Being an educator wasn’t an obvious choice for Academy Social Studies faculty member Ka‘eo Vasconcellos ’96. In fact, he says school wasn’t his strong suit growing up. He remembers not being that good at math, not being intrigued by science and always having a hard time writing. But that all changed when he took a few history courses in college. Vasconcellos now harnesses his passion for teaching to make an impact within the classroom – and beyond. As a co-advisor for the Shanti Alliance and Oceania Club, he is a fierce advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. He is also a kumu for the PUEO Program, which supports students with unlimited potential but limited economic resources. Vasconcellos was the 2012 recipient of Honolulu Teacher of the Year. In this edition of the Punahou Bulletin, the Kuli‘ou‘ou native pinpoints the moment that shifted his professional trajectory and sheds light on how the less obvious path of becoming a teacher led him to all the places he was meant to be.
It’s your 19th year teaching. How did you decide to focus on social studies?
The biggest thing that led me to history was a class called Racism in Education with Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask. One day she was talking about the Hawaiian overthrow and I asked, “What overthrow?” She just looked at me and said, “You need to know your history.” I was young, and I wasn’t sure if she meant “know your history” or “know the history of your people.” I think it was a little bit of both. I started reading and reading, and then I just started loving to read. So my journey towards history started with that conversation with Dr. Trask.
How did that conversation lead to your doctorate work in Educational Theory?
When I was teaching at Roosevelt High School, I became interested in researching the history of Hawai‘i through colonization and how it affected native Hawaiian boys. I wanted to see how history shaped their ideas about manhood and masculinity. Being a part of that population, I found the work to be fascinating, and I became much more aware of marginalization along racial and gender lines.
As the creator of the Academy’s Gender Studies course and a teacher of Ethnic Studies, what do you want your students to walk away with?
Courageous conversations. I want them to know that it’s okay to agree to disagree. You don’t have to take things so personally. We can have discussions, then examine and take apart the ideas that come out of them. We can disagree, and still hang out. I think that’s the beauty of social studies.
What have you learned from your students along the way?
I’ve learned that they don’t forget their teacher. I’ve learned that the impact a teacher can make is far greater than I thought. That love you have for them and that love they have for you – rewarding isn’t even the word. It is life-changing.
By Karisse Hayashi ’93 Sakahara
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