Q&A with 2013 State Teacher of the Year


Karen Kutsunai, a Kailua Intermediate teacher, was named Hawaii’s 2013 State Teacher of the Year on October 26.


Can you recall a specific moment or time in your life when you decided to pursue teaching as a career? What drew you to the profession?

Deciding to pursue teaching as a career finalized in my mind only after I survived my first two years of teaching. By the time I graduated from high school, I recognized a strong desire in myself to be of service to others.

In choosing education as my college undergraduate major, I specifically wanted to reach students who struggled in being socially accepted by peers and adults. My teachers, throughout my K-12th grade public school experiences in Hawaii, validated and accepted me, and I, in turn, wanted to do the same for the next generation of students. They believed in me and encouraged me when I could not do it for myself, especially as a socially awkward, self-conscious young adolescent.

In preparing myself to be a teacher, I volunteered and also worked as a docent at Mission Houses Museum. I gained valuable experience giving tours to a wide range of audiences. I also served for a few months as a volunteer education helper at the Detention Home in town. That experience showed me the importance of connecting and establishing rapport with students.

However, the challenges faced in my first two years of teaching often made me question whether or not I had chosen the right career path. Although it was a steep learning curve, after my first two years of teaching, I knew that it was the right career for me.

Kutsunai with fellow nominees for Teacher of the year, with Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Deputy Supt. Ronn Nozoe and Board of Education member Jim Williams.

Is there a person (a family member, friend, former teacher or professor) who was instrumental in shaping you into the educator you are today?​

Besides personal experiences that played instrumental roles in shaping me into the educator I am today, there were many individuals who did so, too. They can be classified into three groups: family, former teachers and professors, and my school community.

The best piece of career advice I received as a young adolescent came from my father. Trying to figure out my future career path, I asked him if he thought I should become a landscape architect like him or follow in my mother’s footsteps as a teacher.

His advice? Find what you’re passionate about; what inspires you to achieve the best you can, not because of any potential recognition or accolades, but because you truly find it internally rewarding.

If you asked the 12-year-old me if I saw myself as a future teacher, I would have laughed. I had no misconceptions about the work and dedication required from teachers or the sacrifice of personal family time, too. Many of my childhood memories consisted of weekends spent at Hickam Elementary School playing with my younger sister so that our mother could get work done. Our father also played an active role, as so many supportive spouses do, in whatever she needed assistance.

I fondly remember certain teachers throughout my K-12th grade public school education in Hawaii whose kind words, hard work, and encouragement inspired me to strive for my best. They treated all students with respect and genuine warmth. I loved being in their classes because there was no fear of being judged by them and I knew they wanted to help me and my peers become better learners. Their warm, positive classroom environments allowed me to feel safe and included. Thus, high expectations and rigor were met.

Connecting with my peers and me individually set us up for success and greatly influenced my teaching philosophy. Thank you Mrs. Nishimura (4th grade), Mrs. Marshman (8th grade English), Mrs. Ellis (high school English), and Ms. Koo (high school math). You made a difference for me!

Invaluable role models of great teaching can be found throughout our state. I consider myself fortunate to have met many individuals throughout my teaching career, starting with my experience as a student teacher. Mrs. Kekina (8th grade social studies and coordinating teacher), Mr. Andrew Kutsunai (an uncle from Maui who taught high school social studies), college professors and instructors at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, including my graduate mentor, Mrs. Sheila Apisa, all played a direct role in shaping me into the educator I am.

Kailua Intermediate is my school home. My current successes can be attributed in large part to the support I received from my school community – administrators, teachers, and staff. There are too many to name, but some of my closest colleagues who have and continue to inspire me are Dr. Hughes, Mrs. Kottenmeier, Mrs. Nullet, Mrs. Frato-Hildebrant, Mrs. Ringuette, Mrs. Perry, Mrs. Reeves, and Mrs. Kang. Thank you for being great educators and for your friendship, too.

How do you engage seventh-grade students in social studies and make your lessons relevant to the world they live in?

My students become engaged in civic responsibilities through learning about contemporary issues affecting their community such as fresh water conservation and sustainability, marine debris, and electrical energy use. Students are encouraged to pursue knowledge beyond the classroom as self-directed learners and to keep their parents involved in the learning process.

As an extension of developing their communication skills for an audience beyond the school, students participate in a variety of academic contests emphasizing being a community contributor. Collaboration with others is the key to my success in supporting students!

You have stressed how important it is for a school to work as a team. Can you share some of the programs at Kailua Intermediate that you feel are having a positive impact in developing both students and staff?

Kailua Intermediate School is filled with many leaders from our faculty and staff as well as parent, student, and community role groups. We share a commitment and responsibility in helping our students achieve and be successful. Therefore, we continue to reflect upon what we need to introduce, adapt, and dismantle as the needs of our school change.

We also gain ideas from other schools which have successfully implemented programs addressing their student population. Some of the programs having a positive impact in developing students and/or staff include PEP (Peer Education Program), Action Period (exploratory and help), Boys & Girls Club, AVID, and new teacher meetings.

At our school, we have a highly effective Peer Education Program (PEP) that teaches student leaders to effectively resolve conflicts amongst their peers. It’s proactive and prevents bullying from reoccurring or getting worse. Our PEP teacher, Mrs. Jenness, is highly skilled and trained.

Other ways students were reached include assemblies and a school-wide campaign against bullying. Tolerance for diversity and establishing a culture of respect was and still is promoted at our school. We even have bully free zones where classroom teachers offer their rooms as safe zones for students during lunch period.

Action Period also helps our school meet the diverse needs of our young adolescents. It was conceived of and introduced by Mr. Budenholzer several years ago. We have 40-minute periods four times a week at the start of the school day. There are two main types of classes — exploratory and help.

Exploratory semester classes such as vermicomposting, team sports, robotics, performing arts, and art allow students to try something new and engaging. Help classes such as targeted reading, math, and study hall, provide additional support for other students.

The Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii—Windward Chapter provides both academic and enrichment opportunities for students in our community. We value our partnership with them. Throughout the day, both before and after school, the community clubhouse, located on our campus, is filled with students. Their support is invaluable. Thank you, specifically, to Ms. Purington, Clubhouse Director.

Two new programs we started implementing this year are AVID and new teacher meetings. AVID stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination and is a program that initially started in San Diego. As an AVID school, we are adopting school-wide practices that prepare all students for success in college.

The purpose of the AVID program is to restructure the teaching methods of an entire school and to open access to the curricula that will ensure four-year college eligibility to almost all students, said Kailua Intermediate Principal Lisa DeLong.

In addressing the needs of new teachers, our school established monthly after school meetings for them to collaborate and share ideas, gain support, and hear from speakers on a variety of topics. Ms. Malloy spearheaded this new program and invites all of us, even experienced teachers, to get involved and participate.

Do you have any advice, or words of encouragement, for new teachers or students who may be interested in becoming teachers?

Before entering my classroom, I reflect on a saying by a former principal: “I control the weather in my classroom. What kind of weather shall we have today?” This quote reminds me to be positive in mindset and attitude, regardless of the challenges I face in my professional and personal life.

The right “weather” helps cultivate and develop our youth for our world’s future. My students are compassionate and caring individuals and I let them know, without going into details, how I’m feeling. I remind myself, especially when I’m having a tough time, to recognize that I am not powerless and have a direct impact in the learning my students experience in my classroom.

Teaching is a demanding profession. Not everyone can teach. The expectations of teachers from society are very high. You are entering one of the most noble professions. Believe in yourself and be patient. Know that mistakes are part of the learning process.

Effective and on-going communication not only with students, but also with parents, colleagues and other staff members, widens the circle of support within a school for all students to achieve and succeed. Reflection on lessons and pedagogy, being flexible and open to using new teaching methods, learning from students, colleagues, and outside programs/classes leads to professional growth.

Balancing priorities is a constant challenge. Please remember to carve personal time for yourself and your family. You really do need to take care of yourself, too!

Contact Information

Communications and Community Affairs Office

Phone: 808-586-3232

Email: doe_info@hawaiidoe.org

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