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Local teacher named one of Canada's best

Greg Miyanaga holding teacher's guide on internment and redressBy SIMONE BLAIS
Greg Miyanaga, who teaches a split class of grades 4 and 5 at Pinetree Way Elementary in Coquitlam, said his students happened to be doing a unit on Paul Martin at the exact time he received a letter from the prime minister.

"We were talking about Paul Martin and the prime ministership and every-thing," Miyanaga said, "so when I got this letter from him, they were just blown away."

"But, actually, they were more impressed with the Build-A-Bear that my daughter got me ... The prime minister thing, that's kind of neat, but Build-A-Bear, that's big news."

His students may not fully understand the magnitude of the letter, but Miyanaga's colleagues in District 43 have been congratulating him as news spreads that the 16-year teacher will receive the 2005 Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Pinetree Way principal Debbie Peters said Miyanaga is the perfect candidate.

"He does a lot of district work in helping with development of curriculum and assessment practices and teaching excellence," she said. "He's just an all-round, really good teacher."

"In the classroom, he's got such a gentle, kind way of encouraging children and they respond to him beautifully."

Peters said one project Miyanaga worked on stands out — his development of curriculum and resource materials to help teach Grade 5 students about the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War.

"The whole focus of it, for him, was how to get on co-operatively: How did they survive, what did they take and how do you work to make things better," Peters said. "He's very talented. It wasn't easy, and he did an exceptional job."

Miyanaga said he is a product of the internment.

"My dad, he was born out here in Mission and my mom was born in Alberta. Her parents went directly to Alberta, rather than be interned," he said. "If my dad hadn't been relocated, then I wouldn't have been born."

"There's a silver lining to every cloud, I guess."

While the politics behind the Second World War and Japanese-Canadian internment have the potential to be a daunting subject for 10-year-olds, Miyanaga said he presents the subject in terms children can understand.

"We give them exercises they can relate to," he said. "We give them an idea of fairness and how fairness works, because they definitely get that."

"Then we just extrapolate it into the huge issue of the internment."

Miyanaga was raised in the Tri-Cities and attended Miller Park Elementary, Banting Middle and Port Moody Secondary schools. He graduated from Simon Fraser University with a teaching degree in 1989 and has taught grades 2 through 7 at six schools in District 43.

"I tried middle school for a couple of years at Scott Creek. I liked it, but I just felt more at home at elementary school, "Miyanaga said. "With (male teachers), we're kind of a scarce breed in elementary schools.

"I enjoy not necessarily being the only guy in the school, which I am; but the kids treat you differently and I kind of like that."

The attitude of students toward Miyanaga may not be a result of his gender as much as his teaching style.

He's had a number of student teachers, and Miyanaga said he tries to instill in them the importance of making the classroom a democratic place. On top of a balanced approach between fun and discipline, students in his class make decisions on what they will learn by meeting, discussing and taking votes.

While it may sound as though Miyanaga was born to teach, he insists that's not the case.

"I never wanted to be a teacher, I really didn't," he laughed. "Let me qualify that, though: My mom was a teacher,and she worked these long hours and it looked like so much work. I just thought that I never wanted to do that."

He went to SFU with plans to pursue his father's line of work — engineering — even though he wasn't entirely sure what the profession entailed.

"When I went into university, I found out what engineering was and decided that I didn't want to do that," he said. "By fluke, I got into an education course to finish off my English degree and I really enjoyed it. I thought, "Well, maybe I can try this." I did and I loved it.
"It wasn't like I was looking to do this my entire life at all. I was looking to avoid it."

Even so, Miyanaga said receiving an award for his work in the profession he now loves is a nice honour — but it's not what keeps him coming back.

"Teachers are especially hard on themselves, and the public helps them out sometimes, too," he said.

"But I think that everybody should know, not just with an award, but everybody should know that people appreciate what you do.

"I think that's why teachers teach. We don't do it for the recognition, we do it for the rewards that we get, like working with kids, having fun and being creative."