Back to School
Teachers play an important role in the community, molding future role models and leaders.
To give them due credit, we interviewed three teachers in North Hawaii who have been working in their professions for over 20 years, still love what they do, and continue to inspire the students they teach. Although they impart their lessons in different ways, the message is the same: by making a story, song, math problem or historical figure relevant to a student’s life, the more likely the student will learn.
Julie Camarillo, an English teacher at HPA Middle School said she loves teenagers. She fondly remembers growing up on Oahu and enjoys teaching students who are experiencing things for the first time.
“As a kid, I loved reading and analyzing stories,” Camarillo says. “I like being able to show my kids different ways of looking at things critically and analytically. I teach them writing, assessments and how to create dialogue.”
But Camarillo does a lot more. She has her students link what they are reading to their personal lives.
When she assigns a book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” for instance, she brings in the historical aspect for context, and then relates the story to who the students are and what they may be going through. She believes they become more passionate about the story.
“By bringing it to the personal level, it allows me to know who they are,” Camarillo says. “When I meet with their parents, I can say I know them.”
Camarillo doesn’t limit her teachings to the classroom.
Like many teachers, she wears a lot of hats. Camarillo started Relay for Life, involved her students in the Visitor Industry Walk, helps with the school Spelling Bee and changed the Student Council from a voting process to an election. She turned yearbook into a class and is currently working on a capstone project which teaches students to create an oral and written presentation showing individual passion in what they have learned. Camarillo enjoys change and is constantly seeking out ways to spend her time and energy.
“Teaching is a choice. I value education and I still love my job,” she says. “From teaching at the public school to teaching at HPA, I have developed my craft and thank HPA for giving me that freedom.”
Kiyoshi Najita, teaches ninth grade English, eleventh grade AP (Advanced Placement) English, Songwriting and Philosophy at Parker School. He finds it hard to imagine doing anything else.
Najita credits headmaster Piper Toyama for hiring him as a teacher at the age of 28 and giving him a chance in the profession.
Known as “Naj” to his students, he says there is a common theme running through the disciplines he teaches: relevance.
“Yes, I teach skills and a lot of grammar usage, but the rest is practical,” Najita says. “I tell my students, ‘If you look at what we’re studying, and how it relates to your life right now, if you can see your emotional landscape in this, then I promise you’ll be able to use these skills in many other contexts.’”
For their first book, he gives his ninth graders “Grasshopper on the Road,” which is a book for eight-year-olds. Najita explains to them that with its “profoundly human statements on humanity, what we do with this book, we will do with all of them.” Later he assigns them “Animal Farm” to read.
Although Najita teaches songwriting, he claims he is a musician and not a music teacher. He grew up as a punk-rocker which he says “gave us permission to be musicians, though not be any good.” As technology changed, making music became more accessible and it was possible to make good sounding recordings.
“I asked Toyama if he would purchase equipment to record, and I would teach kids to record their own music by the end of class. He backed me,” Najita says.
In a room filled with instruments and recording equipment, he supports both experimentation and trial and error. Najita gives his students strategies with the lyrics they write, encouraging his students to emphasize the meaty part of the song, and to reduce the part they love the most.
“I don’t expect them to do what I wouldn’t do,” he says. “I’m strict with deadlines, for them and me. I hold them to the same standards that I have for myself.”
As a grade level advisor and department chair, Najita is also taking on mentorship. He said 28 years ago he made a promise to himself that he would never work at home, weekends or holidays.
“I don’t think I’ve compromised,” he says. “If it’s not fun for me or them, there’s no point. I think it’s possible for learning not to be drudgery if you apply it to self.”
Teaching has been gratifying for Najita. Though he likes his colleagues, he eats lunch with his students. He said some of his most poignant and memorable moments have taken place at the lunch table. Decades later, students come back to visit him.
“I have no illusions that what I’m doing is for everyone,” Najita says. “Some kids would rather do math but I like to think there is beauty in everything we study, whether it is art, music or literature.”
Fern White teaches AP English Literature and Composition at Kohala High School. She is involved with Forensics, Robotics, is a grade-level advisor and helps with the Na Leo Video Club.
As the Speech and Debate Club advisor and coach, she earned the Hawaii Speech League Educator of the Year award in 2008. She also serves as the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) College Prep Skills Coordinator and a Curriculum Coordinator mentoring new teachers. White is also a horse trainer and riding instructor.
Exhausted yet? Sometimes White is too. At the age of 65, White has been in the field of education since 1974.
As a teacher in the public school arena, which is compulsory, White says, “We do not sift. We do not turn anyone away. Every one of our students is as valuable and important as the next.”
White has always valued education, which she thinks stemmed from both of her parents who valued reading, writing and critical education. But when it comes to trying to pass on her love of learning to her students, White says it can be difficult.
“English Language Arts hits rock bottom on many a student survey list of favorites,” she says. “Reading and writing – the most basic skills everyone needs to succeed in school and life – are the very skills students will say they ‘hate’ doing.”
One way White helps her students learn is to break down their lessons into edible bites. She creates interaction among the students to make the content less boring, and promotes working as a collective group to produce accountability.
“Learning must be relevant to avoid student disregard,” White says. “Everything in an English Language Arts class has relevance to real-world stuff, and while it takes teacher energy to remember to make those connections, the effort reaps high yield.”
She believes it is imperative that educators stay in touch with their students’ needs, and help them remember who they are and where they come from.
“It is doubly imperative that we arm them with skills to make and have great choices in their lives,” White says. “At my age, I can retire but the unending influence of facilitating a student’s success in high school and onward to college and career is immeasurably satisfying.”