Teaching in Hawaii: An Experience Like No Other

Jim Cox STEM


A little over two decades ago, I accidentally drove my truck over a twenty-foot cliff in the snow and ice of Boulder, Colorado. I survived without a scratch. As I walked away from the wreck, I made myself a promise: that for the rest of my life, I would give back more than I took. That was how I made the leap from a salaried corporate career as a hydrogeologist to high school science teacher. After getting my master's in education, I left my Boulder life behind and moved to Hawaii. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Don’t get me wrong. My previous career was a good, solid one, one that I would recommend to any of my students. But after more than a decade working for corporations, I’d lost the passion and drive. I’d also found myself working for a company that was asking me to use my brain, but not my heart. I hadn’t gotten into hydrogeology for that. I got into it because I love science, but my job had not only ceased to be fulfilling, it was also now draining my spirit. In the more than two decades since leaving my old job, I’ve taught every grade from sixth to twelfth, in pretty much every area of science. For the last ten years or so, I've been teaching physics and environmental science at Kapa’a High School. I planned on retiring last year, at age 67, but I knew that our school would already be going through a difficult time due to the pandemic, and I just wasn’t going to leave them in the lurch. You don’t do that to your ohana (the Hawaiian word for family). So I stayed an extra year.

I may have taken a cut in pay, but I’ve grown richer in so many other ways that I’d never expected. For one, I’ve never seen anyone respect teachers the way students in Hawaii do once they get to know you. And it’s not just the students. Everyone in the community respects us for the work we do. They know that we’re committed to our keiki (kids), and keiki are the islands’ most valuable treasure. So I take pride in the job I’ve been entrusted with. Teaching is a responsibility. Our community is counting on us to prepare the keiki for the future.

It was tough when I first started teaching in Hawaii, but that’s changed. People learned more about me and respect me because I'm a teacher. I once had a repairman come to fix my washing machine, and when he found out I was a teacher, he refused to accept payment. “This is on me,” he said. “You're a teacher. You take care of our kids. I take care of you.” That's indicative of Hawaiian culture. You're valued because you're taking care of the keiki. And in Hawaii, there is nothing more important than our kids.

I teach my students that when you have mutual respect, you can accomplish anything. When I was a teenager, I promised myself I would never forget what it was like to be that age. If you had told my friends or teachers in high school that I would one day be a teacher, they would have fallen on the ground laughing. At that age, there were only two things adults had that I was interested in: car keys and respect. When an adult showed me respect, I felt valued. And so I make it a point to show my students respect. I respect them. And I tell them they don’t have to respect me right off the bat, but at least give me the chance to earn their respect. I have found respect to be a fundamental value in everything I do.

Even the rascals (a local term for troublemakers) have touched me. I've always had this really close relationship with the rascals, as well as with the kids I know who will go off to a prestigious far-away college. The art of teaching lies in the ability to motivate and instill interest, and I enjoy the challenge of getting a rascal interested. I’ve developed some deep bonds with my schools’ rascals, and I’m honored to be called uncle (a Hawaiian term of endearment) by many of them.

I’m grateful for having the opportunity to teach in a place as unique and beautiful as Hawaii. Nowhere else could I take my students on whale-watching excursions, to the ocean and tidepools for science experiments, and to volcanoes to study earth science in action. I’ve also had the chance to work with the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute to create a program called Volcanoes Alive!, a culturally based method of teaching science through stories and culture. I’ve also found several opportunities to work with educators on the mainland.

As much as I cherish my experiences as a transplant teaching in Hawaii, I want to encourage people who grew up here to come back and teach. There is greatness in our islands. Many people who grow up in Hawaii forget that once they move away to study or work. But all of their experience would be a boon for our keiki. So once you’ve gone away and had the time to explore, I really do hope you come back. If you go straight to teaching from college, that’s great. But even better is to share real-world experiences. Nothing beats that.

I’ve never met a bad kid in Hawaii. Even with the rascals, if you scratch the surface just a little bit, you’ll find kindness. That's what makes Hawaii so special. It's not the waterfalls. It's not the beaches. It's not the weather. It's the people. I have never met a better group of people in my life. And the keiki are the most special of all, because they’re our future.
About the Author
Avatar photo

Jim Cox

Jim Cox has been teaching science in Kapa'a on the Garden Island of Kaua'i for 21 years. For the past 12 years, he has been teaching physics and environmental science at Kapa’a High School. In the rare moments when he is not lesson planning, grading papers, or reading science articles, he enjoys playing softball in the Kaua'i senior softball league and hiking among the endemic and indigenous species in Kōke’e State Park.