WASHINGTON — Whitney Aragaki says she doesn’t remember wanting to be a teacher when she was growing up. Now, she’s Hawaii’s 2022 Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the title of National Teacher of the Year.

“I am just so grateful,” said Aragaki of being honored during a trip to the White House on Wednesday, where President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recognized every state’s top teacher, as selected by the Council of Chief State School Officers. 

“You do this work because it’s a part of who you are, because you have a calling,” Jill Biden told the honorees. “We need more teachers!”

“I can’t promise that it will be a simple job, but I can promise that it will fill your life with meaning, purpose and joy,” she continued.

Biden is an educator herself, with more than 30 years of experience, as the president pointed out. “Jill is the nation’s first first lady to work full time as a teacher. She taught high school and taught at a community college for a long time. When we got elected to the presidency, I suggested, and she agreed fully that she should continue to teach,” said President Joe Biden. “I’m very, very supportive of teachers.”

Aragaki, 35, is the mother of two children and told Spectrum News that a family member played an important role in her journey to Washington.

“On the award level, I definitely bring my mother with me. She was a teacher for over 30 years,” Aragaki said. “I teach at the same high school she taught at.”

Aragaki said her mother, who is now retired, encouraged her to pursue teaching.

“I just followed in her footsteps. I watched her work weekends and nights with her students as they prepared science fair projects. Since becoming a teacher, I’ve always wanted to stay a teacher. I find power in the classroom, I find energy in my students, and I find solace in my colleagues,” Aragaki recalled.

“I thought, ‘Well, I can’t do that,’ but she told me, ‘Yes, you can, and you will do it better.’”

A graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Aragaki came back to Hawaii to teach and has remained at the same school for the last 12 years.

“Since becoming a teacher, I’ve always wanted to stay a teacher. I find power in the classroom. I find energy in my students, and I find solace in my colleagues,” Aragaki said.

A science teacher at Waiakea High School in Hawaii, working with students in grades 9 to 12, Aragaki says that teaching in Hawaii provides her with a unique opportunity.

“The ability to be so close in proximity to forests, to the ocean, to the mountains and our Moana. We are shaped by our places, and Hawaiian culture,” said Aragaki.

Her background also brings something special to the table. A 2020 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 80% of K-12 teachers are white. 

“I’m just one of the 2% of Asian American Pacific Islander teachers in the entire nation. It’s humbling to be recognized on a national stage, while also carrying my communities from Hawaii, as well as the entire AAPI teacher cadre,” Aragaki said.

The Council of Chief State School Officers awarded teacher of the year honors to one educator in each state, in each of five U.S. territories, and in the District of Columbia. From those 56 winners, three were selected as finalists, including Aragaki, and Kurt Russell of Ohio was named the National Teacher of the Year. Each of the winners received a paid trip to Washington to attend the White House event. 

This year, Teacher Appreciation Week is being celebrated from May 2 through May 6.

Angi Gonzalez is a political reporter based in Washington D.C. for Spectrum News.