Emelina Emaas, John F. Kennedy High School
Biology teacher takes holistic approach to education
After 43 years as an educator, it’s hard for Emelina Emaas to imagine a life without students. “I kept saying I would retire last year, but I couldn’t even fill out the application. My heart is rebelling.”
Emaas has been with the Sacramento City Unified School District for 16 years and spent most of that time teaching in an independent study program. For the last two years, she has been teaching biology, anatomy and physiology at John F. Kennedy High School. She also supports newly hired teachers by observing their classes, giving input on classroom management and teaching strategies and approaches and adopting Next Generation Science Standards in teaching biology.
Her career began far from California as a teacher and administrator in the Philippines. For 14 years, she taught science classes there and was promoted to various levels of administration, from supporting and supervising other teachers to assisting the principals and district supervisors. As a teacher who started when she was 20, did she think she would be teaching all this time? “I can’t imagine. Every summer I make it a point to go over my old files and I can’t imagine how I succeeded. But I’m happy with all my accomplishments.”
Why become a teacher?
Becoming a teacher wasn’t her first choice. Emaas wanted to be a journalist but her mother told her they couldn’t afford it. Her father died when she was 2 years old, and there were seven kids in the family. Instead, she found another path. Ever since she was little, her teachers would pick her out as the student who could play a teacher during Girl Scout Week. Maybe it was her penmanship and ability to explain, she said.
She thought about becoming a physical education teacher, but one of her college instructors was rude, telling her she couldn’t do it because she wasn’t good enough in gymnastics competition. Because of that experience, she learned never to say anything negative to her students.
Emaas was inspired by her high school biology teacher, who made activities interactive and interconnected. For example, her teacher asked students to imagine they were exploring the ocean in a submarine, and then their lesson would be the properties of the ocean. “She also shared many applications of concepts in our daily life. That’s what I inherited from her. When I teach biology, I make it a point to connect with the subject area, so students can appreciate how the learning applies to their daily lives.”
Coming to California
In the Philippines, Emaas was in charge of supervising implementation of a computer program in one big national high school. Eventually she was recruited along with a group of more than 150 teachers—including a group of 22 specializing in science, math and special education—to teach in the United States. After a year, the teachers were either rehired based on their teaching performance, could look for other teaching positions in the United States or return to the Philippines. And now here she is—teaching in Sacramento since 2002.
What’s one fun thing about you?
“I’m fond of kinesthetics (the art of learning through action) when I’m teaching.” Emaas asks her students to imagine and simulate anything they can’t see. And she’s not afraid to put her foot in. “If I need to dance, I dance in class. My students say I’m funny.”
What’s one thing you’re proud of as a teacher?
“I’m very proud if a student comes back to me and says ‘Thank you, Ms. Emaas. I’m already successful because of you.’ That’s my greatest happiness, when my students write me a note.
“I’m a biology teacher but my thinking is holistic. I want each of my students to develop as a better person. Your knowledge in science is meaningless if there’s something wrong in your behavior, if you can’t become a good citizen. That’s always in my orientation. I am very particular about behavior in the classroom.”
A workaholic who is often the last teacher in the school, Emaas said part of her whole student approach is checking in with parents. “I call every single day. I share my observations that the parents need to know and not just the problems. I’m proud that the parents are cooperative.”
Knowing her students, their learning styles and background helps. “My first activity is telling me who you are in the form of art, not a paragraph. I let them draw a big letter “I” on a white paper. Tell me who you are—about your qualities as a person, your family and school background/experiences, and what you have done in the community. It’s a form of art.”
At the beginning of the year, Emaas also writes an introduction to parents and shares her expectations. “I always ask the parents of my students, ‘What do you think I need to know? Trust me not only as a teacher but as a second mother of your child, so you are my best partner to develop the skills of your child and the total personality.’”
Emaas also makes house calls if students are sick or absent too long. “It’s coming from my heart. I let my students know that I really love them, especially those students who need care from their parents.”
How long until retirement?
“One more year perhaps, but if I’m in good health, I will reach 65. I could retire anytime but with the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards in teaching science and with my role as a ‘New Teacher Support Provider,’ it’s hard.”
Married for 43 years, Emaas has eight adult children and 15 grandchildren. “Can you imagine?” Her youngest daughter followed in her footsteps as a teacher in the same school district, in special education. “What will I do at home? My goal is to retire graciously. I may work until I have no more energy to work.”
It’s hard to visualize her running out of energy. Her hobbies are dancing, singing and camping. “If I’m driving, I’m singing. When I hear music, I cannot stop my fingers. I have to make them move.”
If Emaas can imagine a life after teaching, her dream is to establish a foundation to help students who don’t have parents to take care of them. “I really want them to feel there’s someone who could love them. I would like to teach them.”
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