.” School is something that she was undoubtedly ready for when she first set foot on the preschool playground. From the get go, she has been eager to please her teachers. Learning how to learn always came easily for her. She has always been a “model student,” in the highest reading groups, successful in math, while still being interested in the arts. She would come home with her report cards overflowing with MEs, Meets with Excellency, and received Super GLO Star awards every school year.

Naturally, a few years later when my son started school, he was expected to follow in her footsteps; he came in to school already labeled as “----’s brother.” The weight of meeting the expectations of that label have been hard for him to bear.

My son, the “model student’s” brother who has two teachers for parents, needs more direction and extra support. We have been told that he was showing up as “on watch” after universal screener testing and that he was also struggling with memorizing his multiplication facts. It was suggested that we look into maybe finding him a tutor or enrolling him in a reading program over the summer. He has come home with sheets of multiplication drills with hundreds of problems that we would work on until we were both in tears.

As we struggled through these piles of extra work, I began to think, is this what happens for every struggling student? Is this what every parent is told and expected to do? Or was this a result of his label as a “teacher’s kid?” Or maybe as the “model student’s” brother? How do students without teachers as parents even begin to navigate all of this?

I have realized that my own practice of labeling my students and having different expectations because of those labels is not necessarily helping. All it does is help ME to put students into boxes in my head. The boxes keep things neat and tidy but are limiting. Maybe these boxes were keeping me from allowing the students to possibly reach their full potential or to be their full selves. As I have transitioned into a position that is out of the classroom and deals with a bigger view of the school, it is apparent that teachers do this on a larger scale, as well.

As teachers, creating the boxes to place students in can sometimes assist us in finding ways to help them through their schooling. If a student comes to us as a “disadvantaged middle student,” it may help us to consider what programs are available at the school to encourage that student to succeed. In instances like this, it may seem that the boxes are simplifying our work to help these students. But in reality, these labels and boxes limit our work and limit the possibilities we see for our students, and therefore limit the potential of the students themselves. What good are these labels if they just leave our students wrapped up in little boxes?

Let’s ignore the labels and get to know our students for who they are, what they need, what they bring, and where they want to go.

How I Let Students Lead

By Jill Fletcher

Students often love to share their ideas aloud. There was a time when I didn’t value this enthusiasm for engaging. I saw it as a trait to tamper – something that stood in the way of getting information to them. Then I realized their willingness to speak was one of their greatest assets. And in order to reach them, I needed to build upon their passion for discussion.

When there is something big going on in the news, my students often want to talk about it. That’s part of why, for me, it’s so important to teach discussion skills. I want my students to be productive when they disagree with someone – and to seek an understanding of someone else’s viewpoint and experiences.

We hold a lot of discussions in my class (we call them “Philosophical Chairs”), and I tell the students the most important thing is to have an open mind and listen to what other students are saying, instead of just waiting to make their own point.

We emphasize that the best thing a person can do in Philosophical Chairs is change your thinking a little bit. I encourage them to seek to understand 100% where another person is coming from, even if they don’t agree with that person. The mission is to understand and listen to each other.

Students don’t feel comfortable with this right away. It takes time to build the right sense of community. We start off the year by making an agreement for our space, and we all sign off on it. Our first discussions focus on simple topics and then we move on to more challenging ones. Finding topics that push them to expand their thinking comes naturally because of the way we decide on topics.

We always go with what they want to talk about and a topic on which students will disagree. I’ll ask, “How many people agree with this statement?” – and if nearly everyone raises their hand, we’ll usually move on to something else. I tell them, “If we just have a conversation, and everybody agrees, then we are not pushing ourselves.”

I tell my students that they are in charge of the conversation. Who speaks when. How long they talk. It’s all up to them. During these discussions, I’m not the facilitator. They run the conversation themselves. To ensure I don’t jump into their conversation I usually record how many times each student has spoken, or some data from the conversation that I may share with them later. This keeps me focused on the content of their conversation, and prevents me from adding my opinion.

There are only a few rules: (1) Let three people speak before speaking again. (2) One person speaks at a time. (3) Make eye contact with the speaker. (4) Use body language that shows you’re listening. (5) Keep an open mind. (6) Listen to understand.

I post the rules, and I’ll say, “If you see that someone is not following the rules, can you gently remind them without embarrassing them?” And then, I let them begin.

It is hard at first, though. When discussions don’t go the way I want them to early on, it is tempting to take control and guide them. But for the students to learn to lead, I have to believe in them.

It’s hard for them at first, too. They don’t fully believe that they are in control. They look to me to see if I like what they are saying. I tell them, “Don’t look at me. Address your peers. All of you are in charge of this discussion.” Part of why I take notes is to avoid eye contact. So if they do look at me, they don’t get any feedback on my opinion. If they don’t know how I feel about what they are saying, they begin to feel like this space is actually theirs.

When we let go of control, and we just trust them, they learn to lead. Depending on the group, it might take about four discussions before they believe this is their space. That they own it. Once they know that, they all find their voices. Students who rarely speak in whole-group, teacher-led discussions will make brilliant, thought-provoking statements. Over time, students grow a sense of camaraderie in these discussions.

In one conversation, we were discussing the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty. One student, who is a Pacific Islander but not Native Hawaiian, was strongly arguing against the idea. Then, another student spoke up to explain why she would always believe in and advocate for Hawaiian sovereignty. She staked her claim and articulated her opinion, and the other student said, “You know, I have never thought about it from your viewpoint. I respect that.” And the whole class burst into applause – they were clapping for each other. They were celebrating open-mindedness.

In moments like this, I think, “Wow, who’s the teacher?”

That’s the thing they don’t always tell you when you’re studying to become a teacher. This profession is not just about what and how you teach students; it’s also about how much they are going to teach you about yourself, cause you to constantly reflect on your choices, evaluate your decisions, and even change the ways you choose to engage.

By respecting students and giving them space, voice and agency, we can support the growth of leaders. Any time we can empower them to own their learning, it’s worth it.

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Jill Yamasawa Fletcher is a poet, National Board Certified Teacher, and a 2018 Hope Street Group Hawaiʻi State Teacher Fellow who advocates for student and teacher empowerment. She has taught AVID, college and career readiness, to grades 6–8 for 6 years and was an ELA teacher before that. Jill holds a BA in English from Santa Clara University, an MA in creative writing and a teaching credential from University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is currently a TA assistant principal. Find her on Twitter @teachinginhi.

School Bells Ring, but Why?

By Bobby Widalm

For most adults who grew up in the United States, the thought of school conjures up several common images from school desks to whiteboards or chalkboards to textbooks and lockers. And when we think about the sounds of school, many will hear the school bell. As a beginning teacher in a middle school, I welcomed the familiar sound of the school bell to signify the beginning and end of class. It provided us all, students and teachers alike, with the notification to keep to the daily structure.

Fast forward several years after I began working at the district and state offices away from the bustle of schools and classrooms. In these new roles, I attend a variety of meetings and events at different times and often at different sites, so I need to pay close attention to the time and plan accordingly to ensure I arrive in a timely manner to these meetings. I donʻt have the benefit of the bell marking the parts of my day any more.

When I have an afternoon meeting at a high school, I purposely arrive early, just before lunch ends. This gives me the opportunity to observe students like a fly on the wall. I sometimes watch as students gather in various clusters throughout the campus, engaged in conversations. After not regularly being in a school setting, I have a new perspective on school life.

I focus my attention to how students interact and then respond when the bell rings signaling the end of lunch. Interestingly, I do not just see and hear, but almost feel the disappointment from these students as they hear the bell. Some are quick to gather their belongings and head to class while others take their time but within the five minute passing time, almost all the students are in classrooms, the courtyards and hallways now quiet. Just moments before not one of these students seemed to be even remotely aware of when lunch would be ending.

When I was a computer lab facilitator and teacher, I witnessed not just this dependency on the school bell to indicate it was “time to move” but also its use as an excuse to not move. Our school was going through renovations, and it was common for the bells to malfunction. So, teachers would need to step outside and begin herding the students who often responded with “But the bell didn’t ring.” I began to wonder about the school bell. Maybe it isn’t very conducive to helping students be better prepared for the world after school, where very rarely are there bells to indicate it is time to head to work after lunch.

I share this example of the school bell as a widely accepted construct of school we almost never question to help illustrate what I see as a great opportunity for Hawaii public schools. The Hawaii DOE Superintendent, Dr. Christina Kishimoto, is asking educators to examine and possibly revamp their school design through four subcategories: core beliefs and values, instructional design, school infrastructure, and student voice. Although Dr. Kishimoto recognizes schools could begin examining any of these subcategories, I might suggest schools first work collaboratively to develop consistent schoolwide beliefs and values, including student expectations such as the General Learner Outcomes. Once the school community is clear about its core beliefs and values, I encourage school communities to critically examine many of the accepted constructs of school and how those constructs support or inhibit the purpose of the school. For instance, if we truly want students to become self-directed learners, how might the school bell be helping or hindering students in their growth to that end?

I am truly excited at this opportunity for Hawaii schools, and I hope the DOE leverages its tri-level empowerment to provide the necessary resources, support, and flexibility to schools so they have the time, resources, and decision-making power to engage the entire school community in the school design process. How amazing it would be for Hawaii to have a portfolio of schools that may look very different from the common notions of school but ring true to the schools’ shared core values and beliefs while providing students with a highly coordinated and orchestrated educational experience as long as they are at the school.


Bobby Widhalm has been an educator for 20 years and currently serves as a state office teacher in the Hawaii Department of Education’s Office of Talent Management, where he supports the state’s various leadership development programs. Previously, he has taught middle and high school mathematics, computer programming, robotics, and electronics, as well as served as a complex area and state resource teacher. Bobby earned his Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and teaching credentials at the University of Denver.

Family: Our Most Valuable Resource

By: Leanna Agcaoili

On the third day of school this year, we made a circle graph about “Family.” I asked my students, “Friends, what do you like to do with your family? I’ll be writing your responses on our circle graph.”

My students shared activities they like to do with their families:

“Going fishing.”

“Playing games at Chuck E. Cheese.”

“Eating Pizza.”

“Playing at the park.”

Then one child said, “I like eating pancit with my family.”


Five minutes passed. Everyone shared their thoughts.

I asked that same student, “What culture is pancit from?”

He said, “I don’t know. My family just makes it!”

My jaw dropped. How does this student not know where pancit originates from? I’m half-Filipino, and it’s the only Filipino food I will eat! How does my student not know this is a food of his culture?

When I asked students how many of them have heard the word culture before, only one out of my 23 students raised a hand. This lack of knowledge was evident when I read their pre-writes about their families because no one wrote about their culture. Granted, my original question was overly general to leave room for students’ interpretation, but they just wrote about the activities they do together, or how many people are in their family.

Some typical responses:

“I’m proud of my family because I get to play X-Box”

“I’m proud of my family because I get to go to Ice Palace and the water park.”

This indicated to me a huge problem: My students lack an understanding of how unique our cultural diversity is, and how each one of them has a cultural identity that they bring to our communities.

I was very surprised that my students were unaware of their cultural heritage, but I had some guesses as to why. For one, it might not have been a topic of conversation at home. My students often seem more interested in being on technology devices to play video games with their family and friends than engaging in dialogue. Another thought might be that people are so busy; some work multiple jobs to keep the food in the kitchen. With a large immigrant population in my community, many families keep their culture but are trying to also adapt to a more modern and technological lifestyle. One of my students said, “I asked [why we eat this food]. But my family just told me, ‘We just do it’.”

As I planned for our first project-based learning unit, I reread our GLAD Inquiry Chart created by my students. I looked at the fact that only one student knew a little more about their family history, but many students later asked, “Why did our families go from one country to another?”

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Then it occurred to me: No expert can answer this question better than families.

Having been a teacher in my school for six years, parent involvement has often been a challenge school wide. This year alone, I had to stop parents outside of my door to invite them in for Open House. I also had to call 10 out of 23 parents to attend parent-teacher conferences. Some attended their rescheduled time, and some didn’t attend the second time they selected. Oftentimes, my parents will attend if their child receives an award, they perform, or they attend the fifth grade promotion ceremony.

I want to break the status quo. I want them to believe that their child’s learning is important, and their culture needs to be incorporated into our classrooms. I want them to know that they can be a part of their child’s learning.

I sent home an invitation to families to volunteer and share a part of their culture with students. Anything was welcome: a song, dance, story, or food. I was thrilled to have six families share:

  • A Chuukese mother and father shared stories about taking a boat to school.

  • A Filipino father shared a story about walking through fields to get to school, but he always had to bring an extra change of clothes so he wouldn’t be muddy in the schoolhouse. “Daddy, I didn’t know that!”, their daughter exclaimed. He and his wife also made pancit because that was their daughter’s favorite Filipino dish.

  • A Japanese-American father made sushi for the class, and all the students made a sour face while eating vinegar rice. But they sure loved the crab mayo!

  • Another Chuukese mother brought breadfruit, a staple starch in their culture. “That story sounds just like my family’s story,” said the boy whose parents presented previously. “They said my dad had to climb the tree to get the breadfruit!”

  • Another Filipino family, from a different island, brought a chicken soup called sopas. “Mmm! Can I have more? Wait, no…can I have the recipe so my mom can make it?” said a Samoan boy. “My mom makes this, but she doesn’t put hot dog! I want hot dog in mine next time!”

  • Lastly, a Samoan mother sang two songs that her family sings often at family parties. “Why did your family come to Hawaii?” a student asked. “For work, and we had to send money home to help pay for our grandmother’s health in American Samoa.”

“You know why I chose to come? Because I want my son to be proud of me and our culture,” one parent shared with me privately on her way out.

Since this activity, my students look forward to looking at a map and pointing out, “Yup, that’s where I’m from!”


In a world full of cultural diversity and thriving technology, oftentimes we forget that sometimes our most valuable resource is right in front of us, in the form of the humans we live and work with.

So I challenge you, how can you involve your families more in your classroom?


Leanna Agcaoili is a second grade teacher at Mayor Joseph J. Fern Elementary School in the Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani Complex in Honolulu. A 2018-2020 Hope Street Group Hawai’i Teacher Fellow, she has been teaching for six years in Hawai’i’s DOE. She is a National Board candidate and 2017 Locations Foundation Top Teacher Award finalist. Follow her via Twitter @LeannaAgcaoili.

Student Voice: Don't Just Listen to Students, Give Them Power

By Michael Kline

On December 3, 2018, Dayton and Keha, two students from Kilauea School, presented at my school’s Academic Review Team (ART), which serves as our leadership team. They were there to talk about three important issues important to the school. They had prepared a school-wide survey to get input on these three issues and received a lot of student input from their peers, which they reviewed to prepared a presentation for the leadership team.

Because of the power of their presentation and ideas, the ART added “We will continue to include Student Council reps at our quarterly ART meetings” to Kilauea School’s Academic Plan Monitoring Tool. The ART listened to student voice and then gave them more power to be on the leadership team regularly.

The current educational movement in our public school system is focused on student-centered learning, student-centered schools, student-centered discussions, activities, and philosophy. Student voice is increasingly becoming more and more important. Schools and districts are discussing ways to improve student voice. But are we discussing ways of giving students actual power?

Would we consider having a student voting member on our Board of Education? Would we consider students being on our school and district’s teacher hiring committees? Would we allow students to evaluate teachers, principals, and even our superintendents? Would we consider having students at principal meetings to make decisions alongside principals? Would we want students being a part of the budgetary decisions of our schools, districts, and states? Would we consider having them being part of the process of designing new schools? Would we consider students being present when making decisions about curriculum or texts for our school? Would we allow students to give input on and vote on school calendars, for the length of the school day or year?

Research indicates that students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not believe they have a voice (Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations, 2016). For all of the important decisions that our schools, departments of education, and districts make, is student voice present, but more importantly, are students present?

Dr. Christina M. Kishimoto, the Hawai’i State Superintendent, has rolled out the 2017–2020 Hawai’i Department of Education Implementation plan that makes student voice a key priority. This is a bold step in the right direction, but do students really have “power” in this plan to not only share their “voice” but to make decisions with the key stakeholders who have traditionally had the only real power?

Student voice is more than listening to them at a meeting or two during the year. Student voice is more than eliciting their opinions on an occasional survey. Student voice is more than listening to students at an occasional focus group. Student voice is more than allowing a student representative to be present at a leadership meeting. Student voice is more than having a student council. It is about listening to them and then giving them power. Several years ago, Montgomery County Maryland School District voted to actually have a student member elected by their peers who can vote on board decisions. This is real student voice and student leadership.

Can we empower students to be more than passive recipients of education, to be equal stakeholders and leaders?

I had the opportunity to visit the SEEQS charter school on Oahu a couple of years ago where not only do students have a voice in their learning, but they have power through their school’s “Town Hall.” This enables students, teachers, and administration to steer the school. All members, including students, can bring motions for the Town Hall to discuss, debate, and vote on. Students actually brought a motion to change the passing time in their school schedule and after much debate, it was passed. Students were heard and granted the power to change, to have a hand in the important decisions on their campus. How many of our schools allow students to steer their schools?

I also had the opportunity to visit Waikiki Elementary School and participate in the P4C group in fellow Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow alum Lori Peroff’s elementary school classroom. Students came up with the questions to focus on and then students discussed and came up with a myriad of answers to the question that they ultimately chose. Students were in charge of their learning and listened and learned from each other. Student voice was important in Lori’s room and students were given the power to lead the discussion and to learn. Student voice is essential in the classroom, but isn’t it just as important at the school level, district level, or state level where budgetary and policy decisions are made?

On my island of Kaua’i, the Kaua’i Teacher Fellowship is an innovative collaborative which aims to bring teacher and student voice to the decision making process for the Kaua’i school district. Over the last two years, teachers and principals have collaborated to problem solve important issues that our schools are facing. Teachers have even been invited to more regularly attend principal meetings where important issues are discussed and decisions are made. It is hoped that student voice and regular student representatives will also become an important part of the principal meetings. How many of our districts have students collaborating and making decisions with principals? Why not?

As part of the Kaua’i Teacher Leader Fellowship, I have been emboldened to garner student voice at my own school. I meet with our student leaders and listen to their voices as a small step towards incorporating students into the decisions that need to be made at our school. At a recent meeting with the student council, I was astounded to hear their creative and thoughtful responses to my questions:

“If you were the principal, what would you change at our school?”

“In what ways could we get student opinions on important issues at our school?”

“What changes do we need to make at our school?”

“What issues or problems are students facing now that teachers and students should hear about?”

Students have solutions.

I was so proud of Dayton and Keha, our student council president and vice-president, when they presented to our leadership team in December. Our school leaders listened to them and heard them. And now they will be part of our leadership team and will be regularly asked for their input. They will not only have a voice, but they will have a place and actual power on our leadership team.

Adam Fletcher, the founder of Soundout, an organization which promotes meaningful student involvement, student voice, and student engagement states, “Meaningful student involvement is the engaging of students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy.” It is my opinion that if we value student voice, if we value student-centered learning, then we will not only listen to students, but we will give them the power to be collaborative partners, to work alongside teachers, principals, board members, and superintendents.

We need to share leadership and power with students. We need to empower our students to be leaders in our schools. We have a lot to learn from our students. If our schools are about our students and their learning then we need to trust students, listen to their voices, and give them power. In this way, students can take real ownership of their learning, classes, and their schools by being part of every decision that is made about them.

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Michael Kline is a Special Education preschool teacher at Kilauea Elementary School on Kaua’i. He is passionate about teacher leadership and play-based education. Mr. Kline is currently an active alumnus with Hope Street Group and helps to facilitate the Kaua’i Teacher Fellowship. He has been a National Board Certified teacher since 2003 as an Exceptional Needs Specialist and is Kaua’i’s National Board Candidate Support provider since 2015. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and a Master of Curriculum Studies from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

Workplace Readiness in Special Education

By Ryan Mandado

When you ask business professionals what they look for in their workers, most responses relate to effective communication. Those without disabilities have the advantage of being able to communicate using their words, body language, and facial expressions and that advantage helps them navigate industries to find work. Students with disabilities may require extra skill-building to help them communicate with their non-disabled peers. While discussions about post-graduation plans are common with general education students, those conversations happen less frequently with our special education students. We need more adults asking our students with special needs what they will be doing post-high school, so that we can better prepare them for their future.

Mrs. Tani Saito at Campbell High School teaches the Special Education Transition Classroom. Her classroom focuses on building functional work skills for students who will soon be exiting high school. One of the special projects her classroom takes charge of is a campus-wide coffee cart. Her students are responsible for ensuring all parts of their coffee cart is ready. The students make the coffee, prepare the materials needed to travel across the large campus, and independently navigate the carts to reach all buildings.

When walking across campus, students make stops at classrooms and work on communication skills. They work on asking their non-disabled peers what kind of drink they want, whether it’s coffee or tea, collecting money from their peers, and asking the other students if they want change. The collection of funds adds another layer of functional living skills because students are tasked to learn how to collect money, give change, and count dollars and coins.

Ultimately, managing the cart is teaching students how to socialize with their peers, work on the pragmatics of speech with their non-disabled peers, and improve their understanding of simple and basic monetary exchanges.

Another great project that helps students build workplace readiness skills is the Fruit 4 You Store operated in Mrs. Deeanna Henry’s classroom. Students in her classroom purchase fruits, vegetables, and salad bowls from the local grocery store and sell them to hungry teachers during lunch.

“Student are building customer service skills, learning how to follow instructions, determining if the fruit is good to be sent out, directions to deliver the fruit, monetary exchanges, and inventory skills to see if there is enough fruit. This provides them an opportunity to develop job skills for future occupations. The interactions they have with other people is essential for when they enter the workforce” says Mrs. Henry.

The Fruit 4 You store has a campus wide email that sends a notification to faculty members about useful facts and reasons of why to eat healthy. Teachers will call into the classroom to make a purchase. The students are in charge of taking down the order, calculating how much it will cost, and delivering it to the teacher’s classroom.

Having a simple conversation with guided questions and practice can help students with special needs practice their communication skills. When you approach a student for conversation, make sure to extend your hand and ask them to give you a firm handshake. When answering questions, make sure they are using complete sentences detailing why they are interested in that career field. Lastly, ensure you are giving positive praise and being authentic.

The next time you see a student with a disability, ask them, “what do you want to do after high school?” You will be contributing to their success.


Ryan Mandado is the Special Education Department Head at James Campbell High School, the largest public high school in the State of Hawaii. He helps to elevate and support 30 SpEducators in his department who service approximately 300 students with special needs. He is commitment to ensuring all students in Special Education has access to a equitable, inclusive, and excellent education. He is a proud product of Hawaii public schools and has a Master of Science in Education from Johns Hopkins University. Find him on Twitter @RyanCanoneoM.

Industry Retention - Our Teacher Voices

By Elizabeth Mahi

The number of education majors has dramatically decreased since the 1970s and an increasing number of teachers are leaving the profession.

But why is that? According to an infographic from the Learning Policy Institute, “more than 200,000 teachers leave the profession” each year. And almost two-thirds of those teachers are leaving for reasons besides retirement. After seven years as a public school teacher, I have experienced the many highs and lows of working in education. The lows left me questioning whether or not I chose the right profession. The lows made me understand why some people who dreamt of being teachers left education soon after they entered it. The lows made me understand why less people are becoming education majors. But ultimately, the lows made me understand what needs to change in education and why teachers need to band together to strengthen our profession and our student’s learning.

Here’s my story.

In the spring of 2009, I was about to graduate with my master’s degree in molecular biosciences and bioengineering from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I had dedicated years of my life to researching how to cultivate algae and cone snails in a laboratory setting.

But honestly, although interesting, conducting research day in and day out was not for me. I wasn’t passionate about it at all. While I’m glad to have had the experience of doing scientific research, the actual work wasn’t fulfilling to me. I was just glad when I completed each requirement because it meant I was that much closer to getting my degree, but there was no validation, no pride for doing it. I actually got most of the thrill from just saying what my master’s degree program was in because people looked at me like I was this huge genius and I loved the ego boost.

Here I was, about to graduate and I literally had no idea what I was meant to do. What was I going to do with my life? I kept hearing my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Become a nurse.” Or “Work at one of those biotech research places.” Or “Get your PhD!” But I didn’t want to do any of those things.

While I was a graduate student, I also worked as a teaching assistant for a biology for non-majors lab. I found that what I truly enjoyed was spending my time planning lessons for my students and helping them appreciate science even though it wasn’t their major. This pleasure I found in planning and teaching stuck with me as I approached graduation and those dreaded, uncertain “next steps,” so I took a breath, took the leap, and called and made an appointment with a college of education advisor. I was on the road to becoming a teacher!

When my mom found out I decided to become a teacher, she was less than thrilled. She had been a teacher for years and still works in the DOE. As every parent wants for their child, she wanted better for me than what she thought a career in education, especially as a public school teacher, could bring. She was aware of the current situation of teachers, hours of seemingly endless, sometimes thankless work, countless policies to be implemented, not to mention the lower pay, all too common for teachers to endure.

When my mother was in college in the 1970’s, choosing to be an education major was very popular. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1975, “…more than one-fifth (22%) of college students majored in education — a higher share than any other major. By 2015 though, fewer than one in 10 Americans pursuing higher education devoted their studies to education.” Why is that? Probably because of the same reasons my mom didn’t want me to become a teacher. However, college students not majoring in education is only part of the issue.

Despite what my mother said and the statistics, I still wanted to be a teacher and pursue a career in education. I partially wanted to do this because of my mom. I don’t think she realized that every time she talked about work at home, she spoke about it with such passion and conviction in her voice. She always spoke about putting the students first, seeing the big picture, and that the choices she made or the things she asked educators to do was because ultimately the students would benefit. Years of her sharing her education philosophy made me feel like I could make a difference in the lives of young people, just like my mother did.

My mom eventually came around and gave me whatever advice she could to help me. She said that if I could make it past my first five years in the classroom, then I could make it in the profession. As I stated earlier, this school year marks my seventh year of teaching., and I can certainly attest that the first five were the most difficult. When they say that college education classes never truly prepare you for being a teacher, THEY’RE RIGHT! It seemed like everything I learned in my classes went out the window my first day as a teacher. I had to learn new strategies that worked for me in my particular classroom. I found that the best people to acquire strategies from were fellow teachers at my school who were willing to share their tried and true best practices on everything from classroom management to instruction methods.

For the first few years, it was all trial and error. I was not completely sure of myself as a teacher. I was often overwhelmed with the abundance of emails, managing student behavior, giving feedback on all assignments, differentiating lessons for students with accommodations, communicating with parents, creating lessons from scratch, making sure to give multiple formative and summative assessments, being consistent with my classroom procedures, contributing to my grade level team and department, learning the various procedures of my first school as a teacher, preparing for standardized testing without knowing anything about it, all the components of Educator Effectiveness System (EES) — classroom observations, conferences, student learning objectives, data collection. Since all of this was new to me, I often found myself staying late into the night, after everyone else had left, just trying to keep my head above water and finish what I needed to for class the next day. Does any of this sound similar to your first years as a teacher?

Those first few years were the years that I had the most lows. I had classes that would constantly talk over me as I was teaching, parents raising their voices to me asking why I “gave a poor grade” to their child and demanding I change it, administrators asking why our proficiency scores were low on the standardized state science assessment, to name a few. I thought something was wrong with me. I thought I must be in the wrong profession if I was struggling this much. I thought maybe I shouldn’t be a teacher.

According to the Hawaii State Department of Education, “43% of teachers [in Hawaii] have between zero and five years of teaching experience.” Currently, only 57% of teachers in Hawaii have five or more years of teaching experience, which means that the highest teacher turnover is occurring in the early years of a teacher’s career.

According to a report from the Learning Policy Institute, the factor teachers reported as being the most important reason for leaving teaching is dissatisfaction (55%). Major areas of dissatisfaction include dissatisfaction “because of assessments and accountability measures”, “because of not enough support to prepare students for assessments”, “with administration”, and overall dissatisfaction with teaching as a career.

In my first few years, I was definitely dissatisfied as a teacher. But I didn’t leave teaching. What made the difference for me and gave me the motivation to “stick it out” was the support that I received from my mom, the teachers at my school, and my mentor teacher. My mentor teacher, Tammy, met with me multiple times during the month and would often check in with me. During our meetings and calls, besides discussing my teaching practices, classroom management, formative and summative assessments, she would also ask me to reflect on how I felt that day or that week and why. This reflection process helped me to identify that I was struggling because I was spreading myself too thin, saying “yes” to too many things, trying to do too much, and staying too late. Tammy and other teachers at our school helped me to refine my teaching practices to be much more manageable so that I would be able to accomplish everything I needed to without overloading myself.

Now, after having crafted a structure to my classroom that best works for me, it’s not about merely surviving, it’s about thriving and ensuring that my students are thriving as well. It’s about awakening my students curiosity, inspiring them to ask themselves “how can I make a positive impact on the world?” As a new teacher, I thought I was supposed to teach my students everything. Now I know that providing my students opportunities that allow them to explore and make discoveries about the world around them is the best education that I can give them.

What is driving teachers to leave teaching? Dissatisfaction. Yes, low salaries play a role, but I believe that mostly teachers are frustrated with not having a voice in their own profession. We are often told a certain education policy must be implemented, but how often are we consulted or contribute to shaping the policy or how it will be implemented? We are often told standardized assessments are important, but how often are we involved in how they were created? We are often told that teachers are underpaid for the experience and value that we bring to the profession, but when will be be paid our worth? Not having a voice in decisions made at the school, district, state, or even national level, when it comes to all of these issues contribute to teachers feeling dissatisfied in their profession and high teacher turnover.

How can we improve teacher voice and make policy makers and stakeholders in education realize that teachers should have a say in decisions made regarding education, curriculum, standardized assessments, and teacher salary? I believe the only way we can make this happen is sharing our voices collectively. There is power in numbers. We must advocate for ourselves and the teaching profession. We must join forces with other educators to strengthen teaching and learning. We must share our greatest moments so everyone knows why we love teaching. We must reflect upon our lowest moments as teachers so that we can understand what it will take to make a change for the better for future generations of educators. We must share our unique story. Together, we will be heard.

I’d love to hear each of your unique stories and your opinion of what needs to change in the teaching profession to encourage more education majors, increase teacher retention, and decrease teacher turnover. Let’s use the hashtag #OurTeacherVoices to start the conversation and we will be heard.


Elizabeth Mahi is a Science Teacher for the Hawaii Department of Education and a Hope Street Group Hawaii Teacher Fellow. Follow her via Twitter @MsElizabethMahi.

The Power of a Teacher's Story

By Jill Fletcher

A prevailing narrative of US public education of late is that it is failing because of poor and outdated instructional methods. However, many classroom teachers know this narrative is untrue. Our education system is not failing en masse because of outdated teaching methods. The reasons parts of our school systems struggle are much more complex.

Even despite disheartening inequity, there are still phenomenal things happening in public education, but these positive stories are rarely told. As teachers, we might consider working together to change this.

If you are one of over 3 million teachers in the US, think about sharing your classroom’s story or your teacher story to paint a truer picture of public education. By contributing your own colorful shade to a dull sketch of a so-called broken educational system, you give clarity to what it is truly like to be a classroom teacher.

Teachers See Everything

Consider this: teachers are witnesses to the immediate problems in our communities. Teachers see students day after day and acutely understand how students are affected by the problems in their community. Teachers love their students. Teachers see their students as humans. Not simply as data points. Not simply as test scores. Teachers know we cannot say that these students are not my children and therefore, I don’t care about what happens to them after they leave my classroom.

In this respect, teachers have a deep knowledge of the community they serve, and should share ideas for its improvement as well as build partnerships with community stakeholders with the support of their district’s leadership.

Advocate for Students and Eliminating Limiting Factors

Still many times teachers are told, “Put aside the factors you cannot control and only focus on factors you can control.” In fact, a few months ago, at a professional development training we were told to write down all the things that we had no control over, like a student’s homeless situation or a student’s parent’s job loss, and place it aside. As my colleagues and I wrote these factors down, I began to feel upset. I wondered, why is it that we are always asked to set aside these things we can’t control when they are the most impactful things for my students? Why can’t teachers affect more than just what happens in our classrooms? Why are we asked to put constraints on what we can do as teachers?

If we ask teachers to believe in their power to move their students beyond poverty, racism, sexism, and other limiting factors, then we must also believe in the power of teachers to collectively bring to light problems and solutions to the education system and then change it for the better.

To act as if the environment that surrounds school is not somehow one of the important factors that teachers should try to change is asking teachers to be active participants in an oppressive system, which never truly seeks to change the very thing it claims to do, which is to empower students to a successful life.

Write Your Story

One way teachers can advocate for change is to simply begin by writing our own stories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The truth is needed.

If this sounds intimidating, teachers can start small by writing a story of #WhyITeach or write about about instructional strategies that work for their unique group of learners. As they gain confidence, teachers can write to local businesses and partner with community stakeholders with their schools with support of their district’s leadership.

Once teachers begin sharing their opinions of how to improve education, they will be unstoppable. Systemic change often begins with a shift in mindset so simply by sharing your voice, you will be influencing and changing opinions around public education. Consider submitting your story to organizations such as NCTEASCDEdutopia and Curio Learning.

As teachers, our experiences are vast. We’re indigenous. We’re immigrants. We’re settlers. We live with a disability. We’re artists. We’re care-givers. We’re from disenfranchised communities. We’re from the dominant culture. We have privilege(s). We look like your child. We look nothing like your child. We’re in our second career with knowledge about industries outside of education. We’ve always wanted to be a teacher since we were little.

When we tell teachers it’s okay to care about the issues that long held beliefs say teachers can’t control, and give teachers opportunities to voice solutions to long standing issues, there will be a dramatic shift in public education.

Because empowered teachers grow empowered citizens. And we need those more than ever.


Jill Yamasawa Fletcher is a poet, National Board Certified Teacher, and a 2018 Hope Street Group Hawaiʻi State Teacher Fellow who advocates for student and teacher empowerment. She has taught AVID, college and career readiness, to grades 6–8 for 6 years and was an ELA teacher before that. Jill holds a BA in English from Santa Clara University, an MA in creative writing and a teaching credential from University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is currently a TA assistant principal. Find her on Twitter @teachinginhi.

An Arts Education: Is It Really that Important?

By Debbie Moon

With the achievement gap persisting, who has time for arts education? Don’t our children need to learn to read on grade level? Don’t our children need to be able to write an articulate and well-crafted essay so that they can pursue higher education and reach their full potentials? We need to cut out the excess “fluff” and focus on the academics.


In 2009, Paul Taylor walked into my life. Through the arts programming at my school, I had the opportunity to learn his original choreography from his team of dancers, and then perform for him. For the non-dancers out there, I might say that a comparable experience could be acting in an action film being directed by Chuck Norris. Or playing a basketball game with the Lakers while being coached by Kobe Bryant.

Taylor and several of his dancers had unconventional paths to their careers. Taylor began at Syracuse University as a swimmer, wanting to be an artist, and then transferring to Juilliard at age 22 to pursue dance. Madelyn Ho, a current dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, studied Chemical and Physical Biology at Harvard College before dancing for a few years, went back to Harvard to attend medical school, then finally returned to the stage putting her medical career on pause.

No one will tell you that it is easy to pursue a career in the arts. While a career may be difficult, what is inarguable are the benefits of arts education. According to Americans for the Arts, arts education can improve student success in school, work, and life.

Aside from artistic skill, arts education can equip students with other skills such as problem solving, goal setting, and interpersonal skills. With the recent increase in student behavior issues that have a negative influence on teaching and learning, schools have been working on finding ways to teach students to cope with and self-regulate their emotions. Programs focused on social-emotional learning and behavioral interventions are cropping up across the country. These types of programs that explicitly address some of our students’ greatest needs are valuable tools but can leave some with wanting more.

The arts have been shown to keep students in school, even through graduation. According to Facts & Figures, the arts have such a great impact as they can reach students “who might otherwise fall through the cracks,” or “with different learning styles.” They also create “a feeling of connection and cooperation between students” and redefine school as an exciting place of “learning and discovery”.

I thought for sure I would not be using my dance or art training once I entered the classroom as a teacher. Yet, I found my students crave art. I tried to create opportunities for arts integration in our learning from writing with paint to creating dioramas to retell texts and identify key details. To facilitate efficient and calm transitions in the classroom, I used my knowledge of how bodies move in space to choreograph our travel patterns. To help my students identify their feelings and develop self-regulation skills, we listened to different types of music and reflected on how it impacted our moods and readiness to learn.

Deborah created awesome inclusive clip art for her students and shared this and other arts resources in Curio. Check out his Card here to collaborate with her & download the other resources she shared.

Although I am not in a career directly related to the arts, I use the skills I learned through my arts education programming every day and see the benefits my students gain from these brief exposures.

Since the introduction of No Child Left Behind, moving on to the Race to the Top, to more initiatives focused on school performance improvement, schools with high populations of lower socioeconomic status families are seeing a decrease in arts programming. When students are being denied opportunities to learn more about themselves as individuals and develop important life skills, we must reflect upon what they are being provided with instead.

Are the learning opportunities students have today sufficient to put them on the path to success? Is there only one path to success? Some students may be able to learn grit and perseverance from their Calculus classes while others may need to learn it through learning a new piece on the saxophone. Some students may be able to go straight from high school to college to a career, while others may need a few years developing skills and talents outside of the classroom. We see that every student is unique, but our education system needs to see that too.

If we want to close the achievement gap, let’s look at who’s falling through the cracks and build them up so that they can be successful in areas they may never have experienced success. In the words of Paul Taylor, let’s help our students “know about themselves” — that they are more than readers, more than writers, more than mathematicians. Let us guide them to discover their whole selves and celebrate all of their talents.

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Deborah Moon is a special education teacher at Nānāikapono Elementary in the Nānākuli-Wai’anae Complex. Over the last three years, she has had the opportunity to work with students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in resource and medically fragile settings. Debbie is also a Teach For America — Hawai’i alum and has spent the past two years serving as the Elementary Content Specialist for TFA’s elementary teachers on Oahu. Debbie graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Studies and Communication, and from Johns Hopkins University with a Master’s Degree in Educational Studies. Find her on Twitter @themoonroom808.

An Aloha State of Mind

By Stephanie Mew

In a downtown meeting room, twenty school teachers gathered to listen to several high school students share their life passions. The energy in the room was filled with optimism and excitement to hear how these young people discovered their passions. The first student speaker expressed that he wants to help his friends deal with teen life, find their voice and have a safe place to speak out. As a result, he focuses on teen advocacy issues. When asked what lead him to his passion, he shared a tragic story of a classmate who committed suicide, and the next day his best friend did the same. This student found his passion through a traumatic life changing event. The room fell silent with disbelief, sadness, heaviness, and an outrage that our young people, our students, are dealing with experiences and feelings of hopelessness that lead them to no other option than taking their own lives.

Our hearts ached and we all wanted to know if they received any guidance in coping with life’s dramas and traumas. Another teen quietly said, “Not really. I wished I knew how to meditate or something to deal with this.” Her simple statement was a resounding confirmation that one of the essential lessons that we should be teaching and modeling for our students is how to be happy and how to handle life’s ups and downs.

Happiness is a state of being that we all desire. As a teacher, my daily classroom experience confirms the belief that when students are happy they use their learning time more efficiently, they try harder, they take risks, and they perceive failure as a learning opportunity. When they are happy, they contribute positively to the classroom and school culture. The opposite happens when students feel the contrary.

With an increase in school violence and the pain of our young people, schools are shifting their focus to the whole child and social emotional learning (SEL). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) report on positive impact of SEL programs on elementary to middle school students found improvements in multiple areas: personal, social, and academic. CASEL found that SEL promoted an average gain on achievement test scores of 11 to 17 percentile points.

However, education is far more than achievement scores. At its root, education means to draw out inherent self-knowledge. Education’s end game should be a student who is prepared to live a happy and meaningful life. SEL programs help with that education and the positive impacts are encouraging. Yet, I still hear the soft voice who said, “I wished I knew how to meditate or something.” There is something we can do now that only takes five minutes and is a valuable tool for navigating life’s dramas and traumas.

The skill of quieting the mind and focusing on love or as we say in Hawaii, “aloha,” can put one in a peaceful and happy state. Every morning my students and I give ourselves five minutes to quiet our minds and bodies and focus on our breathing. We use our visualization skills to send love to all parts of our body. We visualize our families, friends, all people and all living things happy and content. We imagine our day already being a successful day and then we smile. 20 years ago, I learnt this simple practice in a small boarding school in Thailand. The calm demeanor of the staff and students encouraged me to practice daily. When I returned to the U.S. I knew I wanted to incorporate this practice in my classroom. For the past 20 years, I have sat silently with my students reaping the benefits from beginning our day making a connection to our heart. To help the students with the visualization, I created a short video illustrating this process.

In silence, we use this opportunity to connect us to ourselves and others. We remind ourselves that we are love and that we can freely share our love. We remind ourselves that positive actions are born out of love. We increase our mindfulness and strengthen our concentration. As we experience happiness within ourselves, we feel content and happy. As we open our eyes to the new day with positivity and love, we greet each other with aloha.

In the beginning of the school year, this five minute practice was strange and awkward but by the end of the week, mutual respect and trust began to grow. Now, this treasured practice is an integral part of our day. The inner experience is peaceful and relaxing. It is a moment to remember we are enough. It is a chance for our creativity to reveal itself. It is a moment to forgive ourselves and others. It is five minutes out of 1,440 minutes in a day, that is intentionally used to tap into the feelings of love and happiness. And the students who choose to watch others sit silently, they practice respect, allowance and also experience a stillness.

The new year has arrived, and I have five more months with my students. We may feel that there is so much to teach and learn before the end of the school year and that time is precious and can’t be wasted. Yet, I know that it is worth spending five minutes sitting silently in love and being happy both individually and together.


Stephanie Mew is an inclusion teacher at Kapunahala Elementary, Hawaii. Her passion for teaching began 18 years ago at small boarding school in Thailand where she learned that the meaning of education is to draw out the innate goodness, gifts and talents of each individual. She has Masters degrees in Social Work and Education and is the 2016 Hawaii State Teacher of the Year. Stephanie believes that the foundation for a peaceful community starts with making a connection with our hearts. By using our loving heart to guide us in all of our communications and actions, we can see the unity in our diversity. Find her on Twitter @StephM808.

The 3 Minute Investment

By Kevin Matsunaga

“Good morning! How are you? Hello!”

My students looked at me with this weird look on their faces. A few said hello in return, but many walked by, puzzled by their new teacher in their new class in the new school year. However, I managed to get a few smiles here and there.

I did this EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Period. I stood at the entrance to my classroom and greeted each student as he or she entered. I stood tall and smiled as I greeted each and every one of them. I resisted the urge to sit at my desk and check attendance or email-things I used to do during this three minute period.

As the days progressed, those weird looks and silent stares became, “Hello Mr. M! Good morning Mr. M! Hi Mr. M!” Students smiled back and some even gave me high fives. One student in particular taught me a special handshake that she and I did every day. Another student enjoyed my daily greeting so much, that he decided to take part; “I got this Mr. M!” and he proceeded to welcome classmates just as I did. This simple interaction with my students at the beginning of each class made me smile but more importantly, it made many of my students smile as well. We began each day on a positive note which often carried itself throughout the period.

This 3 minute routine became the best investment I made that year. Students started my class with a smile and a greeting, and that had a positive effect on their behavior over the course of the year. This is not to say that this 3 minute routine prevented all behavior problems, but it did make a noticeable difference in my students’ behavior and interaction in class. They knew that no matter what, Mr. M was going to be there at the door with a smile and that he was genuinely happy to see them. No matter what their day was like up to that point, when they got to my room they would be welcomed.

Now, as easy as this 3 minute investment is to make, it’s not always easy. As the year progresses there might be a few challenging students that cause you so much grief that, quite frankly, you don’t want to greet them. Consider though that your face may be the first smiling face they have seen all day. You could very well be the ONLY person to say hello to them that entire day. Those 3 minutes are sometimes hard to give up. Believe me, any teacher will tell you that there is A LOT that can be done during those 3 minutes that students file in. I’ve been known to make copies, prepare attendance, check my inbox for new emails, and still have time to spare before the bell rings.

However, if you can commit to using these 3 minutes to greet each and every student with a hello and a smile, you will see a noticeable change in the way your students behave and interact with you. You’ll build relationships with them which will help with classroom management. At the very least, you’ll bring a smile to every single student and show them that you really care.


Kevin Matsunaga is a digital media and yearbook teacher at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Hawaii. He is also a Hope Street Group State Fellow for Hawaii and is an active member of the Student Television Network and PBS Hawaii’s Hiki No Program. Find him on Twitter@MrMedia808.

Where is the Love?

By Daphne Okunaga

I remember a teacher who seemed to have an insurmountable amount of energy. This teacher celebrated my successes like I won an Olympic medal and coached me through weak spots like I was the most important person in the class. He was kind and always reminded me to put myself in another’s shoes when I was upset. Once, when I was really mad that someone had copied my quiz, he asked me why I thought they copied. Was the other student lazy? Were they embarrassed they didn’t know the answers? When I calmed down, I admitted that I didn’t know why they copied and with a little push from my teacher, I befriended the other student (they had test anxiety) and we’re still friends today! This teacher was there to guide me to be a better person, not just to be a better student. No, I wasn’t special. In fact, he did this for all 180 of his students without asking for anything in return. This person was my high school teacher and class adviser. Yes, high school!

Elementary teachers often hug their students and give them cute mementos to take home to brighten their day. There are class parties, field trips, and reward systems in place to motivate and celebrate student success. Even in many middle schools there are incentives and team bonding activities. Yet, for many high school students, school is business-like, mostly devoid of these practices based in love and direct human interaction. Instead, there are different classroom routines and syllabi, homework assignments, quizzes, tests, projects, presentations, class lectures, and more negative consequences than positive. We even expect students to travel from one class to another and adjust to the teacher’s personality and teaching style! Sure, there are some activities like school assemblies and extra-curricular activities, but much of the personal touch is lost. With a typical class load of 100–180 students and high-stake tests, I completely understand the workload and the pressure that high school teachers experience. But, can’t we find some time to show our students some love? I find that many of students do better when they forge a relationship with their teachers and when they know that the teachers genuinely care about them as people and not just as scores or numbers or grades.

The bond may not be instantaneous, and it does take a lot of effort on the part of the teacher, but it is definitely worth it. It doesn’t mean going out and spending money to buy them stuff. It doesn’t mean making class easy and being the “cool teacher.” It means letting students know that you care. I try to go to at least one of their sporting events, band concerts, etc., and I take my children to watch the school play. I call parents to let them know how proud I am of their child. I make it a point to handwrite a warm note to each student once a semester about things that I’m proud of or things I want them to think about. I am always touched when I see them tuck their letters in their binders or when years later they tell me they still have my letters and that the letters help them through tough times. When I receive a handwritten thank you note from a student playing college football or a wedding invitation from a student that graduated ten years ago, I know the efforts to show love and kindness are worth it.

Society often thinks that as students get older they don’t need to be “loved on” as much, but I think high school students need it more than ever. The adolescent years are tough and balancing relationships, activities, and their future is overwhelming to do on their own. It is in these times of uncertainty that students need to feel an unconditional love when they don’t sometimes love themselves. They may or not may get it from their family, but they could get it every school day from a teacher. It’s not always easy to love students when they act out, but it’s those students who need the love the most. Imagine if every child at a high school connected with at least one adult on campus. Someone to listen to them and give them advice when needed. Someone to offer a hug or a high five. Someone they can turn to when they need help. Someone to make them feel safe and loved. The impact that could make on student behavior is powerful.

I challenge all educators to really think about the impact they have on students. What are ways that teachers can show students love? Some teachers meet students at the door and high five/fist bump each child on the way in so the class starts off with a good vibe. Others take the beginning of class to ask about everyone’s weekend or use nicknames to help students feel special. It doesn’t have to be big or showy, but as we talk about events like Unity Day to encourage everyone to “unite for kindness, acceptance, and aloha,” maybe we teachers can also ask ourselves, how can we show love to our students? What simple ways can we commit to loving our students on a daily basis? They are just kids after all. Share your ideas and tag me (@daphneokunaga) along with @CurioLearning.


Daphne Okunaga is a Charger alumni who takes pride in teaching at Pearl City High School. Daphne is more than a mathematics teacher, serving as a hanai mom to many of the student athletes at Pearl City High School, and she can always be counted on to tutor students in need. Beyond athletics she serves the community by coordinating graduation and helping to support various student government initiatives. Find her on Twitter @DaphneOkunaga ‏.

Our First Makerspace = Fueling Student-Led Design

By Kristilyn Oda

I never quite know how or what curriculum will be taught until I understand the unique students in my classroom. This year started like most as I carefully observed interactions and values that bubbled up as they created a “We Are” poem to ground us in our collective identity.


Thirty percent of my students are multilingual and nearly all have a great need to develop literacy skills. Patient support is needed as we work to achieve proficiency of the fourth grade standards. As students read new texts and incorporate writing strategies, important instructional access points lie in their existing strengths.

I reflected on the mindsets and interests highlighted by foundational activities such as discussions and block tower community constructions. The activities selected early in the year uncovered the students’ superhero power: DESIGN! These fourth graders came to me with the seeds of design thinking experience. Project-based learning has been a complex-wide initiative since these students were in first grade, and it showed. Next Generation Science Standards call teachers to address engineering practices, such as generating solutions that meet constraints and criteria and improving a prototype.


The Makerspace, our Makerspace, started quietly and ended noisily. I had seen glimpses of Makerspace on my Twitter feed and was curious about a place students could use materials and tools to develop creative projects. Was Makerspace just hype? Will clutter overrun my class? Am I going to waste materials and money? It was so open-ended and so many unanswered questions ran through my head. I started with the idea that the space didn’t need to be high-tech and well-funded. I would just try it out with a Makerspace mindset.

I filled several baskets on a cart with supplies that I had on hand, such as clay, tape, rubber bands, markers, and paper towel rolls. Next, I made a sign, an invite to get moving! We had computers at the ready and freedom to explore. I was pumped. But now what?


Glen Morden, Patagonia’s VP of Innovation said, “If something didn’t work, it’s because we didn’t know things we would have known, had we involved more people. We succeed when we stay open-minded and collaborative, by having the humility to invite others to help.” I considered tapping more teachers and websites for resources but then I realized the students could experience authentic learning as a group of organizers. If I had all of the answers, then they would jump through artificial barriers and miss out on learning. They would make the cart materials into a useful place, on their own. The making of the Makerspace, in itself, would be my students’ first engineering design project.

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So I asked one student who had been deeply engaged in the collaborative Keva block challenge to envision this cart transformed into a Makerspace for student-created inventions. He chimed in that he would think of ideas of what we could include in the area. The list languished and we only had two items days later so he partnered with a friend. Together, they came back to me with a huge list to present to the class who added even more ideas. They created a little “maker mascot.” Then, another teacher donated a cubby organizer that was soon filled with donations brought in. The seeds were sprouting but not without a few weeds.

Because this was still unknown territory to me, I timidly did a soft launch of our Makerspace with just a few students who had finished work early. First, the chaotic flurry of papers and tools. Sharp scissors threatened students who surrounded sticky workspaces.

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“If nobody takes care of it, it will be gone. We will close this whole thing down.” The warning came out of anxiety, rather than love. I practiced my mindful breaths and prayed for thoughts higher than mine. It’s only going to be messy a short while, I told myself. The scissors cut could have happened during any subject time. We talked about the problems that came up and found solutions together. The shared norms that evolved addressed each issue. Put the half-completed projects in your personal bin. Review scissor safety training. Share materials. Respect that others can’t drop things right away to hand you a marker if engaged in deep concentration. Take initiative and problem-solve. We must give others space and use more tables if needed.

A week later, students earned the privilege of holding a Grand Opening Makerspace Lunch. Choosing to skip lunch recess, they flew into a 90-minute flurry of action. I circulated to hear the entire Maker Room transform into a buzz of engagement, resourceful making, and planning. Seeing their drive to design and determination to succeed was an all-time career highlight.

“How did you find those things?”

“How did you make it stand?”

“I’m so focused!”

“Can someone help me on this?”

“I know what makes it better!

“Do you think I need to add anything?”

“What happened to yours and what is it now?”

“I want to present first. I am brave.”

As new issues arose, students spoke up about what they would like to include in our Makerspace Wisdom poster, which included:

  • Don’t use so much expensive clay for one project unless absolutely necessary.

  • Low noise level to respect our neighbors.

  • Making weapon-like items is forbidden by school policy.

  • Clean up at the end of the work period is OK because clean-ups along the way interrupt the innovative process.

  • Send a message to parents about materials used that may pose a possible choking hazard for kids under 5.

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My students proposed we use the last 30 minutes to showcase favorite creations. Some of the first products were items designed for loved ones such as a desk organizer, a toy for a sibling, suggestion box for the class and a paper clip holder. Another made a set of gifts for a large family. Students created a canoe, a cup, a sign, string telephones, a toy kendama, a magic trick, a sculpture, a hat, and a corrupted robot. One group of children collaborated to form a band and performed a song with their musical instruments.

After each presentation, students gave positive feedback and the engineers described the most challenging part of their design process. The skills and character that came with generating, directing, solving and presenting an innovation defined a world-class learning experience. Ownership of learning can’t be taught and it is developed with an opportunity. The fruit that had blossomed was joy, patience, confidence, and community while even more seeds were planted that day.

And this is just the beginning.

Real life has NO curriculum. We get to design our lives based on our personal values, needs, and goals. For students, “Follow the Directions” must eventually become “Lead the Direction.” The more we can allow space for that, as educators, the more we are serving our students’ true needs. We now have a Makerspace for students who come through my class, where they can dream, explore, invent, problem-solve, and connect. I will give safety procedures, space, and storage containers. Most importantly, I will give them guidance, encouragement, and what they need most…opportunity and space to explore.


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Kristlyn Oda is a National Board Certified 4th grade teacher and NBCT candidate mentor in the Campbell-Kapolei complex in Hawai’i. A current Hope Street Group Hawai’i Teacher Fellow, Kristi was awarded a spot at STEM focused Mickelson Exxon-Mobil Teaching Academy and helped to launch the K-12 PLTW engineering program in her complex area. Follow her via Twitter @KristiOda.

Project Based Learning: It's Worth Your Time

By Dulcy Dawson

The classroom I’m in looks a bit different than the typical High School scene.

Not all of the students are sitting at tables or desks. There are five students sitting on the floor with a chromebook and some butcher paper with the beginnings of a long timeline stretched across it. Sitting on some bean bags in another corner are three students creating what looks to be a set of tiny cars out of clay that are to represent the industrial revolution. Some students are sitting at the tables but seem to be engaged in a healthy discussion, excitedly talking and writing their “plan” on a form. Permeating the room is the low buzz of organized research and collaborative design team work. The teacher in this U.S. History class is allowing the students to research and then create a model representation of the The Age of the Automobile.

This is a two week mini project that will connect with the year long timeline project that incorporates language arts, history, and math standards. Instead of the history teacher simply giving the students two weeks of copious notes on the overhead, she is teaching her students to be active learners as participants in historical research. History classes do not have to be boring lists of names and places and dates. Interactive, deep learning does not have to be relegated to the confines of the AP or early college courses.

Integrating Project Based Learning (PBL) into classroom curriculum has been described as scary, messy, expensive, and simply too difficult. Many educators are intimidated by the lack of structure and the preparation time that it takes to plan a good project for a couple of weeks or even a semester. For many of us, our controlled lessons and unit plans, with their defined protocols, inputs, activities, and outcomes, feel safe.

These concerns can be put to rest with a little energy, some innovation, and a bit of time invested in the process of planning PBL.

One strategy is to incorporate the community and parents in the process. PBL does not have to be an expensive endeavor. Educators are masters at being resourceful. Use what is available and think outside the box. Many times students and parents are willing to put some skin in the game as well. Sending out a short list of supplies or even asking colleagues for extra random items from home can help. Local businesses are more than happy to donate materials and can often be a great resource for your classroom. For example, many farm stores are willing to donate in order to help schools create gardens, and local hardware stores have been known to pitch in supplies as well.

Planning is key. Do not try to plan a cool project the night before introducing it to students. It takes some early planning in order to be sure it makes sense to the students. One great tool is the PBL Checklist along with many other great tools that can be found on the Buck Institute website. It is true that PBL is front loaded with planning and yes, it takes some flexibility and willingness to make mistakes along the way but all this is worth it in the end. As a teacher who has been implementing PBL for over 4 years, I have recognized the benefits of PBL as it changes the teaching role from a director of the classroom to a facilitator and life long learner. The teacher gets to watch the students learn and grow right before their eyes daily instead of waiting for a test to assess the learning.

The reward of all the hard work is more often than not positively reflected by the students. When asked what was the most important lesson learned during high school, Taisa from West Hawaii Explorations Academy, a PBL high school in West Hawaii, stated, “My favorite project was my Spanish Immersion project. Not only did I get to learn Spanish and develop a curriculum for other students, I loved what I was learning, if anything it felt like I was pursuing a passion. I had control on all the aspects including the other students. That in itself taught me many valuable lessons and revealed traits I never knew I had. Project based learning and student choice allowed me to learn in the most effective way for me.”

Over the years, many students return to express their gratefulness at having had numerous, rich project experiences where they were able to work on real world problems and use their voices for something they felt passionate about. PBL gives students a chance to use their school time as a vehicle for learning about the world from their perspective. Teachers and students have the opportunity to learn together and that causes a huge shift in the overall classroom experience. PBL can be done without fear and teachers and students can thrive together.


Dulcy Dawson is a High School Teacher at West Hawaii Explorations Academy, a project based public charter school on Hawaii Island. She loves learning alongside her students and continues to be a life long learner. When not with her students, you will find Dulcy with her husband and kids or on a coffee date with a friend.

Teacher Collaboration Boosts Student Success

By Keith Hamana

Ring!!! Students hurriedly rush to and fro. The fourth-grade students begin to line up to go to their “wheel” classes: P.E., Music, Computer, and Library. Some students clutch their library books, eager to return them and excited to get more. Some are on their way to P.E., carrying their water bottles. When asked, “What do your teachers do when you are at wheel?” the students reply, “They go to meetings and learn things.”

This is true. The teachers are learning as the students are off exploring in their wheel classes. But what exactly goes on during a Professional Learning Community (PLC) or Learning Team Time (LTT)? Simply put, strategies are developed to help students learn more effectively.

In more detail, at Hickam Elementary, a typical LTT agenda includes:

  • Response to Intervention (RTI),

  • Data Teams,

  • Professional Development, and

  • System Concerns (Behavioral, Technology, and Grade Level).

Members of an LTT consist of the grade level general education, special education, and RTI teachers, along with a curriculum coach. The coach facilitates and guides the discussions and offers suggestions on practice. The teams meet every 10 days, or four to five times a quarter.

At the beginning of a typical LTT meeting, the team reviews our RTI program. This is when our grade level teachers communicate with our special education and RTI teachers about shared goals and shared students. At the beginning of the year, every student is evaluated with a universal screener for the subject areas of math and reading. The scores that we receive from these reports, in addition to several other data points, are used to strategically tier students according to their abilities. Teachers keep track of where specific students are and how they are progressing. Dialogue ensues and insights are shared among team members. 

Over time, intervention strategies to help students grow are developed, implemented, and monitored. Many students progress in their learning; those who do not are given more intensive intervention (increased one-on-one time with educators, for example) and if desired progress is not achieved, more specialized resources are sought out. 

The second component of our LTT is Data Teams. During this time, the team decides on a specific standard or topic to monitor over a set period of time. Students are given a pre-assessment to measure base knowledge of the topic without any instruction. The team analyzes this pre-assessment to see what students know and what gaps exist prior to instruction. Teachers discuss trends in the data and look for mistakes, then the planning begins. Teachers focus on how to best teach all students while considering the pre-assessment data. Research-based instructional strategies are discussed and implemented. Throughout the cycle of meetings, teachers monitor student growth by using formative assessments and by sharing student work with each other. At the end of the cycle, a post-assessment is given and analyzed. Teachers are encouraged to reflect on their practice during this analysis; it helps us to see what teaching methods are effective for a set group of students and to notice our own growth as teachers.

Professional Development is the third facet of LTT. Teachers are given a chance to learn about new state or district-level initiatives. One example of this is Next Generation Science Standards which must be implemented by school year 2019-2020. Teachers are given guidance from coaches and district specialists and, most importantly, they are given time to plan lessons together. We’ve also used this time to learn about AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), which seeks to close the achievement gap by providing students with the skills needed to be successful in college and in life. During LTT, teachers learn about and plan how to use AVID strategies together, providing consistent and effective deployment across the school.

Going over System Concerns is typically how an LTT ends. The team brings up behavioral concerns that they notice in class and, if needed, the student services coordinator (SSC) and/or counselor are asked to advise. Technology concerns are also addressed by our tech team and any problems are diagnosed and remedied. Finally, if there are any grade level concerns, these are brought to the table and discussed. Discussing and responding to all of these system concerns ensures that teachers, and ultimately the students, are supported.

So remember, when your child says that they have a wheel period, teachers and support staff are at Learning Team Time and are hard at work collaborating, analyzing, and discussing what is best for each and every student at Hickam Elementary.


Keith Hamana, a 24-year veteran of the Hawai’i DOE, with 22 years spent at Hickam El, has taught grades 3, 4, and 5 and now serves as Hickam’s Curriculum Coach. Hamana is a proud product of the Hawaii Public School system and firmly believes that education is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Here, he provides insight into the school’s Professional Learning Community, where teachers collaborate to ensure students are getting what they need to succeed. This work is paying off for Hickam’s students — the 2017-18 Strive HI System’s school report card shows they have strong achievement results and high levels of growth, literacy and attendance levels.

Student Success Soars with Strong School Leadership

By Monica M. Heiser

Excellent leadership is a huge contributor to school-wide student success. A good principal influences every student and teacher in his or her school rather than just a single classroom, magnifying his or her effect on student success rates. A 2013 peer-reviewed study by Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin determined that highly-effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by two to seven months of learning in a single school year. Inadequate principals have the opposite effect, lowering achievement at the same rate (Branch, Hanushek, & Rivkin, 2013). As such, a greater understanding of what qualities lead to quality leadership is paramount.

A principal’s job is so much bigger than sitting behind a desk, dealing exclusively with payrolls, facilities, teaching lines, and budgets. We know this to be true, yet our school leaders can get lost behind their desks. Principals must put on the hat of instructional leader, making use of the latest research, encouraging a collaborative environment, and facilitating the professional growth of their teachers. These leaders empower their teachers to have a voice and utilize their teachers as resources for professional learning and growth for the entire school. The long-term result of this collaborative environment is the creation of a “safe space” for educators’ continuous development.

This type of leadership fosters an environment of trust, safety, and respect between a school’s administration and its teachers, where principals and teachers are able to work together to identify school objectives and individual teacher growth goals. For teachers to safely innovate, try, fail, and succeed, both school leader and instructional leader must adopt a growth mindset, giving and receiving constructive criticism.

“My principal was able to see potential that I never knew I had. And with that insight he opened doors to challenge and stretch me to build my leadership skills. It is his high expectations of professionalism and his trust in me that I am able to be the positive influence with my colleagues to begin building a culture of collaboration and appreciation of our profession on campus. His continuous support in projects and ideas that I shared with him were integral for my professional growth. He once told me that he ‘…just needed to point [me] in the right direction, get out the way and let [me] shine.’”

— Lorna Baniaga-Lee, English teacher at James Campbell High School

Principals should act like their best teachers, creating a school culture that values innovation and calculated risks, that doesn’t punish practitioners when something fails. Failure and struggle lead to the best learning and growth. Good leaders cultivate a workplace where teachers feel invited to innovate, grow, reflect, and learn without fear of reprisal.

Some districts are capitalizing on successful school leadership by creating school groups in which principals share institutional knowledge, collaborate, observe each other’s work, share successes and failures, and inspire one another to continue to grow as leaders. One form of this is the creation of Instructional Leadership Teams (ILT). In this model principals are grouped with coaches, teacher leaders, and principals from nearby schools. Principals are then held accountable for the agreements made in their ILT group. Teacher leaders are an integral part of this team, giving voice to the educators at their schoolsites.

Good leaders attract great teachers. Teacher retention, a key factor in student success rates, correlates directly to school leadership. The best teachers choose to stay in schools with strong leaders, and they quickly leave schools operated by inadequate principals (Branch et al., 2013). In turn, student success is directly impacted by the quality of teachers retained by the school (Kaplan & Owens, 2001).

Teachers have a direct impact on individual student success, but achieving school-wide success involves so much more. It is time for policymakers to more closely evaluate our administrators and the role they play in our schools. Excellent administrators have a monumental effect on teacher success, retention, and school-wide student growth. It’s time for other districts to utilize the latest research and join the 21st century, for the benefit of students nationwide.


Monica Myrmo Heiser, an experienced elementary school teacher currently teaching in Hawaii, earned both a BA and a Bilingual teaching credential from SDSU. A Hope Street Group Hawaii Teacher Fellow, Monica embraces additional leadership roles including serving on her instructional leadership team, plus teaching reading and writing professional development for teachers. Follow her on Twitter via @MMyrmo.


Branch, G. F., Hanushek, E. A., & Rivkin, S.G. (2013). School Leaders Matter: Measuring the impact of effective principals. EducationNext13(01), pp. 62–69:

Kaplan, L. S., & Owings, W. A. (2001). Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: Recommendations for Principals. NASSP Bulletin, 85(628), pp. 64–73. DOI: 10.1177/019263650108562808

Lorna Baniaga-Lee, English Teacher, James Campbell High School.