Resume: Kikuta has taught at Kathryn Jones Harrison Elementary School (formerly Jefferson) for 37 years.
Family: Partner, Teresa LeClaire. Four children in his blended family: His sons, Cooper, 28, and Carter, 26, along with LeClaire’s children, Andrew, 22, and Danielle, 20.
Hobbies: Hiking and cooking.
A recent culinary experiment: “I recently acquired a pizza oven so I’ve been trying some different pizza recipes.” His pizza oven can heat up to 900 degrees, so he has to cook a special Neapolitan style of pizza dough that can withstand the heat. During a recent family gathering, he was making pizza – but wasn’t sure if the dough was working out. But the family members liked it – or so they said: “I don’t know if they were just saying this to be nice or if my other pizza dough sucked.”
From the Golden Apple nomination: “Belonging, trust, safety, confidence, love, unending compassion and humor – these are values that only begin to describe Elton Kikuta. Though, he’d probably add the Beavers and coffee to that list. … Elton sees the beauty in every child and he deeply believes in their potential.”
By MIKE McINALLY
Elton Kikuta, a teacher at Kathryn Jones Harrison Elementary School, says he generally prefers to stay under the radar.
By that measure, 2022 has to be shaping up as a bit of a disappointing year for Kikuta.
For one thing, he turned 60 on March 14 – Pi Day – and so his partner, Teresa LeClaire, arranged a birthday celebration, complete with pie, at the school. LeClaire made sure the word got out: “She had my face plastered around every hallway,” with posters announcing his 60th birthday and Pi Day.
That came a couple of weeks after another celebration involving Kikuta: He was named one of the 2022 winners of the Golden Apple awards given by the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation to honor outstanding teachers and staff members in the Corvallis School District.
That event involved luring Kikuta and his class to the school’s gym under false pretenses: “We were told that our PE time had to be moved up five minutes because our PE teacher had a schedule conflict, which is kind of odd,” the veteran teacher recalled in a recent interview.
“I walked down there with my class, walked in the gym and they had laid out a little red carpet made out of butcher paper, which is really cute,” but not something you see in a typical gym class.
Instead, the gym was filled with other teachers, students and members of the school administration, including Superintendent Ryan Noss, who had gathered there to present Kikuta with the Golden Apple.
But it’s telling that Kikuta at that moment also was focused on how his students were reacting: “When my kids walked in, I looked at them, they looked at me, and I said, ‘hey, I have no idea what’s going on.’ It was a nice surprise for all of us.”
And Kikuta recalls another surprise: The event featured third, fourth and fifth-graders from the school – students who had been in his class previously.
After 37 years teaching at Kathryn Jones Harrison, though, that’s not necessarily an unusual experience. He’s at the point now where he’s teaching the children of students who came through his classroom a generation or so ago.
“Here is this little girl I had as a first-grader and now she’s a mom and I have her child in my class in third grade,” Kikuta said. “It’s kind of a cute story and the daughter thinks it’s really cool. … When you teach primary (school) and the new generation is coming in, you’ve been there awhile.”
Teaching wasn’t Kikuta’s original plan. He was raised in San Jose, California and lived in Hawaii for a couple of years before moving to Willamina (the town’s nickname is Timbertown, U.S.A.), where he attended high school and worked in the forests during the summers. His plan when coming to Corvallis in 1980 was to study forestry at Oregon State University.
But the 1980s were not boom times for the timber industry, and his teachers at OSU made that clear: “The professors were pretty honest with us and said, ‘You know, unless you graduate on top of your class and have some type of specialty, you’re going to have a hard time finding a job in forestry.’”
So Kikuta turned to Plan B, which involved coaching baseball and teaching middle school math.
Then the kindergartners messed up that plan.
He did his student teaching (also at Kathryn Jones Elementary) in a kindergarten class. He found that he liked the younger students and wound up getting a degree in elementary ed with a math endorsement.
What was the appeal of the young students?
“I think it’s just, well, I was taller than everyone, that’s one,” he joked. “I don’t see myself as really nurturing, but it just felt good that they needed some guidance.”
Kikuta has spent more than half his career teaching kindergarten and first grade. He switched to third grade a few years ago, when district changes eliminated afternoon kindergarten at his school. He could have switched to another school but didn’t want to potentially push another teacher out of a job. So when a third-grade position opened at his school, he applied for and got that job.
Third grade, he said “was kind of easier in a way, just because the kids are reading and they’re more responsible, they’re more self-sufficient.”
And his approach to teaching has modified a bit now that he’s teaching third-graders, he said.
“I used to be pretty hard-core, pretty strict. I still am, but I think I’ve softened a bit. I am more apt to listen and that’s probably age, maturing a little bit. … My big thing now is just building relationships with kids.”
Sometimes, he said, that relationship-building can be tough, “but to me it really pays off in the long run. They need somebody to believe in them. The academics to me almost come second. They have to feel comfortable in the class, they have to trust their teacher and so when I have to have those hard discussions with them, they know I’m doing it out of sincere care and not just blowing smoke at them.”
Sometimes that relationship-building involves having lunch with a student who’s been having a tough time during recesses. Sometimes it involves taking the “Treasure Chest” – a box filled with trinkets and toys like squeezable balls or emoji keychains that students earn for behavior – to the house of a student who’s been quarantined because of the coronavirus so that she can choose something to make her feel just a little bit better.
Those are the sorts of interactions that have kept Kikuta teaching, even though he’s pondered moving to the administrative ranks or, more recently, retirement.
“I guess when it comes down to it, I still enjoy going into the classroom and working with the kids. That’s one of the reasons why I chose not to go into administration. … (Administrators) have to go to so many meetings and there’s so much political riprap they have to go through. And so I thought, I’m into teaching because I like the kids and I don’t think I would be a very good administrator.”
Winning the Golden Apple, he said, “was pretty humbling, just because I know a lot of people who have won the award, and they are all outstanding people and just to receive that in front of the staff … it’s a little embarrassing to hear all those things said about you in front of your colleagues and in front of your students.
“I just want people to know that I feel very honored and very humbled and I guess it was like unnecessary recognition. It was nice, and I appreciate it.”
But the award hasn’t done much to help Kikuta slide back into his preferred position, under the radar: The day after his birthday – that day when his face was plastered all over the school’s halls – Beth Martin, the principal at Kathryn Johns Harrison, held an event, complete with cookies, to celebrate the Golden Apple. “So seeing my face everywhere in the hallway and then having the staff come down to the break room after school to celebrate the Golden Apple was a little uncomfortable, but I guess in a good way.”