An open letter to new Hawaii’s new school superintendent, Christina Kishimoto:
Dear Mrs. Kishimoto,
Aloha, my name is Ethan ʻOnipaʻa Porter. You do not know me yet, but I am going to be one of your employees very soon.
You are facing a very difficult task ahead, and I wanted to give you some well wishes and advice as you continue the transition into becoming our new superintendent.
Christina Kishimoto isn’t from Hawaii, so her listening skills will be critical as she takes over the superintendent’s job.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Under the Detailed Job Description placed by the Board of Education earlier this year, candidates were desired to have a “Deep understanding of Hawaii’s culture and values and demonstrated ability to incorporate them into leadership decisions, actions, and style.”
Despite this quality being considered an immensely important candidate quality in community surveys, both your final contender for this job and yourself are not from here. This seems like something the board was a little flexible on during the hiring process, so we will have to make due.
You will have to get out of the office, out of urban Honolulu and off of Oahu to get a grasp on what each school is doing.
In my experience, there are three things you need to do if you truly wish to begin to gain the aforementioned “deep understanding”: listen to people, listen again and then listen some more.
There is an American cultural emphasis on speaking out and making your voice heard, both in times of success and need. Local Hawaiians (not the same as ethnic Native Hawaiians, or Kānaka Maoli) place emphasis on “showing” rather than “telling.” As the ʻOlelo Noʻeau goes: “Ho a’e ka ‘ike he’e nalu i ka hokua o ka ‘ale.” Show your skills at surfing on the back of the wave.
You will have to get out of the office, out of urban Honolulu and off of Oahu to get a grasp on what each school is doing. Spend time in each district and hear what the people there want from their schools, and then weigh that heavily against what someone else thinks is best for them.
Another quality that the board was looking for when it hired you was someone who has an “ability to effectively communicate to diverse audiences to achieve desired results and practices strong two-way communication skills.” So go communicate.
In your public statements during the selection process, and later during your remarks upon accepting this position, you shared two thoughts that made me optimistic of your hiring. The first was that students should be the highest priority of the Department of Education and that they need to be involved in the design of their learning. The second was that you agreed with the Strategic Plan that teachers should have the flexibility to innovate for their students.
The pieces are in place with changes in accountability measurements on the federal level. State level steps are being taken to allow schools and teachers to decide what their focus should be and how they should be held accountable for it.
This could be the place where you distinguish yourself as a leader in education. If fostered properly, allowing schools to design and implement new programs with their students could make Hawaii the educational role model it should be.
An easy first step is use the upcoming retooling of the Educator Effectiveness System. The current EES is time consuming for teachers and administrators, and not producing the outcomes it was designed for. Collaborate with stakeholders to streamline this process into a relationship-building tool between administrators and teachers, focusing on the professional growth of both.
Unleash the principals and the teachers. Give us the leeway to make professionally informed decisions that work best for our students and our communities.
I am sure that when you began researching this job, you came across the reputation that our schools are terrible. Although I believe this idea is unfounded, we do have room for growth.
As is the case for most large organizations, especially public institutions, it feels like our flaws are given more press than our successes. Your presence is now linked with this image.
You should already understand how this can get out of hand.
Your actions now represent every student, teacher, administrator and staff member of the Department of Education. We are all watching.
Again, I want to wish you luck and look forward to working with you.
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Ethan ʻOnipaʻa Porter is a Social Studies instructor at Campbell High School. He earned a bachelor's degree in Hawaiian Studies and Political Science and
a Certificate in Secondary Education, Social Studies, both from the University of Hawaii Manoa.