Yamagata represents Kauai at 2014 State Teacher of the Year

LIHUE — Waimea Canyon Middle School continues to shine across the state.

Science teacher Justin Yamagata, Kauai District Teacher of the Year, represented the Garden Isle last week at the 2014 State Teacher of the Year award ceremony.

“It was just great to show that someone from the Westside, from our school, was going for this,” Yamagata said. “I never expected it.”

Yamagata, four Oahu teachers, a Maui teacher and a Big Island teacher were nominated for the coveted award, eventually won by Waikiki Elementary School teacher Matthew Lawrence.

Yamagata said it was humbling to be in the presence of other teachers representing their respective districts.

“It made me think, ‘what else can I do?’” he said.

Yamagata’s nomination came on the heels of him taking top honors in March as the 2013 Hawaii Academy of Science Teacher of the Year.

“It’s just as exciting to have this teacher on my campus, and to represent the whole island of Kauai,” said Waimea Canyon Principal Melissa Speetjens.

She added when Yamagata joined Waimea Canyon eight years ago, he was surprised to find out students were not competing in science fairs. Today, about 100 student experiments are displayed in a science event, she said, with several of them qualifying for state and international tournaments.

“I want to continue what we’ve been doing as a school and for our department in terms of science fair and science Olympiad,” said Yamagata, adding he also wants to try to bring more relevance for teaching on Kauai’s Westside.

Kauai Complex Superintendent Bill Arakaki said in a statement Kauai Complex Area and education supporters are proud of Yamagata’s commitment and dedication to the students at Waimea Canyon.

“He inspires students to love science by motivating them to explore possibilities and be passionate about learning,” he said. “He influences many students to compete in the Kauai District Science Fair and succeed in the state and international competitions.”

Arakaki also said Yamagata recognizes the importance of teamwork.

“We truly appreciate his contributions to teaching and learning on Kauai and to all teachers that continue to make a difference in the lives of our children and families,” Arakaki said.

Speetjens said it’s an honor to have Yamagata at the school, and an honor that science is becoming so important on the island of Kauai.

“It’s something that our whole country needs,” she said.

The 2014 State Teacher of the Year awards ceremony was held at Washington Place in Honolulu, attended by Yamagata, Speetjens, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, among others.

Last year, former Waimea Canyon Principal Glenda Miyazaki was nominated to represent Kauai at the 2012 National Distinguished Principal awards, won by Nimitz Elementary School Principal Kenneth Lee.

Miyazaki, who had spearheaded the transition from Waimea Canyon Elementary and Intermediate to Waimea Canyon Middle School, retired earlier this year. Since July, Speetjens became the school’s principal, after 13 years at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Puhi, first as a teacher then as a as vice principal.

“We are very proud of him coming from our middle school,” Speetjens said. “But it’s also representing the Westside and it’s also representing the whole island of Kauai.”

Yamagata credited his success to his students.

“They are pretty much the reason I even got nominated,” he said.

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