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People and Places April 2021

Educator Takeru Nagayoshi earns a Horace Mann Award for his work on identity-safe spaces; and a Minnesota teacher donates her kidney to school custodian Pat Mertens.
Published: 03/2021

Educator Honored for Advancing Racial and
Gender Equity

Takeru Nagayoshi earns a Horace Mann Award for his commitment to identity-safe spaces.

The last two years have been remarkable for Takeru Nagayoshi, an advanced placement English teacher at New Bedford High School, in Massachusetts. In May 2019, state education officials named him the 2020

Educator Takeru Nagayoshi teaching a class.
Takeru Nagayoshi, the 2020 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, holds an AP seminar class at New Bedford High School during the 2018 – 2019 school year. Credit: Bob Duffy/Massachusetts Teachers Association

Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. And this year, he received the NEA Foundation’s Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence—one of public education’s highest honors, presented to five educators annually. 

“Takeru … [is] an inspiring choice on every level,” says Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teacher Association. “He holds one of the most admirable traits of young people: idealism. But more than that, he has an analysis of race, gender, and class that informs his pedagogy and praxis, as well as his activism in support of education equity, human and civil rights, and community-based change.”

Visions for excellence in education

“When I came to New Bedford High, there was a lot of negative coverage because we were a turnaround school. Students started to internalize the narrative that our school and city was not worth much,” recalls Nagayoshi. “But it wasn’t what I saw.”

What he saw was a resilient, vibrant, and reflective community well on its way to growth and excellence, despite decisions by elected leaders to underfund schools in poorer communities.

He also saw a profession in need of a more  racially diverse and inclusive workforce. That’s why he continues to press for leadership and    educational spaces that include voices with different lived experiences.

“I was able to see teaching as not just this self-contained thing I do in my classroom, but something that is inherently in conversation with these broader systems,” explains Nagayoshi. “I went from thinking, ‘I’m just a teacher; no one’s going to listen to me,’ to ‘It’s my proximity to my students, the lived experience I have in my school community, my identities as an Asian American, gay, male educator of color, and as a teacher that … gives me the authority to say this is a messed-up policy and here’s why.’”

Nagayoshi is unapologetically vocal about his role in helping to shape the future lives of his students. That “gives me joy as a teacher,” he says.

It’s about “the kind of people we want our students to become,” he adds. “Compassionate, equity-minded, aware of their own identity and of the world, and how they fit into these broader conversations that are taking place.”

To learn more, visit the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools Program.

The Gift of Life

A Minnesota teacher donates her kidney to a school custodian.

When Minnesota custodian Pat Mertens found out his kidneys were failing, he didn’t think to ask colleagues at Kimball Elementary School for help finding an organ donor.

But third-grade teacher and local union leader Erin Durga saw a social media plea from Mertens’ daughter and had an idea that she could help. “I knew in my heart that I could do this,” Durga told reporters. 

Teacher Erin Durga and custodian Pat Mertens
Co-workers Erin Durga and Pat Mertens were already friends, but after a kidney transplant, they will be forever linked. Credit: Jean Doran Matua/Tri-County News

And she was right. In June, testing revealed Durga to be an organ match with Mertens. A month later, the duo underwent simultaneous surgeries. Doctors transplanted one of Durga’s healthy kidneys into Mertens, providing the grandfather with a new grasp on life. 

A fortuitous friendship

When Durga and Mertens first met in 2011, both were new to Kimball. They chatted regularly when Mertens cleaned in Durga’s classroom. And when Durga found out that Mertens’ wife, Lynda, ran an in-home daycare, Durga enrolled her then-2-year-old, and later, her two younger children. At the daycare, Durga’s children called Mertens “Papa.” 

In 2019, Mertens’ colleagues became aware of his kidney problems when he started leaving school early for dialysis three days a week. Until then, the quiet custodian hadn’t mentioned it. His Kimball colleagues put together a GoFundMe campaign to help defray medical costs. Then Durga saw the fateful Facebook post, which described the family’s desperate search to find a living donor.

More than 93,000 people are on the kidney transplant wait list in the U.S., according to the Living Kidney Transplant List. And although 90 percent of Americans say they support organ donation, only 60 percent are signed up as donors, according to organdonor.gov. In the meantime, 17 people die each day while waiting for a transplant organ, according to the website.

That could have been Mertens. With his kidneys in stage 5 failure, he faced a probable five to seven years on the transplant list, even as long-term dialysis increased his chances of complications or death. 

Mertens tells reporters that Durga is an “angel,” but she disagrees. “I’m no superhero or angel,” she told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I’m just a person who did the right thing.” 

Today, both are back at work at Kimball, which opened this fall for educators to provide virtual instruction to students during the pandemic. And both are still going above and beyond, as Mertens sanitizes classrooms and staff spaces to keep his co-workers safe and Durga ensures that her students feel connected to her and each other—even during remote learning.

In October 2020, a local radio station named Durga Teacher of the Week. The nominating parent wrote: “You can see every student is special to her. … She has a true love for teaching and the children.” To surmount the challenges of virtual teaching, Durga has sent cheery good-morning videos, shared her lunchtime with students, and offered to meet them in person at an appropriate physical distance. 

And, in December, Durga posted an update on the GoFundMe site: “We are both grateful to say that recovery has gone very well. Pat is able to travel with his lovely wife, something he was unable to do while on dialysis. For me, I am back to 100 percent,” wrote Durga. “The outpouring of love from around the country has been unexpected and incredible. Pat and I hope that our story gets the word out about kidney disease and the live organ donor program. “We both just want to say thank you.”  

“I knew in my heart that I could do this.”  
—Erin Durga, third-grade teacher

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