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Jamie Iwashita has spent many years in many classrooms - she event spent a few of those overseas teaching in Japan. But no matter where her career took her, one thing was clear: she loves being a teacher. So when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and schools first closed their doors last Spring, it was extra hard for her to accept that her school year would be cut short, and she'd have to wait months to get back into her teaching groove. Now that a new year is underway, she's thankful for the opportunity to do what she does best - even if things aren't quite what they used to be.
Originally born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Jamie didn't immediately pursue a path to the classroom. Instead, she (along with the support of her family) pursued a career in the medical field, settling on Hope College and a pre-med track after high school. But from the first class in her first semester at Hope, she knew her trajectory had to change - the medical field simply didn't suit her. During a conversation about what to do next, Jamie's freshman seminar teacher offered a keen suggestion: what about teaching? At first, this notion seemed crazy - Jamie had NEVER wanted to be a teacher. But was it so far off? Jamie in fact spent time volunteering with Hope's Children's After School Achievement (CASA) program, where she tutored underprivileged youth - and she loved it. Going out on a limb, she signed up for an Educational Psychology course, with low expectations. But from day one in that class, everything clicked - this was her path, she was going to be a teacher.
Fast forward, and after receiving her teaching certificate, she set her course to Japan, where she'd spend five years serving as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. She had an amazing time working with Japanese students and forging a new family with her colleagues and friends. When it came time to transition home, it was a full-scale adjustment - not just culturally, but also in adjusting to American students who had completely different standards of creativity, confidence, etc. One thing she loved about Japan and her experience as a teacher was the sense of family - and it was something she sought out when returning to Michigan. Once again, everything clicked into place when she found an opportunity with Grand River Academy in Livonia, MI.
Jamie was initially hired to GRA as a Teacher in Residence (TIR) - she served as a long-term sub for the building, with the idea that once a full-time job opened up, she'd be placed in that role. As she continued to adjust to many new challenges - most notably classroom management - she reflected on the struggles of her first year.
That first year was nothing short of a challenge - I felt like the water was up to my nose, and all I could do was doggy paddle to keep myself afloat. There were a lot of things to learn, and GRA had high expectations for all of us educators. I remember thinking 'Am I ever going to make it?' The cool thing is that the school, my team, had my back. They just knew how to grow me, how to support me and how to push me. It's how I became a middle school teacher - and I know it's why I'm the teacher I am today.
Jamie has now spent five years at GRA - and the once skeptical educator who thought she'd never teach middle school for five years, loves her role and can't imagine teaching anywhere else.
But this school year isn't like most. For Jamie and the other educators at GRA, families had the option to choose 100% virtual instruction, or a hybrid model of virtual and in-person instruction for the year. Week to week, hybrid students come in either Group A (who come for in-person instruction Monday and Tuesday) or in Group B (who come Thursday and Friday). Wednesdays, everyone learns virtually - that doesn't even include the full-time virtual learners.For Jamie, that means multiple Google Classrooms for each grade - posting assignments to each, reviewing assignments in each, doing live instruction multiple times for different groups on Wednesdays, pre-recording video lessons for her students learning remotely on their days working at home, and more. It's a lot of moving pieces to juggle, and the educators are still working out the kinks.
But with safety of staff and students at the forefront of decision making heading into this school year, the technology headaches are a small price to pay - and for Jamie, being able to conduct live instruction (even if it is virtual) is the biggest win.
Since COVID hit, I've just wanted to get back to teaching. I didn't care what the plan was, I just wanted a decision to be made and prepare for it. It has been SO NICE being back in the classroom - physically for our hybrid kids, but also learning how to be a better, more effective virtual educator. Reading stories is MY THING - I'll use different accents, voices, singing and more. Being able to just read to students, engage them, ask them questions and see their faces brings me joy. It's totally different, but I still love it.
The school year is still young, and Jamie has many questions about the effectiveness of this new instructional model. As a middle school educator, she worries about engagement - especially when a given group of students is very small. In a traditional classroom environment, the more vocal students often spark conversation and are quick to engage, encouraging the quieter kids to join in - with smaller groups this year (some even five or fewer students), Jamie has noticed it's much harder to invoke engagement if they're all a bit shy.
That, combined with the challenge of integrating technology that is both meaningful and useful for students, has certainly made Jamie stop and think about what lies ahead. But no matter how steep the mountain may appear, she has full confidence that her school team has the passion and the talent to continue learning and supporting students to ensure the year is a success.
I just love this school, and my team. Throughout this challenging process, there was no judgement. No one refused to learn - everyone committed to learning and growing. Our GRA ohana, and the values we share as an NHA school, are the reason we have stepped up - and I'm so proud of that!!
We asked Jamie if there was an object that she felt impacted her as an educator or exemplified her as a teacher. Pictured right is her chosen object, and below is her description.
The item that has impacted me the most in teaching thus far is a used book I received from a 7th grader during my first year of teaching. The book that was given to me was Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, but inside the book came a letter. The front cover was torn off, the letter was written in red ink on a lined sheet of paper and was gifted to me by one of my most challenging students that school year. In his letter, my student took the time to tell me how much I impacted his life and how much he appreciated the fact that I supported him and always had his back. This letter is a constant reminder that although my English lessons are important, the relationships built with my students are far greater and more meaningful than any reading or writing lesson can be. I keep the letter in the book and read it from time to time when I have new students who bring me different and new challenges.