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By JOSH STILTSReformer Staff
TOWNSHEND - Students and faculty describe Tong Chen as a magician who can carefully walk the thin line between teacher and friend.
On Tuesday, because of her ability to challenge her students to go beyond their perceived abilities, Chen was selected as Vermont’s 2012 Teacher of the Year.
Chen, who has taught Chinese language and culture at Leland & Gray for more than six years, was honored Tuesday in front of her students, friends, fellow faculty and family.
“I couldn’t be more overwhelmed and humbled by this honor,” Chen said. “Without you and your support I would have never made this achievement in my career.”
Growing up in Fujian, China, where being a teacher was a well-respected profession, Chen said she knew from a very young age that she wanted to educate others.
Both her parents, who were in the audience Tuesday, lived through cultural revolution where there was no organized education. Since that time, her parents have been a source of inspiration and support, Chen told the Reformer.
“They’ve always encouraged me and pushed me to learn more and educate others,” she said of her parents. “My parents taught me how important it is to give back.”
Chen spent the first four years of her teaching career working in Jamaica and Windham elementary schools in the morning and at Leland & Gray in the afternoon. In 2009 she moved to teaching full time at the middle-high school.
Chen was asked during the application process what makes her a good teacher. During her acceptance speech, Chen said there were two groups of people and they were the answer.
The first group, her students, taught her how to become a great teacher, or as in Chinese, “háo láo shí.”
“They forgive my mistakes, encourage me, inspire me, learn and laugh with me, watch games with me, eat lollipops with me and play ping pong with me,” Chen said. “They made me proud to be a teacher and an educator and made my career more than rewarding. Students, thank you. I am standing up here to be recognized because of you.”
Anna Cashman, 16, a junior and Leland & Gray, said after the ceremony that Chen was her favorite teacher because of her unique style.
“She’s really sarcastic, in a good way,” Cashman said of Chen. “Chinese is definitely the hardest language to learn at this school because it goes beyond just the words. You have to learn the characters and the culture.”
Another junior, Jesse Newton, 16, who took Chen’s advanced placement class, said she knows how to adapt the material to each student’s learning style.
“She’s a great combination of fun, inspiration, while challenging you to go beyond the basic,” Newton said. “She encourages you to take your learning into your own hands.”
The second group Chen alluded to during her speech was her colleagues. They don’t eat lollipops, she said, but she sees “dedication, commitment, professionalism and love in them.”
This recognition is not a differentiation but unification between them, she said.
Chen personally thanked her former colleague, Tom Connor, who retired at the end of last year.
“He is the only white-headed person who I am able to spot from a distance with no doubt, even in New York City,” she said. “He picks on me, eats my food and introduced me as his niece at his son’s wedding. But he is the one who has always been there for me since the first day of my teaching career.”
She said Connor’s support and telling her that she is a good teacher and that he was proud of her was, “the best tribute I could ask for.”
“He walked me through many difficulties in the past seven years,” Chen said.
Connor said afterwards that he was deeply moved by Chen’s praise. He was quick to refocus the attention back toward her.
“She’s unbelievable in the classroom,” he said. “A wonderful combination of caring and tough love.”
The two shared a room together for the past seven years and worked closely on the Journey East Art and Culture Exchange Program, which offers students the chance to travel to China.
“She takes her students’ success to heart,” Connor said. “If her students fail, she feels as if she fails. She wants every single one of them to get 100 percent on each assignment.”
Being a teacher is much more than merely having a job, Chen said.
“It’s about seeing students’ potential, encouraging them to challenge themselves, inspiring them to explore, believing in their talents and being genuine to them,” she said. “Our students deserve good education and passionate teachers. With good teachers, good students will become great students. Those who have been discouraged and disengaged will discover their values and passion in learning.”
Chen added that she sets high expectations for her students because she believes they are able to achieve them.
Every day teachers at Leland & Gray make a dif¬ference in dozens of lives, said Principal Dorinne Dorfman during the assembly honoring Chen.
“The sense of satisfaction is immediate, especially in a middle/ high school where the students let you know right away if something’s working or bombing,” Dorfman said. “Teachers impart tools for students to solve problems, analyze, understand and make a difference in their communities and become the successful, unique individuals they might not even know are inside them. Teaching is about love of humanity.”
Also honored Tuesday were Vermont Teacher of the Year alternate, Jeff Johnson, a physical education teacher at Mt. Anthony Union Middle and High School in Bennington and finalists Mark Weikert, a physical education teacher at Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry, and Glenda Allen, a literacy and math teacher at Barre Town Elementary School in Barre Town.
Johnson said although he didn’t win, he sure felt like it.
“It’s a truly great honor,” he said. “It was amazing to be acknowledged.”
Johnson has used movement in the classroom to improve student learning and involvement.
“It’s miracle growth for the brain,” he said.
As Vermont’s top teacher, Chen will travel around the state visiting other schools and working with their teachers. Being selected also makes her the state’s candidate for the National Teacher of the Year award to be given by President Barack Obama next spring.
Superintendent Steven John, in recommending Chen, said she exem¬plifies the professional standards for Vermont educators.
“What sets Chen apart from other bilingual teach¬ers is her effective use of professional knowledge to ensure that all students successfully speak and write Chinese,” John said.
Following the ceremony, John told the Reformer that Chen’s instructional style connects with students.
“She has a magical touch, using sense of humor and encouragement while also being demanding of her expectations,” he said.
“Being awarded” isn’t why she became a teacher, but the honor means so much more than her individual accomplishment, Chen said.
“It speaks volumes about the quality education here at Leland & Gray and I’m very proud to represent this school, this community and the state of Vermont as 2012 Teacher of the Year,” she said.
At the end of her speech, Chen gave the audience another challenge.
“Instead of asking what, ask why,” she said. “Instead of asking why, ask why not? Instead of asking why not, ask what if? Let’s inspire students to ask ‘what if’ if they’re to discover how, instead of what. To enjoy learning and to like coming to school every day.”
©2011 Brattleboro Reformer. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup