UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizen: Michele Ebersole, changing K-12 education with aloha

Embedded within all the work of Professor of Education Michele Ebersole—administrative, teaching, research, community outreach—is the professor’s personal and profound infusion of aloha: love, compassion, and kindness.

By Susan Enright.
This post is part of a series on Quintessential University Citizens at UH Hilo. The honorees were chosen by members of the Chancellor’s Executive Council and others during the first months after Chancellor Bonnie Irwin’s arrival at the university in July 2019.

Michele Ebersole, professor of education at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, believes educating the island’s K-12 schoolchildren is a collective effort. While the primary work of the university’s School of Education, where Ebersole teaches, is to produce quality teachers for the community, the school does not limit that mission to their own classrooms.

“Community outreach and partnerships are an important part of the work that we do in the School of Education,” says Ebersole. “I believe that it is reciprocal in nature: both our community partners and the School of Education mutually benefit from the service work.”

The motto of the school, “The Heart of Our Learning Community,” says it all. To emphasize the goal, the school’s logo is a green-leafed apple surrounded by a bright red heart. Make no mistake, the faculty of the program lead with their hearts—from their teaching to research to community outreach—it’s all about the love of teaching and learning, and in a local context, that means it’s all about generating the profoundest manifestation of aloha possible—in the university classroom, in the island’s K-12 teachers, in schoolchildren, in the community as a whole.

This vision may at first sound lofty, but this is a serious mission made clear when talking with Professor Ebersole about her work. Her passion and drive come through in her voice—and it is this extraordinary dedication to producing quality teachers for the community that has brought her recognition from the Chancellor’s Executive Council as a UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizen.

Jan Ray, professor of education who nominated Ebersole for the recognition, notes Ebersole’s kindness, patience, and helpful nature in getting things done for the school, especially in her former role as director of the school.

Diane Barrett, current director of the School of Education, writes in an email that when she first became chair, “it was a very steep learning curve and had it not been for Michele’s help and support, I wouldn’t have made it. She was always there to lend an ear and to offer advice. I greatly appreciate all of her help. I really appreciate Michele—whenever there is something that needs to get done, she is usually among the first to step up!”

The School of Education is currently in the self-study phase for their continued accreditation, and much is being discussed among the school’s leadership and faculty about what is being described as their “Innovations.” True to her collective-effort ethos, Ebersole deflects from her pivotal role in helping to develop the school’s main initiatives, which focus on the work of faculty and students in service to the school, community, and the K-12 teacher profession.

“[I] prefer to highlight others who have been instrumental in doing that work,” she says.

Among topics of discussion currently underway are expanding opportunities for student-led outreach, establishing more partnerships (for example, with local businesses such as KTA Superstores), creating a teacher recruitment pipeline from local high schools, and strengthening partnerships to support culturally-responsive teaching practices.

Although it can be hard to get Ebersole to talk about her important role in developing and launching these initiatives, it is easy to engage her in conversation about the overarching goals: to produce the island’s teachers, to honor cultural practices, and to teach graduate and undergraduate students the importance of huihui (joining together) and of bringing aloha into the classroom from pre-school to higher education.

“[We are] grounded in place-based education,” Ebersole explains. Support of this can be found in the focus on the broader educational community through practices to honor the host culture and Hawaiʻi’s cultural diversity.

Nā Hopena Aʻo

Of note is Ebersole’s work with Nā Hopena Aʻo (HĀ), a Hawaiʻi Department of Education statewide initiative to develop “the skills, behaviors and dispositions that are reminiscent of Hawaiʻi’s unique context, and to honor the qualities and values of the indigenous language and culture of Hawaiʻi.”

Ebersole is credited with seeking guidance from the DOE Office of Hawaiian Education, beginning in 2015, to cultivate a stronger sense of place through Hawaiian culture, history, and language within UH Hilo School of Education programs. As a result, OHE resource teachers provided HĀ professional development for the school’s faculty and students.

This led to integration of HĀ into the school’s master of education coursework the following year, for example engaging graduate students in culturally-based stories as a means of identity exploration within the context of Hawaiʻi. Graduate students also participated in local ʻāina-based experiences to enhance respect and understanding of place.

Ebersole also is working on a project at ʻImiloa Astronomy Center, an educational outreach center of UH Hilo that showcases connections between Hawaiian culture and astronomical research conducted at the summit of Maunakea. For the last two years, Ebersole has been working with Colby McNaughton, instructor of education, to develop collaboration between the Hawaiʻi DOE, UH faculty, and a cohort of East Hawaiʻi teachers to help the teachers develop their own culture-based science “learning modules” aligned with Next Generation Science Standards and HĀ. This work is funded through a grant from the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation.

These DOE collaborative projects have led to the School of Education becoming a HĀ test site, with the potential of becoming a model to the state for strengthening K-12 education through placed-based programs and curricula.

Group of students with lei against backdrop of Congratulations banner and the school logo of apple and heart.
The Master of Arts in Teaching Cohort II students celebrate completion of Year 1 and are ready for employment. Courtesy photo from the School of Education, UH Hilo.

Instilling aloha everywhere

Ebersole says that in her work, she most values her relationships with others. That value is easy to see in her administration, classroom, and outreach work—but it also can be found in her research.

“Research is an avenue to open understanding in students and in promoting aloha in the classroom,” she says.

Her most recent peer reviewed publications include co-authoring the following with cultural practitioner Huihui Kanahele-Mossman and retired education chair Alice Kawakami: “Culturally responsive teaching: Examining Teachers’ Understandings and Perspectives,” published in the Journal of Education and Training Studies (2016), and “Teaching through story: Using narratives in a graduate ethnicity course,” in WOW Stories (2015). In each study she contributed virtually all of the writing and a third of the research.

She also is studying and undertaking scholarly work on children’s literature. This includes, notably, data collection for the Institutional Review Board (IRB) on “Fostering Insights into Cultural Values through Children’s Books,” which she is doing with retired UH Hilo education professor Avis Masuda.

Further, Ebersole is developing a presentation with colleague Y. K. Sung on “Rethinking (Under)valued local history and cultures in diverse children’s texts: Power of a confluencia of young people’s stories,” which has been submitted for the 2020 National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention.

And in another project, Ebersole is collecting data on “Teaching Hawaiian Cultural Values and Social Emotional Learning through Children’s Books,” (2019-2020), an IRB grant project she is conducting with UH Hilo Assistant Professor Margary Martin.

Within all this work—administrative, teaching, research, outreach—is found Ebersole’s personal and profound infusion of aloha: love, compassion, and kindness. She sees great importance in cultivating this fundamental premise into the teaching community itself, in all its administrative tasks, curricula development, teaching methodology, and scholarly investigation and discovery—and she sees that role of UH Hilo’s faculty and graduates as integral to the growth of local communities—“It’s not work, it’s just a part of what we do.”

“What happens when you start with aloha?” she asks. “How do we instill this in our students?”

See more UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizens.

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

Share this story