A Nānākuli High and Intermediate School teacher and University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu graduate has received a National Milken Educators of Hawaiʻi’s annual Teacher of Promise Award. Naturalee ʻIlima Puou, known as Kumu ʻIlima to her students, was the winner for the Nānākuli-Waiʻanae Complex Area, joining six other complex-area winners and one state winner.
The award recognizes up-and-coming classroom teachers who demonstrate tremendous potential in the areas of student learning experience, teaching/learning strategies, professional and curriculum development, substantive innovation, supportive relationships, and growth and promise.
“Kumu ʻIlima upholds what the award is all about, a promising teacher who will do great things for her students, the education profession, and our community,” said Darin Pilialoha, principal at Nānākuli and fellow UH West Oʻahu alum.
Puou said she enjoys that her job is in her community and home.
“I love that when I come to work, my students recognize me and they see me. And what I mean by that is they know I’m from here,” Puou said. “They know I’m somebody who made the decision to come back to make sure that everybody else has a chance of getting to where they want to.”
Puou, 32, born and raised in Nānākuli, started her job as a ninth grade teacher of 170 students at Nānākuli in 2019.
She graduated from UH West Oʻahu in fall 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education/English. But her path to success wasn’t without its struggles.
Puou was raised by her mother, a single parent, in a low-income household. After graduating from Nānākuli in 2006, she intermittently attended Leeward Community College between 2007 and 2012.
“For a long time, it was just my mother and I, and I was the sole income in the household,” Puou said. “I would always have to drop out of school to work.”
Her mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in April 2015. Puou then applied to UH West Oʻahu and started her first semester in fall 2015 to pursue a degree in secondary education.
“It appealed to me to be able to say that I had been 100 percent West-side educated,” Puou said.
And while she’s grateful for being named a Teacher of Promise, she said the real honor comes from her students.
“When I hear my own words coming out of my students’ mouths or when I see them practicing things that I insist upon them doing, I donʻt need an award,” Puou said.
—Story by Zenaida S. Arvman