Ikawa poses in her classroom that she’s been teaching out of for 17 years.
Ikawa poses in her classroom that she’s been teaching out of for 17 years.
Grant Nakasone

Hawaii teacher with decades of experience reflects on the next generation of leaders

Jan Ikawa, whose firm yet welcoming teaching style that has become synonymous with her name, has been on a wild ride in her education career, facing unique highs and lows.

One Hawaiʻi teacher, Jan Ikawa, decided to embark on a professional journey 37 years ago that would change the lives of many, including her own, and leave an impact on countless students that have gone through her classes. As she contemplates her upcoming retirement, she reflected upon what’s behind her, and what’s ahead.

Ikawa, whose firm yet welcoming teaching style that has become synonymous with her name, was born and raised in Pearl City, Hawaiʻi, and attended the University of California, Davis. However, education wasn’t her initial major.

“I initially went to college to be a vet and it wasn’t my calling because it was science; it was too hard for me, and it really didn’t spark as much of an interest,” Ikawa said.

When she discovered her true calling while working at a UC Davis preschool in junior year, she felt compelled to change her major. After graduating from UC Davis with a degree in child development, Ikawa remained in California as an elementary school teacher for 20 years.

After relocating to Hawaiʻi 17 years ago, she quickly interviewed for a first-grade teaching position at Mililani Mauka Elementary and shared that she was lucky to get the job in a community that is so education-friendly.

“Well, I think the families, all of the kids come to school ready to learn. The parents take an interest in their children’s education. It makes my job easier as a teacher, so I’m not fighting against the parents, but instead working with them,” Ikawa said about the willingness to learn from both students and parents.

But regardless of the relative ease of her job at Mauka, there was one transition she had to adapt after moving from California.

“The pay was much better on the mainland,” Ikawa said straightforwardly.“I do enjoy being around the children, and when it comes right down to it, money isn’t as important as, I guess, making a difference or doing something that you enjoy. So I think that’s more important.”

But even with the issue of money set aside, Ikawa has faced many obstacles and challenges in her career from different people in different positions.

“Sometimes the parents might not always agree with how I do things, or maybe the adults. The kids are fine,” Ikawa shared about her experiences. “It’s the adults in the educational system that probably have been the most challenging to work with. Both parents, maybe some administrators, or just any adults.”

Regardless of the challenges, Ikawa has persevered and used those difficult moments to learn and refine her teaching style.

“You know, it’s funny, because people think that I’m the fun teacher, so they don’t think I’m strict. And I think that’s the perception people have,” Ikawa said. “But I am very strict, because the kids, within my fun, I still have very firm limitations and expectations of them. And once they know that I mean business, then I can let loose a little bit and let my fun side come out.”

She said that making her classroom a welcoming yet enthusiastic space has profound effects on students.

“I definitely want them to come to school and want to learn and enjoy what they’re doing,” she said. “So, I try to do as much to motivate them as possible.”

Korie Takamoto, a sophomore at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and former student of Ikawa, said she will always cherish Ikawa’s teaching style and the impact she had on her outlook on education.

“She made me want to go to school and that’s not something you’ll hear me say often,” Takamoto said. “She just made it fun and there was always something to look forward to.”

But even with all the praise, Ikawa remains persistent that she is only ever done her job.

“I’m doing my job and I’m not a hero at all,” she said. “I’m just doing what I’m supposed to and doing what I love and if something positive comes out of it, that’s great, but I definitely don’t see myself as a hero.”

Ikawa plans on retiring after the next school year in what will be her 38th year as a teacher.

Although she said when the time comes for her to say goodbye to the job that she loves so much, she will send it off no differently than any other year.

“See you, don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” Ikawa joked. “No, I might just say what I always say to the class, thank you for a good year. We usually sit in a big circle and say one thing of gratitude, and I think I would end it exactly the same. No different.”

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