An award-winning English teacher with a national reputation in Holocaust education and a penchant for making those lessons relatable to students at an alternative high schoolhas landed a new title: Palm Beach County Teacher of the Year.
This year, school administrators once again scrapped the traditional surprise classroom visit from Superintendent Donald Fennoy, this time in choosing tod broadcast an award ceremony on its cable channel and online Tuesday.
Toshimi Abe-Janiga, 59, has been a fixture at Riviera Beach Preparatory for 14 years, teaching both English and an elective in Holocaust studies.
Her route to teaching lessons ofJewish genocide to some of the most challenging students, often from some of the county's poorest neighborhoods, seems unlikely for agirl born halfway around the world.
"I often puzzle people," agrees Abe-Janiga, who left Japan to work at Lynn University in Boca Raton in 1992 and found her way to teaching English and Japanese to high schoolers in 2005.
More: This tech savvy Boca Raton educator is Palm Beach Countys principal of the year
Abe-Janigawas always turned on by teachingbut discovered the power of Holocaust education froma student with a spider web tattoo on his hand a mark she recognizedas a possible nod to prison time.
When asked to bring a book to class, this young man chose "Night" by Elie Wiesel.
"He told me that he was horrified by the cruelty of the Nazis' oppression and moved by Elie Wiesel's silence as an answer," Abe-Janiga recalled.
"He told me, Mrs. Toshimi, you have to teach this book," Abe-Janiga said. First the beginning high school teacher had to read it. "it was so powerful and at the same time I was interested in the students' response."
Inspired, Abe-Janiga traveled the world to Israel, to Germany, to Lithuania to further her understanding of World War II events. But she also soughtto give her students awindow to that history, landing grants for travel to the U.S. Holocaust Museum and inviting survivors to their classroom.
Her advocates say Abe-Janiga is successful because she makes lessonsrelevant to her students. Her class is a space to work through the bigotry and racism, not just in a long-ago war, but also inAfrican-American history and current events.
She has received a grant for a schoolwide reading initiative that incorporates Black history and discusses systemic racism in our society.
More: Board considers raising starting teachers' salaries to $47,500; others get 3.5% boost
Her studentshave contemplated the comparisons drawn by poet Langston Hughes between the oppression of Jews by the Nazis and African Americans by Southern whites.
They have culled the writings of politician and civil rights activist John Lewis to create what she calls "found poems," by using only words and phrases plucked from the text.
Abe-Janiga touched her own roots whenshe did a project about a WWII-eraJapanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews and connected her students to otherstudents in both countries.
Her class has dialed up an authorfor a coast-to-coast chatregarding his novel that follows a group of outcasts as they tackle inequality and discrimination at their high school.
Abe-Janiga's influence goes beyond the classroom. Her grant writing prowess has paid off in intense test prep boot camps to boost her students' college exam scores. She's brought in thousands to give students a three-stop Florida college tour. Her students have left the classroom to clear graves in a historically Black cemetery in Riviera Beach and visited the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach.
"When I teach a student about the Holocaust, I want them to participate, to prevent the next atrocity," she said in a video highlighting the county's finalists. "I want them to understand the warnings of what's coming. I want them to make a choice to do the right thing as a human being."
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, trophy secured, Abe-Janiga couldn't contain her surprise. "I'm so glad I listened to that student. I have to say thank you to him."
Toshimi Abe-Janiga rose to the top in a field of more than 77nominees. Having won the title, she is eligible to win Florida's 2022 Teacher of the Year titleIn addition to announcing that honor, Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoyalso awarded the School Related Employee of the Year to Hernan Avila, also known as WellingtonHigh's "Coach H."
Avila, 27, began as a behavior specialist at the school and rose to a job in technologythere, but really, he's Mr. Fix It the person administrators, teachers and students turn to when a challenge arises, say Wellington High administrators.
Those challenges can be logistical, like organizing the handing out of laptops during the pandemic, or more personal, such as finding a way to re-engage a student distraught over a death in the family.
Said Wellington principal Cara Hayden, "He's extremely special and so loved."
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