Teacher Shares Her Native China With Vermont Students

10/05/11 5:30PM By Susan Keese
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VPR/Susan Keese
Tong Chen, who teaches Chinese at Leland & Gray in Townshend, has been recognized as Vermont's teacher of the year.

(Host) This year's Vermont Teacher of the Year is a lively 31-year-old named Tong Chen. She teaches Chinese at Townshend's Leland & Gray Union Middle and High Schools.

Chen says the honor also reflects a small community's openness to a wider world.

VPR's Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Tong Chen did a lot of memorizing as a student of English in her native China.

She remembers learning the word "Sequoia" because it included every English vowel. She knew it was a kind of tree. But she couldn't use that knowledge to communicate with anyone.

(SFX) Fade in class reciting in Chinese/

(Keese) It's not that way in Chen's class now.

(Chen) "Wow! I'm proud of you. What do you think your improvement is?"

(Keese) Chen reminds these Chinese I students that they got the tone wrong on a certain sound last time.

(Chen) "What was it?"

(Students) "Jiao "

(Chen) "What were you saying?"

(Students) "Jee-aou."

(Chen) "What if you go to people and say ‘Ni jee-iao shen me ming zi,' ‘Ni jiao shen me ming zi?'"

(Boy) "What is your foot's name?" (laughs)

(Chen) "So it's important to think about the very little details. What do you think a Chinese person would think if you go to this person and say, ‘What is the name of your foot?' Think about the culture." 

(Fade student responses down)

(Keese) The conversation goes on to explore how a Chinese person might feel, and why. Chen teases out insights with humor, sarcasm, even lollipops - tools she considers very American.

But she also incorporates Chinese ways - for example, never glossing over a poor performance to make a student feel good.

(Chen) "I wouldn't tell my students, ‘Nice job,' if it wasn't true. I personally learn from my mistakes, and I know my students will, as well."

(Keese) Instead, she tells them how she had to struggle to learn English and how bad she was at first. She gets them to believe in their potential and in working hard at something difficult.

(Chen) "I didn't think I could do it. (laughs) I don't think my family did either."

(Keese) Chen's parents grew up during China's Cultural Revolution. Even though education was disdained at that time, they valued it and encouraged her to get the schooling they missed. She knew from early on that she wanted to be a teacher.

After college, she taught in China for a few years. But she says her students weren't learning.

(Chen) "I tried to tell them what I knew. It didn't happen."

(Keese) In search of new ideas, Chen left China in 2002 to study in the U.S. She got her master's at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland.  She's working on her doctorate now.

And she says she's always learning from her students.

In 2004, she went to work at Leland & Gray as part of "Journey East," an Asian Studies program that includes performing arts exchanges with China and Inner Mongolia.

Tom Connor directs the program.

(Connor)  "In the last 11 years, we've had well over 200 Leland & Gray students and students in surrounding towns go to China for a month at a time. We have had close to 100 host families in small towns like Wardsboro, Dover and Jamaica, host Chinese and Mongolian teachers."

(Keese) Connor says the program has opened up this rural area to new ideas, and a sense of common bonds with different cultures.

Meanwhile, Chen keeps finding new ways to teach Chinese. Students come in early for a round of ping pong -China's national sport-on a table in her room.

A student asks her how to say, "I won," in Chinese.

(Student) "‘Wo Yingle!' means, ‘I won."

Chen says everyone will win if people in her two countries get to know each other better.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese


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