In Good Company: Shanel Nishimura

Paying it Forward with Love

Fifth grade Humanities teacher Shanel Nishimura always knew she wanted to be in academia. She wanted to help students learn, nurture their growth and have a positive impact on young lives – just like her sixth grade teacher at Kīpapa Elementary. This year, the Mililani native is wrapping up her 20th year of teaching. We spoke with her about her passion for education, her unexpected journey to Punahou School, and the nickname that sums up exactly what she and her students mean to each other. 

How did you know you always wanted to be a teacher?

In sixth grade, I had a very influential teacher. She really cared about us. There were things she was going to teach us, but she would throw that out in a second if there was a teachable moment. It was the connection she had with us beyond the classroom. I actually don’t remember the content we learned, but I do remember how she made me and my classmates feel. 

You started your teaching career at your old elementary school and stayed there for about 16 years. What brought you to Punahou?

The honest truth is I never imagined myself here … ever. I was comfortable and happy. At the time, my son was very active in Diamond Head Theater, but he didn’t want anyone at his old school to know about that part of his life. I couldn’t tell his teachers. I couldn’t tell anybody, and it kind of broke my heart. When he started tap dancing here at Punahou, he suddenly felt a sense of community. He actually asked my husband and me to apply and, when he got in, we just did whatever we could to make it work. I saw him flourishing and being proud of who he was, and I wanted to be a part of that, too.

Throughout your career, you’ve taught third, fourth, and fifth grade. What is it about fifth grade that makes it your happy place?

Fifth graders are budding little humans who are just figuring out who they are. They’re really starting to understand that they’re individuals who get to make choices. They’re starting to learn more about the world around them and you can start taking things a little deeper. I love taking them to that next level.

Turning the table, what have you learned from your students over the years?

I learn something from them every day, but one thing is that all kids, no matter what school they are at, are just kids, and they want to be loved and acknowledged. They’ve also taught me to laugh and not take things too seriously because they, too, will love us through our mistakes.

After all these years, what keeps you teaching? 

When I walk through my classroom door, I’m excited. Each year, I get to reinvent things, and I love being able to connect with new students and their families. I just really do love teaching.

What is your secret to building connections with your students?

I tell them stories about my own children, Seanalei ’23 and Shane ’25, all the time. I think it makes my students realize that I am a parent, too. I call them my cubs and they call me “Mama Bear.” It’s like I’m their mama at school. I think they see my connection with my own children and then realize that I have the same love for them, too.

By Karisse Hayashi ’93 Sakahara

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