Favorite Teachers: Caldwell lawmaker inspired by her high school English teacher

Student: Julie Yamamoto, Caldwell

Teacher: John Sollers, Vallivue High School

Career: Sollers taught English at Vallivue High School for 21 years, before moving to Lincoln City, Ore. He retired after 57 years of teaching and now lives on the Oregon Coast.

Inspiration: When Julie submitted her first essay as a college freshman, her writing professor returned it with one pressing question: “Who taught you how to write?” Her answer: Mr. John Sollers.

Idaho state Rep. Julie Yamamoto
Rep. Julie Yamamoto

It’s been over 40 years since Julie Yamamoto graduated high school. In that time, she became a teacher, earned a doctorate degree and was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives, where she leads an influential education policy committee. She’s dedicated her career to education. 

Still, she speaks of her favorite teacher with admiration and humility.

He wasn’t your typical English teacher, Yamamoto said, sitting in a local coffee shop. Her eyes filled with tears as she began to recount stories about John Sollers. 

John Sollers, a teacher of more than 57 years. Photo courtesy of The News Guard staff.

He wore mismatched ties just to strike a nerve with his more perfectionistic students, like Yamamoto. His ornery streak carried over into his lessons, where he strived to not only teach students how to read and write, but how to think critically and develop their own opinions. 

Sometimes, that required a little aggravation. 

“He would take positions (on class material) that would so infuriate me,” said Yamamoto. “I would get so animated, I’d nearly be pounding on the table.” 

“She was funny,” Sollers said, reflecting on Yamamoto’s time in his classroom. “She contributed to my classes in many different ways.” 

When Sollers called Yamamoto into his office to explain his pedagogy, he started by telling the teenager to “calm down.” 

He explained that he was trying to elicit a response from students, to cause people to want to have an opinion, Yamamoto said. He believed that anyone can merely have an opinion, but everyone should be able to follow their opinion up with enough support to back it up. 

Sollers wasn’t shy about critiquing students’ work — all as an effort to push them to their full potential.

When Yamamoto received a paper back from grading, it would be a “sea of red.” For some students, that might have been discouraging. But for her, it showed that he cared. 

“In every comment, every mark, I knew he gave a rip about what I had to say, and he wasn’t going to put up with my half-hearted attempts.” 

And his methods worked. 

Since graduating in 1976, Yamamoto has carried Sollers’ lessons with her through college courses, writing her dissertation and teaching in her own classroom.

“On the days where I thought there was no way I could do it, I pushed through…I didn’t want to disappoint John Sollers,” she said. 

Sollers’ 2022 retirement came after he began to have back problems. But he still finds ways to make his students feel appreciated. To him, they’re a part of his family. “Julie is one of my kids, they’re all my kids,” he said. 

And the love is shared. 

This year, his former students will pick him up and take him to the graduation ceremony at his last school, where he’ll watch a few of his kids walk across the stage. 

To this day, Yamamoto talks with her former teacher and looks for his Christmas card in the mail each year. 

“I just love that man,” she said. “His class wasn’t just a class, it was an experience. And if you were willing to invest and go along with the ride … well, what a ride.” 

Who’s your favorite teacher? Nearly everyone has an answer to that question, because every year, and in every generation, teachers make a lifelong impact. 

Somewhere in Idaho, even as you read this, an English teacher is helping a student feel valued when no one else can. A science teacher is stoking the curiosity of a future biologist. A choir teacher is encouraging a student to use their voice proudly, even when silence seems safer. 

Our new, ongoing series will feature Idaho’s favorite teachers. 

If you went to school in Idaho and have a teacher you’d like us to recognize, whether still in the classroom or retired, contact editor Jennifer Swindell, [email protected]. We’re looking forward to sharing your stories. 

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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