Why you should care

Because public schools are not all gloom and doom.

They came in waves from a faraway land, speaking little English and searching for a path to become Americans. It was the mid-1970s, and Joanne Ho got her start in teaching with a summer program in Hawaii helping Vietnamese refugee children settle into their new lives in America. Forty years later, she’s guiding the next generation of educators in Las Vegas as they address challenges faced by the children of Latino immigrants, refugees from around the globe and kids whose families have been in the U.S. for as long as they can trace. Sometimes, the challenges seem to be multiplying, but Ho finds joy in inspiring more to join a calling she wouldn’t trade for anything.

Ho, who identifies as “a young 62,” is in the inaugural class of OZY Educator Award winners, a stellar group we’re spotlighting throughout Teacher Appreciation Week. Ho’s enthusiasm crackles through the phone during our interview.

She is the lead instructor and coordinator of the TEACH senior internship program at Clark High School in Las Vegas, a magnet program that trains future teachers. She places her students at internships in nearby elementary and middle schools, so they receive on-the-job training and a jump-start on entering the field.

Ho readily acknowledges the systemic challenges facing public schools — and she knows it will fall to a sharp new generation of educators to tackle them.

Her students “idolize her,” says Joel Berg, a colleague of Ho’s in the Phi Delta Kappa professional association who nominated her for the OZY Educator Award. “She’s outstanding in every respect. She’s got a lot of integrity … I think she deserves every honor she gets.”

A graduate of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Grand Canyon University, Ho has also been honored as the Milken Outstanding Educator for Nevada. But she didn’t get into teaching for the hardware. Bouncing around to 13 different schools as an Army brat, and as an only child and a bookworm, Ho wasn’t the most popular new kid on the playground. She recalls how the teachers made her feel at home — and made her want to follow in their footsteps. English degree in hand, she was ready to broaden young minds when love pulled her from Hawaii to Sin City after her husband was hired as executive pastry chef at the Las Vegas Hilton (he would go on to worldwide acclaim, and lead the U.S. team in the World Pastry Cup).

Joanne Ho, OZY Educator Award winner

Joanne Ho, OZY Educator Award winner

Source Courtesy of Joanne Ho

Ho was eager to dive into teaching, but came up empty in her job search. Thanks to a research grant, the Nevada Department of Education did have one opening: helping chimpanzees learn to recognize letters. Abandoning the chance to be the Jane Goodall of the Silver State, Ho chose instead to stay home for the next 10 years and raise two sons.

But the itch never went away. After a stint as a substitute teacher, Ho joined Ed. W. Clark High School full time in 1990. Hungry for a new challenge after several years chairing the English department, Ho agreed in 2007 to coordinate the teacher training program — a magnet program at Clark along with tracks in math and finance — a post that allowed her to mold educators and continue to teach every day.

Shirley McLees-Kaplan, coordinator for Clark’s magnet program, says Ho helped implement a program with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, so that her students graduate high school with college credits already in their pockets — all the better to graduate sooner and help fill the teacher shortage. “She is the most organized, prepared teacher I’ve ever met,” McLees-Kaplan says. “She plans everything out almost a year in advance.”

Ho also reformed the curriculum to meet the needs of the melting pot of Las Vegas: more ESL instruction, special education and cultural training to reach immigrants and refugees — including family visits. Ho describes meetings at the homes of recent immigrants who don’t want their daughters attending college because they’re needed around the house to cook and to care for the younger kids. Ho and her novice teachers had to explain that the daughters’ earning potential to help their families — not to mention expand their own horizons — grows considerably with postsecondary education.

Oftentimes Ho’s protégés do battle with their own families, who would rather they enroll in Clark’s other magnet programs, who respond to the doom and gloom about America’s public schools and wonder why their kid wants to jump into the snake pit. Ho readily acknowledges the systemic challenges facing public schools — and she knows it will fall to a sharp new generation of educators to tackle them. “A lot of my students have really weathered a lot of dissension in what they hear, what people say, what they read in the news about education,” she says. “But thank goodness we show them there is another side of education that is so important — character education.”

The greatest joy for Ho is seeing her former pupils take up positions as teachers and administrators in the region and neighboring states — and staying in touch via Facebook. In March, her husband died after a lengthy battle with cancer. At the memorial service, Ho looked up to see a number of her former students. While retelling the story to OZY of how grief gave way to gratitude, Ho chokes up again. That moment justified in so many ways a life spent as an educator, while proving a point she constantly stresses to her would-be teachers.

“That’s so important: for them to look for the gold in people,” Ho says. “That’s why in every class, I love my students, because I can find the gold in every single one of them.”

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