Introducing Robert Tam, the 2018 Hawaii History Teacher of the Year

Robert Tam 

Hawaii History Teacher of the Year


Robert Tam, Punahou School, Honolulu, HawaiiSince 2004, 749 exemplary American history teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools in all fifty states, Department of Defense schools, Washington DC, and US territories have been named State History Teacher of the Year. The National History Teacher of the Year is named in the fall. The 2018 State History Teachers of the Year were asked informal questions by the Gilder Lehrman Institute.  

Do you have a favorite/funny moment from teaching?    

A girl in my class invested all her free time in dance. She could express herself confidently and gracefully on stage; however, although articulate, she seldom said a word in class discussions. Toward the end of our year together she told me about a terrible situation in her dance performance group. All the ambitious backstage mothers were gossiping and spreading rumors about her success not being earned and how she did not have the right body shape to be a dancer. There were many tears that spring. In the summer, her mother enrolled her in a speech class. In distress, my young student came to see me for help with her big speaking assignment. She wrote about the competitive dance world and the body image problems dancers face. We worked on the speech for weeks as she used the emotional turmoil of the previous spring to drive her on. Now you can see her presentation on the TED-ED blog with the caption “You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.”

State one fun historical fact about the town you live in or grew up in.

Samuel Chapman Armstrong attended my school in Honolulu—Punahou School—in the 1850s and a few years later joined the Union army where he distinguished himself on the battlefield. He eventually rose to be commander of a unit of “colored” troops, and his experiences with them aroused his interest in their education and welfare. After the war he founded the Hampton Institute, which helped educate black teachers, including its most famous graduate, Booker T. Washington. 

What was the last great history book you read?

I like The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas by Louis Menand and The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America by Mae Ngai. 

What is your favorite historical site or museum?

The National Museum of African American History and Culture 

If you could travel back in time and meet any historical figure, who would it be and why?

Stephen Foster. I often use his music in my teaching, and I would like go back and meet America’s first career singer-songwriter and hear him play some of his favorite tunes.

What is your favorite historical film or series?

Though the movie Gettysburg has its critics, I still appreciate its depiction of that important battle. 

Do your students have a favorite historical topic or era?

Every year we engage in a simulation of the Underground Railroad. My students who return to visit often mention this experience as a vivid memory that dramatized their learning.

What advice would you give to young people, in high school or college, who may be considering a career in education but are unsure?

In choosing a career it’s essential to think of two questions beyond simply whether you can make a living at it: Are you serving some larger purpose and can you grow in this endeavor?

Click here to nominate a teacher for the 2019 state and national awards.