You had a diverse career before you first assumed the superintendent role. What was it about education that drew you to lead in this field?
I really have gone almost everywhere, working in state government, in private sector and non- profit work. I was originally drawn to education because as the Executive Director of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, I sat in lot of education task forces. They usually want a business representative to attend. Through those task forces, I learned more and more about education. However, there have always been points in my life where I was a part of public education. I was one of the original members of the Hawaii P-20 council that advocates for statewide educational planning and policy. I was also the Chairman of the Board of the Good Beginnings Alliance for many years when my children were little so early education is something I am very passionate about. I also know former Superintendent Pat Hamamoto. While I was on the Cabinet for former Governor Ben Cayetano she would come to Cabinet meetings and we often talked. My mom was also a teacher. She started her career at Keaukaha Elementary in 1956. So I’ve had many formative experiences that made me think education was an important area for our state that I could help out with.
I initially didn’t come into the HIDOE to become superintendent. I came in to help SUPT Pat Hamamoto and my job then was to take care of the business side of the department, which was my background. When she retired, I became Superintendent. Many of the experiences I’ve had have helped me with this job. We have many great educators and education leaders that are taking care of a lot of business and it’s holding them back from doing their best job in education. So the way that I think about it is, how can I help improve that so things are better, so teachers have more time to teach and leaders have more time to lead.
While every state has its unique set of opportunities and challenges within its education system, Hawaii is especially unique given its structure as a single statewide district and geographic diversity. How has this directed the Department’s efforts to provide the best education possible for all of its students?
For me, part of that is focusing on the Complex and Complex Area leadership. And that is the job that our Deputy Superintendent is doing to strengthen the Complex Area Superintendent (CAS) in being the main leader. It shouldn’t be the State Office of Curriculum and Instruction in Honolulu leading the way, but it should be the CAS and his/her leadership team in the community. Community engagement is really important in Hawaii and communities are so different in the resources they can bring to the table for schools. The partnerships you can have are completely different in Hilo, to Kailua, to urban Honolulu. It’s really important that the CAS can be able to lead their schools in the community. Another reason why CAS leadership is so important is because we need to all start thinking K-12, so there is consistency in a child’s education from Kindergarten to High School.
I have also been very excited about the Hawaiian education piece. I did not thoroughly understand how it would work in the beginning, but started talking to people and I attended a few parent meetings. I starting hearing how this was giving their child a sense of confidence, a sense of awareness of themselves, of who they were. Then I went to a conference and there was a teacher talking about starting his class with students examining their own family history and their roots. His analogy is we teach ELA, Math, Science and that’s like the tree trunk. There are arts and social studies and they’re all part of this tree of knowledge. However, we never really grow the roots, who the child is, who they are connected to, their family and their community. So when the first big wind comes, when that first bit of adversity hits them, they are going to fall. So you really have to build that sense of who they are. And I really think the kids in Hawaii understand that. We start with Native Hawaiian students because this is Hawaii, but I think students from all these other ethnicities also need to think about who they are. I was talking to some of these community members from Wahiawa and they said sometimes it’s talking about where you’re from. I’m from Hilo and for me that has a great meaning for me. It’s really starting to understand, appreciate and build that sense of belonging. It’s learning to respect the diversity that comes from it. That to me is why focusing on that complex, on that community level is really important.
How would you describe teacher leadership in Hawaii and how do you see HIDOE’s partnership with Hope Street Group benefiting the teachers and students of the state?
I think leadership is a continuum in a person’s life and probably through their careers. I think there’s going to be a huge leadership challenge approaching. A former Assistant Superintendent of the Office of Human Resources said that he thought the leadership challenge of having good leaders in schools and throughout the department was probably our biggest challenge and greatest risk, that we are not spending enough time consciously developing the leadership talents and nurturing it so we started the Leadership Institute. It is still struggling a little bit because he haven’t been able to give it the resources and the time. That’s why Hope Street Group was so important because this was a way to give teachers an opportunity to voice their concerns, but when you voice your concerns you’re showing leadership. You’re having the courage to say, “This is not what I believe or this is what I believe.” We are concerned that too many teachers don’t voice their concerns. They will do what they are told and be frustrated about it, but they’re not going to stand up, identify the problem and actually help solve the issue. It takes leadership to stand up and not just say, “This isn’t right, I don’t want to do it,” but to say, “I don’t understand why we have to do this. Can you tell me why?” If they can’t accept the response as a good reason, continue to talk about it, and be responsible for helping find a solution and make the change happen with other teachers involved. And that type of approach makes a huge difference on how people receive it too. It takes courage from the teacher and it takes a positive relationship with the other leader in the room.
What I appreciate about Hope Street Group is, it is really tapping into something that I don’t think we’ve focused on a lot, which is the advocacy piece of leadership. I don’t think we have ever figured out how to teach it and I don’t know if you teach it in a class, but you do teach it through experience. I think that’s been very powerful, to find that voice and know how to exercise that voice in a positive way. I don’t think teachers realize the power that they have – the power teachers have in their student’s life and their family and in their school, but particularly with a student. I think that’s something teachers often underestimate, how much influence their words have.
You’re coming up on 6 years as Superintendent. What are you most proud of during your time as an education leader so far?
So many classroom things I’m proud of, but as a Superintendent you’re really looking at the whole system. What I think is happening, and what I’m hopeful in, is that families have confidence that public school is a good option for their children. We’re not there yet, so it’s hard to say it’s an accomplishment, but I see it in families that are saying, ‘I don’t have to worry because my child is getting this great education’. The NAEP gains are great, but to me, it’s the data supporting a message about public schools in Hawaii. You, as teacher leaders believing and putting it out there, to me that’s the kind of commitment that people need to see and then they are going to believe. That’s what I’m proud to see in terms of progress. However, it’s also one of my greatest fears that somehow we won’t have the courage to keep moving forward and reach a point where we are afraid and start thinking about our personal fear instead of continuing to do what’s right for kids, what’s right for teachers, what’s right for schools.