Ohana is the Hawaiian word for “family,” with a meaning that is both simple and complex. Ohana includes the people to whom you’re related, as well as the larger group of folks outside your bloodline who support and sustain you, to whom you feel indebted and responsible. I once read ohana described this way: “Those who are family, and those you choose to call your family.”
As we begin a new school year, I often think about ohana and the way one clever teacher used the meaning of the word to create a classroom space that was nurturing and rigorous, one that said, loudly and clearly, “You are loved and capable, and we have high expectations for you.”
Here’s the backstory. A few years ago, my husband had an opportunity to teach at a school in Honolulu. Without too much hesitation, we took it, moving the whole family from Minneapolis to Oahu for a year. One evening, early in the school year, our seventh-grade daughter, Lindsay, was doing homework when she asked, “Do you have a picture of Grandpa?”
“I think so,” I said, opening the photo file on my laptop. “Why?”
“I just need it,” was her exasperated tweeny response.
A few nights later, we were attending back-to-school night at the middle school. Our schedule for the event told us that we would rotate among classrooms for short curriculum presentations by each teacher, ending with Ms. Wong in social studies. I was especially excited to meet Ms. Wong because while peeking at Lindsay’s screen one day after school, I’d noticed she was watching my favorite TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story,” an assignment for social studies. Suffice it to say, Ms. Wong already had me in the palm of her hand when I entered her classroom. But nothing prepared me for what I saw as I took a seat.
My father was staring down at me from the upper left corner of the classroom wall at the front of the room. It was a favorite picture of mine, one I’d looked at often after he’d passed away the year before; he’s wearing a favorite red T-shirt, beaming at then two-year-old Lindsay. I’d just seen the photo, actually, because it was the one I had sent Lindsay when she’d asked for one earlier in the week.
As I struggled to make sense of why this photo of my dad was hanging in Lindsay’s social studies classroom, my eyes refocused and I noticed that his picture was one of a collage of photos.
“Welcome, everyone,” came Ms. Wong’s cheerful voice. “Thank you all for coming tonight. I’m going to start by telling you about our photo collage, because I notice it has already caught the attention of many of you.”
Kupuna, Ms. Wong explained for the non-native Hawaiians in the room (read: my husband and me), is a Hawaiian word that means “elder,” and it can refer to a grandparent or simply an older person. In Hawaii, a sense of place and respect for elders are two bedrocks of the culture. With these values in mind, Ms. Wong had asked each of her seventh graders to bring in a photo of a special kupuna, and after she gathered everyone’s pictures, she filled the upper corner of the front wall with the photo collage we were all now admiring.
“I create this ohana corner every year,” Ms. Wong said, “to help my students remember that they have many people watching out for them, people who care about them, who expect good things. Keeping a focus on our kupuna has a big impact. For most kids, the collage is the first thing they look at when they come in the room.”
She also confessed that the ohana collage was a powerful classroom management tool. “If one of my seventh graders is having a bad moment, I’ll connect eyes with her, point toward her kupuna, nod, and then move on. There’s a calming effect right away, seeing your elder there in the room, keeping you on track.”
Ohana with Adults
This past year, I tried the idea with the early-career teachers in my care, a group that is especially primed for initiatives designed to bring calm and perspective into a learning space.
Midway through October, when the reality of teacher evaluations, grading, parent-teacher conferences, and figuring out when there’s time to eat, pee, and sleep had roughed up the idealism of all our summer planning, I asked my new-teacher group to send me photos of a special elder before our next PD session. Like Ms. Wong, I collected the photos and made a collage on a bulletin board in our work room.
The next time we gathered there, the effect was instant. Teachers clustered around the board, many touching the photos they’d submitted or putting a hand on their hearts when they recognized the face of a loved one. Everyone started talking, explaining who was in a picture, how they were connected to the person, and why the person was important.
Since leaving the regular classroom, I’ve realized that the principles I used for meaningful connection-building between families and schools translate easily to relationship-building with teachers:
- Get to know each person.
- Strive to always empathize.
- Let empathy guide efforts to create a community that supports well-being.
Ms. Wong’s ohana collage ticks all three of those boxes, especially the last one. When I posted the photos last fall, I was focused on our new teachers’ well-being, hoping that a daily dose of kupuna nearby would bring much-needed perspective to our teaching enterprise.
What also happened was a dose of attention from the wise people living right alongside us—veteran teachers whose reaction to the ohana collage was similarly heartfelt. Over the next months, I often heard our newest teachers talking with more experienced colleagues about a photo on the board; the pictures were an easy way to spark conversation and build interest in one another in a personal but nonthreatening way.
Devoting time at the beginning of a school year to building a wide circle of support for our students and our teachers is valuable work. Ms. Wong’s ohana project reminded me that the circle goes beyond the important physical presence of caring people to include the spirit of people in our wider world who are like water, flowing around us, keeping us afloat.