Aggy Kusunoki teaches 'Ōlelo Hawai'i at The Priory at St. Andrew's Schools (SAS). Mrs. Kusunoki has been teaching for 10 years and has been at The Priory through her entire teaching career. Originally from Middletown, Ohio, Mrs. Kusunoki earned her bachelor's in Anthropology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and her master's in Anthropology from the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. She is a ho'opa'a through traditional 'ūniki rights under Kumu Hula Vicky Holt Takamine of hālau Pua Ali'i 'Ilima.
How did you get into teaching? What made you want to pursue the career?
"I originally didn't want to be a teacher. I come from a long line of educators on both sides of my family. My mother taught upper elementary, primarily 4th grade, for 40 years; and my grandmother and grandfather on my father's side both taught Physics (which ironically is a class I never took). That grandmother went on to be a well-respected school principal in Buffalo, New York. My father taught physical education for a few years, and one of his brothers was also a teacher. They are all amazing educators who changed hundreds if not thousands of lives with their devotion. I saw how difficult it was to be a teacher when you are truly devoted and passionate and the time it takes away from family. Growing up, I said I would never be a teacher.
"After I graduated with my bachelor's in Anthropology, I realized that I didn't exactly have a plan for what I was going to do. I thought education would be a good option (still thinking I wasn't going to be teacher) and I applied to Xavier University. During my year there, I visited family in Hawaiʻi and toured the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UH). I cannot explain it, but something in my naʻau told me I needed to be here. I applied to the Anthropology department, was accepted and started the following year. Initially, my focus was forced culture change in China and Tibet (also my undergraduate focus), but I was fascinated with how tourism is a mechanism of culture change. My graduate focus came to be how tourist spaces came to be redefined and reclaimed as Hawaiian, looking specifically at Waikīkī. During my time at UH, I took hula with Vicky Holt Takamine and eventually asked her if I could join her hālau, which was another amazing and wonderful journey. I completed my certificate of Hawaiian language while finishing my master's in Anthropology.
"After I moved to Hawaiʻi for school, I became an active member of The Cathedral of St. Andrew. One year, I was the Hawaiian language lesson reader at the Thanksgiving service. Sandy Theunick, former head of school, was at that service (singing with me in the choir) and asked if I would be able to teach an introductory Hawaiian language class for eighth graders. I said I would give it a try, and nine years later, here I am! I truly believe there is a plan in place for each of us, even if we don't always know what that plan is. We have to trust, have faith, and know that we are right where we need to be. It is not a coincidence. It's an amazing journey and when I look back at, how did this girl from small town Ohio end up here in Hawaiʻi, teaching mea Hawaiʻi? If you had told 16-year-old Aggy that this is where I would be, I don't know what I would have thought! I am also confident Queen Emma had something to do with it!
"It turns out I truly love teaching and sharing my passions with my students and cannot image what I would be doing if I wasn't a teacher! It's hard work, but worth it. My mom also likes to tease me and remind me of when I swore I would never be a teacher."
What is your favorite part about teaching?
"Every day, I get to share the love I have for the content I teach. I have learned that if I share all the excitement, love and passion I have for a topic, the students will ultimately get excited too! And from that excitement, I can see the 'light bulb' turn on over a student's head. I tell all my students that they have light bulbs over their heads and that they cannot see it, but teachers can. When students are working through a difficult concept and they have that 'a-ha!' moment, the light bulb turns on. Those light bulb moments remind me that what I do – teaching subjects I love and nurturing my students to be good people – is important."
What do you currently teach? What have you previously taught?
"I currently teach Hawaiian Language I-V, Passport to Hawaiian, World History I, Hawaiian History, Philosophy, Independent Inquiry and Hawaiian Ethnography. I've previously taught all the courses aforementioned, as well as Controversies, Lower School Hawaiian Language at The Priory and The Prep and Art History. I've also served as the senior class advisor, Chapel coordinator and event coordinator for Queen Emma's Birthday and Ascension Day."
What is a current goal and/or project you are working on?
"I am constantly working at becoming a better educator. I want to find ways to reach all my students in ways that are creative and engaging. I also love learning more about my content areas. Learning is never finite, and I get to be a perpetual student, which is really fantastic!"
What is the best part about teaching at St. Andrew's?
"I love being able to use all my degrees and passions to teach a variety of courses. It's a rare and unique opportunity and it keeps me energized and sharp. By using my unique skill set, I have the opportunity to watch young girls grow and blossom into poised young women. I always tell my students that I can teach them topics, concepts and grammar, but ultimately I want them to be good people who go out and do good in the world. You will get much farther in this world if you are a compassionate person, with people skills and a good moral compass, and the world needs more good people."
Who or what inspires you?
"My parents, my sister, my husband and my family are all talented, passionate and brilliant. They love and support me unconditionally. My mom is still my 'tiger mom' even though I am grown and live so far away. She will always be my advocate. My son gives unconditional love and his inquisitive nature reminds me to trust others and keep that spark for learning. My kumu, Vicky Holt Takamine and Jeffrey Takamine, are wise, passionate and inspiring. The 'ike they have shared with me is precious and I am honored and humbled. They inspire and challenge me to continue to learn. I would not know nearly as much, nor had the opportunities that I have today without their kindness, generosity and love. My students inspire me and give me hope for the future. When I set goals for them and see what they can accomplish, even if they didn't know they could do it. And Queen Emma, who was a truly remarkable woman who led with perseverence, grace and passion. I hope that I can maintain just a glimmer of the same type of poise and character."
What is the best advice someone has given to you? Who was that person?
"My mother is a passionate, brilliant and creative woman who has taught me so much. She is full of life experience and advice that she learned from her mother, and my grandmother learned from her mother, and her from her mother and on and on. In recent years, I have started to fully appreciate this wisdom. A few of the important lessons that I feel have truly shaped me into the person I am today include the following:
- Be proud of your accomplishments, confident in who you are as a person, and stand up for your beliefs.
- Resist negative pressures and the influence of others. That acceptance is immediate gratification, but it won't last.
- Stand up for what you know is good and right with grace and tact. Don't tear down others in order to be right.
- Always wear a slip. It is important to present your best self and look poised and put together. A hat and red lipstick can do wonders, and never forget your slip. You never know who you may see. To this day, I cannot wear a dress or a skirt without a slip. If I do, I hear my mother's voice!
- Don't put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. Some advice I should have taken as a small child when I put a few of my mother's bedazzling beads in my ear canal in an attempt to 'wear earrings.'
- Always wear clean underpants because if you're in a car accident, you don't want to go to the hospital that way. These were actually the first words that I thought of when I got into a car accident as a teenager.
- Use your manners in all situations. People remember how you act. Saying please and thank you, writing thank you cards and setting a proper table are important life skills.
- Jesus died for your sins, you can kneel in church. I am a lifelong Episcopalian and baptized, raised, confirmed and married in the Episcopal church. Church has always been a part of my life and reminds me that it isn't always about me. With this advice I am reminded that there is something bigger out there than me, and I need to recognize and respect that.
"When I was growing up my mom was a tiger mom (and still is) and fiercely loyal to her daughters, holding us to the highest expectations in all aspects of our life, and providing us with every opportunity even if at times we resisted. I am very blessed to have such a childhood and hope to provide my family with similar opportunities. Growing up, my mother was the strongest supporter and biggest advocate for me and my sister (and she still is!). She told us that it was possible to do anything (and I mean anything) that we wanted to do in this world and to never let anyone hold us back. We had to work hard and nothing was handed to us, but she constantly reminded us (and still does!) that we are beautiful, brilliant and talented.
"Surround yourself with people who will support you. If they don't support you, then reconsider if they should be around you. She held us to high expectations (academically, morally, socially, and in appearance) that at the time seemed like a burden. She would even chase us down to apply red lipstick for various occassions – see one of the life lessons from above! Reflecting on it now, I see myself growing into her image and I hold my family and my students to the same expectations. Even though I live an ocean away, she still continues to support and advocate for me. And I must admit – I do love wearing a bright red lipstick!"
What is your wish for your students?
"I wish for my students to be good people, who are polite and kind, but also steadfast in their beliefs and passionate. I want my students to take the experiences they have had here and go into the world representing their ʻohana, Queen Emma, and their home with pride. I want them to be passionate about something. That passion will take them so far in life."
What is one interesting thing people may not know about you?
"Most of my students know this because I share it the first day of class, but I don't think everyone knows this about my background. I am not from here and was born and raised in Ohio. I am not Hawaiian. I am Italian, Irish, German, Dutch, and English. I learned Hawaiian at UH and I am an 'ōlapa and hoʻopaʻa. Kusunoki is Japanese and my husband is Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian. I know that when looking for the Hawaiian language classroom – with the name Kusunoki on the door – and seeing a haole teacher at the desk is quite the interesting puzzle to piece together!
"I am also a classically trained dancer (ballet, tap, jazz and modern) and danced throughout my childhood and into college. I know the question asked for one but here are some others – I am a trained singer and traveled to Australia and Fiji with my college choir, which was an all-girls group called the Choraliers."
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
"I love to cook! I love trying new recipes and being creative in the kitchen, as well as sticking to my old favorites. I also love spending time with my family. That really is what reenergizes me. Now that Harry is old enough to help in the kitchen, I get to connect with him through cooking. He likes to help mix and pour ingredients. I want to create memories with him that will be similar to the fond memories I have from mychildhood that revolve around cooking."
Tell us about your family.
"My husband, Brad and I will have been married for eight years this coming August and we have a son, Harry, who is 2 ½, and loving his time at Queen Emma Preschool."