Teaching Kauai’s Teachers

A pioneer in long-distance education, Kani Blackwell introduces a program that allows aspiring teachers on Kauai to remain home while studying, and to get paid for student teaching. Proudly of Cherokee ancestry, she’s also involved in planning Kauai’s annual inter-tribal powwow

Nurturing community is one of many values shared by Hawaiian and American Indian cultures. Kani Blackwell, who is half Cherokee, instills this value into her life. She is making a beneficial impact in the community not only through her work with teachers, but also in her voluntarism with Kauai Powwow Council.

“You’ve got to do what you think is going to make a difference,” she says.

Training teachers is one way she feels she can make a difference. Blackwell’s passion for helping those who desire to teach inspired her to help launch a statewide teacher education program.

Blackwell actually is one of the pioneers of long-distance education. From 1999 to 2002, she instructed a master’s multicultural education course online for California State University-Monterey Bay students. Through that experience, she realized how many more students were provided an opportunity to attend classes and discovered alternative ways to receive an education. She brought that knowledge with her when she moved to the island 10 years ago, as she wanted to reach out to those who had a desire to be teachers on the Neighbor Islands but didn’t wish to uproot their lives to attend the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Oahu.

“I wanted to do something that would benefit Kauai,” she explains.

And that she did.

Now, local teachers have the ability to remain on-island and receive the same in-depth quality education those in Honolulu do.

While she was on the faculty of the College of Education at UH-Manoa and elementary cohort coordinator for teacher education on Kauai, Blackwell discovered that student teachers had to drop out of the program during their final semester, when they are required to serve full time in classrooms without pay. This is a struggle for many, especially those who have bills to pay and families to feed. In an attempt to help, Blackwell made her second grand gesture for aspiring local teachers in 2006 by creating a presentation to the Rotary Club of Hanalei Bay in hope of acquiring funds for teacher candidates. Her proposal was so inspiring that, in 2007, the club developed the nonprofit Growing Our Own Teachers on Kauai to perpetuate funding for student teachers.

Since her initial proposal, Blackwell has helped more than 52 local teachers receive financial assistance through the program, which helps them pay for various necessities such as tuition, books and rent. Growing Our Own Teachers has been such a success here that the project has since launched on Maui and Hawaii Island.

“This is so amazing to me to see the results of what we’re doing,” says Blackwell. “Things are starting to happen.”

Currently there are 13 students enrolled in the program, and Blackwell is positive that it will continue to grow, allowing more residents to pursue their passion and remain on-island. Most graduates are still teaching on Kauai.

“You have to be committed to Kauai,” says Blackwell, citing one of the requirements for those who enter the long-distance teacher education program, which also requires a once-a-month weekend trip to UH-Manoa to attend classes.

Blackwell has been ardent about education for many decades and has been a teacher for 47 years.

“Once you’re a teacher, you affect a lot of people,” says the University of Maryland graduate, who holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology.

She also impacts many people in her leadership role with Kauai Powwow Council. The Kentucky native serves as president of the organization, which shares the traditions of Native Americans with the community. Each year, the group, which was established in 1997, holds a traditional powwow in celebration of its culture.

Blackwell did not adopt her Native American roots until her late 30s. She never knew her Cherokee father, and her mother, who was Irish, died when she was only 6 years old. Blackwell grew up in an orphanage, and even though she did not know her ancestry, she always knew she was different and was often referred to as “half-breed.”

“After working with the Cherokee Nation, I do know that I have Cherokee heart and I was put here to help not only education but Native Americans,” she says.

Blackwell also has embraced Kauai, which she first fell in love with in the first 10 minutes of stepping foot on the island with husband Paul. She and Paul have two adult children, Conan and Trent, and made several other trips to Kauai before making the move.

“Every time I left I cried and cried, and so my husband got tired of that,” she says in explanation of why they packed up their bags and moved here from California.

Blackwell, who also is an ordained minister and conducts wedding ceremonies and Native American blessings, says she finally has found a place she can call home, and she continues to adopt the Hawaiian culture through activities including hula and creating ribbon lei.

She is grateful to be of service to the community and is humbly thankful for the group effort it has taken to make Growing Our Own Teachers on Kauai possible.

“When you come with your passion, you go with your heart,” she says.

Visit growkauaiteachers.org for more information.