By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR
He’s a top teacher with a Little Tokyo connection. Brian Morita, 34, on Sept. 20 was selected as one of Los Angeles County’s Teachers of the Year. Morita teaches sixth grade at El Sereno Elementary School in the L.A. Unified School District.
“It’s a great honor to be recognized in this capacity being that there are so many other teachers out there,” said Morita. “I realize this isn’t an individual recognition as it is a community recognition. For me, it’s a great honor because I represent El Sereno and the community I serve.”
Morita was one of 16 teachers selected in the largest local competition of its kind in the state and is part of the oldest and most prestigious honors contest in the U.S. for public school teachers. Since 2002 he has been a teacher at El Sereno, a primarily Hispanic school located on the outskirts of East L.A.
The son of Tetsuhiro and Michiko Morita got his start in education at Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, where he worked for years in the office while going to school.
Morita explained that he was hopping from major to major at Cal State Los Angeles, when he was told that his temperament might be suitable for becoming a teacher.
In the summer of 1997, Susan Mukai of the Nishi Hongwanji Child Development Center, offered him a job as a teaching assistant at the temple’s school. He went on to get his masters in education from UCLA.
“We are so proud of him and not surprised in the least,” said Mukai. “His skills of being able to talk with children, listen to children—all of those things were really valuable here.”
Besides his career, Morita also found someone very special at Nishi, his wife Mary.
“My wife was the first person who introduced me to the skills and all the necessary jobs that I would have to do as a teachers’ assistant,” Morita recalled. “She mentored me. Little did I know, she said years after that ‘I had my eye on you at the beginning.’”
The couple married and have two children, daughter Midori, 3 1/2, and son Hiro, 1 1/2.
Morita continues to work in the summers at the Saishin Dojo school at Senshin Buddhist Temple, where students get ready for the next school year and also learn Japanese and Buddhist culture.
“He’s a great teacher, he just has a way with kids. He has no immediate discipline problems, they just do what he says,” said Rev. Mas Kodani, Senshin Buddhist Temple.
In addition to being interviewed, Teacher of the Year contestants submitted essays, lesson plans and other materials to judging panels comprised of their peers.
The 16 local winners automatically advance with other county titlists from around the state to the “California Teachers of the Year” competition this fall. The state is scheduled to announce its five co-winners in November, and one of those five will be chosen to represent California in the “National Teacher of the Year” contest next spring.
With the recent focus on teacher performance and reforming education, Morita encouraged those who want to become teachers to follow their passion.
“If you’re interested in teaching go for it. It’s not for the money, now more than ever. It’s not for the pats on the back,” he said. “I think we really need people who are passionate about this profession. As hard as it is now, I think we’re going to get high quality teachers in the coming years. The ones we get now are really dedicated to the lives of children.”