Tiffany Huynh realized at a young age that she was different from many of her friends and that it had something do with the school she was attending.

She never questioned why her parents sent her and her brother to Hoala, a small private school in Central Oahu. It was close to home, and its educational system was based on concepts that she accepted as normal. As she grew older she realized that her friends who attended other schools were not being educated in the same way.

“It was a microcosm of the world,” Huynh recalls. “ We knew it was different. We were almost hyper aware.”

Huynh, now a business executive, is a member of the board of the Hoala Foundation for Education, a small nonprofit whose mission is to spread the educational philosophy that began at Hoala School to the rest of the world. It calls its approach “Awakening Wisdom, a school culture approach to social emotional learning.”

To understand its mission, those of us who are not education professionals must get beyond the terminology that at first might sound like New Age jargon.

“This is not jargon,” Nancy Barry reminded me. The former head of school at Hoala has been a founder and board member of the foundation since its inception about a decade ago and was named its first executive director in December.

It’s also important to understand that the foundation is a separate entity from Hoala School despite the common name. With the correct diacritical marks, hoala means “awakening” in the Hawaiian language.

Also, Awakening Wisdom is not based on the teachings of any particular religion, despite being developed by a Roman Catholic nun who lived in Hawaii. In fact, Sister Joan Madden got into hot water with her Catholic superiors by trying to change the way teachers should teach.

A long-time educator and principal of Our Lady of Sorrows School in Wahiawa, Sister Madden was influenced by seemingly diverse forces. She studied Zen Buddhism, which in simplest terms teaches the concept of “being” – knowing who you are as an individual in addition to what you do. She also was influenced by the many changes in the Catholic Church as a result of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

She was concerned that her students were leaving the 8th grade with knowledge and skills but with little understanding of who they were or how to relate to others. In short, they lacked wisdom. That led her to create Awakening Wisdom, a system based on the four Rs of Responsibility, Respect, Resourcefulness and Responsiveness.

Her superiors were not ready for such dramatic change and fired her as principal of Our Lady of Sorrows. She later won reinstatement but resigned to start Hoala School in 1986 with help from parents and the Wahiawa community. She retired from Hoala in 2001 and died in 2006 at age 78.

Barry remembers replacing Sister Madden at Hoala and holding her first student assembly on the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001. She retired as head of school in July 2009.

Barry and Huynh shared some examples of how Awakening Wisdom works.

First, teachers and administrators must learn who they are as individuals in order to interact with students. For example, they cannot preach good manners and then yell at students in the hallway. Teachers and administrators must walk the talk.

Huynh recalls Point Out, a disciplinary practice in which disruptive students were told to walk to the front of the room, place both feet on a mat, then walk quickly and silently back to their seats. No other words were spoken. She says the practice was highly effective in keeping issues from escalating.

Barry says disputes are routinely settled through mediation involving student and teacher rather than by threatening students with “a trip to the principal’s office” to await punishment.

“Problems are resolved at the lowest possible level,” she says.

Students and teachers consider themselves partners in education rather than the “sage on stage” concept found in many classrooms. Students refer to their teachers and administrators by their first names. Sister Madden was “Joan” to the students and Barry was “Nancy.”

Parents are active participants in Awakening Wisdom. They are required to attend sessions to learn the vocabulary and how to treat their children with the same respect at home that they’re receiving from their teachers at school.

Huynh says the culture she learned at Hoala School has remained with her through college and her business career. After graduating from high school she earned a degree in operations and technology management from Boston University, worked in financial services in Australia and with Bank of Hawaii back home, joined the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific as its marketing manager and, at age 30, is now a senior account executive at Anthology Marketing Group. She joined the Hoala Foundation for Education board two years ago.

“It has affected how I have done in business,” she says of Awakening Wisdom. “One boss told me that ‘there’s something different about you’.”

That difference, she says, includes her approach to resolving conflicts and relating to colleagues, bosses and customers.

Awakening Wisdom is currently the guiding force at two schools in addition to Hoala – River School in California and an international school in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Can it work in the public schools? Barry and Huynh say it can and it won’t require starting new schools to make it happen. The foundation’s mission is to use trainers to teach educators how to incorporate Awakening Wisdom concepts into their systems. Those who are trained become trainers back home and the process will expand over time.

Barry says the Hoala Foundation is in growth mode as the first group of trainers works with teachers in Hawaii and on the Mainland. She says the Hawaii Department of Education has been receptive to integrating the Awakening Wisdom concept into the public schools.

As the foundation’s first executive director, Barry is seeking support from businesses and organizations as she increases the understanding of this home-grown approach to education. She would like to see more entire schools adopt Awakening Wisdom, and she is confident that it will happen as more and more educators become trainers and awaken their colleagues to the possibilities.

Contact Nancy Barry at

In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at

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