A teacher that students will never forget

by Chris Carlson
Stripes Korea

Sylvia Saiki first walked into a classroom as a teacher when John F. Kennedy lived in the White House and Chubby Checker was twisting his way to the top of the music charts. It was 1962. A different era. A different way of teaching.

“When I stepped into my first classroom, my principal greeted and welcomed me with an armful of teacher manuals, school/classroom policies, and schedules,” Mrs. Saiki said recently as she prepped her next day’s lesson plan in her fifth-grade classroom at Mendel Elementary School on Yokota Air Base. “He guided me through each phase and I learned ‘firsthand’ about my job. Self-contained classrooms … I taught all subjects, including art, music, and physical education.”

The 54 years that have followed have proven one thing that any student, parent or fellow teacher who has had the privilege of spending time with Mrs. Saiki knows firsthand: She is a caring, giving educator who is passionate about sharing her knowledge and life lessons with her students.

“She is from the old school where values count. If a student does something out of character, she does not ignore it. She gets to the root of it,” said Van Swygert, the art teacher at Mendel who has known Mrs. Saiki for 29 years.

“She also does not permit behaviors that are largely ignored today,” Swygert continued. “It’s common to hear, ‘Mr. So-and-so, please remove your hat when you are in the building,’ or, ‘Excuse me. Would you say that to your mother?’”

It’s all part of teaching, according to Mrs. Saiki, who is retiring at the end of the school year.

“My first advice to new teachers would be to ‘teach’ manners, beginning with ‘thank you,’” said the 75-year-old educator whose classroom lights are regularly on well after her co-workers have left for the day, her car sitting alone in the parking lot. “Students will show kindness and politeness to one another just to hear, ‘thank you’ from others.”

Mrs. Saiki will be the first to admit that any success she has had in the teaching ranks wouldn’t have been possible without the support of her loving family, beginning with her mother and father when she was a child growing up in Hawaii.

Raised in a multicultural home – her mother was Japanese, her father Hawaiian-Chinese – family values and life’s virtues were always practiced in the Saiki home, including filial piety.

“Confucius said that you must have some kind of learning,” Mrs. Saiki said, explaining that although her father only had a formal education through the second grade, he valued education and was the ultimate “teacher.”

“My father’s philosophy of life built around his relationship with nature and in the giving to others,” the proud daughter said. “He wanted my brother and me to treat education as if it was the life to a future.”

It’s a philosophy she and her husband of 52 years, Edwyn, believe in fully and passed on to their children, daughters Tracy Saiki and Jessie Higa, and their son, Richard, who died in 1985 during his junior year at Yokota High School. And they believe in service, to their country and community. Edwyn served 22 years in the Air Force, retiring in 1984 as a major. He later taught for many years for the University of Maryland at Yokota. Tracy also served in the Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Jessie’s husband Irving Higa, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.

“Mom was awesome at being a mom and career educator,” Jessie said in an email. “She was a master juggler of priorities and I truly admire her for pursuing her passion as a teacher and fulfilling her joy as a mother.

“When my younger brother, Richard, passed away, being a teacher helped fill a void in her heart,” Jessie continued. “Children are the key to our future and raising them up to be good citizens who know the value in working hard, dreaming, showing compassion and helping others became an integral part of her classroom curriculum.”

Another key component in her classroom is storytelling. Her students get firsthand accounts of life during World War or “take trips” to Iran and Egypt through the memory of Mrs. Saiki’s travels. She and her husband made sure their children lived life to its fullest and experienced the world.

“We traveled throughout Iran – like the ruins of Persepolis and carpets on Shiraz basin, visiting Shah Reza’s Tomb, and looking over the Caspian Sea,” Tracy recalled fondly in an email. During a trip to Egypt, the family visited Aswan Dam, King Tutankhamen, Valley of the Kings, the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza. “I became known as ‘the Egypt Girl’ to mom’s students.”

“When she tells you about a subject, you become enthralled. You become part of the story and can visualize these great places that few people can make so real with words,” Swygert said of his friend and colleague. “Mrs. Saiki thrives on knowing just how to hook her audience with intense interest.”

Sylvia Saiki has “hooked” a lot of people throughout the years. We at Stripes Japan wanted to give her a chance to tell her story once more, so we sat down with her for a question-and-answer session. Mrs. Saiki, you are one of a kind. And, as Swygert said: “You will be the kind of teacher that students will never forget.”


Q: Where have you taught?
A: I began my teaching career in 1962 when I accepted a sixth-grade classroom position at Macy Elementary School in La Habra, CA. I have taught in Hawaii, Texas, Washington, D.C., Teheran, Iran, Yokota Air Base, and Sasebo Naval Base. All positions were in sixth grade until 2001. I taught fourth grade at Yokota East and moved to fifth grade two years later. I have been teaching fifth grade since then at Mendel.

Q: Why did you become a teacher?
A: My father went to only second grade through formal classroom learning and was later “home-schooled” by his grandfather who adopted him. My parents were supporters of education. I remember, during the war, when my father would give me a thin dime every Monday morning to buy one U.S. Savings Stamp to put into a savings book. In 10 years, the savings bond would mature and this became my college tuition. My father was a self-taught man ... ”jack-of–all-trades and master of them all.” He was my “Living Bible.” My father wanted my brother and me to have the formal education which he did not have and to be able give back our learning through teaching others. He always said that “learning becomes useful knowledge, only if you can give it away.”

Q: Is there any particular reason you joined DODEA, and what are the differences between teaching at a “regular” school and a DODEA school?
A: The first public school where I taught in California had no military connections. I had 40 students that year, but I was given a “gifted” class to teach them the cultures of my background. These students were sponges, ready to learn to dance the hula, or the Filipino dance with the bamboo, taking field trips to Chinatown, cooking Japanese dishes, playing the ukulele, learning Pacific Rim music, flying Japanese koinobori from the classroom roof, etc. We were connected through differences in culture … I learned how to sail a boat, horseback ride, care for a menagerie of animals and make pottery with the kiln in the back of the room. I learned more from my students that year. The other public school I taught in that had no military connections was Halawa School in Hawaii, which has since been destroyed. Like my California students, I was equally connected to them because of the location and family dynamics. These schools were like “family” schools. I taught these students in fifth grade and looped and moved up with them to sixth grade. I was offered a position to go to seventh grade with them, but my husband’s tour in the Philippines was over.

When my husband’s orders brought us to Yokota AB, I applied to teach for DODEA because I am a teacher. I see no difference between the two types of schools. My view is what I see in the faces of the children and values – responsibility, respect, sincerity, thoughtfulness, caring, excellence, etc., which they bring with them into the classroom on the first day of school. I teach the child. Whether I taught a child in a “regular” school or a DODEA school, I have always had surprise visits or heard from some of them after many, many, many years. I have taught students who are the children of former sixth-graders from my past. This truly makes me a “grandmother teacher.”

Q: You’ve been at this a long time. What motivated you to keep going?
A: Motivation is a difficult word to define. It could be … what “caused” me to teach for so long … what “inspired” me to continue … “who” came along and lengthened my teaching journey ... I could probably say that:

  1. Working with certain colleagues for an extended time brought about a commitment to develop the whole student and I wanted to be a part of that process.
  2. Professional growth and development for teachers in education took gigantic leaps and I wanted to be a part of that change.
  3. As a mentor teacher, I wanted to pass on educational knowledge and teaching skills to student teachers. I have had 22 student teachers and some have since retired.
  4. Someone very dear to me said, “Mom, you must do what makes you smile every day, such that when your feet touch the floor after a night’s sleep, you will say, ‘Thank you, for today I am going to my happy place!”

Q: Times have changed. Teaching has changed. How did you adjust throughout the years?
A: This is so true ... When I stepped into my first classroom in 1962, there were no specialists, only classroom teachers. Teaching methods have changed and the implementation of technology altered my teaching the most. Acceptance to change helped me to make the adjustment with the help and assistance of team members. Technology is visible in my classroom as well as in the production of student work, but I still stress the importance of personal handwriting, an art which no one can copy. It is the student who “wakes” the computer. The computer will not function until a child puts his/her hands on the keyboard. When an opportune time comes, I “revert” to the “old days of teaching.”

Q: Anyone who knows you or was a student of yours will say you’re a great storyteller. How do you incorporate that into your teaching?
A: My university speech instructor told me that I should be a storyteller and to continue my speech courses. He said that teachers are on stage throughout the school day and that with every performance in different subjects, we need to be entertainers. “You must create experiences, activities, and have action-packed events of all kinds in your daily life in order to be a storyteller.” In sixth grade, I taught Ancient Civilizations, and so I traveled to Egypt, China, Tibet and collected stories about my Asian and Hawaiian heritage. I would navigate my teaching information to “bring in” a story as examples of firsthand experiences, especially the popular story about me having lunch with King Tutankhamun’s mummy. A story could be told in all subject areas. Triggered by a topic word, a story “pops” into my mind. Even stories from “Chicken Soup for the Soul” were popular with the students, and each day one student would choose a story to tell. Stories of true experiences capture the attention of the students, and just as they are eagerly waiting to hear the end, I would say, “I will tell you the rest of the story tomorrow.”

“Mrs. Saiki, what do we need to do to hear the rest of the story tomorrow?”

“Your ticket will be to list three ‘I know that’ facts from the story.”

Stories build knowledge with strength to retain and remember.

Q: What advice do you have for a young teacher just starting out?
A: Discipline and proper behavior will help to create a positive classroom environment for teaching and learning. Another advice would be to let every student leave your room at the end of the day with a positive comment. Lastly, every student needs to look forward to returning to school the next teaching day, so let them bark, “ARF, ARF, every day – Achieve or Accomplish an important task, give or show Respect, and have Fun.”

Q: You have a close-knit family. Tell us how growing up in the military community helped shape who your children are today.
A: During their father’s Air Force career, my two daughters and son learned to understand that their lives as military children enabled them to tolerate the varying changes and transitional moves from one assignment to another. Their nomadic lives made them stronger as they shared the same experiences with other military children through school and neighborhood activities. Their friends were of all racial backgrounds and they rallied to support each one when a parent was deployed or on TDY. Living in Teheran, Iran, enabled my children to become part of a different culture, and they appreciated the daily contact with traditions and celebrations along with children of other branches of services. But, all too soon, Iran’s status changed, and my children faced terrorism for the first time. Living in Japan cemented their appreciation for all that the Air Force had provided for them. Twice a week, Tracey had a radio show on [Far East Network] with the Yokota Youth News and she worked with the Fuji Flyer at the Public Affairs Office as a student writer. She also wrote several articles for Stars and Stripes. Jessie also worked during the summer with Stars and Stripes, assisting David Ornauer. When it was time for college, they both took the path of journalism.

Q: What are you most proud of?
A: I am most proud of my family. When my only son passed away in 1985, his two sisters were my pillars of strength. My husband, Ed, understood the frailty of my being and was very gentle in all that he did for me. Jessie took care of my aging parents because she felt I needed to “heal” in Japan by doing what I loved – teaching. On Dec. 21, 2013, Tracey sustained a massive stroke which left her right side paralyzed and she lost her speech. Her sister, Jessie, stayed with her through the early diagnosis and treatment. Through speech, occupational, physical, art, and water therapies, Tracey can walk and her speech has returned. Her perseverance to walk and speak again has enabled her to become a motivational speaker. Family gives support, love and patience, which provides the strength to face unexpected moments of life. Family is measured by generosity, purpose and helping others to accomplish a goal.

Q: You’ve touched and influenced so many lives throughout the years. Do you have any nuggets of knowledge to share with us as you head into retirement?
A: Our hands are the tools for goodness in life: to touch, to receive, to give, to create and to pray. Use time wisely. This is the message my father left all of us who knew him: live, love, laugh, learn, look back and leave a legacy.

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