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Award-winning teacher celebrates two cultures

Leland & Gray’s Tong Chen is Vermont’s Teacher of the Year

TOWNSHEND—Tong Chen, the Chinese language teacher at Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School, has successfully cleared an arduous application process to be named the 2012 Vermont Teacher of the Year, and many now express the belief that this award is probably only the first such accolade for her.

Chen, 32, has been teaching Chinese for seven years, the first few teaching at the Windham and Jamaica Elementary schools.

Chen’s nimble intellect, clear-headedness, and popularity as a teacher become apparent after five minutes in her company, as did her stringent standards for precision in conversation.

For the past few years, she has taught grades 7-12 at Leland & Gray, where she now teaches 51 students in four grades and four independent studies.

Enrollment has increased annually, Chen said. “That’s why I have independent study,” she said tersely.

“I’ve built the system,” she continued, “and it requires full-time attention. Levels would have remained low if I’d continued with elementary classes.”

Chen is from Fujian, on the southeastern coast of China near the Taiwan straits. She was educated in China, completing her undergraduate degree in linguistics, and then came to the College of St. Joseph in Rutland to get her master’s degree in elementary education.

“I’ve always wanted to teach,” Chen said, noting that she adopted the process of giving back from her parents’ philosophy.

Her mother worked in human resources and her father managed the technician department of a municipal transportation company. She has a younger brother who is a businessman in China.

“I like what I’m doing now, but I miss China,” she said. She returns to visit her parents during vacations or in the summer.

Teaching the culture

“I like sharing how to learn, and how to teach,” Chen said. “I think teaching and learning occur at the same time.”

She points out that in teaching the Chinese language, she is also teaching the culture.

“Students will understand the culture from my classes, and will act appropriately,” Chen said. “They will understand there are certain things you do not say to people. You do not ask personal or cultural questions.”

Chinese culture is very different from American norms when it comes to personal questions, she said.

For instance, Chen pointed out, when you go to the doctor in China, you don’t ask, “What’s up, doc?” And you do not say negative things about the food.

And violating one’s privacy, she said, was important to understand as taboo.

In general, she said her goal “is to share cultural factors, not necessarily to emphasize differences.”

The older generation’s educational background in China is very different from its corollary in the United States, Chen said. But she agreed that now things are perhaps less formal, even in China, and there has been a generational change with both cultures, she said.

One universal observation: “The world is changing in every way,” Chen said, “not just in families, but in interactions between teacher and student, and teacher and principal, and teacher and parent.”

The culture of education has changed, she said. “But it’s how we view these changes, how we utilize what is appropriate. I find the changes very comfortable.”

“What I find helpful for my teaching,” she added, “is to establish good relationships with students, to know their needs.”

She emphasized the difference in the size of American schools and those in China. There, she said, as many as 6,000 students might attend one high school.

“China has five times the population than what it is here and the setting [of schools] is different,” she explained.

Although some schools, she said, had cafeterias, “ninety-five percent of students leave their schools for lunch. The lunch break is from 11:30 to 2:30.”

The school is also well-known for its Journey East program, which brings groups of students to China every other year as a culmination of studies in language and culture. Chen has been on one of these trips, she said.

She said that while Leland & Gray is a small school in a small community, she found “a very decent diversity” in the student body in terms of languages spoken.

She said many schools in the U.S. have guest teachers of Chinese.

“That is not the answer,” she believes. “If you’re going to build a program, you’ve got to work with students, and a lack of understanding of cultural difference [is a handicap.]”

Of her work and the challenges it poses, as well as her doctoral thesis, Chen said, “I’m hoping to provide possible solutions.”

Chen lives in Bennington and said the 60-mile commute is a good time for her to decompress, to be alone and think. She is finishing her Ph.D. in educational leadership online at the University of Phoenix.

Her dissertation is “about the influences of American culture on native Chinese language teachers,” she said. “There is a lack of documents on the subject.”

State officials congratulate

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Chen is now eligible for the national award of the same name.

At a ceremony in late September, Vermont Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca presented Chen with her award at a ceremony before the entire school. Chen’s parents had come from China for the occasion.

Last Thursday, she was once again honored before the school when Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin came to honor her achievements.

Leland & Gray Principal Dorinne Dorfman said Chen was a very popular teacher and is responsible for big increases in Chinese language enrollments.

“Whatever she is doing, even during makeshift ping pong, she’s always surrounded by kids,” Dorfman said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #126 (Wednesday, November 9, 2011).

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