By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Shock.” This was how Jay Maebori, 38, felt after he learned that he had won Washington State’s 2011 Teacher of the Year award.
Maebori, a Kentwood High School English teacher to sophomores, was chosen from a list of 10 highly qualified nominees from across the state. Maebori was given the honor at an awards ceremony that took place on Sept. 27 at the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
As the state teacher of the year, Maebori will travel with his family to the White House in Washington, D.C. He will be honored at a ceremony along with other state winners next May. Maebori and other honored teachers will meet President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and his wife, Jill. Maebori expressed excitement to meet all three but is most interested in speaking with Mrs. Biden since she is a fellow educator.
Maebori is planning to have a mini-family reunion while in D.C. Maebori’s parents will come from Hawaii. His brother and his family will travel from California.
He is fourth-generation Japanese American. His mother was born in Hawaii, six months before Pearl Harbor. His father was born in an internment camp in Tule Lake, Calif. Maebori grew up in Hawaii and moved to Seattle in 1990 to attend the University of Washington (UW). He has lived in the state since.
Sports writing career, a natural fit
“I fully expected, since my high school days, after being cut from the football team [in high school], that I would be a sports writer,” he recalled. “It was a natural fit and something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Maebori was a sports writer for the UW’s campus newspaper, The Daily. “I didn’t really have any fallback [career] except writing sports.” After graduating from the UW with a degree in communications with an emphasis in editorial journalism, Maebori interned with the Seattle Times. He then worked in the Tri-Cities and later found work back in western Washington with the South County Journal and Valley Daily News. In his seven years as a sports writer, Maebori covered the Seattle Supersonics, University of Washington football team, Mariners, and even horse racing at Emerald Downs.
Maebori’s coverage of the UW football team was his greatest thrill as a professional. “I had to do that (cover Husky football) in college, but then to do it on a professional level was a real dream.”
However, it was his work with high school sports that made him think about doing something more. “It was kind of push pull,” Maebori remarked. “I was kind of being pulled in another direction.” Speaking with high school athletes, Maebori thought about how society was heading in a wrong direction. He thought to himself, “How will we get these kids in the right direction.”
Deciding whether to teach, Maebori found that his interviews with high school athletes were the most fulfilling. “High school athletes were eager to talk with me. I thought that it would be great to talk with them for more than just a 30-minute interview.”
It was a slow process, but Maebori made the decision to become a high school teacher. He volunteered in local high schools to see if he liked working with kids. “That was a blast. It confirmed everything.” Maebori’s second career was about to start.
Juggling work and school
Maebori attended Seattle Pacific University (SPU) from 1999 to 2001 for his teaching certificate. He later earned a master’s in education from SPU. “It was the toughest thing I ever did,” Maebori said about working and going to school full time. “It tested my resolve and if I wanted to do this.”
A teaching job from a column
When Maebori decided to close the door on his sports writing career, his teaching career began. During his sports writing career, Maebori befriended the Mariners’ scoreboard operator, Frank Manthau. Manthau read one of Maebori’s last sports columns and inquired on what he’d do next. When he learned that Maebori was going into teaching, Manthau, a teacher at Kentwood High School, informed Maebori of an opening. After a 20-minute interview, Maebori had his first teaching position. Manthau became Maebori’s mentor.
Relating to youth
At Kentwood, Maebori teaches English and Yearbook, and he coaches junior varsity boys tennis.
He acknowledges that class size is a challenge. He works with 100 kids a day in classes of more than 30 students. Despite the numbers, Maebori tries to make sure that he connects with each individual student. “It’s a challenge because there are so many kids.”
As a way to connect, Maebori attends his students’ sporting events, plays, and other extracurricular activities. “I believe in supporting kids outside the classroom.” Maebori says that his investment in them shows. He feels that this connection outside the classroom helps inside the classroom.
Maebori tries to use current student interests in his teaching plans — this is his style. “Everyone wants to be an expert on something. If I can tap into something that they are interested in, it’s a win-win.” Maebori has used everything from analyzing rap lyrics, snowboarding, cars, and video games to looking at the characters of MTV’s “The Jersey Shore.” The students’ enthusiasm regarding the subject matters drives everything, and its Maebori’s job to make the connection between students’ interests and what he is teaching. The process takes a lot of work and challenges Maebori to be more creative.
“Jay is not every student’s favorite teacher. He challenges and stretches their thinking,” said Kentwood Principal Douglas Hostetter. “Sometimes students equate this challenge with Jay being too difficult. But in the end, students appreciate and respect Mr. Maebori for increasing their ability to think and communicate [read and write].”
Winning Teacher of the Year award
Maebori’s path to being named state teacher of the year is similar to winning a basketball tournament. He was first nominated by his supervising administrator at Kentwood. He won the Kent School District Teacher of the Year award, which made him a candidate for a regional award. Maebori then won a Regional Teacher of the Year award. Maebori was chosen in a region comprising 35 school districts in the Puget Sound area. After regionals, he went on to the state level where he was named 2011 Teacher of the Year.
The process spanned about seven months. Through it, he met impressive teachers in the state. “Education is in good hands,” he said.
Maebori vividly recalls the last big sporting event he covered. It was the 2001 Rose Bowl, the last Rose Bowl the University of Washington football team played in. Maebori had hoped that he would get a chance to cover the Rose Bowl as a professional. He was fortunate enough to do so before he left sports writing.
Although he misses sports, he has found teaching to be just as rewarding if not more so. Maebori compared missing his prior career to missing his childhood home of Hawaii. “I love Hawaii, I do, but I miss it less because I love living in Washington,” Maebori stated. “I miss sports writing less because teaching is so fulfilling.” ♦
Jason Cruz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.