Respect and confidence thrill young Vietnamese pupils

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.

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.

''Since almost 80 percent of the Vietnamese students here plan to go on to college, and most of these will be in the sciences and engineering, students need to not fall behind in the math concepts while they are learning English,'' he says.

This year he is witnessing the second wave of Indochinese refugees to descend upon this southern California city since the end of US involvement in Southeast Asia. The current influx is academically much more challenging than the first wave of urban, French educated Vietnamese who arrived shortly after the war.

''Most are from the countryside and have experienced several interruptions in their studies. Many had to leave school to help support their parents,'' said Mr. Nghiem.

He finds abstract concepts his greatest teaching challenge. ''You cannot draw a mathematical figure for the words 'democracy,' 'religion,' or 'utopia' on the blackboard. There is still a need for them to know these democratic concepts if they are going to function successfully in society,'' he said.

For Kim-Chi Nguyen, secretary to the mayor of Saigon for three years before the communist takeover, there was little choice but to flee her country after the fall of the city in 1975.

This is her sixth year with the San Diego schools. Before receiving a teaching certificate Miss Nguyen worked as a teacher's aide, assisting San Diego in its scramble to assimilate and educate the thousands of Indochinese refugees.

Even though she would rather teach English as a second language when she had more time ''to get to know the students and counsel them about their future,'' she says, she is teaching mathematics at Madison High because, ''This is where the need is greatest.'' Her choice to teach math parallels the pragmatic approach to education many Vietnamese have shown since coming to the US.

It also highlights the adaptability to new ways she has faced as an individual uprooted and thrust out of conventional ways. ''The students have a very realistic attitude toward not going home. Many were in prison and none of them talk to me about going back,'' she said.

If they are learning to be realistic in adverse circumstances, there are those who argue it is in no small way because of her example.

Her rapport with the students appears to be on a more personal level than that of Mr. Nghiem. The role of respected elder is his; of successful career woman is hers.

In the students' eyes she has made it after she came over to America, unlike Mr. Nghiem who already was teaching in Vietnam. Her example shows them that they can set goals and reach them.

She is still doing just that. French educated in Vietnam, she plans to complete a master's degree in both counseling and linguistics (she is only 18 credits shy in linguistics). Ideally she would like to blend academic teaching with career counseling.

Her present mix of students requires she juggle the level of difficulty in subject matter to fit an urban-rural, literate-illiterate student grouping of non-English speaking students.

Phu Nghiem and Kim-Chi Nguyen are, and have to be, much more than teachers. Both of them are.

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