Lives dedicated to teaching
WAIMEA — Waimea Middle School is at the heart of the Waimea community, and at its center is a team of teachers dedicated to recognizing and meeting the educational needs of their students.
Two long-term team members — language arts teachers Barbara Haight and Leesa Robertson — have been with the school for almost 40 years combined. Robertson is celebrating her 20th anniversary at WMS this year and Haight joined the faculty in 1998.
Haight grew up in Hilo, and after getting a bachelor’s degree in communications from UH-Manoa she started her working career in public relations with a Honolulu firm. When she met and married her husband Ian, she moved to Hawaii Island and continued doing public relations work for Ocean Promotions.
When Haight started having children she began to think about teaching.
“I went back to UH-Hilo for secondary English and commuted to Hilo with baby Spencer. I did my student teaching at Waiakea High School,” said Haight.
But when she began at Waimea School it was a bit of trial by fire. She was placed where the biggest need was: special education.
“I got a call from Waimea School. It was still one school then. I started teaching special education for grades 3 and 4. I was certified for secondary English and started off in SPED,” said Haight.
After three years in special education, “A sixth grade position opened up and I’ve been in sixth grade ever since. It took a while to get used to this age group. I was really using everything I knew,” she said.
There have been many challenges over the years, which take resourcefulness and flexibility.
“We have five sections, plus homeroom. Every week I see 80 students. Some years, like two years ago, we had more than a 100 students. And we have to keep track of all that and be consistent with grading. I try to manage it so every student has a chance to be successful in some category or aspect. A lot of thought goes into that,” Haight said.
When she looks at a student, she sees the whole person and looks for ways to foster the well-being necessary for learning.
“I took a couple of courses in mindfulness training and have been using it with my students. Mindful listening, mindful breathing, mindful eating means to be aware of your thinking and then make a decision about what to do instead of just reacting to everything. The kids are benefiting from it and the class is so calm. I love it,” Haight said.
To create the conditions for growth in her students, she creates those conditions for herself.
“Really dealing with the toughest kids and figuring out how to reach them is about figuring out how I need to change, and help them to realize that we all have to change sometimes,” said Haight.
With all the challenges of teaching, Haight wouldn’t consider doing anything else.
“I love my team. I love teaching. I love my community. It’s all the components that keep me here,” she said. “I really like this age group. Every year, you think you’ve seen it all, but every year kids do something you would have never thought of.”
Reading and writing have always been at the center of Leesa Robertson’s life. She grew up in Honolulu where she attended Kalani High School.
“We were reading ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and I had a teacher, Mr. Butterfield, who believed in me and helped me really connect with literature on a deeper level. He made me feel good about myself,” Robertson said.
This began her journey to the classroom.
After graduation, Robertson earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary English from UC-Santa Barbara. She returned home and for a time worked in her mom’s real estate business but there was something missing.
“I wanted to do something meaningful. I had a teacher that helped me and that’s where it started with me. I wanted to help kids experience what I experienced and I wanted to share that with the community. I wanted to share that with public school kids,” Robertson said.
She spent the next two years obtaining a secondary English teaching credential from UH-Manoa, met her husband Jay and moved to Hawaii Island.
Her first teaching assignment was the ultimate test.
“You have to take whatever they give you or they’ll put your name at the bottom of the list. They gave me Hookena, two hours away, and I’d just moved here. The kids were laying on the desks, they had boom boxes and that was English class. It was tough. It was a rite of passage,” said Robertson.
Using a reading/writing workshop model based on Nancy Atwell’s work, she enticed her students to become readers and writers.
“I had them read books they were interested in, and write on topics they were interested in. Most of them came from Milolii, such a rich culture. I encouraged them to write about their family, their traditions,” said Robertson.
The next fall, in 1997, she was offered a job teaching 8th grade English at Waimea Elementary and Middle School. In the last 20 years she has found a way to balance between her ideals and the daily realities of classroom life.
“You learn in school about how kids learn and what kids need. The reality is maybe you have a 150 kids and you have class sizes of 28. When I first started, I was spending a lot of time on the weekends just reading and giving kids feedback on their writing. Now I’ve come to a place where I can still do it but I balance it out with my responsibilities for the mandates and skills that they need,” said Robertson.
Through all the challenges and changes, she remains a dedicated educator.
“I come here every day because I want them to see the power they have as readers and writers, and to use that to help enrich their lives,” said Robertson.
But just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a dedicated team to educate a child.
“Most of us have been here a long time and we’ve all been together through many changes. We all help each other navigate through,” concluded Robertson.