Anh Kim Tran on why she opened the Greenleaf Learning Center and the future of education in Vietnam
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; facebook.com/
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.”