Oahu social studies teacher wins HSTA Teaching Excellence Award

Ewa Makai Middle School Social Studies Teacher Cynthia Tong has been honored with the Hawaii State Teacher Association’s S.T.A.C.Y. Award for Teaching Excellence.

The award, which Tong received April 7 during HSTA’s State Convention, is given annually to a teacher for exemplary actions in the following areas: scholarship, teaching, advocacy, community and youth. Tong has taught at seven public schools during her 23-year teaching career.

“Teaching is different every single day,” Tong said. “There’s nothing I do that’s exactly the same week-to-week, day-to-day, month-to-month. And I love the challenge. The best part of my job, though, is helping other teachers and helping the students. That’s pretty much the reason I get up in the morning.”

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said, “Cynthia is a leader both inside and outside the classroom. We salute her tireless work to help students and teachers.”

Teaching runs in Tong’s family, where two of her four sisters are also teachers. Her teaching career began early in life.

“I became a teacher primarily to help the students that I started working with when I was a 5th grader. I became a tutor in fifth grade for kids who couldn’t read in first grade,” Tong said.

As a young adult, she spent several years working in insurance, but found her true calling in the classroom.

“I have taught everything from seventh grade Pacific Island history all the way up to advanced placement courses,” Tong added. “I used to be a teacher of five different advanced placement courses at one school, which means I teach college-level courses at the high school level. And that was kind of crazy, but it’s lots of fun!”

Several years ago, she won the national award as the best secondary teacher teaching History Day, a national program in which students develop a project in five different modalities.

“They can do a website, a documentary, a standard exhibit, a research essay or a live-action performance. And we have children all the way from grade 6 all the way through high school working on History Day projects that are so terrific that The History Channel purchases the documentaries, The Smithsonian takes the kids’ exhibits and puts them up in the Smithsonian. This is how tremendous the program is,” Tong said.

Tong said she has worked hard to promote equity in the classroom.

“I really believe that equity is the base for all the curriculum that I teach,” said Tong. “Even when I teach History Day, I teach it to all 150 kids. Not just honors kids, not just the smart kids. And that’s apparently very unusual. I also require it of special education students. For AP and honors, I’ve said there’s no gate keeping. If the kid is interested, fills out the forms, you’re in. I don’t care if you’re not really good at math. I’m still going to put you into a program that will make you go further than you thought you think you can go.”

Place-based curriculum is also important for Tong and her students.

“Part of History Day is actually looking at the local history. So I had lots of students who wanted to do topics on Kahoolawe, or topics about the bombings at Makena or things that have to do with sustainability. And out of that came the idea that OK, we should do place-based education, not just within History Day, but throughout the curriculum. So I have been working with the Social Studies Work Group to work on standards for that,” Tong said.

HSTA named the S.T.A.C.Y. award after the late Stacy Nishina, a teacher leader and beloved HSTA staff member.

Tong will represent the state of Hawaii at the National Education Association’s (NEA) Foundation Awards for Teacher Excellence in Washington, D. C. next February. The top five teachers will receive the Horace Mann Awards for Teaching Excellence, $10,000 and recognition at the NEA awards ceremony. The teacher winning the top honor wins a check for $25,000.