A veteran biology and Advanced Placement environmental science teacher at Waiakea High on Hawaii island is one of four finalists for 2022 National Teacher of the Year, the Council of Chief State School Officers announced Wednesday.

Whitney Aragaki, named 2022 Hawaii Teacher of the Year in December, was selected from 56 educators around the United States and territories to be in the running for the top national recognition by a selection committee made up of representatives from 19 education organizations.

The teacher of the year program recognizes exceptional educators and enables them to showcase their education platforms on a national level as well as to participate in state and national policy discussions, according to CCSSO.

Aragaki has taught at Waiakea High since 2011. She is a 2004 graduate of the school and her mother also taught biology there. Aragaki, a fifth-generation Hilo resident and mother of two, is passionate about incorporating place-based instruction into her classes and emphasizing community ties.

“Something I try to model for my students is honoring the land. Growing up around forests, going to the beaches: these lessons now carry on into the classroom,” she said Wednesday in a Zoom interview. “Many of our students going through the global pandemic haven’t been in classrooms but now (can apply their experiences) in the environment.”

The National Board-certified teacher is also an instructor of AP environmental science and AP computer science to public school students statewide across the digital platform known as Hawaii Virtual Learning Network.

Aragaki holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Swarthmore College, a Master of Science in tropical conservation biology and environmental science from the University of Hawaii Hilo and is currently pursuing a doctorate at UH Manoa’s College of Education in curriculum and instruction.

The last time a Hawaii teacher was named a finalist for the national recognition was in 2015: Catherine Caine of Waikiki Elementary.

The other finalists for 2022 National Teacher of the Year are Autumn Rivera, a sixth grade science teacher in Colorado; Kurt Russell, a high school history teacher in Ohio; and Joseph Welch, an eighth grade history teacher in Pennsylvania.

The winner will be announced in the spring after a round of interviews.

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