By David Sheridan
When Kai Burley returned to Waianae, the West Coast of Oahu, Hawaii, from the U.S. mainland, she wanted to become a teacher. “Here is where my heart is—here is where I wanted to teach.”
And because Kai loves a challenge, she became a math teacher. “History is my favorite subject, but I wanted to take on the stereotype that Native Hawaiian students can’t learn math. Their math scores are always the lowest in the system and their absentee rates from math classes are the highest.”
Today she is a high school math teacher, and her Native Hawaiian students are thriving. They are coming to class and learning. “I think the key is that I’m Native Hawaiian. I know the culture. I know how to reach these students.”
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Outside the classroom, Kai Burley is networking with other Native Hawaiian educators who are organizing to create a pipeline of indigenous teachers aimed at closing the “cultural disconnect” between teachers and students in the state. In Kai’s school, for example, while almost 70 percent of the students are Native Hawaiians, less than 15 percent of the teachers are.
Hawaii suffers from a chronic teacher shortage. Kai and LaurieAnn Takeno of the Institute for Native Pacific Education & Culture point out that the $10 million a year the Hawaii’s Department of Education spends recruiting teachers from the mainland would be better invested in community-driven, culturally-grounded, grow-our-own teacher initiatives.
Burley and Takeno are part of a growing movement of indigenous educator/activists across the country who not only want more indigenous teachers in classrooms—they are also calling for a total revamping of public education for indigenous students, be they Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives or American Indians.
“Mainstream teaching models and curriculum, as well as standardized testing, have never worked for indigenous students because they are incongruent with indigenous ways of knowing, understanding and being, “says LaurieAnn Takeno.
Advocates for indigenous students are demanding what some call a “decolonized” education for indigenous children, one with culturally relevant curriculum, experiential projects and performance-based assessments. “Only an education rooted in our people’s language, culture and history will give our children the opportunity to learn who they really are,” says Jeremy Garcia, a Hopi/Tewa and Assistant Professor of Indigenous Education at the University of Arizona.
Kai Burley knows who she is—an educator/activist who is determined to join forces with other educators and their allies across the state to lift up indigenous students.