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Making the grade:Former sportswriter wins 2011 teacher of the year

From the NW Asian Weekly:

“A shock.” This describes Jae Maebori’s feelings after learning he had won Washington State’s 2011 Teacher of the Year. 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 Sept. 27th at the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

As the state teacher of the year, Maebori will travel to the White House in Washington D.C. and will be honored at a ceremony along with other state winners this May. Maebori and other honored teachers will meet President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the Vice President’s wife Jill. Maebori expressed his excitement to meet all three but is interested to speak with Ms. Biden since she is a fellow educator. As a result of winning the award, Maebori and his family receive a trip to Washington D.C. Maebori’s parents are traveling from Hawaii and his brother and his family from California so that they can have a mini-family reunion while attending the ceremony. Maebori is 4th generation Japanese American. His mother was born in Hawaii, 6 months prior to Pearl Harbor. His father was born in an internment camp in Tule Lake, California.

Maebori, 38, grew up in Hawaii and moved to Seattle in 1990 to attend the University of Washington. He has lived in Washington ever since.

A 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 sportswriter,” recalled Maebori. “It was a natural fit and something I wanted to do the rest of my life.”

Maebori was a sportswriter for the University of Washington’s campus newspaper, The Daily. “I didn’t really have any fall back (career) except writing sports.” After graduating from the University of Washington 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 then found work back in Western Washington with the South County Journal and Valley Daily News. In his seven years as a sportswriter, Maebori covered the Seattle Supersonics, the 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.”

But, it was his work with high school sports that made him think about doing something more. “It was kind of push pull,” Maebori described. “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, “[h]ow 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 to decide to become a teacher but Maebori made the decision. 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 went to Seattle Pacific University (SPU) from 1999-2001 for a Teaching Certificate. He later earned a Master’s in Education from SPU.
“It was the toughest thing I ever did,” recalled Maebori about working and going to school full time. “It tested my resolve and if I wanted to do this.” Maebori had to be organized in order to get his work done as well as his school coursework.

First teaching job from last sports 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 would do next. When he learned that Maebori was going into teaching, Manthau, a teacher at Kentwood high school, informed Maebori of the opening. After a 20 minute interview, Maebori had his first teaching position at Kentwood. Manthau became Maebori’s mentor.

Relating to youth

At Kentwood, Maebori teaches English, Yearbook and coaches junior varsity boys’ tennis.   

Maebori acknowledges that class sizes are a challenge. He works with 100 kids a day in classes that have over 30 students.  Despite the numbers, Maebori tries to make sure 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 it shows that he is investing in them. He feels this connection outside the classroom helps inside the classroom.

Maebori’s teaching style tries to use current student interests in teaching plans. “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, video games, to looking at the characters of MTV’s “The Jersey Shore.” The enthusiasm in the subject matters is driving everything and its Maebori’s job to make the connection between students’ interests with what Maebori is teaching. The process takes more 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

Maebori’s path to winning state teacher of the year is similar to winning a basketball tournament. In order for Maebori to win state teacher of the year, he was nominated by his supervising administrator at Kentwood. He won Kent School District Teacher of the Year which entered him into the regional award. Maebori won Regional Teacher of the Year. Maebori was chosen in a region comprised of 35 school districts in the Puget Sound area. After regionals, he went on to the state level where he was awarded 2011 teacher of the year.

The overall process spanned over six to seven months. Throughout it all, he met some impressive teachers in the state. “Education is in good hands,” Maebori said.

Missing sports

Maebori vividly recalls the last big sporting event he covered was the 2001 Rose Bowl, the last Rose Bowl the Washington Husky football team played in. Maebori had hoped that he would get a chance to cover the Rose Bowl as a professional and was fortunate to do so before he left sports writing.

Although he misses sports, he has found teaching just as rewarding if not more. Maebori analogized 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 added, “I miss sports writing less because teaching is so fulfilling.”

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