Meet Jim Funai, Outstanding Educator of the Year for 2022 - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Meet Jim Funai, Outstanding Educator of the Year for 2022

Photo: NALP/Philippe Nobile Photography

Jim Funai, Ph.D., plant science and landscape technology professor at Cuyahoga Community College, has been named the Outstanding Educator of the Year for 2022 by the NALP Foundation.

Funai attended The Ohio State University and was studying engineering at first because he didn’t know there were career paths in the landscape industry. After searching for some career options, his advisor showed him the world of landscape horticulture as a career.

It wasn’t until after he became a teacher that he earned additional graduate degrees including a master’s in extension education from Colorado State University and after several trips back and forth, his Ph.D. in soil engineering from Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic.

Funai has been described as driven, accessible, honest, optimistic and real. He gets to know his students and identifies their individual skills and strengths. He tailors his teaching so each student can develop their talents. His students leave the program with a high level of horticultural literacy that translates into successful and gratifying careers.

Funai received the award during the 46th Annual National Collegiate Landscape Competition. NALP caught up with Funai to learn more about his path as an educator.

When were you first attracted to horticulture?

I didn’t grow up in a family business but followed my dad around the yard helping with the landscape. He was always meticulous with the bed edges, mulch, pruning, and keeping the grass cut. I might have been 10 when I got my first lesson on coppice pruning when he had my brother and me hack a row of privet down to six inches. I remember being blown away by how they recovered from that, and we were able to keep them in good shape from that point. I still love driving past the old house and seeing how the little rhododendrons I helped plant in the 80s are giant 20′ shrubs now!

I worked at a garden center and an apple orchard through high school and loved working with all the plants. 

When your colleague suggested you apply for the teaching position what were your initial thoughts? What made you decide to apply?

Not just a colleague, but the director of HR! It is a bit confusing with the HR director tells you to apply for a new job! She knew I loved leading training and saw in me what I didn’t realize at that point, but I love to teach and train and share my plant nerdiness with others. I figured I had nothing to lose by applying, I had a great career so why not? Maybe she was right, it could be the perfect fit for me and bring me more happiness than I ever thought possible. (I can say now, she was very correct!) 

What has it been like growing the program from a handful of students to over 60 students now?

I got the call the day before the fall 2009 semester started that I actually got the job. I was out on a job site helping a crew set elevations for a patio install. The company I was with set me free and the next day I walked into my first classroom as a teacher. There were three students for a contracting class. I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully, those students were cool and together we figured out our next steps and I got to work building lessons and figuring out how to prepare them for the “real world.” One of those very first students, Anthony Angelotta, went with me to our very first NCLC (then Student Career Days) in Atlanta and we got demolished. We had no idea how to compete in these events. 

In this industry, all we do is solve problems. So, I had a series of problems and I set out to solve them. With Anthony’s help, my wife Shelley who is a much better horticulturist than me, and a handful of other awesome students along the way we have built a stronger program each year. Anthony eventually got on stage multiple times, then graduated and helped us coach each year. He is now an adjunct for us and hasn’t missed a single year of competition since our first one in 2010. 

We have added more coaches and adjuncts, and through relentless improvement, recruiting, and being involved with our local industry we are able to spread the word about this great program and great career. The only way to grow is to work tirelessly at it.  

What do you love most about being an educator?

I love when a student feels successful. There is a moment when you are teaching when a student goes from confused to “getting it.” As a teacher you learn to see that moment, and wow is it fun to see!  

What is your proudest moment as a horticulture educator?

It is a moment that happens more and more as your teaching career goes on. A former student will come up to you and slap their business card in your hands with great pride. It is so cool to see them succeeding in their career and moving up into higher positions. Or it is when they invite you to their wedding because you had such an impact on their life they want you to share one of their best days with them. Or it is when they come back to campus and help train the next round of students for the next NCLC because it had such a positive impact on them, and they want to share that with others. 

What is the No. 1 lesson you hope students take away from your class?

None of us can possibly know anywhere near all the answers in horticulture. The best lessons we can learn are how to solve problems. I don’t need them to memorize facts, I need them to practice solving problems and overcoming obstacles. 

What is your biggest challenge as an educator?

Our challenge is preparing the industry for the future leaders. It is easy for the industry to have the mindset of “welcome to the real world now” when they try to hire our grads, but I find more and more pushback to some of that way of thinking. Students aren’t motivated by insane hours, lack of work/life balance, and relentless pursuit of profits. The companies that don’t adapt to a changing workforce won’t find much success in their recruiting game. So, I have to help employers learn a new way of building their work culture. 

What do you think is a significant barrier preventing young people from being interested in the landscape industry?

Hands down, the way we represent ourselves (generally speaking). This is something NALP puts a lot of effort into and something educators put a lot of effort into. Yes, we get dirty doing what we do, but we have to know a lot about a lot of topics. We are one of the best professions for STEAM-minded people, we have to cover each one. We don’t reflect on how much knowledge it takes to do what we do, and we don’t speak highly enough of our own profession. 

What does it mean to be the Outstanding Educator of the Year?

It is an absolute honor to be recognized for the years of hard work. I think about the previous winners and am humbled to be considered in their ranks. Teaching is a career that comes with a lot of gratification and little mini wins every day as you help your students grow. It was fun to celebrate the passion that keeps me moving forward. 

In five years where do you see horticulture education? Where will you be?

We are expanding our offerings to attract more students and fill more industry demands – as much as possible educators have to be nimble and adapt to industry changes. We will continue our hybrid format as we have had tremendous success with asynchronous online lectures. The key is constant improvement, countless hours of filming and a team to help with edits. We have to pay attention to where students are paying attention. There are some incredible lessons on YouTube with high-quality production; that is our competition. I will be producing lessons with HGTV quality production then bringing them into my labs to do the hands-on portion. It’s going to be hybrid or die! 

What advice would you give to other horticulture educators trying to get young people interested in the landscaping field?

We have to work hard at being involved. Involved with local industry, local schools, trade organizations, our students, all of it. The message of a successful career filled with personal fulfillment must be repeated until everyone around us understands. Every one of our students needs our understanding, empathy, and our push to be better. The future is built one single student at a time, not as a large mass, but as individuals who will make their individual impact. We have to love this line of work and get energy from it. If not, our students won’t reach their potential and we are doing a disservice to them and to ourselves. 

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.