When friends find out that I’m a teacher, our conversations become reflections on their favorite teachers, lunch menus, and how they hated math. This struck a chord with me, and I wondered why they hated math?

How much impact can a teacher really have on the lives of his/her students? I have been employed at Blanche Pope Elementary School in Waimānalo, O‘ahu over the past 10 years. Through these years of diverse and colorful generations arriving and departing from my classroom, one thing has remained constant. The students are treasured in my heart. Through identity, culture, and community, we make connections to their home in Waimānalo and Hawai‘i to help them succeed in and out of school. This is where I begin with defining “ethno;” it is the “whole learner” knowing who they are, where they come from, and the roots of their identities. I have made it a priority to be actively engaged with my students and community, especially in building healthy relationships with their families. These connections are vital for me as a teacher to establish first, in order for sustainable learning to take place.

What to teach and how to teach it, were my next steps in becoming an effective kumu (teacher) for my student scholars. This required me to go beyond the walls of my classroom and my teacher contract to build relationships with our community. But where to start? I was blessed with being selected to be a part of the eighth cohort of the Ethnomathematics Program at a perfect time in my career. I needed to be reminded of who I am, where I come from, and why I am a teacher. This program awakened my passion and reasons for teaching that were dormant. Due to the overwhelming demands from our educational system, I had lost my way and purpose. I am a Polynesian educator and I needed to teach our Polynesian and all children to be lifelong learners using the tools of our ancestors, their surrounding environment of Mama Honua (Mother Earth), and their na‘au (inner core) of instinct and intuition.

In the program, I was able to see Hawai‘i and its teachable treasures with rich resources through the lenses of our kupuna (ancestors) called mathematics, science, engineering, technology, and all subjects and methods of learning. Our kupuna created these curricula of traditions and practices for us to perpetuate, so that we may keep the pulse beating and alive in our wahi pana (special sacred places). They voyaged across the open seas using the atmosphere as a compass to direct their paths. Our ancestors used the natural elements to teach them, and this was a defining moment for me of what is ethnomathematics.

The Ethnomathematics Program encouraged us to be prepared for the many doors that would open, as well as the responsibilities that would bring us great purpose in our profession. Three years later, I am a testament to this. I am a privileged and passionate kumu who engages student scholars in cultural and place-based learning with partners and friends across Hawai‘i.

Our 21st century student learners have worked on creating geographical and agricultural position systems for their gardens, integrated coordinate graphing skills, and explored technology with Desmos. They have researched and studied the phenology of la‘au (plants) in their gardens while justifying the effects of climate change. We have monthly visits to our nearby muliwai (stream) estuary to study its mo‘olelo (stories) and native species, make scientific kilo (observations), test water quality, and discuss how we can restore our spaces with cultural practices for our community.

Our student scholars have been actively present at school, showing an increase in school attendance data and academic achievement. They are confident in engaging with their academics, because it is purposeful, relevant, and meaningful in connecting with their identities. When they grow up and share their stories about school with friends, instead of saying, “I hated math,” I am hopeful they will say, “Math was my favorite subject!”