Monday, October 30, 2017

Sensei Yoshimi Aoyagi

To step into Yoshimi Aoyagi’s trailer at Chapel Hill High is, by one student’s description, “to step into a bubble.” During first period, 26 students stay alert and focused as they write, listen and speak rudimentary Japanese. When a bleary-eyed student yawns and stretches slightly, Aoyagi adopts a strict expression and reminds the students, “In here we do not yawn,” but moments later she is smiling, and the yawning student, sleepy as he is, grins and nods in agreement.
“From the first day of Japanese I, the moment you step into class, it’s different from any other class you’ve taken,” said Jillian Breithaupt, AP Japanese student and class assistant (or sempai) for first period at CHHS. “I love it!”
On Saturday October 21 at this year’s Foreign Language Association of NC (FLANC) conference, Yoshimi Aoyagi was honored as Teacher of the Year. During this calendar year alone, she has also won the Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher Award in the Japanese Language category in April, and the Outstanding Achievement Award at Southeastern Association of Teachers of Japanese in March. There are probably many reasons that these awards are flowing her way, but most apparent is the success of her students, year after year, in various essay and speech competitions, as well as her devotion to them on a more personal level. “She’s like our mom,” Breithaupt said. “She’s always asking, What do I need to be doing better to help you succeed?”
Sensei Aoyagi came to CHCCS in 2007, after many years of teaching at the college level (Rollins College, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and others). She has taught at CHS, East and CHHS, but has now settled in at the latter two - mornings at Chapel Hill High and afternoons at East. At both schools, she covers Japanese I-IV as well as Advanced Placement, and her students quickly form a community that carries them well past graduation.
The students come from many language backgrounds themselves, and for some, Japanese is a third or fourth language. Some choose to enroll in a class because of their strong interests in Japanese culture, perhaps anime or film. Some hope to teach English in Japan. And though Sensei is tireless in her efforts to help them perform at a high level, no one signs up for these classes because they’re easy. By October, even Japanese I students are writing essays, forming the characters in tiny boxes on Genkō yōshi, a special kind of paper.
I always challenge students to develop their cognitive ideas including understanding different cultures,” Aoyagi said. “I want to give them chances to think what they are and what they can do.”
The atmosphere in her classes is both light-hearted and formal, an odd balance, but it’s striking right away. Students bow to visitors, and when they introduce themselves, they use different honorifics, depending on the visitor’s status - a parent or older sibling versus a principal. All students call their teacher Sensei. In the profile posted when she won the national Elgin Heinz award this year, her impact is described this way: “Ms. Aoyagi has a reputation for being strict; her classes are rigorous and she sets high expectations. Nonetheless, her students know her best for fostering a classroom environment that is inclusive, exciting, and inspiring.”     
One point that Ms. Aoyagi emphasizes is that students who study a foreign language need experiences outside the classroom. Besides encouraging them to enter regional and national competitions, she has established exchange opportunities with schools throughout Japan. More than 120 of her students have traveled with her to Japan during summers since 2009.  In noting her qualifications, the Elgin Heinz committee wrote, “Ms. Aoyagi’s decades-long career demonstrates her sustained commitment to improving mutual understanding between Americans and Japanese, and she has made considerable contributions to enhancing students’ knowledge of foreign language.”
In her Level I and II classes, Aoyagi incorporates instructional support from current or former AP students, like Jillian Breithaupt, or Finn James at East Chapel Hill High. At East, 30 students study Japanese I this year. In the district, 109 students are enrolled across the levels.

East principal Eileen Tully said, “I am so happy that she has received such an amazing recognition because she works so hard.  She is a fantastic teacher because she is passionate about her students and about sharing the Japanese language and culture with them.  It is simply great that her dedication has been acknowledged by FLANC.”