Jodie Chiemi Ching
Jan Iwase’s memoir “Leading with Aloha: From the Pineapple Fields to the Principal’s Office” came into my hands at the perfect time. With just two months of editorship at The Hawai‘i Herald under my belt, I still feel like I am learning to walk. Nostalgic, comforting and practical, “Leading with Aloha” was like receiving advice from a favorite teacher.
Iwase retired as a principal in 2018 after working as an educator for 45 years. In her book, she shares her journey of ups and downs with one message resonating throughout: Lead with aloha.
The second eldest in a family of five children, Iwase grew up with her family in Whitmore Village in Wahiawä. As early as her kindergarten year at Helemano School, she knew she wanted to teach.
In the first grade, Iwase learned about stress. When it came to handwriting, she remembers, “The grade on my report card reflected my poor fine-motor coordination, and it was suggested that I needed to practice more at home. I couldn’t go out to play until I practiced a page of letters and numbers or words.
“I remember how I hated being inside and often cried because when I tried to erase a letter or number, the thin newsprint paper would tear. Eventually, my fine-motor coordination caught up with my peers, and my handwriting grade improved, but I will never forget the stress I felt at that time. Later, when I became a teacher and a parent, I remembered how I felt, and it helped me to be understanding of those who just needed a little more time to develop, whatever the skill deficit.”
Like many others who grew up in Wahiawä, Iwase acquired her work ethic through a job in pineapple harvesting as a teenager, after the school year was out. “It was a rite of passage,” she wrote. “It was exhausting, but working in the pineapple fields for five summers taught me many lessons, especially about teamwork, resilience, perseverance, the value of hard work and the importance of continuing my education if I wanted choices in life.” Iwase wrote of these memories as valuable experiences that would later make her into an effective parent and educator.
In 1973, Iwase graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa with a bachelor’s degree in education, just when the Hawaii State Teachers Association went on strike. Although it was not the best time to look for a teaching job, she was able to secure one with Head Start, a program created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
In her decades working as a DOE educator, Iwase learned what it meant to “lead with aloha”: one must advocate for students, be open to new ideas, work as a team, know that everyone has strengths, coach and continue to learn. Each of these suggestions are chapters that end in bulleted lists of behaviors and actions reflecting leadership and aloha. Everything begins, however, with a leader’s values.
“Working with economically disadvantaged preschool students validated my core educational beliefs about equity, learning through play, collaborating as a team, the importance of parent involvement and engagement and early interventions,” wrote Iwase. Through projects and extracurricular activities, her students learned important academic and non-academic skills such as empathy for others and caring for our community.
“By the time I became a principal, my core values and beliefs were strongly embedded in who I was as a person, as an educator and as a leader,” she reflected. “More than that, though, I got to see the results firsthand, when these students who were considered at-risk, had quality educational services that address the whole child. Head Start provided health services, free meals, social services and parent education in addition to treating the needs of every child to prepare them to be successful in kindergarten.”
Iwase summarized that she loved being a teacher, seeing every day as a new adventure. “We were a family, helping each other grow and develop to our fullest potential,” she said.”
As an editor, reading this made me reflect on myself and my team. Put together, the Herald staff — made of unique individuals with different strengths — has compassion, wisdom, grit and respect. As a community publication, we support the Japanese Americans of Hawai‘i by providing them important information and services, because we care for our community.
The second part of Iwase’s book especially made me reflect on my journey; I realized that my own core values evolved so I have developed into the kind of editor, leader, mentor and team member I want to be, just as they did for the educator.
At the Herald, our editorial team had our first meeting, setting as our goal the streamlining of our production process. We made a few tweaks by creating deadlines and new checklists. Although there is still room for growth, I can already feel that we have made a noticeable improvement in our accuracy and efficiency. I also sense our team’s enthusiasm for wanting to improve the process even more. Expanding our style guide; re-evaluating our vision, mission and purpose; and collaborating with other organizations were some brainstorming ideas that resulted from connecting as a team. As staff leader, I want to encourage communication, because I can see how this fuels the team’s enthusiasm to contribute and strive to make our publication the best it can be, even with our resources limited by COVID-19.
Although I have read many self-help books that focused on productivity, motivation and organization, I never had the desire to be a leader. I thought it was too much pressure. I was comfortable being accountable for my work, because I had total control. I owned my failures and successes; being accountable for a team of people made me anxious. But just when I started to be comfortable writing stories as a staff writer, Karleen Chinen announced she would retire as editor and offered me an opportunity.
I faced one major fear: Could I be a good leader? I thought that meant I had to be flawless, authoritative and confident. Otherwise, I might be seen as a fraud. My personal journey has been more about sharing my vulnerabilities with others and growing from failures. I’m still learning, polishing my character and my identity. “Leading with Aloha” confirmed that even someone who rises from failure, continues to learn and encourages others to do the same can be a good leader.
Thank you, Jan, for redefining leadership, because, more than ever, during this time of the coronavirus pandemic, anti-Asian racism and the systemic racism and police brutality that have led to Black Lives Matter, our world needs everyone to lead with aloha.