Passing Notes With Hawai‘i Public School Teachers Jaimi Dennis and Liann Sanerivi

We put two people in a room to talk story, then stay out of the way.


Apples To Apples

Illustration: James Nakamura



Public school teachers Jaimi Dennis and Liann Sanerivi work at Barbers Point Elementary School in Kapolei, focusing on special education. Dennis, 41, spent 13 years in the classroom before becoming a student services coordinator. Now she supports and mentors others including Sanerivi, 33, who had been teaching fourth graders for just five months when we met after school in her classroom.


Liann Sanerivi: How did you deal with constantly feeling like you failed your kids, even though every day is a new day and you come back and it’s a clean slate?


Jaimi Dennis: There are always going to be days where you feel like you could have done a lesson better, that you could have reached a student better. But use it as a learning experience. This is what happened. And reflect—you have to do a lot of self-reflection.  What can I do the next time this happens, how can I adjust this lesson to engage the kids more? Ask for help. Never be afraid to ask.


LS: (nods)


JD: The first couple years of teaching are the most difficult. Every day you’re learning something new. Don’t beat yourself up because teaching is hard. Sometimes you have better years than others. My last year in the classroom was probably one of my favorite years teaching. Some days are going to be bad days but don’t ever feel like a failure. You’re a failure if you give up.


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Jaimi Dennis and Liann Sanerivi. Photo: Robbie Dingeman



LS: I’m a very sociable person. I’m always like, “Why are you not my friend? Be my friend, right now!” I never experienced a school in which I had kids who had hard home lives. So, it was harder for me to understand why my kids weren’t creating that relationship right away because I’d always had that before.


JD: Well, sometimes you can’t be their friend. You can, but you kind of have to try something and it works and then you have to try something else. We do have a very unique population of students and there’s an adjustment there, not just with the students but taking the time to create those relationships with the families.


LS: The kids here? They’re all great. They’re rough around the edges but once you get to know them, they’re really great.


JD: By far, the best part about being a teacher is the kids and the relationships you build and watching them grow from the beginning of the year until the end.


LS: Support is definitely much needed for first years!


JD: Yes.


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“The first couple years of teaching are the most difficult. Every day you’re learning something new.”
— Jaimi Dennis


LS: Otherwise, I go home crying.


JD: I didn’t have that my first few years teaching; you kind of feel like you’re thrown into the deep end and you’re just trying to stay above water.


LS: It’s like you’re swimming in circles. (She points to her desk, piled high with student work.) How do you set this aside and just take maybe two hours to do self care when I feel like I’m drowning?


JD: Sometimes you’ve got to put the papers away and go do something that you enjoy doing. I go to Massage Envy once a month and it’s only once a month. I have other things that I do but that’s my me time, that’s my time to decompress and I don’t think about work, I just enjoy my massage. Or I go to my boot camp. Find something that brings you joy. You have to shut everything else out. It will still be there when you’re done. But if you don’t take time for yourself, you will burn out.


This story originally appeared as “Passing Notes” in the April 2020 issue of HONOLULU Magazine. Get your copy at and subscribe to the print and digital editions now.