School Spirit

Anh Kim Tran on why she opened the Green­leaf Learn­ing Cen­ter and the future of ed­u­ca­tion in Viet­nam

Oi Vietnam - - News - Text by Wes Grover Im­ages by Ngoc Tran

Born in Viet­nam, Anh moved to the US in 1972, where, af­ter ex­plor­ing a se­ries of ca­reer paths, she found her call­ing in child­care. Her time there was largely spent help­ing oth­ers, work­ing as a preschool teacher be­fore she ven­tured into the non-profit sec­tor to pro­vide child­care re­sources and re­fer­rals in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, as well as teach­ing CPR and first aid classes to im­mi­grants who spoke lim­ited English.

In the 1990s, a com­bi­na­tion of work and fam­ily in­ter­ests brought Anh and her hus­band back to Viet­nam and since then she has con­tin­ued her life’s work here, launch­ing var­i­ous char­i­ta­ble projects with a group of Viet­name­seAmer­i­can friends.

“We con­sider our­selves very lucky for the ed­u­ca­tion we re­ceived and are all very keen about it,” shares Anh,

“so a group of us got to­gether and we said ‘Let’s form a school.’” Ex­plain­ing it mat­ter-of-factly, as if start­ing a school was a small feat, it was then that the Green­leaf Learn­ing Cen­ter (Mam Non La Xanh; face­

Green leaf Learn­ing Cen­ter ), which opened its doors in Tan Binh District in 2012, was en­vi­sioned. The cen­ter’s cur­ricu­lum is taught in Viet­namese, which also in­cludes English classes.

“I had to use some of my re­tire­ment money,” she adds laugh­ing. Flash­ing her grand­moth­erly charm, Anh ex­plains that while she con­sid­ers her­self re­tired in the US, she spends eight to ten months a year in Viet­nam, work­ing up to 50 hours some weeks.

As the school gets ready to cel­e­brate its five-year an­niver­sary this spring,

Anh re­flects on the Green­leaf Learn­ing Cen­ter’s jour­ney and what she ex­pects for the future of ed­u­ca­tion in Viet­nam.

“So­ci­ety has changed very quickly here,” she ac­knowl­edges. “The young par­ents re­ally want qual­ity child­care now. The class­rooms are so big in the pub­lic schools and not every­one has the in­come for in­ter­na­tional schools, so they have to pick and choose what’s best for their child. That’s why this school ex­ists.”

“We started with a small group when we first opened,” Anh re­calls. “We had maybe five or six chil­dren from peo­ple who knew us. Com­pared to other schools, we have grown slowly, but we’re happy be­cause we have very ded­i­cated teach­ers who like our phi­los­o­phy and our prin­ci­pal has stayed with us since the be­gin­ning.”

Bring­ing an al­ter­na­tive style to the school sys­tem has not al­ways been an easy en­deavor for Anh, as it has taken time to be em­braced by both par­ents and teach­ers. “There are a lot of chal­lenges when you come with a back­ground of over 20 years in early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion in the US. The teach­ers here know a lot of the­ory, but they do not al­ways have the hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence. The dis­ci­pline tech­nique is very dif­fer­ent, too.”

“Our ap­proach is geared to­ward the child’s in­ter­est and let­ting them learn to play with each other,” she con­tin­ues, “I spent a lot of time train­ing teach­ers on our phi­los­o­phy in the first two years, be­cause it’s a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. The first year we had some turnover be­cause it was very hard for some of them to adapt to our sys­tem. They were used to do­ing things a dif­fer­ent way. Some of them would try to use dis­ci­pline tech­niques that scare the kids. It may be nor­mal to them, but, in my opin­ion, you can­not do that.”

Look­ing to suc­cess­ful mod­els that they hope to em­u­late, the school has found or­ga­niz­ing teacher trips to Sin­ga­pore to be an ef­fec­tive way of al­low­ing them to ob­serve new con­cepts in prac­tice.

Pass it On

The train­ing Anh pro­vides is not lim­ited to the Green­leaf Learn­ing Cen­ter’s teach­ers, how­ever, as she fre­quently trav­els through­out the coun­try as part of her role as a chair­per­son for the Viet­namese American NGO Net­work.

“We fundraise and do train­ing for free CPR and first aid classes for teach­ers in the ru­ral ar­eas. We also do ca­pac­ity build­ing work­shops for teach­ers, which shows them how to build self-es­teem in the stu­dents,” she says.

As Anh de­scribes her seem­ingly end­less mis­sion, it makes one won­der if she’s fu­eled by the chil­dren’s en­ergy

through some sort of os­mo­sis. “Last week, I was in Hue work­ing with about 40 ele­men­tary school teach­ers to teach them about cre­at­ing a safe en­vi­ron­ment for so­cial and emo­tional brain de­vel­op­ment. I was trained about this when I worked for BA­NANAS Child Care Re­source and Re­fer­ral in the US.”

Ex­plain­ing the method­ol­ogy to par­ents has been a dif­fer­ent ob­sta­cle for the school, yet Anh has de­vised a cre­ative way of go­ing about that, as well. “We do a lot of par­ent­ing work­shops dur­ing the year, and once a month we do an event on Satur­day where the par­ents can come and play with their chil­dren at the school. It pro­vides an en­vi­ron­ment for the par­ents to learn more about what we are do­ing here and it’s an­other way that we can talk with them about our ac­tiv­i­ties and their wor­ries.”

As cer­tain el­e­ments of their strat­egy de­vi­ate from tra­di­tional Viet­namese val­ues, Anh rec­og­nizes that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is cru­cial, ex­plain­ing, “You have to work slowly with par­ents, es­pe­cially when it’s their first child.

They have a lot of anx­i­ety. I am a par­ent my­self and I didn’t have rel­a­tives around to help, so I know their con­cern. That’s a big chal­lenge.”

“For Viet­namese par­ents, po­lite­ness and re­spect­ing the el­ders is very im­por­tant,” she elab­o­rates, “but some­times it can force the kid to mis­be­have. It’s not be­cause the child is im­po­lite, but be­cause it can be dif­fi­cult at their age and stage. Chil­dren are ac­tive and they need to play be­fore they can sit down.”

A top source of stress for the par­ents, she says, is food. “Par­ents to­day care a lot about nu­tri­tion. They want their kids to be a lit­tle bit chubby and they try to talk to the teach­ers to make sure the child fin­ishes all the food in their bowl. Young par­ents are afraid if a kid loses weight it means they are sick, but some­times it’s nor­mal.”

“We do nu­tri­tion work­shops with some of the older kids,” she goes on, “so the kids can ob­serve and make a sim­ple snack.”

Asked what ar­eas she feels are of future sig­nif­i­cance in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, Anh shifts gears a bit, opin­ing, “Spe­cial needs kids are an im­por­tant is­sue to fo­cus on. Autism is a cri­sis ev­ery­where in the world. An­other or­ga­ni­za­tion that I help with is called Project Viet­nam. They send doc­tors from the US to Viet­nam yearly to train teach­ers and pro­fes­sion­als on how to best work with spe­cial needs chil­dren, which is a very new field in Viet­nam. The chil­dren all have needs. We need to know how to ob­serve them in or­der to iden­tify what those are and we need to be able to tell the par­ent if their child has spe­cial needs.”

Lis­ten­ing to her speak of all the projects and causes that she de­votes her time to, it’s clear that while Anh is un­der­tak­ing an os­ten­si­bly Sisyphean task, she is un­fazed in her de­sire to make a dif­fer­ence, per­haps a prod­uct of her in­her­ent op­ti­mism. “I’m a be­liever. I hope that our young teach­ers share our ideals. If they ded­i­cate enough time, they know what’s best for the child. You learn this through your heart, not through money. I be­lieve the peo­ple who open pri­vate schools here, the ma­jor­ity of them are be­liev­ers in ed­u­ca­tion.”

The op­ti­mism is read­ily ap­par­ent as we walk through the school. It’s vis­i­ble on the smil­ing faces of the chil­dren and in the in­ti­mately-sized class­rooms. “We try to pro­vide a fam­ily style at­mos­phere. We keep the class­room small. The max­i­mum is 24 chil­dren with two teach­ers,” says Anh.

What stands out the most, though, in a school serv­ing such a young age group, is the ab­sence of chaos. There is an or­derly sys­tem in place and the teach­ers have ev­i­dently bought into it.

“I love to see our school grow­ing and I hope our phi­los­o­phy can ex­ist in Viet­nam be­cause I’m very keen on this,” Anh says pas­sion­ately. “I hope our teach­ers can learn and pass it on to the next gen­er­a­tion.”

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