MAY2022 | DR. CHRISTINA M. KISHIMOTO
Kristen has been in public education for 20 years and was Hawaii’s State Teacher of the Year in 2011. She has a passion for working in the classroom, as you’ll gather from her interview, as well as mentoring teachers. She is currently working as an Educational Specialist in the Leadership Institute with the Hawaii State Teacher Fellows and Teachers of the Year.
Christina: I am excited to talk with you today about teacher leadership. What was your motivation for moving from the classroom into a teacher leader position, and what was the opportunity that opened that door for you?
Kristen: I loved being a classroom teacher! I want to start there. I was in the classroom for 12 years at the school where I once was a student. It was home to me; it was my family. I grew so much there. I was in this beautiful bubble for many of my first years of teaching and was nurtured there. And then, I started connecting with other teachers across the state and even in the nation through the Teacher of the Year program. I started to love these conversations with teachers. I learned so much by talking with them. I started feeling this passion for supporting their work, elevating their voices, and being a part of their teaching journeys too.
My last years in the classroom, I had the opportunity to mentor a beginning teacher. I went through the Hawaii Teacher Induction Center training and I fell in love with mentoring. While I worked with a second-year teacher, a position opened up at the complex level, to mentor full time. And what led me out of the classroom was really what brought me into the classroom. That same feeling of hope and possibility that comes from working with peer teachers is what I felt when I first entered teaching – the hope and the possibility that comes from working with students.
By working with teachers, I started seeing these opportunities to give in different ways and address different needs. Part of my heart is always going to be in the classroom. And part of me does really hope that my journey leads me back to the classroom before I retire. When I first entered the classroom, and all through my years of teaching, I said that what I loved about teaching was that I got to work with the best people on Earth, and that was kids. Teachers are a very close second. But I still think students are the greatest people to be able to work with every day. So maybe I will get back there.
Christina: As you meet with and talk with teachers in the classroom, who may not have taken on any leadership roles, how do you talk to them about the different roles they can take on to lead beyond the classroom?
Kristen: It starts with feeling like you are a leader in the classroom. I think all teachers are leaders. They are making hundreds of decisions every day in their classrooms. They lead their students and their families all year on this journey of discovery. The most powerful kind of teacher leadership is really leading from the classroom. Leadership starts by advocating for your own students, which then leads to advocating for all students. What we want for our own children is what is good for all kids. What I want for my son and daughter is what I want for everyone. I think all students deserve that quality education.
Leadership is making sure we do everything we can, in concert, through conversations, writing, and sharing. We must do everything we can to make sure that quality curriculum is scaled up so that all students can have those opportunities.
Christina: No doubt we are living through a divisive period in our nation in terms of public policy. But, when you think about the heightened politicization of public education, how do we help teachers who focus primarily on pedagogy, quality teaching and learning, to find their voice, to engage in the policy discourse that affects them ultimately in the classroom?
Kristen: Policy is a word that can intimidate some of us. I know it intimidated me at first. I think of policy as a set of ideas that really guides the decisions we make. Teachers have to be part of those conversations everywhere. Discussions about what happens in advisory class, the best ways to organize our time during the day in a middle school or high school, bell schedules, and the curriculum that we design, those are all policy decisions. I think it’s first realizing that a lot of the policies that teachers actually are acting on, can be talked about and developed and designed at the school level. So it’s about conversation, relationships, building trust, and having open spaces for the many different stakeholders with different perspectives to come together and share.
I’ve seen teachers using their passion for special education, such as one of our teachers, Derek Govin, who I worked with closely. He was a fully self-contained teacher, and he didn’t have that community in the school because it was such a specialized position. He brought together special education teachers to form a PLC (professional learning community), and now they have their own fellowship program! I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about figuring out what the need is and finding ways to address that need.
Student voice is important in policy. Family voice is important. Now that I’m out of the classroom, I speak more of what I feel as a parent, and I encourage teachers to speak from what they know, as teachers. I think those perspectives are so important in shaping policy.
Christina: I’m wondering if there’s a generational shift in the younger teachers that are entering the classroom today. Is there a greater interest from teachers just starting out to advance into teacher leadership sooner?
Kristen: I do see that. I see an energy from our beginning teachers that I think is fantastic. They come in asking questions, listening, and sharing their ideas. My work with beginning teachers is to encourage them to always speak up. Their voice and their experiences as a beginning teacher are a huge part of that community. I feel this energy from our teachers in their first few years, and I want to make sure that we nurture and encourage that. Teachers also need continued opportunities to connect with all teachers, and those veteran teacher voices are also so important. In our fellowship, the teachers I’ve come across in this leadership work, I have learned so much from all of the voices, whether they are in their first year or in their 30th. And putting those teachers together in a space is really special because they realize that the stories are universal. And it’s beautiful.
Christina: Sometimes we hear teachers’ frustrations with feeling as if there are always so many other voices speaking for them. We hear the ‘I’m just the teacher’ statement, and yet teachers drive the curriculum design and the curriculum delivery in the classroom. They do such important work that impacts the lives of our children. In what ways do you believe that teachers can better harness the collective power of voice? What will it take?
Kristen; I think there is definitely power in the collective voice. I also think there is so much power in an individual story and individual voice and experience. I have sat down with a teacher for 20 minutes and been changed by their story. Through my work and the teachers I partner with, I’m always trying to show them how valuable their experiences are. Sharing their stories through writing, leading professional development, and conversation can start a movement. When you share your story, you will find and attract other people that have that same passion. I feel like every Teacher wants to know that they’re not alone. Whether it’s knowing they’re not alone in struggle or knowing that they’re not alone in feeling passionate about wanting to transform something and change something. In the fellowship, we do a lot of reflection about what they were individually passionate about, what they care about, and what they may even be frustrated about right now in the system. And they share their individual experience about that topic. And then as other people share, other people are like, ‘yes, me too, me too!’ That’s what starts that energy as a group. I think that’s super powerful because they start imagining what could be, and they start taking action together. But it does start with the courage of one single teacher telling their powerful story. Those stories happen every day in our classrooms. It’s just making sure that we share them. I think that’s powerful.
Kristen, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.