Mary Jane Vannatta was irritated. It was the end of the school year, her computer was acting up, and she needed to give her students a quiz. Plus, for some reason, other Maryknoll School faculty members kept telling Vannatta that she and her class should watch a livestream of the Hawaii Catholic Schools’ annual recognition ceremony.
“I have no time!” the veteran math and junior high teacher kept saying. “I have to give a quiz!”
And yet there she was in a classroom, sitting with her back to a projector screen where another teacher had pulled up the live ceremony despite Vannatta asking her not to because it would be a distraction. Plus there was a school photographer in the back of the room who said he just wanted to take some photos of students’ studying. Yet another disruption!
“By then I was fit to be tied,” Vannatta recalled. “I was swearing under my breath under my mask.”
Then suddenly, the still-clueless Vannatta heard someone on the HCS livestream saying her name and that she was the recipient of “The Golden Pineapple” Teacher of the Year award. Applause broke out and her seventh-grade homeroom students came in the room holding balloons, leis and flowers.
Vannatta was so shocked, she burst into tears.
“I was angry, embarrassed and crying!” she chuckled. “I didn’t know what hit me!”
(She did manage to regain enough composure to offer her students the chance to take the all-important quiz at recess since they had studied hard for it.)
“I’m just honored and humbled at the same time,” Vannatta said of the recognition.
The Hawaii Catholic Schools Office started the “Golden Pineapple” award
in 2019. The recognition honors an outstanding teacher of the year, who is nominated by a student, parent, faculty or staff member. Awardees are chosen not just for classroom teaching ability but for living out the Catholic faith and going above and beyond for their students and school.
“[Mrs. Vannatta] is always working late with students who need help and is always so calm and patient. I just want to applaud her for being able to meet and help her students despite the challenges of this pandemic,” said an anonymous parent in nominating Vannatta.
The teacher was also praised for learning how to use new technology and incorporating it into her classes.
Chaminade University of Honolulu, HCS, and John and Mary Lou Brogan gave Vannatta $1,000. She also received a year’s lease on a car
from Aloha Kia, and a $1,000 Hele gas card from Par Hawaii. Plus, she earned Maryknoll School a $1,500 award toward faculty development from the Augustine Educational Foundation.
Vannatta was born Mary Jane Arce and raised Catholic. She graduated from St. John the Baptist School in Kalihi and Sacred Hearts Academy in Kaimuki.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher as long as I could remember,” she said. “Well, honestly, I wanted to be a nun, and then I guess I discovered boys.”
Mary Jane loved to help the sisters at St. John the Baptist School clean the classrooms after school and later started teaching Sunday school at the parish, where she still goes to church today.
At Sacred Hearts Academy, she was a student in new teacher Betty White’s first class. White, who recently retired as the longtime head of school, started as a teacher at the Academy. Vannatta remembers how White reigned her and her unruly classmates in after they balked at White’s harder curriculum following their previous teacher, who was on maternity leave.
“I really admired her,” she said, and White saw her potential, encouraging her to run for student council.
After Vannatta won the Golden Pineapple award, White congratulated
her on Facebook saying, “Although you were one of my first students, I remember you well. Good students make good teachers.”
After the Academy, Vannatta earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Hawaii-Manoa and then a master’s degree in special education from Seattle University during summer breaks from teaching.
But she struggled to find full-time teaching jobs right out of college. While looking for a full-time position, she tutored three siblings at their home, taught a few months at Royal Elementary, and spent a year as a fill-in kindergarten teacher at Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary School.
Finally, in 1980, she got a job as a sixth-grade teacher at Maryknoll School. It was current Maryknoll School president Shana Tong’s mother, who worked at the front office at the time, who pushed Vannetta to accept the teaching position on the spot rather than thinking about it.
And she’s been at Maryknoll ever since.
The boys in the first class that Ms. Mary Jane Arce (now Vannatta), middle row at far right, taught at Maryknoll School in 1980. (Credit: Jeffrey Chang)
Four decades at one school
In the 40-plus-years she’s been at the school, Vannatta has mostly taught sixth and seventh graders, specializing in math and religion.
She says the best part of teaching is watching students learn something new.
“One spark of ‘aha’ and it’s the best,” she said. “What keeps me ticking is the joy that I get from the growth that you see.”
She also enjoys her students’ personalities although they can be mischievous at times.
“You can have a hard day and the kids will just make me laugh,” Vannatta said.
At the end of every year, she leads her classes in a group prayer and makes sure to tell them that they are all special and she loves each one of them.
“My hope is that I taught you something … skills for the future,” she tells them.
Vannatta finds that many students don’t like math. But she reminds them that they need to be open-minded to succeed, and that a negative mindset at the start won’t help.
She uses herself as an example, saying she wasn’t an “A” student until she decided she was going to work hard.
“You’re successful in anything you do as long as you try your best,” she said. “I don’t only call on people [in class] who have their hands up. I call on everyone.”
One of Vannatta’s former students is Jeremy Ramos, Maryknoll’s current director of student services.
“She was not afraid to be honest with us, to call us out when we were out of line, but also earning our respect at the same time,” said Ramos in an email. “She spoke with us and not down to us. She challenged us academically and spiritually.”
One example of that which Ramos remembers is when Vannatta invited an imam to speak to their religion class in the wake of 9/11 saying it “humanized those of the Islamic faith in a time of fear and anger.”
Hawaii News Now anchor and reporter Stephanie Lum is also a former student and shared Vannatta’s win during a TV segment and on Instagram.
“Back in the days, she took me under her wing and spent time after school helping me,” Lum wrote on Instagram. “I will always remember learning about the world of business through her mini-society lesson and her warm, caring and loving spirit.”
Vannatta is now the longest currently serving teacher at Maryknoll’s grade school. She knows retirement will eventually come, but she’s not ready yet.
“If I were to retire it would have been last year,” Vannatta said referencing the virtual schooling format she had to adapt to during the COVID-19 pandemic. When Maryknoll returned to in-person classes, she still had to juggle some online students and “do everything twice” while also sticking mostly inside with her class bubble all day.
“I used to think that I could teach forever,” she shared. “But I know there’s an end, and hopefully I’ll know when that time is.”