Elena Kamenetzky, a Japanese teacher at Eastern High School (Jefferson County), was named the 2020 Southern Conference on Language Teaching teacher of the year.

Elena Kamenetzky, a Japanese teacher at Eastern High School (Jefferson County), is the first Kentucky teacher to be named the National Language Teacher of the Year by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Photo courtesy of Jefferson County Public Schools, 2019

By Jim Gaines

For the first time ever, a Kentucky teacher has been named National Language Teacher of the Year by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).

Elena Kamenetzky, a Japanese teacher at Eastern High School in Jefferson County, is the 2021 ACTFL award winner.

“I’m extremely honored and humbled to have been chosen for this award,” she said. “I owe so much to the Kentucky World Language Association, which … has been a huge source of support throughout my career.”

As the 2021 ACTFL winner, Kamenetzky will serve as the national spokesperson for language learning in 2021.

Before winning the national award, Kamenetzky was named state award winner by the Kentucky World Language Association and regional award winner by the Southern Conference on Language Teaching (SCOLT).

“We are very fortunate to have her here at Eastern High School,” said Jake Bell, interim principal of Eastern High School. “She has been a wonderful example, and especially during the NTI (non-traditional instruction) days that we’re using, she’s been extraordinary.”

ACTFL represents more than 13,000 language educators and administrators from elementary through graduate education, as well as in government and industry. Kamenetzky was announced as this year’s honoree on Nov. 20 during ACTFL’s virtual Convention & World Languages Expo.

“It’s a great moment for Kentucky public schools to have a teacher like Elena Kamenetzky recognized for her talent and dedication to students,” said Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass. “We are extremely proud of her.”

Candidates for the ACTFL award must be full-time language educators who spend at least half their time in direct teaching during the year of application, with an expectation of teaching during the next two years.

Howie Berman, ACTFL executive director, said that “In a year that has been incredibly challenging for so many, I commend Elena for her hard work, perseverance and dedication to her learners. I look forward to working with her next year in her capacity as Teacher of the Year.”

Elena Kamenetzky

Elena Kamenetzky

When Kamenetzky was named the Kentucky state award winner in September 2019, she said no one anticipated what 2020 would be like. When she was named regional winner by SCOLT in the spring of 2020, just about the time schools were closing due to COVID-19, she still thought classes would return to normal within a few weeks.

Kamenetzky set up a Google Hangout for her Japanese language classes on the district’s first day of NTI. She sent her virtual students on WebQuests, a lesson format in which most or all of the information comes from the internet. For language instruction, that meant sending them to search websites in the target language and having them answer questions and share something they learned with the class.

Now, still teaching remotely, Kamenetzky has thought extensively about what the continuing crisis means for language programs, and how her awards will enable her to help.

“It’s an opportunity for me to advocate for world language learning,” she said.

In the past that meant seeking funding by touting the benefits of multiple languages, such as increased career opportunities, Kamenetzky said.

“But this year I think it has become so much more about making people understand how important language is in forging connections between communities,” she said. “In these times when those connections have become so frayed, I think that’s become so much more valuable.”

Before coming to teach Japanese at Eastern High School in 2010, Kamenetzky was an assistant teacher of English at two middle schools as part of the JET Program in Achi Village, Japan, from 2006 to 2009. She travels with Eastern High School students to Japan as part of a summer exchange every two years. Kamenetzky has been a board member of the Kentucky Association of Japanese Language Teachers since 2012.