His love of language comes out in class

by Fredrene Balanay
Ka La Staff Writer

HonCC’s English instructor, Derek N. Otsuji, won the 2017 Excelence in Teaching award. Otsuji said it was his love for poetry that started it all.

“I remember listening to T.S. Elliot’s ‘Old Possum’s book of practical cats,’ ” Otsuji recalled the first time he heard poetry and wanted to become a poet. “I was enchanted by the beauty of language,” Otsuji said.

Each year instructors are nominated by 3 or more students, staff and or faculty is selected for the excellence in teaching award. Nominations are based on teaching effectiveness, student involvement outside the classroom, curriculum development and professional growth.

One student commented on ratemyprofessors.com that Otsuji is “a really great teacher. If you don’t understand the material don’t be scared to ask. He is really understandable with students. And always want his students to succeed.”

Originally a poetry major Otsuji soon realized you can’t make a living as a poet. “So teaching became the next natural thing to do,” Otsuji said. In 1997 he began his career as a business writing instructor at the Japan American Institute of Management Sciences (JAIMS). In 2009, nearly 12 years and another Japan affiliated college later, he took a job as a casual hire at HonCC.

“[As a casual hire] I started with one class every evening,” Otsuji said. Soon after Otsuji was asked to take on more classes, changing his status from casual hire to lecturer. By 2011 he was offered a permanent position and has been here since.

Otsuji best describes his first day at HonCC as his most traumatic and transformative moments as a teacher. “And this [paperweight] serves as a reminder of that day,” Otsuji said, showing a homemade sheet metal object he got from a student he met that day.

“It was the first day of class and I just finished the introductions and started on a grammar lesson, something I don’t do anymore,” Otsuji explained. “As I continued with the grammar I heard a loud noise,” Otsuji continued. “This student had slammed the desk and said loudly ‘I don’t know why I need to learn English – I’m going into auto tech!’” Otsuji doesn’t remember exactly what his response was to this student. “I believe I muttered something about come see me in my office.” Otsuji said. “That night I couldn’t sleep; I kept thinking why does he have to take English.”

According to Otsuji he did meet with that student in his office. “We talked about it. And I just asked him to give me a chance,” Otsuji said. That student later found a passion for welding and switched trades. The student once asked Otsuji for a letter of recommendation and gave the sculpture as a gesture of appreciation. It serves as a reminder of the lesson of that first experience.

These days Otsuji takes a different approach to his lessons. one of his first writing prompts in class is to write about a turning point in your life. “I find if the student can connect to the subject matter, the writing pretty much takes care of itself,” Otsuji explained. “The grammar comes second.”

Otsuji is also a practicing and published poet. His recent work can be found in local publications such as Hawaii’s recognized Bamboo Ridge. As well as national literary magazines like the Sycamore review. Otsuji believes being a practitioner of your craft helps him be a better teaching.