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Talk Story with Dr. Tehani Corcoran | A Mini-Case Study in Leadership

Updated: Feb 13

With Poʻo Kumu Tehani Corcoran



Setting the Context

With the introduction of Kumu Competencies, Kaʻaikuahiwi courses, campus redesign efforts, and various Alaukawai opportunities, our Kula is buzzing with activity. We hear things such as haumāna agency, personalized learning, and competency-based learning in tandem with our ʻŌiwi Edge Learning & Teaching Expectations (ʻŌEL&T Expectations). How do these initiatives become a part of our campus moʻokūʻauhau where we accelerate ʻŌiwi Edge to be more than an identity, more than a campus pedagogy? Who are the alakaʻi that steward these efforts?  


Dr. Heather Tehani Corcoran, Poʻo Kumu of Kula Waena, graciously accepted my invitation to participate in a talk story session for several reasons:

  • Offer her perspectives about campus and division initiatives

  • Share her professional and personal journey to Poʻo Kumu of Kula Waena

  • Provide insights into many E Ulu Vol. 3 authors’ projects


After spending over an hour in conversation with Dr. Corcoran, a compelling moʻolelo of leadership style emerged. Using a grounded theory approach, the following questions were not developed a priori but rather surfaced because of our discussion. These questions frame the information gleaned from our conversation. 


What are the conditions that allow for agency and personalization in Kumu classrooms; divisions; content areas; or environments? 
What does leadership look like in our Kula? 
How do Poʻo Kumu facilitate successful teaching and learning by Kumu and haumāna? 


Analyses and Format

To truly mobilize her ʻike and manaʻo, a typical Q&A write up would not do her justice. Neither would a summarized transcript or a formal narrative. Borrowed from the work of Anfara, Brown & Mangione (2002), an analysis of 35 pages of conversation brought “meaning, structure and order” (p. 4) to the data. In other words, because talk story format tends to be lengthy, mixing past with present, personal with professional, and casual with formal, transcriptions often result in a mound of text. The following characteristics emerged from our conversation and are further described with quotes, summaries and morsels of wisdom serving as evidence to support each leadership quality.



Trust – Provides Agency – Personalizes Opportunities – Removes Barriers – Leads from Behind

Pilina is the most important thing. Even when I started teaching Master’s degree classes in leadership, that was my emphasis for teacher learners. We would start every single class with a pilina building activity. I also carried that into school.


“If you don’t like the people you work with, you’re not gonna work hard. You’re not gonna collaborate. You’re not going to want to put in that extra time. If you enjoy school and you enjoy being with your colleagues because they’ve become your friends, then you’re always gonna push the extra mile.”


I think our biggest learning from the sixth grade pilot has been that we don’t have to be restrained by our old traditions of time… so that students are no longer turning in eight different projects to eight different teachers, they’re turning in one, or they’re performing one hōʻike that demonstrates their learning across a variety of content areas.


“I know it’s not the monetary perks that draw Kumu in. I know that they’re doing the work because they love children. And so that causes me to trust in them implicitly.”


… there’s transfer or through lines between content and so even though they’re different task forces and different areas of emphasis, eventually I see them all becoming one, perhaps looping or multi-age groups…one group may be driven by arts, another by Math…


“We rolled out the ʻŌEL&T Expectations document, to you know, live and breathe it. And we knew that a lot of teachers needed some kind of model to look at, so that it would be re-creatable in their classrooms.”


We wanted to spread the idea that if you have true connection to a place and true relevance to the work that you’re applying, you will grow by leaps and bounds in your scores. That’s a natural by-product. We wanted to show Kumu what was possible.


We started to differentiate the PD opportunities. Whenever we had a teacher in-service day, we would survey about needs in relation to the ʻŌEL&T Expectations and then we would plan our PD to meet whatever those needs were. We had a lot of variations of in-service, both on- and off-campus and Kumu got to pick from different sessions.

I have a lot of innovative teachers here. I do not think I am an innovative person, but I do feel it is my role to remove the barriers for those people who want to take risks for the benefit of haumāna.


“If someone is willing to go that extra mile, then I am going to move all of the boulders off the path so they can walk that mile.”


Our current task force is looking at how we play with time for kauhale learning, incorporating the ideas of pilina, multi-age learning, and time, or rather eliminating time restraints. We would really be morphing the concept of looping into what meets our needs.



Ethical – Collaborative – Empathetic – Evidence-based – Distributed Leadership

When I became the interim principal, we started with a survey. I asked teachers about the traditions that needed to stay and what could/needed to come off their plates.


“My doorʻs always open, because I want to hear everything that my teachers think are good or bad. So I constantly ask for feedback, using plus deltas, every single meeting. I want to know what can we change? How can we improve? What do you like and what should we never change?”


I’m not alone in creating the conditions for Kumu to actively engage in all of the professional development opportunities we are blessed with here. Alaukawai is set up in such an inspirational way that Kumu are recruited by word of mouth to do the extra work.


“I just move out of the way.”


If they come to me with constraints though, I am always here to work through those with them. I want to make sure that kumu are able to take full advantage of the opportunities available to them through the grace of our school.


I love that the coursework has provided common vocabulary for common understandings. It builds the foundation, so everybody sees what we are all working toward.


Maybe I would like for things to move faster, but I can picture myself in the classroom and know that I would be going at the same pace.


Negative feedback is not personal or truly negative because the difference in opinion is still for the benefit of kids.


“… for every initiative that we undertake, I ask myself if this is the school that I would choose for my children? What do we do to make it a school of choice?”


We are in a process of redesigning our parent engagement and disciplinary program, for which Hope Poʻo Kumu, Kaleo Kaleohano, takes primary responsibility. Like his name, he loves to talk with people, and this is a strength of his.


We are redesigning our parent night so that we’re not always inviting them here, but we go out to Kaʻū, we go out to Waimea to have parent nights with our folks in their communities. Instead of always getting parents to campus, how do we take campus to them? The same way we want to bring kai to kula. Now, how do we take campus to community?



Creates a Safe Environment – Allows for Risk-Taking – Enduring Vision and Practices – Humility


“I never dreamt that there would be a campus on my birth island, so when I came home and there was a campus here, I was excited to apply.”


It was an idea that Kāhea shared very early in creating Alaukawai. What she said at the time was that she wanted to build something that would transcend her time as Poʻo Kula. It sparked my thinking about creating a school climate that would last beyond my tenure. Creating conditions for teachers to be able to take risks, develop their own practices and programs, because it is not me who will carry it forward. 


“It’s been my focus to allow grassroot ideas to take hold in the soil and grow.”


It is our Kumu and later our haumāna who carry it on.



In my former job, I worked with over 300 schools seeking school improvement. What I saw every single time we visited a school was that the most critical component for success was the school culture. If the climate and culture of the school was not good, they were never going to move, no matter how many strategies they employed. It all came down to the culture of the school.


“The more opportunity you give to teachers, the more inspired they will be to take risks, to try new things.”


Another challenge for teachers is always time. Having sufficient time to talk shop. If we are asking them to be in collaborative, interdisciplinary spaces, we have to build in time to talk pedagogy, match up content and skills that can cross curriculum, that can cross classroom walls. For our division redesign, the focus has been teaming and time. Teachers do not have to write lesson plans on pilot days and can work with each other at a deeper level.


“Releasing control is a challenge for teachers who are really good. It’s kind of freedom within fences, but I think the fences need to be far larger before I would call it a success.”


Really focus on skills that are important to the lāhui and not just skills that are important to English or Math class. They started to play with the concept of, what if I had my haumāna for more than one year?


I think our faculty is so diverse in their teaching styles and in their processing of information. In the way they plan and move forward. But the through line in the faculty is that they love our population. So even when there are differences of opinion, it's because they want to best serve keiki through their different perspectives.



Grace | End Note

What began as a talk story session to document division redesign activities at Kula Waena, ended up being a lesson in leadership. I am humbled to have spent time getting to know Dr. Corcoran and feel inspired by her style of leadership. She spoke freely and openly about life experiences that brought her to our campus and eventually leading Kula Waena. In keeping with identifying characteristics of leadership, a final indicator that consummates Dr. Corcoran’s approach is grace, as evidenced by the above.






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