Plenty of Pros: Missing Out on Teacher of the Year Award Gives Waiākea Finalist More Time in the Classroom

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Kurt Russell, a history teacher from Oberlin High School in Ohio, was named the 2022 National Teacher of the Year.

Which means Waiākea High School educator Whitney Aragaki, Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the top award, will be spending a lot more time in the classroom this year rather than traveling and touring, an obligation that comes with the award.

“I sat back and had a huge sigh of relief,” Aragaki said on Monday about her reaction when she learned in a phone call on April 19 that she hadn’t won.

The relief she felt was the realization she could now spend her time doing what she loves to do – teach. The attention and requirements that come with being named Teacher of the Year pulls the winner out of the classrooms as they promote and share message on education, among other duties.


Aragaki, a biology and environmental science instructor at the high school, will now be able to focus on leading a Foundations of Education course that will construct a pipeline through which future teachers can learn bedrocks of education to help them become life-changing educators of tomorrow. That, along with teaching her regular classes and after-school clubs, of course.

“I’m stoked,” Aragaki said.

Aragaki said she is thrilled for Russell, whom she met on a trip to Washington, DC, earlier this year as part of the finalist selection process.

“He has a strong message of making sure students see themselves in their teachers,” she said.


Russell was selected out of four finalists by the non-profit Council of Chief State School Officers.

His students say he is known for emphasizing cultural relevance and representation through his classes, a CBS News article stated.

Russell, an African-American, builds his education message around helping students identify with their educators and encouraging them to see themselves, regardless of race, creed or color, as tomorrows teachers, educators and leaders.

Looking past, even dissolving, racial barriers or hang-ups when trying to connect with students of different backgrounds was a paramount principle in Russell’s teaching message, Aragaki noted, and one that seemed more urgent in mainland schools compared to Hawai‘i, where melting-pot backgrounds are more easily taken for granted in the diverse island culture.


“It made me so much more appreciative of our own experience in Hawai‘i,” Aragaki said.



Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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