Reporter turned teacher makes headlines in the classroom | Washington state Teacher of the Year

Kentwood sophomores Jionna Lasiter, left, and Danielle Nave, right, listen to their English teacher, Jay Maebori as he offers tips on a class project. - Kris Hill/The Reporter
Kentwood sophomores Jionna Lasiter, left, and Danielle Nave, right, listen to their English teacher, Jay Maebori as he offers tips on a class project.
— image credit: Kris Hill/The Reporter

While he was sitting on stage, Jay Maebori looked around at the other nominees for Washington state Teacher of the Year and he thought they were all so amazing, it was unlikely he would win.

He decided to just try and relax.

“When they called my name, it caught me off guard,” Maebori explained to his students in his third period English class at Kentwood High on Tuesday.

A student asked him jokingly if he cried.

“No, I did not cry,” Maebori said. “I was crying on the inside.”

It’s that sense of humor, among other things, he explained that helps him work effectively with students.

This most recent honor is the culmination of a process that began before the last school year ended.

Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public schools, recognized the regional winners at a ceremony Monday afternoon at the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

“Jay and all the teachers of the year are energizing classrooms and buildings around the state with creative solutions and expert techniques,” Dorn said in a release.

Once upon a time, Maebori was a sports writer, but he has taught sophomores at Kentwood since 2001 and is a National Board Certified teacher.

What drew him to teaching was a desire to have an impact on lives beyond the half hour or so he would get to interact with teenagers while covering high school sports for the Valley Daily News.

“Don’t get me wrong, I look back on journalism fondly, without that experience I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today,” he said. “I started investigating what it would be like (to teach).”

A University of Washington graduate, he went on to get his master’s degree and teaching certification at Seattle Pacific University, working full time as a reporter while going to school.

He teaches in what is described as a “blended honors classroom where honors, English-language learners, special education and core students all partake of a rigorous and scholarly curriculum,” according to information provided by OSPI.

“Jay is very deserving of this award,” said Kentwood principal Doug Hostetter in an e-mail. “I would say he is a ‘humble superstar’ and a teacher in the purest form. He has the ability to meet the individual needs of his students. Whether the students are honors, ELL or special education; Jay uses instructional strategies that reach each student. When Jay implements a lesson and 30 of his 32 students meet his instructional objectives he reflects on what he needs to do to reach the other two.”

In addition, Maebori teaches the school’s intervention courses which are offered to students who are struggling to meet state standards on mandated assessments, with 80 percent of his students going on to pass the state tests.

He is described as making the subjects he teachers relevant through comparisons to music and movies. He is also known as a teacher who works well with his colleagues and parents.

Maebori said he has learned, “the best classroom management strategy is an interesting curriculum.”

This week, for example, his students are working on a project that helps them hone their analysis and commentary skills as they put together a presentation about who they are as individuals.

His students enjoy this kind of project and when they begin working on other subject matter such as Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” they’ll have developed the analytical skills they need to understand the play and its themes.

“I want class to be a place where they want to come,” he said. “If the things we are doing are relevant, they see the value in what they’re doing and it’s enjoyable, then it’s fun to teach.”

He tries to keep things relevant by keeping up with what teens today are reading, watching and listening to, even if it necessarily isn’t something to his taste.

Another key to working well with students, Maebori said, is relationships both with his students and his colleagues.

“You build relationships from day one,” he said. “I’m all about people. I love the co-workers that I have. One of the things that I feel passionate about is collaborating with peers. Not only do I want to invite people into my classroom, but I want to see into other classrooms.”

Maebori also thinks that while the spotlight may be on him, there are many other teachers at Kentwood, in the district and across the state deserving of this award, which is good news.

“I think there is a culture here where people are excited to be here,” he said. “When you say, ‘It’s great to be alive, it’s great to be a Conk,’ people shout it. When people genuinely enjoy being in a place you have success.”

Hostetter agreed this award for Maebori reflects well for the entire community.

“Our entire staff and student body can share in this accomplishment,” Hostetter said. “Kentwood High School is a school committed to the learning of each one of its students. We have a saying that ‘Conquerors Think and Thinkers Conquer.’ Jay and our teaching staff challenge our students and equip them with the knowledge and skills to be life-long learners and productive members of our community. This is a honor for Kentwood High School and the entire Kent School District.’

Joe Potts, who worked with Maebori at Kentwood as an assistant principal and now heads up Kentlake High, had high praise for the teacher of the year during the nomination process.

“He has a track record of success and his level of grit, defined here as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, is unparalleled in our school,” Potts said. “What makes a great teacher? Ask his students or observe Jay Maebori teach; either way, you’ll know the answer.”

Maebori will be considered for national Teacher of the Year, which is awarded by the Council of Chief State School Officers. President Obama will announce the winner in a special ceremony at the White House in the spring.

As the Washington Teacher of the Year, Maebori will serve as an ambassador for the teaching profession in 2010–11 while maintaining his duties at Kentwood High School.

The award was selected by two former state teachers of the year and representatives from the following organizations: the Washington Association of School Administrators; Washington Education Association; Washington State Board of Education; Washington State Parent Teacher Association; the Office of the Governor; the Professional Educator Standards Board; and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

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