‘One in a Million’ Instructor Earned Her Wings Early

Times Staff Writer

Twenty-year teacher Rosa Nagaishi says she began educating young minds before attending college, before receiving her high school diploma--even before she ever had a chance to get out of the sixth grade.

Nagaishi said that, while attending grade school in Tijuana, Mexico, she saw a perfect opportunity to begin her teaching career at the age of 12 when one of the first-grade teachers went on maternity leave. Nagaishi persuaded the school’s principal to let her become an assistant teacher for a month.

“I almost flunked the sixth grade for that,” she said, grinning sheepishly.

More than 30 years later, Nagaishi is described by colleagues as a compassionate but hard-nosed teacher. It is a style that has earned Nagaishi not only the respect of her peers, but also national recognition.


Last week, she received the American Chemical Society’s western regional award for outstanding achievement in high school chemistry and contributions to science education. And, earlier this year, she was selected from a field of more than 500 teachers statewide as one of three finalists for the 1985 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Math Teaching. Another teacher was eventually selected as the statewide winner in that competition, however.

Teaches at John Marshall High

Nagaishi, a science teacher at John Marshall High School in the Silver Lake-Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, was praised by Principal Donald Hahn.

“You find very, very few people in this world that get locked in and as involved as she does,” Hahn said. “She’s one in a million. She’s not one of those people who volunteers for everything and gets nothing done; she volunteers for everything and gets everything done.”


During her 14 years at Marshall, Nagaishi has developed an advanced placement chemistry program, which begun as a lunchtime program, became a part of the regular school curriculum in 1980.

She has also been faculty adviser to the school’s Korean club, chess club, the California Honor Society and the Bio-Math Science Club.

Hahn said Nagaishi introduced computers into the school’s curriculum in 1983. Today, Hahn said, the school has 77 computers used to teach its eight computer classes.

“They didn’t believe me when I told them we were going to be swimming in computers,” said Nagaishi, who believes that computers enhance learning. “All in the outside world, wherever you go, students need to be exposed to some type of computer in school so that they can adapt” to demands put upon them in the workplace.

Mother of 3

Nagaishi, 44, born in Mexico and of Japanese decent, joined Marshall’s science department in 1971. She began her teaching career at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, where she taught Japanese.

A mother of three, Nagaishi received another prestigious award last week--the American Chemical Society’s Award for outstanding achievement in high school chemistry and contributions to science education. But she says that teaching has been her greatest achievement.

“I really feel high school is where students need the foundation that will help them succeed in future years,” she said. “I tell students that I’m not teaching them chemistry, but preparing them for the future.”


Nagaishi said her approach to teaching emphasizes the need for students to exercise their natural creativity. She tells students, “If you come up with different ideas, whoever hired you is going to give you a raise. The answer is not as important as the way you worked it out.”

High school senior Glenn B. Quiro of Los Angeles said he likes Nagaishi’s style of teaching because it forces students to put forth their best effort. “Some teachers just try to give you everything, but she’s not like that. She really wants us to exert every effort we have. She wants us to reach the maximum of our capacity.”

Reports of her classroom techniques have even leaked to science department chairwoman Doris Tom. “Rosa is a very challenging teacher. She will not take second best. If students are not living up to what she thinks they should be doing, she bears down on them.”

Even though some students need to be challenged, Nagaishi said, all students seek understanding. That’s why, when she catches a student cheating, she takes time to explain to him that cheating won’t help in the job market.

“They’re so afraid to fail that sometimes they do anything to get that grade,” Nagaishi said. “I realize that a lot of them are under a tremendous amount of pressure from their parents. But I really believe in their own individual work and development.”