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Respect and confidence thrill young Vietnamese pupils

By Jim BencivengaStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 1982

San Diego

High school teachers Phu Nghiem and Kim-Chi Nguyen represent a cultural bridge their students must cross. On one side lies respect for the ways and traditions of the home all have been forced to leave; on the other, understanding and confidence for a new life in their adopted country.

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This bridge spans the physical and mental worlds of Vietnam and the United States. Both teachers have crossed it.

Like their Indochinese pupils, both teachers fled communist rule in Southeast Asia; both established totally new lives in a new land just as their students hope to. One wants to make sure the students know where they have come from. The other encourages them to know where they are going.

Phu Nghiem has been teaching most of his adult life - 12 years as a history and geography teacher in Vietnam, three years as a cultural teacher at the University of Hawaii, and four years as a social studies teacher at Madison High in San Diego.

Quiet and thoughtful in bearing, he is a father figure to Vietnamese students , many of whom have crossed the ocean without their families. When he enters the classroom, 25 pairs of eyes give him undivided attention. It is just understood that his position warrants this.

The protector of what is good, of what must be saved of the old ways even as students learn of a new life in America, he receives utmost respect.

He lectures from the front of the room, pointing to maps and charts, periodically taking time for questions and answers. His teaching fits the classical-traditional mold.

Vietnamese words fly in an even staccato as the history lesson begins. The only break in the rhythm of Oriental language is the intermittent ''George Washington'' and ''Thomas Jefferson'' that pop up in the verbal stream.

As Teacher (that's with a capital ''T''), he is the one students will most often turn to for simple advice in how to fill out social-security forms; what classes to take; for emotional support as the youngsters deal with separation from their families.

It is to him they will seek advice on career planning so that they can obtain good jobs and somehow arrange to bring their families to America.

''The two greatest problems facing my Vietnamese students are their need to learn the English language and the lack of daily moral support from parents, since they are so far from home,'' he says.

On the issue of whether or not students should be taught in English or their native language Mr. Nghiem recommends a dual approach.

''The sooner a student can get out of a bi-lingual program on the elementary or junior high level the better will be the adjustment to life here.'' Because of this he recommends extensive English language instruction.

''But for senior high students, they only have three years until college and hence need ESL classes (English as a second language).'' When it comes to the regular academic courses and academic concepts which cannot be attained in English, he feels students need to be taught in their native language so they don't fall behind.