Spotlight: Masaru Uchino (HI '16)March 21, 2017
Masaru Uchino's favorite part of the day is right before dismissal, when he connects with his third-graders for heart-to-heart talks about the day's successes: "It's an amazing feeling when you know that your students are bummed to go home and really excited to come back the next day." Masa received a 2016-17 Hawaii Milken Educator Award at Pearl City's Momilani Elementary School on February 2, 2017.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Masaru (Masa) Uchino: Becoming a teacher was always an aspiration of mine, but it took a few years of working outside of the realm of education [in the automotive industry] for me to finally take the step into the role of a classroom teacher.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Masa: I had always worked with the elementary-age children at my church, so teaching elementary school was a good fit for me based on my prior experience. Teaching third-graders for the past ten years has been a rewarding and fun experience, since they are still very impressionable and truly enjoy learning with me every day.
MEA: What was your first job?
Masa: My first job was working in the Outdoor Vending Department at Disneyland. I worked there for almost six years and learned a lot about how to train and teach others. I learned very quickly that just like in the classroom, people of all ages learn in many different ways, and that it's best to give every learner a variety of strategies to accomplish a task, and to allow people to discover for themselves through hands-on activities how they learn best.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Masa: My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Schooler. She always thought of innovative ways to get us motivated to do good work in her class. I still remember when she treated me and a few others to McDonald's for lunch as an award treat!
MEA: Any educators in your family?
Masa: My sister was a second-grade teacher when I was in college. She always had interesting and funny stories to share with me regarding her students' antics and happenings at the school.
MEA: What subjects did you like (or not)?
Masa: My favorite subject was math—it was fun solving problems to come up with a solution. My least favorite subject was social studies. It always seemed to me as if we were simply learning about history, facts and figures. I tackled this subject by expanding my understanding of it. Oddly enough, my bachelor's degree ended up being in social studies in the School of Social Sciences, and I currently teach social studies to my third-graders. I am helping students try to understand that social studies is more than just learning about history—it's a study of us as humans and our interactions with each other.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Masa: I started midyear, at the start of the second quarter. It was definitely difficult taking over a class that someone else had started. There were many challenges and it took a long time to get settled in, but it was a great learning experience for me, and it allowed me to challenge my students to adjust quickly to a new set of rules and procedures with a new teacher.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Masa: The Award was a huge honor for both myself and my students, past and present. We all felt as though we've all come a long way through the years, and the students felt as though the honor of the Award was an accomplishment for us all.
MEA: Why is STEM important for elementary school students?
Masa: Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are absolutely critical components within the framework of curriculum for 21st-century students. Using digital communication tools and applying problem-solving strategies are aspects of modern education which cannot be ignored. I always tell my students that the skills they are learning today will no doubt help them to solve the problems of tomorrow.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Masa: I hope that my students remember more than just the lessons in math, science and social studies that I taught them. I hope they remember the life lessons I shared with them, and that they remember to always strive for better than just "good" results, to always strive for their best. I hope that they remember the laughter that we've had, and the joy we've felt when learning new things or doing various fun activities in class. I don't expect them to remember our day-to-day activities (I sincerely can't remember things I did myself in the third grade), but I want them to remember the feelings of pride and excitement they had from being a student in our school and in our class.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Masa: One of the strengths of Momilani Elementary School is the level of parent involvement in activities in and around the campus. The ohana (family) mentality of our school culture allows everyone to get involved in some aspect or another throughout the school year. Having the support and collaborative efforts of our families truly helps to expand our classroom community to extend beyond the walls of our class.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Masa: The few minutes just before school is out for the day. As the students finish putting away their things and are getting ready to go home, I get to have my "heart to heart" talks with them and recap their successes for the day. I also get to encourage those who didn't have such a good day that tomorrow will be another fresh chance to learn and experience new things. It's an amazing feeling when you know that your students are bummed to go home from school and that they are really excited to come back to school the next day.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Masa: I think one of the most common challenges teachers face every single day is the lack of time. There is never enough time to cover everything that we want to teach, and there is never enough time to truly let the students fully complete and master the tasks that we assign to them. Every day is a balancing act between using every minute available in the day, while not overwhelming the students with too much all at once.
MEA: You focus a lot of time and energy on keeping students physically active. Why?
Masa: I always tell the students that your brain is a muscle, and that the more you use a muscle, the stronger it gets. Students need to be physically active in order to keep them alert and engaged throughout the school day.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Masa: I think I would use it the same way that many others would, and that would be by upgrading the school's inventory of technology devices. Our school is one of the few in our district that has a one-to-one ratio of computers available for students to use. However, many of the laptops quickly become outdated and are in need of upgrade or servicing on a regular basis. Upgrading the staff's technology devices would be essential as well. As lastly, all the upgraded devices wouldn't be any help at all if teachers and staff members didn't have proper training to use them, so I would definitely apportion funding for teachers to be trained on how to use the devices and implement them in their classroom curriculum.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Masa: I think I would have stayed in the automotive industry, most likely somewhere in the aftermarket racing aspect of the industry. My passion for motor sports took a back seat when I returned to the world of education, but I never lost the interest in all things related to cars.
MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Masa: Our nation needs to place a higher emphasis on the importance of teachers and education. Far too many people in our country do not value teachers, and many still feel as though teaching isn't a highly desirable occupation. Teachers undoubtedly need to get paid more for the work that they do, but until our nation changes its priorities and mindset towards the value of teachers, we will be unable to attract more capable and effective young teachers to enter and remain in the education field.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Masa: ...when I hear from parents and families that my former students are teaching their younger siblings the same strategies and concepts I taught them. When parents come back and credit a portion of their child's successes to you as a part of their educational journey, you know that all your hard work and efforts have paid off.
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