Susan Watson didn’t grow up dreaming about becoming one of the best teachers in California.
“I tell my students all of the time that if you told me in high school that I was going to be a teacher, I would’ve looked at you like you were crazy,” she said.
However, a student-exchange experience and an unexpected job showed Watson how much she loved helping young people learn. Now she’s being honored for her work.
Watson, who has taught Japanese at Long Beach Poly High School for the last 13 years, has recently been named the California Language Teachers Association Teacher of the Year.
“I was totally shocked,” Watson said of the award. “I don’t think of myself as an extraordinary teacher. I’m just one of the great teachers we have at Poly and in the LBUSD. It’s kind of weird to get these accolades.”
Watson grew up in Los Angeles and attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania where she received her bachelor’s in East Asian Studies with a Japan concentration. It was there that she learned of a program that sent recent graduates to Japan to teach English. Watson had already visited Sakata, Japan during high school as a foreign exchange student.
“It was a rural town in snow country where rice farming was the main occupation, so I had to entice the students to learn English,” Watson said. “I really loved it.”
Watson returned to California in 1998 as a 25-year-old with a desire to keep teaching and had a private school Japanese teaching job fall into her lap because her father was working for the school. While working there, she attended Pepperdine University at night to get her teaching credential and master’s degree in secondary education.
After moving to the Long Beach area with her husband, Watson has been teaching Japanese at Poly.
“From the moment I stepped on Poly’s campus I fell in love with it,” Watson said. “There’s just a feeling you get when you’re on campus that I can’t describe. There’s just an energy there and it felt like home right away. … I consider it a challenge to help them fall in love with the Japanese language and the culture.”
In order to achieve that, Watson likes to split her classes into groups and have them work together on projects.
“If it’s one person answering the question, it’s really scary if you get it wrong,” Watson said. “But if it’s a group decision, you feel really confident in what you’re doing.”
Watson also uses puppets to teach conversations, which is something she learned from her first-year Japanese teacher in college. She said it was especially useful during COVID-19 Zoom classes.
“I do these hand puppets and they get different voices,” Watson said. “There’s princesses and dragons and pandas. … It gets the kids interested and makes them laugh. When I use my high voice or low voice they kids think that’s hysterical.”
By accepting the CLTA Teacher of the Year award, Watson now has to prepare a portfolio to compete with other nominated teachers from southwestern states. The portfolio includes essays, a tape of Watson teaching and other information that’s much like a college application. She will travel to Utah in February to compete, and the winner advances to the National Teacher Convention in November.
Watson said she’s excited and nervous about this opportunity, but she knows why she’s participating.
“My students are the ones to make my job worthwhile. … I just help out, but they’re the ones who inspire me,” she added.
This is not Watson’s first CLTA honor after she’s served as a president and board member for over a decade. She was named a CLTA Outstanding Teacher in 2016 and the 2016-17 LA County Teacher of the Year. Watson most recently assisted the California World Language Standards Advisory Committee when the standards were rewritten in 2019.
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