Hilo social studies teacher Aaron Kubo recently began serving as the Hawaii State Teacher Association’s NEA director, the union’s representative to the National Education Association. He brings a wide variety of experience in education, ethnic diversity and labor relations to this position.
Kubo grew up in Hilo on Hawaii Island and attended Waiakea elementary, intermediate and high schools. He is the son and nephew of educators who influenced him from a young age.
“My mom was an elementary school teacher and my uncle and aunties were educators,” Kubo said. “My mom taught Japanese students English during school breaks, and my sister and I interacted with the students. By conversing with them, we were unknowingly teaching them.”
Kubo admits that he never wanted to be a teacher growing up. However, his time spent with middle and high school students from Japan formed his decision to pursue education.
His sister, Andrea Kubo Nakasone, was also drawn to education. She teaches first grade at Mililani Waena Elementary on Oahu.
Kubo attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa, majoring in political science and minoring in biology, also earning a certificate in Japanese. During his junior year, he studied abroad in Kobe, Japan at Konan University, completing a homestay for one year before eventually teaching in Japan for three years through the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Program. He also spent time teaching abroad in South Korea and Hong Kong.
“Being in different countries forces you to look at your perspectives and positions on a lot of things,” Kubo said. “All of my experiences are funneled through my teaching. That’s why I’m more patient with my EL [English language] students because I understand. I’m pushing them to remember their culture and language and not to forget it, but to embrace it.”
Kubo returned to the United States to earn his master’s degree in education from the University of Southern California. After graduate school, Kubo moved back to Hawaii and took several positions as a substitute teacher before stepping into his current role as a social studies teacher at Hilo Intermediate.
When Kubo was a substitute teacher, he longed for a tenured position with the pay and benefits union members enjoyed during a time of scarce social studies positions.
“I took over certain part-time social studies lines for schools like Hilo High School, but I was only considered a substitute teacher, even if I taught the whole year,” Kubo said. “I had my license in social studies, and I wasn’t getting credit for it, which is why I got into the union.”
Kubo eventually achieved a social studies teaching position and started on his journey of becoming active within the HSTA, first starting as a faculty representative and APC (Association Policy Committee) member, then head faculty representative, a position which he still holds today. He became involved at the chapter level, serving as negotiations co-chair for six years, and Hilo Chapter vice president and Hilo’s Institute chair for two years.
Connecting with the National Education Association
Kubo connected with the NEA after taking some of its professional development classes and began paying close attention to what the national union did.
“This was a way us local members could see how the NEA was helping everyday Hawaii members because we were able to take a class and get three credits to help us reclassify,” Kubo said, referring to the process of moving up on the salary scale.
Kubo became an English language learner trainer for the NEA and traveled to Chicago and Austin, Texas to help revamp some of the English learner modules, which are now online modules. He also joined the NEA’s Asian & Pacific Islander Caucus (APIC) to help end discrimination and champion improvements for members of the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. He serves as the Hawaii regional director of the APIC.
“We’re fighting to end oppression, prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and racism, and we have to work together to end these things systemically and institutionally,” Kubo said. “We need to put in an effort outside of the classroom in our communities, because if everyone is better, our school system will become better. Addressing funding and how we’re attacking and fixing problems is important, but it’s not all about money. It’s about the mindset and addressing the systemic issues as educators.”
Kubo campaigned in his Hilo Chapter and interacted with RAs across the state to help him achieve his position as NEA director. In his new role, Kubo’s goals include bringing more NEA visibility to HSTA members, uncovering issues and areas where HSTA members need help from the NEA, bridging together the national and state unions, and finding meaningful ways to engage with members.
“By refining our members’ goals, we can bring beneficial services, information and training opportunities to membership,” Kubo said. “We can fill in the gaps for what members want and need. Also, we want to share information coming from our national union that shapes our positions here in Hawaii.”
Critical to the success of the NEA and HSTA is knowing our members by listening to representatives, working with school-level leaders and aligning their priorities to drive change, he said.
“We are only as strong as our membership, and if we collectively want and believe in things, that brings power,” Kubo said. “If we see inequities, we should actually try to address them to make life better for everybody.”
At the school level, many teachers are interested in the union, but may not know how to get involved. Kubo advises they consider becoming a faculty representative and begin voting on the decisions being made.
“For those interested in the contract and fixing school-level issues, consider getting into the APC and meeting with the school’s administration and principal to address them,” Kubo said.
Kubo believes that when the HSTA fights for what’s best for our educators, that it’s also what’s best for our students. He said, “If we are fighting for better working conditions, then that will create better learning conditions for students. The union is there to support educators and fight for our students, and in theory, our communities. Our students are part of the community. We don’t differentiate.”