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Hilo teacher surprised with $25K Milken award

HILO, Hawaii — A math teacher at Waiakea High School on Tuesday won a $25,000 national Milken Educator Award.

Milken Educator Awards founder Lowell Milken – alongside Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke and state Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi – surprised Rory Inouye on Tuesday morning with the announcement in front of cheering students, proud colleagues, local dignitaries and news media.

Although cheers and applause erupted in the Waiakea High gym, Inouye, a graduate of Waiakea High, said he couldn’t hear a thing over the shock he felt after hearing his name.

“I can’t really process what this means yet, but it is an honor,” Inouye said after the assembly. “I got into teaching, not for awards or recognition, but for the students, to give back to them. The students give me the pride and joy of coming to work every day, and it’s so cool to know that what you do helps them.”

Before his name was called, Inouye was completely unaware of his candidacy for the award. Recipients are sought out while early to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities afforded by the award.

After having a hard time with math in high school, Inouye decided to dive deeper into the subject and saw that there were ways to make it less scary for kids who also have a hard time understanding the subject.

By creating a safe space for students to think critically and collaboratively, Inouye has contributed to notable increases in student math proficiency on state assessments.

“I am a proud alumni, and I came back to be a math teacher because I wanted to make math a little different and help students not be afraid of math,” Inouye said in a speech to students. “I hope when you’re in my class, that is how you feel. I want to give back to you guys, and I couldn’t have done that without support from our admin, fellow teachers and my co-teacher Mr. Silva.”

Inouye and his co-teacher, Cliff Silva, have spent 10 years at Waiakea High School making their classroom into an interactive hub for all students, where they tailors lessons to students’ diverse learning backgrounds, levels, styles and talents.

“There are different ways of learning math, and one of those is finding connections and understanding how it’s used in everyday life,” Inouye said. “We do concept building, then build on the skills to tie back to the concepts. Our class is about the bigger picture, so students are more comfortable using math later down the line.”

Inouye is the first Milken Educator Award recipient from the Big Island since 2007 and the second and final Hawaii honoree for the 2023-24 season. Jade Pham, student services coordinator at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School in Honolulu, received the award Monday.

In 1987, Milken created the Milken Educator Awards to give outstanding teachers the public recognition they deserve for their important work — ensuring a bright future for every student.

“The most important thing for us is to see the reaction of students, and they were very enthusiastic. It was great,” Milken said. “The individuals we award are strong instructional leaders. They make a difference in student learning, they are good mentors to other teachers, and for Hawaii, they are particularly invested in their communities in so many ways.”

As part of their “Journey to the 3,000th Milken Educator,” the Milken Family Foundation is giving up to 75 recipients across the country a $25,000 award through 2024.

Each recipient can spend the money however they choose, but Inouye was waiting to talk to his wife before making any decisions.

“I will have to check with my wife, since she takes care of our finances,” Inouye said. “We are planning a trip to go on, so this will definitely help, but we won’t be spending all of it on a trip.”

By the end of this year, the foundation will reach $75 million in individual financial prizes spanning the length of the initiative, with more than $144 million invested in the Milken Educator Award national network overall.

The initiative not only aims to reward great teachers, but also to “celebrate, elevate and activate” those innovators who are guiding America’s next generation of leaders and educators.

“I was a student in this gym, I sat in those bleachers, and now I’m standing here as a Milken award winner. It’s amazing,” Inouye said. “Hopefully one day, one of these students can be the teacher that inspires the next generation of kids.”

As a new Milken Educator, Inouye will not be stopping or slowing down, but plans to continually improve his teaching methods.

“Being an educator day-to-day has it’s ups and downs, but in the big picture after being an educator for many years, you see students become contributing members of the community,” Inouye said. “That’s the ultimate feeling — seeing a former student do something in the community to make it better.”

More information on the Milken Educator Awards and this year’s recipients can be found at


Reporter Kelsey Walling can be reached at
Source: The Garden Island

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