A native Hawaiian teacher shatters a stereotype in her classroom while becoming an activist in her community


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.

Reader Comments

  1. Your vision and work is inspiring. Our children
    definitely need to see more role models that look like them. This is what the NEA’s Minority Community Outreach Program & the Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee tirelessly work towards.

    The Hawai’i State Teachers Association’s, Minority Affairs Task Force recently held break-out sessions at each Teacher Institute Day in Hawai’i in order to listen to the concerns of educators as it relates to the education of minority students here in the islands. The comments & concerns from those hearings are being compiled and the Task Force’s next steps
    are being outlined prior to being presented before for the HSTA Board of Directors’ along with the group’s recommendations.

  2. America in not our “mainland”. Know the difference between “native and Native Hawaiian”. There is no such definition for “Hawaiian at heart”. Is there such a definition for “american at heart. European at heart. Japanese at heart. Etc. Etc. Ect. THIS REDUCES OUR IDENTITY AS TO WHO WE ARE. DECOLINIZATION EDUCATION IS OUR FIRST LESSON.

    He Hawaii Au Mau a Mau recognizes no blood quantum. Kanaka Maoli is the original people of Ko Hawaii Ka Pa Aina. Like Hayden Burgess once say to me. Wipe the white mask off your face and see the Hawaiian face. Mahalo Nui Loa .Aloha ka Akua, aloha na kupuna Kahiko, aloha na Aumakua, aloha ko’u Uhane.

  3. Unless the mainland teachers are willing to put themselves in our shoes and do what’s best for our Hawaiian children,let’s ke r please Hawaii:HAWAIIAN.I really wish they understood our culture and our kids needs,we have smart kids and they deserve better

    1. I agree that there needs to be more teachers that match the cultural breakdown of their students in Hawaii, and many other places. Just like the private sector, too many companies still hire what they’re used to seeing which is the ones that look like them: white people. There are MANY people of color & non-European culture that need to be given the opportunity to be hired as teachers instead of always hiring only white teachers who generally no nothing of other cultures and their differences.

  4. Kupono hoʻi keia i mea e hoike aku ai i nā kanaka, he poʻe loea na Hawaii. Pono e aʻo ʻia mai e na poʻe oiwi o ka aina. Nā kumu hawaiʻi, nā kanaka i maopopo i ke ʻano o nā haumāna. Imua kākou, hai i nā kumu mai Hawaii mai.

  5. Moving forward with HA…Na Ho’opena Ao’…..cultural connectedness curricular delivery system here on Molokai….same as but replacing GLO’s (general learner outcomes)….Hopefully able to connect with roots of students and families, enabling them to see the value in education. Hawaiian immersion, principal, vp, and faculty are supportive.

  6. The color of my skin is white. I have some native American and African American blood and Lord know what else! ? But it wasn’t until I was an ADULT that I even heard how America “acquired” Hawaii! And not the white washed version. I think it’s fantastic that this is happening! I think it’s important that children are understood by their teachers. I hope they get the opportunity to be taught by a multitude of teachers of different nationalities.

  7. To hear her talk about her students is amazing. Its not that she has to teach, she wants to. She loves it! Kai keeps it real with her students and understands the struggles that students may face when they are at “home”. She makes herself open to students. Kai is really someone to look up to regardless if you are a student, fellow teacher, or someone she met on a few occasions at a family get together. She has a great spirit and is 100% easy going!

  8. I am a white retired public school teacher, ex-Peace Corps Chile 1990, and fluent Spanish speaker. I have been in bilingual education for 32 years. You are absolutely correct about the need for students to see teachers from their culture in the front of the classroom…I think spending the money to grow your own teachers is a fantastic idea!!!

  9. Mahalo for sharing your mana’o! While I was in H.S. we learned about our culture and history. Nowadays it’s all about these standardized testing and changing curriculum that isn’t even beneficial to the way everyone learns. When students can identify lessons that are relevant to themselves, their lives, our surroundings, it really makes a difference. It matters more when they feel like they didn’t do good enough or failed as a school to score the highest on these worthless tests.

    My mother was an English teacher at Kahuku High and Intermediate for 15 years. She incorporated our Polynesian heritage, personal experiences and other creative ways to actively engage these students. She teamed up with the Social Studies teacher to come up with amazing projects that we really enjoyed and remembered while learning English!

    When she moved to Maui and began teaching at Iao school, the standardized testing and inconsistent curriculum took over.

    As Native Hawaiians, we want and know what’s best for our haumana and children. Mahalo nui loa for speaking out on this issue and gathering more alaka’i like yourself!


    1. My mom has told me about inconsistent teachers for years. It hurts to know that Hawai’i is having a teacher shortage and turns to the mainland to fill these positions. They teach for a couple of years then move back.

      We need more local teachers that can relate to our native culture and background. Teachers deserve to get paid well!

  10. My brother went to the mainland for schooling and after getting his degree in education he wanted to go back home and teach the local kids but our Dept of education was not recruiting our local teacher but hired all mainlander/people not of our culture. He was so disappointed. But we will stand by you Kai. Good job and it’s about time.

  11. Indigenous curriculum, what an awesome teacher, we need to work hard on producing our own curriculum & not dumped with the whiteness of education. Keep the fire burning, from an indigenous on the Rock.

  12. I’m so glad our children have you in their life and look forward to more positive influences being seeded and coming to full bloom because of you and others.

  13. This makes my heart warm! Good job Kai! One has to leave home to get a better education so that we are able to return home and better educate our people positively by creating movements such as this!

  14. As a METS advisor for the UH at WHS for three years I fell deeply in love with, not just the students, but also the community. I am not native Hawaiian. I grew up in Kansas and my entire life have been enchanted by Hawaii. Now that I have spent “real” time with “real” Hawaiians I would have to agree that more Hawaiian people are needed to educate these children. Not to say that Waianae High School and the entire Waianae/Nanakuli school systems have some totally awesome “mainland” teachers who care deeply. (I was one of them). To have local kids become successful and bring that back to the community has always been the goal of every teacher on the West Side. Mainland or not.

  15. Our educational system of testing and punishment along with hours spent nightly on homework doesn’t work for most children and does no good. It only stresses them out, causes conflict at home, and leaves most children hating school and the learning process. Why is America punishing our children with overtesting and grueling hours of homework that would be better spent connecting with family snd friends, playing sports and other games, and giving children time to dream and invent and wonder and explore. Why do we push them to read in 1st grade when that is developmentally unrealistic for many. Why do we not give them more opportunities for hands on learning instead of sit in your seat tasks??? Why do we make them continue to practice concepts that they have already learned instead of broadening their learning experiences by introducing new concepts and letting them tell us what they want to learn. Most of the ways we teach and punish are the result of administrators who
    Have never been in a classroom and have no idea what is developmentally appropriate for children. Are we so arrogant as a society that we refuse to learn from other countries who are successfully educating their children–like Finland. It’s time to dismantle our educational system, admit we have failed to prepare our children to live in the world that exists today, and try a new approach, one that has been shown to work. Many say it can’t b done because America is soooo much bigger than Finland but we must try. We cannot continue down this road of continual punishment for not living up to unrealistic ideas and ideals. Hawaii is the perfect place to implement Just such a shift in our educational thinking if only we are brave enuf to get rid of administrators who harbor these outmoded and destructive practices and instead allow teachers the chance to do what they have been taught to do with a renewed vision and lots of hard work. There’s lots of positives to draw on educationally from places like Finland and we should be incorporating their ideas into our teaching and educational system. Learn from the best. Our children deserve that. Thank u for hopefully starting this discussion. As a former classroom teacher and lifelong educator the last 30 years of education policy have been dreadful and depressing. We need new blood and new ideas– the time to change this is now.

  16. I so agree thank you. As an advocate on the Westside. I’ve said many times use our local talent. Good luck.

  17. Great job, to me growing up in Makaha, the education system should’ve started having Hawaiian history taught to us especially the over throw of our kingdom, instead of history that had nothing to do with our us, your teaching’s has to start at a much earlier stage like in elementary/intermediate school stage, where you can make students understand what they’re up against in terms of making them more interested in getting an education degree and coming back home, exactly what your doing, set the example sistah, and lead all of them to thrive….aloha

  18. Maika’i Kai; ‘you’ make ‘your’ people proud and most important; make ‘your’ ‘ohana proud and the future students to follow proud of “who” they ARE! 😉

  19. Very nice…
    Select Charter Schools are available to address cultural concerns and innuendos.
    I like that Kai is addressing the need in a traditional setting. I think a Future Teacher Program should be initiated on the Coast. Understanding the needs of the culture is a key.
    Proud of you Kai, keep up the good work. Next step is a teacher mentoring program to address the needs of teachers and future teachers.
    Remember, Jaime Escalante taught inner city poverty stricken Hispanic children Calculus. They excelled. So can we!

  20. I am a radio-journalist who attended U-H and took a lot of Hawaiian history classes. She sounds like a wonderful teacher who encouraged her students. I have a MS in journalism (I currently sub), and I FANTASIZE about coming back to Hawai’i as a teacher…

  21. I wanted to write a thesis about challenges Native Hawaiian children face in education, and I thought of a topic my fellow military wife/ Native-Hawaiian sister talked about all the time. Native-Hawaiian educators, teaching Native-Hawaiian children, and the large scope of reasoning behind the importance of that desire. It is bigger than just teaching them academically, there is a rebuilding of our people from the ground up that must take place.

    1. Aloha, i’m from waianae as well and truly believe in this movement to bring in more native hawaiian or natives in general to educate the next generations of students. I’m a kanaka maoli myself and stand firm in my decisions to one day return to college and finish my studies to become an educator and an inspiration for next generation of students and educators alike. Mahalo for inspiring the young and old alike. Keep up the great work. Holomua! Kulia i ka Nu’u. Malama pono. A hui hou.


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