For a veteran teacher, four decades of caring and rewards

Armatage 1st-grade teacher Jane Sasaki has been at it for 40 years, imparting lifelong lessons and making lifelong fans

When Armatage Community and Montessori school 1st-grade teacher Jane Sasaki asked her class what they’re thankful for, they listed warm clothes, this class, new shoes, and you (Ms. Sasaki).

Sasaki was taken aback by her students’ complimentary responses. She instantly cooed and leaned backwards in disbelief while her hand rested gently across her heart.

The 1st-graders who sat on the floor in a “U” around Sasaki in early November aren’t the only ones thankful for the longtime teacher who teaches kids how to read and offers lifelong lessons.

Past students, parent-volunteers, fellow teachers and other school officials sing the praises of the teacher of 41 years, 36 of those in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Sasaki is celebrated for her unwavering dedication, teaching style and industry.

Known for the long hours she dedicates to her work, she frequently stays up until 2 a.m. to plan lessons, living up to a promise she made to herself long ago: If there were ever two days in a row that she didn’t want to teach, then she would move on and do something else.

In four decades, that’s never happened.

She’s made an indelible impression on past and present students. Often, when her students get sick, their parents call the office wanting to know if their child can attend school because even though he or she has a fever, he or she doesn’t want to miss class.

Their teacher doesn’t like to miss school either. In fact, Sasaki, who isn’t married and doesn’t have any kids, dreads summer vacation.

As further evidence of Sasaki’s effectiveness, some parents continue to volunteer in her classroom years later, well after their own children graduated.

Her calling

Near-to-the-ground tables, miniature chairs, stacks of books, educational games, banners of brightly colored letters of the alphabet, numbers and plenty of supplies characterize Room 111.

The surroundings looks like a typical 1st-grade classroom. Backpacks hang from hooks in a row. There are also wipe boards, a computer, gold stars, stray pencils and crayons, charts, a boom box and vinyl records (Sasaki often plays old vinyl records).

Sasaki and her students get a perfect view of a tree growing just outside the window. “I love my room. The tree is gorgeous. It shows all four seasons. It’s just beautiful,” she said.

Originally, the native Californian intended to stay in Minnesota just one year, part of an agreement with a professor to pilot a reading program. She stayed because of the kids and parents who made her feel at home.

For example, once, when Armatage’s soccer teams were forced to play against each other in a championship game, the kids on the winning team had a hard time sleeping that night because they sympathized for their friends on the other team, she said. “That tells you something about these families’ values. The kids are wonderful,” she said with pride.

Sasaki has taught first-grade at various city schools, but for the past five years, Sasaki has led 1st grade at Armatage, 2501 W. 56th St. A lot has changed since she joined the Minneapolis district in 1969. Then, Sasaki was one of the few Asian American teachers in the city. Most of her students at the time had never even seen an Asian person before, she said.

Amid the culture shock, funny misconceptions arose. For example, seeing that her eyes narrowed when she smiled, her students asked her seriously, “Can you see?”

Now, kids have more diverse experiences. As Sasaki recently read a children’s book about famous civil rights activist Rosa Parks, “Rosa,” by Nikki Giovanni, she told them about how Parks’ bus-bound protest paved the way for them to be together and not segregated.

“Children, if it hadn’t been for this person, I couldn’t be your teacher. Even your friends here in the room couldn’t be here. What would it be like if your friends couldn’t be here?”

Volunteered one student, “It would be sad.”

Sasaki read the book on the same day as Parks’ funeral, Nov. 2. A natural storyteller, the petite Sasaki uses her teeny-tiny “theater voice” to get students’ attention. Her voice is soft yet dramatic, with musical ups and downs. She gets very quiet when she wants to make an especially important point. She repeats key words or phrases and then pauses, dramatically. Her captive audience leans forward with their eyes wide open.

Sasaki said she felt similarly connected to her beloved 4th-grade teacher, Lois Johnson. She was “mesmerized” by Johnson’s lyric voice and her animated gestures.

From then on, whenever she played “school” with friends and relatives, she always performed the role as teacher. Sasaki kept in touch with Johnson until her mentor died in 1997. Johnson left her an enduring love for literature.

An avid reader, that’s also what Sasaki likes best about teaching. She said that learning to read is a turning point for kids. “When a nonreader becomes a reader, it’s life-changing.”

As they gain confidence, their behavior changes. “Success is based on the ability to read. Children who can read don’t have to put on a fake front.”

A kind of Mary Poppins

Parent-volunteer John Mejia, a stay-at-home dad, has helped Sasaki’s class every Wednesday for the past five years. He met her when his son Danny was in her 1st-grade class. Danny is now a 5th-grader, but Mejia still returns year after year.

An inside joke: Ms. Sasaki holds him back every year.

Danny still has many of the projects he did in her class, such as the elaborate memory book every student completes by the end of the school year. At home, the family lovingly refers to a corner of the home where all of Danny’s 1st-grade work is stashed, as the “Sasaki shrine,” Mejia said with a laugh.

Danny said his favorite activity ever was the “Magic Pumpkin.” That’s where kids carve pumpkins in teams and look for buried treasure, maybe or maybe not nestled deep inside of the pumpkin’s meat.

Sometimes when the 1st-graders can’t see something peeking through the eyes or the nose they’ve cut, they doubt that a prize is inside. That makes it extra special when they discover a Ziploc bag full of party favors at the end, Mejia said.

There are other games, too. Sasaki traditionally leads a “beach day” as a reward for kids’ hard work learning how to read. On that day – well into the school year when every child reads fluently – kids are encouraged to don their swimsuits, bring in a beach towel, sprawl out on the floor and pretend they’re at the beach.

Mejia steps into the surfer-esque role of “Don the Beachcomber.” Sasaki and Don the Beachcomber set up a store wherein kids buy snacks with fake money. “It’s the best way for kids to learn math,” said Sasaki.

Said Mejia, “Jane is a world-class teacher. This woman is unbelievable. It’s wonderful to be a part of it. And it’s fun to be around someone who’s the best at what they do.”

Besides fun activities, Sasaki arms kids with lifelong skills. Another parent, Kathy Burns, who volunteers on Thursdays, said, “These kids are lucky to be in this class. My son is always saying that she’s [Sasaki] the nicest person he’s ever met. He says there’s nobody like her.”

Burns’ son was in Sasaki’s class last year. Of Sasaki, Burns said, “She’s the most giving person I have ever met. How she goes about teaching is just incredible. I’m reliving it.”

Armatage Principal Joan Franks extolled Sasaki’s virtues: ingenuity, organization and deliberate teaching. Likening her to a kind of Mary Poppins, Franks said, “You can’t help but love being there. She always has kids focused on learning skills. She instills a love of learning, high expectations and a deep devotion for each child. What parent doesn’t want their child to be with a teacher who’s enveloped in their child?”

However, the thing that impresses Franks most is the respect that Sasaki shows for her students. For example, one day she observed that Sasaki needed to get past a student and his chair, which were in her way. Instead of just moving the chair, she asked the boy if it’d be OK to move his chair.

“She does it because of the love. Not for the money or recognition,” Franks added.

Montessori 1st-grade teacher Sue Allen teaches a class just across the hallway from Sasaki. Allen, who’s taught in the district for 35 years, worked with Sasaki on the reading team 25 years ago. They reconnected when Sasaki came to Armatage. Often they reminisce about old times and bounce ideas off each other.

Said Allen, “She’s just an incredibly caring teacher, and she works long hours. We do a lot of sharing. There have been times when she’s tried out a Montessori idea and others when she’s given me worksheets. I’ve never seen anyone with so much energy. She never stops giving to those children and those families.”

Perhaps most telling of all is a red heart made out of construction paper that’s near the classroom door. Crumpled up, a permanent marker message is penned, “Please don’t wrinkle my heart.”

Sasaki said she’d continue to teach, “As long as I love it and my health is good.”