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National Teacher of The Year Finalist Whitney Aragaki Shares What Recognition Has Brought

March 7, 2022, 2:00 PM HST
* Updated March 7, 12:52 PM
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Since being named a finalist for the 2022 National Teacher of the Year Award, it’s been a whirlwind for Waiākea High School educator Whitney Aragaki.

Interview requests from the media, an invite to be a virtual guest at the State of the Union Address, not to mention the final interview process for the national award, which Aragaki underwent last week in Washington, DC with the three other finalists she’s up against for the top recognition.

And Aragaki still has biology and environmental science to teach – her passion, after all, and what brought her under this new limelight. 

“It was definitely intense,” Aragaki said of the finalist round of interviews, which consisted of in-depth questions on her vision for education in America. “They had created an environment that was intense but also very exciting.”

The process also gave Aragaki the opportunity to meet the three other finalists – a middle school science teacher from Colorado, a high school social studies teacher from Ohio, and a middle school social studies teacher from Pennsylvania.

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Aragaki said the other teachers’ devotion to public education was obvious to her after meeting them. They cared about personal connection and trust with students in helping them achieve anything they can set their minds to. Their jobs weren’t jobs, they were vocations.

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“That’s something we all have in common,” Aragaki said.

The recognition of winning the Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year award and the microscope that intensifies with the finalist process hasn’t been without its challenges. It’s made Aragaki, a biology and environmental science teacher, double-down on her core beliefs in education, what she called her “teacher’s voice,” as well as focus her to articulate those big ideas on an even bigger stage.

That can be difficult for anyone, explaining and standing firmly by one’s principles. But for Aragaki, it has reaffirmed the truths she’s always held close. She believes if she can speak from the heart and incorporate culture, community and togetherness, all traits she learned though her experience of living in Hawai‘i, that connection to people will build, and with that doors inside young minds will open.

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“I keep my place very close to me,” she said. “As long as I can speak from those experiences, I know” I can make a difference.

Aragaki, a former WHS student herself, said she’s been pleased with her ability to communicate her outlook on education during the whole process.

“I’ve been able to use it a lot,” she said of her sharpened teacher’s voice. “I have absolute pride in the public school system.” 

The winner will be announced at the end of April. Hawai‘i, according to a list of past winners, has never boasted the top finisher.

At this point, is Aragaki hungry for the top award? Are there competitive juices rushing, even after making it this far?

“That’s a great question,” Aragaki said.

Her answer is twofold. A win would give her an unmatched platform to promote what she’s learned as an educator and help others in the field. But it would also take her out of the classroom for the better part of the year. So, while she would be helping teachers on a massive scale, she’d lose the day-to-day teacher-student connections she’s built her professional life around, “which is a bit daunting to think about,” she said.

“I love all the finalists,” Aragaki said. “I think anyone who is selected will be a really outstanding representative for teachers.”

“But, of course,” she added after reflecting on what the win could mean. “What an opportunity.”

During the finalist process last week, Aragaki attended virtually President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union Address as a guest of Hawai‘i Sen. Mazie Hirono, which Aragaki called a honor. It was seeing the nation’s capital swarming with activity leading up to the address – the security detail, the general buzz, the demonstrations of support for the recently invaded Ukraine, that left the biggest impact on her.

“Like I was present in history-making,” she said. 

After all that, it was back to Hilo, back to her classroom, which she said she’d missed. The classroom is where it all happens, after all.

Students and colleagues have been extraordinarily supportive, Aragaki said.

Students asked her questions about what the weather was like in DC, if she saw snow or, better yet, if she saw any celebrities.

“They leave me funny messages sometimes,” she said of her pupils. “There has been a lot of fun.”

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