Author: Cindy Le
Uptown, Chicago is home to a population of Asian American immigrants, and many of their children go to Goudy Elementary. In fact, Uptown was Ruiz’s first home as well — the place where she lived and learned what it means to be an Asian-American student when she first came to the United States in 1991 at 7-years-old. Ruiz was gracious enough to give some insight on how being a first generation Asian-American nurtured her future career as a community educator.
If you are interested in becoming a teacher or advancing as an Asian American in the workplace and finding your calling, here is what Ruiz had to say about her path as a teacher.
Being an educator is a really important job. Why did you decide to become a teacher?
[Being a teacher] was something I wanted to be since I was 5-years-old. I like being in a classroom, I like learning new things, I like helping other people learn new things. [This] made sense to me. I want to be there so that I can have that connection with the kids that I do teach….
What do you think are important traits to being a teacher?
Flexibility. Patience. Strong work ethic and motivation. The drive to continue learning.
You don’t want to be stuck teaching the same thing and not be up to date about how to teach your kids as you continue in your career. No one wants to teach how they taught 3, 5 or 10 years ago. As a teacher, you want to improve your craft and you don’t want to just rely on the same things. Kids differ from year to year and what may work one year may not work another year for a new set of kids.
Teaching isn’t easy. What were some mistakes you’ve made during your time at Goudy Elementary?
Earlier in my career, I taught math for so long and math is such a linear subject where you have to have very specific skills and number sense before you understand how to manipulate those numbers. So my thinking was that the way students learn was also linear because I had that mathematical mindset. Then I started teaching language arts and the more I taught that, the more I realize it’s not linear. Kids differ from year to year and what may work one year may not work another year for a new set of kids.
You were born in Vietnam and you came to the U.S when you were really young. You had to learn English and figure out how to be a good student. How does your Asian immigrant background helped you as a teacher?
It definitely helped me connect a lot more with my asian students whose parents are also immigrants. A majority of them, if not all of them, are immigrants.
Having those students, meeting their parents [who] see that their teacher also speaks the same language; [it] makes them feel safer and trust you more with their children.
Most immigrant parents feel that connection [with me] that I wouldn’t have if I did not have my background. That has been a huge asset.
There’s definitely a lot of future teachers who don’t have that same background. So how can they reach out to their immigrant students and their parents?
Be more culturally aware. We live in a time where that’s a hot topic. Any good teacher will tell you that if they don’t understand a specific culture of students, do the research, reach out to those communities. That’s not a requirement but it will help you be who you want to be as a teacher. All teachers want a connection with their kids. Have conversations with those students and parents and make those connections that are not always academically motivated.
Plenty of teachers are born here and identify as American but that doesn’t stop them from being empathetic.
You have gone through student teaching and you have taught many student teachers yourself. What is student teaching like? What do you think a student teacher has to do to be successful?
To be successful you have to be completely open to critique and you have to be able to adapt what you learn.You’re going to make so many mistakes as a student teacher. You have to be able to learn from that. The best student teachers who get the most out of their experiences are the ones who are able to adapt and are open to suggestions.
There are many recent graduates that are looking for their first teaching job. What are some important steps to prepare for the interview process?
Oh my gosh. That’s probably one of the most hardest parts. I would say do some research on the school. Find out whatever you know about the school you’re potentially going to have a job at. Use that to your advantage when you’re in the interview because it shows you have investment in them already and how you can be an asset to them. That shows work ethic. That shows planning. That shows that you care. You want to take that extra step.
[The] majority of those interviews will not be the principal interviewing you. It’s going to be the teachers you’re going to work with. Sometimes it may be the teacher that happens to be there that day.
Also, have a “superstar, dog, and pony show” lesson that you’re ready to go with. Be proactive in having a lesson that can be applied to basically any grade level within the certification that you have.
If you’re not prepared, ask to schedule a specific lesson with whatever grade your interviewing for. Ask how many students are in the class, what kind of interests do they have so that you can cater your lesson to that. That will also show that you know what you’re talking about. Interviewing to be a teacher is not just to be able to sell yourself — You have to be able to show it.
It sounds like there’s more to teaching than just what you’re trained to do.
Absolutely! As a teacher, you wear many hats. You are not just a teacher. You are a therapist. You teach social-emotional topics. You are a judge and a mediator between parents, communities, student, policy makers. Your role as a teacher is, of course, within a classroom. But in order to be a good teacher, you can’t just be a teacher. You have to advocate for your students AND their parents. You’re’ a voice for them. Those things are not always taught within higher education.
What I found in my education classes is that everything is in theory. You learn more in practice.
Tell me a time where you really felt the impact you had on your students.
About 3 to 4 years ago, it was the first day of school, all the kids came in, I was taking attendance for the first time and I didn’t know any of these kids yet. There was a lot going on, so I didn’t notice at first that one of the kids was crying. I had no clue why he was crying. I figured out that this was his first time in American school, completely new to this country. He had no idea what was going on, he felt so lost and did not know any English. This was my first experience with a student who did not know any English. So I couldn’t help but think, “Oh my god. What do I do?”
The first few weeks were brutal for both of us. But he wanted to learn and wanted to better himself. He was really focused. It was helpful that he was already literate in Chinese. He understood the concept of schedules, pictures, writing and school in general. That was a big step.
That year, I had to figure out so many different ways to reach to him. I bought both Chinese and English books to add to my classroom library. Any free time I could get, I would sit with him and talk through stories. I would use lots of pictures and helped him understand the novel with a hodgepodge of pictures and broken translations.
By the end of the year, our communication drastically improved. He understood my teaching and I understood what worked with him and what didn’t.
He went on to 7th grade, 8th grade and he always said hi with a smile on his face. It blew my mind how he went from being that scared little kid on that first day to having conversations with me whenever he visits.
I think I made a difference with him because I showed him that somebody was going to spend the time to help him. That speaks volumes. This is not always easy. It’s probably the most difficult thing you can do. My background, my time and effort, really helped him.
Do you have any other suggestions for our readers and future teachers?
You have to stick with it. We have issues today that we didn’t have 10 years ago where there is a shortage of teachers. Less graduates who want to be teachers. [Being a teacher] is often a thankless job and you are getting blamed from all ends. Parents, policy makers and other people think we are just overpaid babysitters. Those are the times you really have to stick with it. There are days where I feel hopeless. You will undoubtedly have those days. You have to care because it will get hard. You have to really have to hold on to why you went into this.
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