Father figure made difference for Maui Teacher of the Year

As a youngster growing up without a father, Maui’s District Teacher of the Year looked up to the only male role model he knew: his 4th-grade teacher.

“He just inspired me. For the first time, I saw a male (as a) positive role model. I could see myself becoming someone like him. It stuck in my head when I grew old,” said Anthony Kamaka’eu Williams, a Hawaiian language immersion teacher at Paia Elementary School.

Williams said that teacher Ronald Kato, whom he lost touch with, was the first male figure in a role of authority that he was able to learn from and look up to.

“Just looking at that, ‘Like wow, that is someone I should strive to be,’ ” Williams recalls of his memories when attending Lunalilo Elementary on Oahu.

Kato would never fade from Williams’ memory and now, perhaps, Williams is also a “Mr. Kato” for his 4th-grade students in Paia.

For Williams’ efforts, he was named the 2014 Maui School District Teacher of the Year.

Along with the other Hawaii state district teachers and the Hawaii state teacher of the year, he was honored Monday at the state Legislature.

The 45-year-old Kihei resident said he is “very humbled; very happy,” about his district honor.

“I’m proud to represent Maui teachers,” he added, noting all of the teachers work hard, but he was fortunate to be selected for the award.

New Paia School Principal Kehau Luuwai said via email: “I am very proud of Kamaka’eu and his dedicated service as a Hawaiian language immersion teacher. He is remarkable in bridging Hawaiian culture and language together not only in the classroom but also as a kumu hula.”

Luuwai’s daughter danced the hula under Williams, who has a hula halau based at Paia School.

Williams grew up in Waikiki with his mother and two older sisters.

Williams said his father left the family when Williams was a toddler. He also said in the award application that his father was in financial trouble and decided he could not care for the family.

Williams went on to graduate from McKinley High School on Oahu in 1986.

From the time Williams met Mr. Kato, he had wanted to become a teacher.

But he stumbled upon becoming a Hawaiian immersion teacher because he said that in order to enter the College of Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, one must take some kind of Hawaiian class. That could include Hawaiian history, hula or Hawaiian language.

Williams took a basic Hawaiian language class, and that launched him into his specialization.

“It kind of sparked an interest in me,”?he said. “I picked it up really fast.”

Around 17 years ago, Williams said the state was desperately seeking Hawaiian immersion teachers and that the College of Education offered to pick up his tuition if he chose to become an immersion teacher.

So that pushed him even more into his career that now has lasted 17 years.

Williams has taught at Waiau Elementary School on Oahu, King Kekaulike High School, Princess Nahienaena Elementary, and two stints at Paia Elementary, the latest begun in 2008. In the Hawaiian language program, all of the lessons, including science and math, are taught in Hawaiian.

Williams said there are benefits besides learning to speak Hawaiian fluently when a child is enrolled in the immersion program. The children not only learn Hawaiian culture but also learn the Hawaiian value system, he said.

And students’ brains get a boost.

“When you are learning two different languages (Hawaiian and English), you are using different parts of your brain,” he said.

He added that being bilingual improves a person’s overall point of view and “intellectually you become a stronger person.”

Williams, too, uses his intellect to improve his teaching skills. In his application for his award, he described using a game called “Homeworkopoly” based on the game Monopoly, where students qualify to play the game when they come to school prepared with their homework and other requirements.

In turn, the students get to play the game and can win prizes such as a group movie night sponsored by Williams.

“When I first started teaching, I would get upset when my students did not come to school prepared,” he said. “Ever since I began using the Homeworkopoly game as an incentive, I don’t have to get upset because the consequence for not being prepared is not being able to play the game,” he said.

In addition, Williams has developed a math workbook – all in Hawaiian – for the entire 3rd-grade school year that complies with education standards.

Williams is a mentor to student teachers and has participated in the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Hawaiian immersion teacher development program, “Kahuawaiola,” in which he has served as a mentor teacher five times.

He also has served as a mentor for a student teacher at UH-Manoa.

Williams founded and co-directs Ka Pa Hula o ka Ulu Koa, a hula halau based at Paia School that aims to address the extracurricular needs of Hawaiian immersion students.

Among his accolades, Williams in 2012 was named Hawaiian Immersion Teacher of the Year for Maui by Na Leo Kako’o o Maui, a nonprofit organization made up of parents in the Hawaiian immersion program on Maui.

The award was given based on student essays.

Williams and his wife, Janine, have two children, 6-year-old Hulali and 2-year-old Kahaka’iwa.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at