Southwest Washington’s ‘Teacher of the Year’ shines spotlight on youngest learners

VANCOUVER — If you were a child living in Kendra Yamamoto’s Eugene, Ore., neighborhood in the early to mid-1980s, you might remember Yamamoto. She was the one who led the make-believe, but nonetheless mandatory, “school” classes during summer vacation.  


“It wasn’t a choice if you lived in our cul-de-sac,” Yamamoto, now a 40-year-old preschool teacher in the Vancouver Public Schools district, says of the pretend classroom she ran as a young child. “I’m sure the kids didn’t enjoy it, but their parents probably did!”


Yamamoto ran the pretend-classroom like a pro, bringing in ideas she’d gleaned at her elementary school, like compliment cards to bolster students’ self esteem, and chucking out the things she knew — even at a young age — were harmful to learning, like her one teacher’s fondness for shaming children by writing names of disruptive students on the chalkboard.


For Yamamoto, teaching was the only job she ever wanted to have.

Vancouver Public Schools preschool teacher Kendra Yamamoto, pictured here with a few of her students, is the region’s ‘Teacher of the Year,’ and was one of nine finalists for the Washington State Teacher of the Year award. Photo courtesy of Educational SD 112
Vancouver Public Schools preschool teacher Kendra Yamamoto, pictured here with a few of her students, is the region’s ‘Teacher of the Year,’ and was one of nine finalists for the Washington State Teacher of the Year award.
Photo courtesy of Educational SD 112

“I remember being 5 years old, walking the ramp to the portable and opening the door,” Yamamoto says of her earliest school memories. “I knew then that I was going to be a teacher. I thought, ‘I’m going to do this and I’m going to do it well.’”


And that she has. Earlier this month, Yamamoto joined educators from around the state at a banquet to honor Washington’s most accomplished K-12 teachers. Yamamoto represented all of Southwest Washington as the region’s Teacher of the Year for Educational Service District 112 (ESD 112), which includes 30 public schools, 23 private schools and two state schools in six different counties throughout Southwest Washington.


One of nine finalists for the Washington State Teacher of the Year award, Yamamoto says she felt honored to be singled out for her achievements.


“My greatest professional accomplishments and contributions have been driven by student and family needs, specifically in the areas of home language and early learning,” Yamamoto says.


A graduate of Northwest Christian University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, and of Lesley University, where she received her master’s degree in education, Yamamoto has worked for Vancouver Public Schools since 1998 and currently teaches preschool at Martin Luther King Elementary School. She also works in all 21 elementary schools within the Vancouver Public Schools (VPS) district as a mentor to new kindergarten teachers and is passionate about early education opportunities for Vancouver’s youngest children as well as their families.


“The question is, ‘How do we capture ages 0 to 5?’ because that’s when 90 percent of brain growth is occurring,” Yamamoto says. “I would love it if our schools could welcome every new baby and new family.”


Her idea isn’t, of course, for infants to come into the classroom, but rather for public schools to become a community meeting place for families with children of all ages, not just families with children ages 5 and older.


Helping parents of very young children connect to school resources and prepare their preschool-aged children for the rigors of early elementary school is something in which Yamamoto is well-versed: She started the Vancouver school district’s first preschool program in 2008, is a member of the district’s Early Learning Task Force and coordinates Vancouver Public Schools’ award-winning Jump Start program, a summertime learning opportunity for incoming kindergarten students that helped more than 1,000 students prepare for kindergarten in 2016.


Currently, Yamamoto teaches two preschool classes for the Vancouver district, and says she loves watching her students — and their families — grow into successful learners.


A mother of young children herself — she and her husband, Matt Richardson, live in downtown Vancouver with their three children, 9-year-old Ari, 7-year-old Finn and 3-year-old Mika Mei — Yamamoto says she’s resisted becoming a full-time teacher mentor, despite the fact that she enjoys working with the district’s incoming kindergarten teachers, because she loves her job as a preschool teacher.


The only real glitch in her professional life, Yamamoto says, was the fact that so many families who wanted to be in her preschool program but didn’t make the lottery admission process, were stuck on a waiting list, often making too much money to qualify for low-income programs like Head Start but not enough money to pay for a private preschool.


“It kept me up at night, thinking about all of those families on the wait list,” she says.


As former students from Yamamoto’s childhood cul-de-sac can probably attest — this teacher is someone who gets things done. The wait list problem was just another opportunity in Yamamoto’s hands. She helped secure grant-funding for an extra preschool program — one that would occur outside of regular school hours — and even found private funding, through PLC Engineering, to kick in more than $400 to pay for meals.


The evening preschool program, held in eight-week sessions last year, February through June, provided preschool classes for all 25 families who had been on Yamamoto’s regular preschool wait list.


“It has been highly successful,” Yamamoto says of the program. “It exposed those kids to what school life was like.”


Yamamoto says she loves connecting with her students’ families and tries to give parents the tools they need to continue the learning process at home.


In a press release sent out by ESD 112 after Yamamoto was selected as the region’s Teacher of the Year, several parents attested to the preschool teacher’s special qualities.


“Our first child had Ms. Yamamoto in 2009,” parents Melissa and Scott Edwards stated. “We were very impressed with her even from the first time we met her. We could tell she loved her job. She has an excitement about her that radiates to those around her and especially to her students. She prepared him for kindergarten academically and socially in a way that allowed him to thrive in that environment.”


Tamara Shoup, director of family engagement at the Vancouver district’s Family Community Resource Centers, agreed, stating: “She is a magical teacher. I cannot think of many occasions in my life that I have been swept away with curiosity. In Ms. Yamamoto’s evening preschool class, I felt like a learner. The children I sat with during circle time were eager to participate too. Ms. Yamamoto inspires children and adults. She is a rockstar educator!”


A formerly shy student who has blossomed into one of the state’s best teachers, Yamamoto is still humble when it comes to her work. Being a great teacher isn’t about one individual, she says, but rather about a community of people who are dedicated to the best interests of society’s youngest citizens.


“Working with, informing and connecting with others in the community makes me a stronger teacher, which then directly impacts my students,” Yamamoto says. “The power of a connected community is limitless.”

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