2011 Washington State Teacher of the Year Jay Maebori, along with other state teachers of the year, attended a presidential recognition at the White House. Photo courtesy of Jay Maebori.
Jay Maebori, Washington state’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, was surprised when President Barack Obama put his arm around him during their photo op – even more surprised than when the president had greeted him a few minutes earlier with “Howzit bra?” a traditional Hawaiian greeting. “I was caught off guard,” says Maebori, laughing. “I didn’t expect that.”
Raised in Hawaii like the president, Maebori had visited the White House in May, along with the nation’s other state Teachers of the Year. When he and the educators toured the West Wing, they were welcomed into the Oval Office by the president. When it was Maebori’s turn to shake hands and have his photo taken with the commander in chief, Obama asked him from which Hawaiian high school he had graduated. “Iolani High School,” Maebori replied, already knowing that the president had graduated from Punahou High School, Iolani’s longtime rival. “We shared a laugh about that,” Maebori remembers. “It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The White House visit was a highlight for Maebori, but just one of many in 2011. The educators met for the first time, he remembers, in Dallas, Texas. While there, the group shared ideas, swapped stories, and discussed issues in education. “How often do you get a chance to be in a room with a top teacher from every state?” he asks incredulously.
He also returned from Dallas with $15,000 in new classroom equipment for his school, Kentwood High School in Covington, Washington, and 49 new friends. "We bonded really quickly," he says, adding that the educators have their own Facebook group and frequently exchange emails.
Throughout the year he's also met and talked about issues in education with Washington state Governor Chris Gregoire, U.S. Representative Jay Inslee, and Washington state Senator Joe Fain.
Another favorite, and rewarding, experience during the year was being able to choose a person to receive a full-ride scholarship to the University of Phoenix. After reading the applications and essays, Maebori chose a mom who'd dreamed of becoming a teacher now that her children had grown — but didn't have the resources to make it happen.
To round out their year, in late July the group attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama; and then in September, the top teachers will be off to Princeton, New Jersey, which will be their final trip together before the states' 2012 Teachers of the Year are announced.
So what did Maebori's students think of their teacher's extraordinary year? As fitting for high schoolers, their reaction was mixed. They took pride in having the Washington state Teacher of the Year as their teacher, but Maebori worked hard to minimize his occasional absences, classroom visitors, and other disruptions. In the end, though, "I'm their teacher and they're my students," he says. "I tried to make their school year as normal as possible."
View President Barack Obama's Teacher of the Year recognition speech, given in the White House Rose Garden. (Maebori is in the front row behind the president.)