University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu alum Jackie Freitas was named the 2024 Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year by the Hawai‘i State Department of Education (HIDOE) at an awards ceremony on Oct. 3 at Washington Place.
Freitas, Leilehua High School’s natural resources teacher, graduated in spring 2011 from UH West O‘ahu with a Bachelor of Education in Elementary Education. She said UH West O‘ahu’s education program helped shape her into the teacher she is today in various ways.
“I gained a lot of classroom management, differentiated instruction and was in a great cohort of teachers that I was able to work alongside to gain ideas and classroom practices from,” Freitas said.
UH West O‘ahu Education Division Chair Dr. Mary Heller said she was “absolutely thrilled to learn that our very own alum” received the state’s top teaching award.
“I and my colleagues remember her as an outstanding teacher candidate with tremendous leadership potential,” Heller said. “She has the gift of selfless ‘giving back,’ and her stellar work at Leilehua High School’s CTE (Career and Technical Education) sustainability program is a testament to that fact. Bravo Jackie!”
Dr. Paula B. Major, a full professor of Social Studies Education at UH West O‘ahu, said Freitas was an “absolute joy to teach” in her social studies methods course.
“She stood out immediately within the first few weeks,” Major said. “The energy and passion she brought to the classroom was genuine. She was zealous about incorporating the diverse cultures of her young learners into her lesson planning. Being a natural resource teacher, it is no surprise. She has always been an advocate for sustainability, thus, vocal about good agricultural practices — all social studies. Honestly, this is a natural fit for Jackie.”
Helping students reach new horizons
The Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year honor is presented annually to a classroom teacher selected from more than 13,000 HIDOE educators. Freitas received the award from Gov. Josh Green and Superintendent Keith Hayashi during the recent ceremony.
Freitas is the natural resources teacher and Future Farmers of America advisor at Leilehua High School — her alma mater and where she has taught her entire 13-year career, according to a HIDOE press release. Leilehua’s Natural Resources program runs one of the state’s largest high school agricultural farms.
Freitas was recognized for keeping up with the newest technology and techniques in natural resources so that she can not only implement them into her lessons, but also lead professional development workshops for colleagues.
She also helped to establish the school’s “Buy 1, Give 1” program where students curate a produce box to sell within the community, and helped to set up the school’s now annual fall festival, where Career and Technical Education students can celebrate their work with the community, according to the release.
“It’s clear that Jackie’s passion and innovative teaching methods allow students to reach new horizons,” Superintendent Hayashi said in the release. “She is a prime example of a teacher leader in our state — pioneering new curriculum to ensure that students are globally competitive, initiating community programs that connect student work with real-world challenges, and connecting with colleagues to support future teacher leaders. We are grateful to have teachers like Jackie, who do so much to help elevate our Hawai‘i public school system.”
Freitas was among 15 Complex Area Teachers of the Year and the Charter School Teacher of the Year recognized at the awards ceremony. One of the other finalists, Wai‘anae Elementary School teacher Donna Soriano representing the Nānākuli-Wai‘anae Complex Area, is also a UH West O‘ahu alum who graduated in fall 2014.
Freitas ‘a born teacher’
Dr. Rick Jones, a professor of Science Education at UH West O‘ahu, recalled having Freitas as a student during his first semester at UH West O‘ahu in fall 2010.
“(She) was exceptional and seemed to thrive when she engaged in the hands-on, minds-on investigations we did in class,” Jones said. “She was a joy to have as a student and it was obvious that she was a born teacher.”
Freitas noted that while teaching is a very stressful and demanding job, it is also very rewarding.
“When I was pursuing my education degree, I did not think that I would ever win an award for my ‘job,’ ” she said. “I don’t consider this a job, but rather a passion.”
Freitas offered a message to UH West O‘ahu’s current teacher candidates: “Once you are in the classroom and you are able to put everything that you have learned into action, you are able to see what does and does not work for your students.”
She continued, “Take the time to build a community within your classroom, get to know your students and what they can offer within your classroom, as well as allow students the opportunity to learn beyond your four walls of the classroom. There are many ways to incorporate instruction other than just lecturing and worksheets, but rather come up with ways to incorporate labs, hands-on instruction, or different types of technology.”
Freitas will represent Hawaiʻi in the National Teacher of the Year program. A national winner will be named in the spring.