Welby principal recognized for sharing passion of education, relationship-building with othersMar 02, 2021 12:59PM ● By Julie Slama
On Halloween 2020, Welby Elementary Principal Aaron Ichimura reads a book to students. (Photo courtesy of Wendi Bergstrom.)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
Recently, Tina Susuico picked up the phone to call the principal she worked under as an assistant principal.
“I called to ask him about handling an issue, and he listened to what I’d do,” she said. “We’ve talked before, and he will say he’s been in this situation before and ‘here’s what I did’ and ‘maybe you should reach out to this person.’ I’ve learned so much from him. He’s just amazing. He’s always available and willing to walk me through things.”
That’s why Susuico nominated Welby Elementary Principal Aaron Ichimura for Jordan Association of Elementary School Principals’ Principal Mentor of the Year. He was awarded the honor in January and will have his name submitted to the Utah Elementary School Principals for the state award.
“This award, I really appreciate,” Ichimura said. “But I still feel as if I’m learning on the job.”
Ichimura has been a principal mentor for more than a decade, coaching colleagues and interns for four years at Heartland, seven years at Elk Meadows and now two at Welby.
“Whenever I’ve been offered to host an intern, I accept the invitation,” he said. “I want to give to those who want the job, and I like to work with others and learn from their different experiences. I’ve learned from every one of the people I’ve worked with. It’s a win-win.”
He currently has Assistant Principal Allyson Stovall, who also nominated him for the award, by his side to share in the administrative duties.
“Aaron has the wonderful ability to build relationships with the students and staff,” she said. “He is calm in every situation and always has a suggestion of how to handle different situations. He has helped me learn so much about being an administrator [and], he has helped me find joy in working as an administrator.”
At Elk Meadows, Susuico said that he would collaborate with her, each sharing their thoughts.
“He’s been so open,” she said. “I came from Title I schools, a different demographic, with experience in curriculum and instructional support. He listened. We went with my experience, and our school’s scores went up 11 or 12 percentage points in language arts, which was our focus. We made the highest gains in the district, and it started with him as a leader and believing in me and being open to my strengths.”
Ichimura said he appreciated learning her effective data collection and analysis, and ability to create a document to turn into the school district.
Although they both have the common connection of being from Hawaii, Susuico said it’s Ichimura’s relationships with others and his positive attitude that are his strong points.
“He really is a good at building relationships with parents and communicating,” she said. “He told me to start right away with kindergarten orientation and to be visible, welcoming and ensure parents that their children are safe and taken care of at the school. It may be their first kid to go to school and once those relationships are built, they will carry forward their remaining years of elementary. The way he interacts is very easy-going and makes everyone comfortable.”
At the beginning of the year, Ichimura goes into each classroom to introduce himself as he learns students’ names and greets returning students.
“He puts them at ease and says he knows his last name may be hard to pronounce so he tells them you pronounce it as if your arm is itchy, then you ‘moo’ like a cow, then you cheer ‘rah’ like a cheerleader,” she said. “The kids just love it—and him.”
Ichimura is known to put his heart out for students whether it’s playing a role in a school program or production, dancing with them in a folk arts assembly, running laps with students on the school grounds or inviting a student to role-play the job of a principal as part of third grade Kids Marketplace.
“The highlight of his day is to walk into the cafeteria at lunch to be around the students (what Ichimura calls ‘my recess’),” Susuico said. “He will take his ukulele and sing happy birthday to students or he will get into the kitchen and help serve food. If students see him in the hallway, and they know they’re supposed to be quiet, they will just throw him a shaka (hang loose gesture). He does not hold back. He really gets into it with the kids.”
Administrative intern Wendi Bergstrom, who recently spent several months learning from Ichimura, agrees.
“He really has a way of trying to build relationships with students,” she said. “One of the things he did was as a reward for the fundraiser for students, [the PTA] brought in a humongous pig. He had to kiss the pig. It was really cute. It was really fun, and the kids really loved it. He was just always doing that stuff to try to relate to the kids. He would dress up for Halloween (as a penguin this past fall). He was always out on the playground talking to the kids. He just really tried to make it a fun, safe place there, even in COVID times.”
Not only does he give students the hang loose sign, but Bergstrom said he has a special greeting for kindergartners.
“He has a little wave he does with them, and it’s so cute,” she said. “They’ll just walk down the hall, and when they see him they just quietly wave their pinkies at him. It’s adorable. He does a really good job at that kind of relationship building, to let the kids feel like they know him and that he cares about them.”
Bergstrom also nominated Ichimura for the award. She said this fall, she not only learned from him how to do the job as an administrator in an elementary school but also how to deal with the unexpected, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The biggest thing I learned from him was just go with the flow,” Bergstrom said. “Every day, it seemed like it was just a bunch of fires we had to fight. But the most important thing was always do it with a smile, always make sure to have a kind interaction with the kids and just do your best to take care of all the things that need to be done. It was just really good to see a lot of people might respond with a little bit of anger or uncertainty or just a worry, but he just was so chill. He just relaxed and knew everything was going to be OK.”
She said there weren’t many disciplinary issues.
“I think it’s just naturally quieter [with masks],” she said. “Whenever we did deal with any students, he was always very fair and made sure that we understood. We got everybody’s story before we talked to the person and made sure we did our research. The hardest thing (during her internship) was COVID tracing. We had to look at video cameras and see who’s eating lunch together and playing together. He was really patient and knowledgeable so that made the whole process seem less stressful for the rest of us involved.”
Bergstrom, who teaches online high school English in Jordan School District, also shared her knowledge of technology with Ichimura and Welby’s school community council.
“I was kind of the insider saying ‘here’s what’s happening’ from this side of the teacher’s perspective because I know that it can be really confusing, but also as a student, because I’m in graduate classes, and my son is in high school student and on Canvas, so I help him,” she said. “So, it’s being able to look at it from all different instances.”
Ichimura said that he has appreciated learning from his interns.
“They introduce me to new practices in college courses and share with me how education is continuing to change,” he said. “I like learning from them as well and being able to change and adapt. I’m happy to have a job I enjoy. As a teacher and administrator, I’ve reached out to my mentors through the years where I always had a comfortable and enjoyable relationship to discuss stuff and gain their points of view. That’s what I hope I can provide to others.”
Ichimura earned his bachelor’s in elementary education from Brigham Young University, his master’s in educational leadership from BYU and a second master’s in teaching from Grand Canyon University. He also has worked at Sprucewood and Butterfield Canyon and Herriman elementary schools.
“I do the best I can as an educator to share my passion with others,” he said. “I don’t aspire to get awards, but it’s a nice, positive reinforcement for what I do.”