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The City Journals

Celebration delayed, so Murray commemorated its own Utah PTA educator and support staff award-winners

Sep 10, 2020 03:52PM ● By Julie Slama

Longview Elementary teacher Mike Okumura, who is a Utah PTA’s outstanding educator of the year, introduces his pet snake to students as a way to support the science curriculum. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

There wasn’t a banquet, an awards ceremony or big celebration—but it may yet happen. But Murray’s Region 19 PTA members couldn’t wait.

“Anytime we have a chance to nominate our outstanding teachers and staff members, and they win, we will celebrate them again and again because they’re phenomenal and very deserving,” PTA Region 19 Director Jeannette Bowen said. “We’re planning to celebrate them this fall when the state hopes to honor them.”

With that, Bowen and others came to post homemade signs in the yards of Longview’s Mike Okumura as outstanding educator of the year and McMillan’s Corey Peterson as outstanding support staff award-winner.

“The principal (Joy Sanford) called to ask if I was home, saying she was stopping by,” Peterson said. “Then, I heard my dog go crazy and pounding in my front yard. I opened the door and there she was with a sign and flowers and the region PTA president. I’m flattered parents think I do a good job; it was sweet of them to think of me.”

Okumura also was surprised by the recognition.

“I knew they nominated me for the award and Jeannette Bowen sent me a tribute of what was written which was very nice,” he said. “No matter what happened, reading that was so worth it.”

Then, during a faculty meeting over Zoom, it was announced Okumura was the state winner.

“I’m kind of surprised because I’ve only been at this school a couple years, but they were able to include some of the things I’ve always done in my classrooms whether it’s here or at Liberty (Elementary). It’s quite the honor,” he said.

Okumura, who has his bachelor’s degree in child development from the University of Utah, began his teaching career in the 1980s at a private daycare.

“I had no intention of becoming a teacher. I just went there to work and loved it. I spent 16 years there,” he said.

Afterward, he got his master’s in elementary education and teaching certificate from the U of U and taught fourth grade for 14 years at Liberty.

“When I started, I envisioned I’d be teaching a younger grade, but I student taught fifth- and sixth-graders and it was eye opening what the kids could do by themselves. Fourth has been a great level to teach,” Okumura said.

Throughout his years at Liberty and Longview, he incorporated his passion for science into the classroom. Okumura brought his pet snake so students could learn firsthand about their science curriculum and he introduced them to trilobites by getting a Murray Education Association grant to get rocks and supplies for them to crack open and discover their own fossils.

This past spring, the students weren’t able to do that as schools went into soft closure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Okumura says he will figure out a way those former fourth-graders can have that experience, even though he took the opportunity to teach Longview first-graders after 16 years of fourth grade in Murray School District.

“With teaching, I know I can make a difference in a kid’s life, even if I don’t see it at the time. I walk into Walmart or the grocery store and someone comes up to me who’s 25, 28 years old, and says, ‘I know you. You taught me.’ And even if they don’t remember my name, they remember the snake or something we did in class. Then I know I’m making an impact in a student’s life,” he said.

Peterson also is making an impression with students as McMillan’s librarian.

“My favorite part of the job is connecting with the kids over a book,” she said. “We talk about books, find the right one to read, and if they haven’t found their niche, I get them started. I love books, I love reading, I love little kids. It’s just the best job in the world.”

Peterson remembers her librarian, Vera Hardman, when she attended McMillan.

“I used to help her with the inventory and card catalog. We had two libraries—one was in a teeny-tiny room. By fifth grade, the new addition was built, and we had a new, much larger library,” she said.

Peterson went to the University of Utah where she earned her degree in English and knew when the position opened 11 years ago, she was back home. 

Since then, she’s created programs and contests that are beloved by students. 

“I create special things for each grade. Kindergartners, we have a nursery rhyme puppet show and second grade, we have a wiener dog fest where we just celebrate wiener dog books and they make wiener dog bookmarks. In fourth grade, we have a storytelling contest where they learn short fables and tell them,” Peterson said. “I know most of the students’ names, but mostly I just call them ‘honey.’”

She’s known to pull books for teachers when they start studying new units so that they’re able to share with them and during online school last spring, Peterson read stories weekly from her home to children with the help of the library’s stuffed dragon.

“The teachers were providing lessons, so I thought I could provide students’ stories. One day I even put a mask on the dragon and the kids thought it was silly and fun,” she said. “I’m not sure what the library time will look like this fall with social distancing. It won’t be the same if we can’t sit on the rug and listen to stories together, but if we don’t have story time, that would break my heart.”