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Marine's Second Career: Teacher of Year

A gregarious former Marine welcomes students every morning at 7:15 at the front gate of Stephens Middle School. He’s done it for the past six years. He offers high fives, pats on the back, kind words, a quick quip or a wise tip for almost everyone. Bill Mimiaga also happens to be one of the most effective teachers and positive role models on the planet.

Mimiaga was surprised recently by students and staff honoring him as California Troops to Teachers 2006 Teacher of the Year. Only one teacher statewide is selected for each of four levels — elementary, middle, high school and career/technical education. Mimiaga is the middle school winner and will accept the award April 29 in San Diego.

From boot camp to private to gunnery sergeant to warrant officer to major, Mimiaga earned his stripes for 31 years as an active-duty Marine. During service from Vietnam through the Gulf War, he taught 17-year-old recruits from inner cities and small farming towns about self-discipline and working for a cause greater than themselves.

Troops to Teachers is a U.S. Department of Education and Department of Defense program that helps eligible military personnel begin a new career as teachers in public schools where their skills, knowledge and experience are most needed. Mimiaga was nominated by his principal, Diane Brown. The teacher reacted with modesty during the surprise event at Stephens.

"You know, I’m a man of few words," Mimiaga said. "There are so many deserving teachers who should be up here. I’ve had the best vice principal and principal who support us. My mother is absent. She passed away in September. I wish she were here to see this."

In the military service, some of Mimiaga’s men did not make it back.

"I saw the sacrifice of all those with whom I served," he said. That’s why he promised them on the battlefield that someday he would help their kids and the kids they never had.

GI benefits helped Mimiaga earn his bachelor's and master's degrees, and California Troops to Teachers counseled and placed him at Stephens.

He hit the ground running.

"He’s the most incredible teacher," said principal Brown. "He has the most phenomenal rapport with students. He’ll tell a kid, ‘You look hungry. Did you eat breakfast?’ If not, he gets him something to eat."

He notices if students look angry, hurt, tired or sick. He’ll take them to the nurse or make sure they get help. He’s also a master at teaching kids to get along with each other. He gives respect and he gets it.

Visitors marvel at Mimiaga’s special-needs students, who are all on task, challenged and solving algebra problems. The students enter a door covered with University of Hawaii pennants, caps, tropical leis and three large artificial palm trees adorned with colorful lights. The teacher is a perennial winner of the school’s door competition – each room featuring a different university.

On state tests, Mimiaga’s students’ latest 11.9-point gain in reading and 14-point gain in math are impressive, especially for special education. His students outperform many students in regular education classes.

"I hate the bigotry of low expectations," he said. "These kids can learn. Every kid can learn. They must learn to read and do math. Personal accountability and responsibility get you ahead in this world. Our job is to work with them and motivate them.

"We must compete with gangs that offer money and praise for illegal activities. It takes courage to resist that, to find a better way. My kids come from some very tough backgrounds, yet they discover there is so much more than just gang life."

Mimiaga takes his students to Veteran’s Hospital. They visit quadriplegics and other wounded vets who have so much less than they do. For the first time, they begin to appreciate their youth, health and possibilities. His students and the Stephens Steel Drum Band entertain the veterans at the hospital and enjoy an annual barbecue with them. The vets love it.

Mimiaga’s students also volunteer to clean up the campus and help out at school. They understand service to others. After working in a classroom of moderate to severely handicapped students, one of Mimiaga’s students purchased fish and an aquarium for the class.

"That kid felt like a million bucks," said Mimiaga.

"This school is their refuge. This is their home. Some of the kids get here at 6:15 in the morning and hang out here until 6:15 at night. Some have no fathers. I try to be that for them. I try to make them feel special."

Like the Marines, Mimiaga is the first to arrive and the last to leave.

"I owe the military a great thanks," said Mimiaga, who is a leader of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 75 in Orange County. In his spare time, he takes veterans to doctors’ appointments in a 15-passenger van provided by his organization. In May, he will ride 10 days on his Harley from Ontario, California to Washington, D.C. to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with a half million other vets on motorcycles.

Known as the Run For The Wall, this trip will be followed closely by his students at Stephens. Each day, he'll post photos and lessons from his laptop on a computer blog for the kids to access. They'll do the math on his gas mileage, and explore the history of the major cities and nearby sights he rides by, such as the Grand Canyon and the Smithsonian.

At the recent Stephens event, the Cabrillo High School ROTC, the Stephens Advanced Band, Stephens Steel Drum Band, cheerleading squad and cheering students thanked Mimiaga for all he's done for them. Even some of his veteran buddies arrived on their Harley motorcycles.

The surprise celebration was presented by students who are so grateful for one tough Marine who respects them, teaches them and every morning greets them at the gate.

SERVING AGAIN - Cheering Stephens Middle School students and staff recognized teacher Bill Mimiaga for earning the California Troops to Teachers 2006 Teacher of the Year Award. Mimiaga was the sole winner of the top middle school award statewide. He retired as a major after 31 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.