Foothill’s beloved and respected choir teacher, JoAnn Koobatian, died Friday after valiantly fighting a rare form of cancer for more than eight years.
Koobation, 47, worked hard to maintain her home life and career as she battled the thymus gland cancer she was diagnosed with in 2005. She flat-out rejected her doctor’s recommendation that she go on long-term disability while battling cancer, saying that her work with students keeps her going.
“It’s a struggle some days, of course, but you just do it,” she said in a 2011 interview. “It pushes you. It’s good to be pushed. The kids get a lot out of it, too. They see me pushing myself, so they push themselves.”
Services will be private, though a public celebration of life memorial service will be held Saturday, Nov. 9 at 1 p.m. at Valley Community Church, 4455 Del Valley Parkway, in Pleasanton.
Koobatian kept working as Foothill’s premier choir teacher even as she endured countless rounds of chemotherapy and experimental treatments to extend her life. She worked until her latest setback nearly three weeks ago landed her back in the hospital.
“No matter how she was feeling, she always came to school every single day to be there for her students,” senior Chanel Vismara said. “She knew her students needed her. That was really inspirational. Her students are what drove her.”
Koobatian managed to inspire her choir students and spring musical cast members even after radiation treatments stole her singing voice in 2007. Her voice was rendered almost as soft as a whisper.
“She was tremendously invested in singing, music and putting on a performance,” senior Jacob Richey said. “Being able to be so invested in that, particularly when you’ve lost your voice, was something pretty stunning to see. It can’t come out through singing, so it has to come out in other ways. It came out through this really strong dedication to everything that we were able to do. She was, in essence, vicariously living through us in a very pure, stunning sense.”
Koobatian started her career at Foothill in 1996. Her first job also happened to be the start of Foothill’s choir program. The school had a skeleton of a program in the 1980s, but it fell apart and wasn’t revived until Koobatian was hired.
Teacher Valerie Rossman and Koobatian became fast friends right off the bat when Rossman, then Foothill’s drama teacher, recruited Koobatian to help produce the spring musical put on by Foothill and Amador Valley high schools.
“She has a great passion for what she does,” Rossman said. “Nothing stopped her from her love of teaching, her love of her students. She gave 100 percent no matter how sick she was or how big her problems were. She cared for and had compassion for everyone. She was always professional and did her best. She expected that of her students as well.”
Koobatian’s energy and passion will be sorely missed on campus, Rossman said.
“She was generous with her time,” she said. “She worked with her students every lunch period. She worked with students who loved singing, but didn’t have time to work choir into their school schedule. Whatever they needed, she was always there for them.”
It’s that type of dedication that made Koobatian stand out as a stellar teacher, Richey said.
“She wanted to make her classroom a home to kids,” he said. “Her class had a very distinct environment. It was almost separate from school. The environment she created was so different. It was a totally open place. I don’t think I’ve ever felt freer to speak in a class or to a person that I felt in her class.”
“No matter what we were going through, whether it was her class or another class or your home life, she was there to support you,” Vismara added. “It was just like you were her own kid.”
Teacher Trish Fenton, one of Koobatian’s closest friends, called her buddy a “warrior goddess.”
“She’s everything I would want to be as a woman and a teacher and a mother,” Fenton said. “She made no excuses for anything. She just went to work and did her job. She didn’t want people to feel sorry for her. I’m going to miss her so much.”
Fenton recalled seeing Koobatian crying in her car after school one day. Mrs. K, as her students affectionately called her, had swollen feet and had left her shoes in the classroom, but was too exhausted to go fetch them. She didn’t want to bother anyone to help her.
“What made her a good teacher is that she wanted to do it so much that she was willing to be at school even when she was sick,” Fenton said. “It’s what drove her. It made her happy. Her kids knew she cared about them, so that’s why they worked really hard for her. They were so committed to choir. They knew she was committed to them.”
Koobatian was born in San Leandro and lived there until her family moved to Pleasanton when she was in eighth grade. She graduated from Amador Valley High School and got her vocal music degree from San Jose State University.
She was overjoyed when she was named Pleasanton’s Teacher of the Year in May 2011. She was nominated by her colleagues and chosen by a school district panel that included former Teacher of the Year honorees.
“Just being recognized is amazing,” Koobatian said in 2011. “Yes, it’s hard work, but I love it so much. With all my cancer stuff, it kind of saves me. It keeps me thinking about what I love to do and not thinking about being sick and doing all of my treatments. It helps me, too.”
During her years at Foothill, Koobatian has also filled in as choir teacher at Pleasanton Middle School and Amador Valley High School. She also helped with choir at Village, Pleasanton’s alternative high school.
Even when Koobatian was undergoing brutal cancer treatments or hospitalized for complications, she dutifully kept students and friends updated through her regular online blogs. She continued to plan choir events, regardless of her health, and even quipped recently that she looked forward to watching her favorite TV show, Grey’s Anatomy.
“I’m going to miss having one of my best friends,” Rossman said. “I admired her. She inspired me. She was a great friend, a great mother, a great wife, a great daughter to her family.”
“She was the heart of everything, at least to me because I was always in choir and musicals,” Vismara added. “She was a big part of everybody’s life. No matter how short of a time you knew her, she became an inspiration to you.
“If she can do what she did and go through so much and be such a fighter, then we can overcome anything, too. She’ll definitely be missed a lot.”
Koobatian is survived by her husband, Richard; 12-year-old daughter, Amanda; parents, Bill and Beverly Nalbandian; and brother, Bob Nalbandian.
Memorial Fund for Daughter
The family would like to acknowledge each donation, so please include your contact information.
Teacher JoAnn Koobatian with students Lauren Lanzarin (left) and Gabi LaFrank at Great America after a choral competition last spring. Photo courtesy of Gabi LaFrank.
Story by Zoe Francis
Posted Monday, Oct, 21, 2013