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Zooming Into My Lens as a Hawaiʻi Educator

24 Oct 2021 2:58 PM | Sarah Milianta-Laffin (Administrator)

Author: Dagan Bernstein - Hawai'i Island Educator & HSTE Board Member

It was 3:30 am when I finally logged off Zoom. I checked the mug on my desk and it remained filled with the lukewarm coffee leftover from at least an hour ago. Still energized from the 3-4 cups I had consumed since 9:30 the previous night, the spectrum of colors scribbled on my iPad looked like a kaleidoscope.


This is what professional development looks like in the year 2021. A potentially unhealthy mix of odd time zones and way too much caffeine. But it is not all poor sleep patterns and poor beverage choices. Video conferencing technology has provided educators the opportunity to connect with others from all around the world that they would have never been able to meet. In the last year alone I’ve collaborated with people from Estonia, Sweden, Finland, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, and many more. Sometimes all in the course of one night, and always from the comfort of my own home.


However, this is not about the potential for Hawaiʻi educators to develop their pedagogy through online professional development or the appeal of connecting with new people. It is about the opportunity presented in these online spaces for Hawaiʻi-based educators to share their perspective. A perspective that is rooted in relationships, ‘āina, and community.


Initially, it was not clear to me that my voice had value in these global conversations. But over time I have realized that I have something unique to offer in these discussions. That I have a kuleana to both share my thinking and to make sure that I am honoring the people and place of Hawaiʻi as the source of my knowledge. I have also recognized that to fully hold space with this kuleana there is additional work that I have to do to unpack my own identity as a white settler in this pae ʻāina. This means I have to ask some deep questions about my role in this power structure.


The first step is to examine my impact as a white settler in a colonized land. I have to acknowledge the damage done to Kānaka Maoli through colonization, as well as how I may be perpetuating the pain and inequities through my own narrow lens as a white educator. While this has been uncomfortable, I have leaned into the discomfort with the goal of being able to recognize my blind spots and to understand the steps I can take to dismantle the Euro-centric narrative of learning in our Hawaiʻi classrooms.


I would like to offer some of my experiences that have helped me to re-center myself.


  • Practice kilo (observation) when participating in ʻāina-based learning experiences

  • Connect with and learn from the ʻāina and ʻāina-based educators in order to seek to better understand ancestral/indigenous knowledge

  • Reflect on how this knowledge can be used to change a system that privileges the holders of power

  • Humble myself to my limitations as one who is privileged by the system


Through this re-centering, I have re-evaluated my curriculum, content, and pedagogies. Iʻve asked myself, how am I perpetuating a history of control and power through the manner in which I structure my teaching? How are students, particularly Black, Brown, and Indigenous students not given voice and agency in the classroom? And what are the specific actions I am taking that may or may not be supporting student agency?


The answer to all these questions comes back to a concept that is the center of all Hawaiian cultural practices–aloha ʻāina. During this process of understanding my kuleana, I have actively sought out teachers around me that are rooted in Hawaiian-based cultural practices. This has allowed me the opportunity to observe how they operate within the systems of oppression that have been forced upon them.


When I began reflecting on my experiences with online professional development during the past year I thought I would primarily be focusing on the strategies I have gained as an educator. But I have gone much deeper. It is not just my pedagogy and practice as an educator that has changed. I have been given a new lens to view the world around me, and my place in it. 


I have developed a new strategy because this lens has provided me with a voice. A voice as a Hawaiʻi-based educator that reminds me I have a kuleana to live and share the tenants of Aloha ʻĀina. And the knowledge that with this voice I must help to teach others how they can shape learning across Hawaiʻi and across the world.

Dagan Bernstein


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