Crossing the big old blue


When 2018 California State Teacher of the Year award winners aren’t grading papers, preparing assessments and assisting children, then you may find them throwing out the first pitch at a Dodger baseball game or on a tour abroad learning about culture and education.

“It’s a tradition for the Teacher of the Year Foundation to send the five Teacher of the Year winners to Japan,” said Erin Oxhorn-Gilpin, a teacher at Northlake Hills Elementary School. “The idea is to have cultural immersion, see other schools and be a representative of the California education system.”

The trip to Japan lasted 11 days and started with the observation of elementary, middle and high schools, where Oxhorn-Gilpin and the four other award recipients shared photos and information about their classrooms back home.

It was neat to see the different levels and types of schooling, Oxhorn-Gilpin said, as she described the prominence of private schools in the region and the handmade welcome signs each school had prepared for the American visitors.

“One big difference I noticed was there wasn’t much cultural diversity,” Oxhorn-Gilpin said. “Everybody was always amazed when I’d show pictures of my classroom, which was a big thing for me because we sometimes take (diversity) for granted living in the United States and California.”

Students were also in school for a much longer period of time, Oxhorn-Gilpin said, noting the extended school day and the four-week summer break.

“Teachers in Japan are mandated to all stay at the same pace and keep moving, no matter what,” she said. Students usually work from workbooks, so there’s really no room for a teaching style like the ones encouraged in the states.

“It looks different, but it’s what works for their culture,” Oxhorn-Gilpin said.

During the trip, Oxhorn-Gilpin found an appreciation for the tradition embedded in Japanese society.

“It’s kind of hard to explain,” she said. “It’s a very respectful culture and everybody is so gracious and kind. It’s really impressive.”

Oxhorn-Gilpin said children served meals to each other at school, people never talked loudly in public and families treated you as if you were their own.

She recalled the time she offered her host family Dodger T-shirts and showed them a video of her first pitch at Dodger Stadium prior to the game.

The family was so excited, she said, that they immediately put the shirts on, and the next morning they were wearing them again.

“One of the coolest things was the new family we built during our time,” Oxhorn-Gilpin added.

Before Oxhorn-Gilpin left on the trip, she read her class a book titled, “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” the story of a girl who lived in Hiroshima at the time of the atomic bomb dropping.

After reading the book, the entire class made made paper cranes.

While in Hiroshima, Oxhorn-Gilpin was able to leave her class’ cranes at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, which she said was a very emotional experience.

She said she’s excited to come back and share the experience with the class, which she will teach again in the coming year.

“It’s all been one crazy experience and I’m thinking, ‘Why me?’” said Oxhorn-Gilpin, the only Teacher of the Year who teaches elementary school. “It was a huge honor to represent what we do here in California, especially as an elementary school teacher.”

“It was truly a gift that I got to do this,” Oxhorn-Gilpin said. “I’m still trying to remember not to take it for granted because it was a huge honor that I was the person to do all of this.”

She added with a giggle, “Tokyo Disneyland was also a big highlight that I didn’t mention.”

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