Becoming an American Teacher

Hello! My name is Ha. I am a first grade teacher in Texas, and I have been teaching for more than a decade. However, as…

Hello! My name is Ha. I am a first grade teacher in Texas, and I have been teaching for more than a decade.

However, as a child, I was considered an ESL learner, an at-risk, low socioeconomic student, an angel on the Christmas Angel Tree and a refugee. 

I am also the product of public and private education, welfare, food stamps, government-assisted programs, free and reduced lunch, subsidized summer camps, scholarships based on merit and financial needs, financial aid and assistance from charities. 

I was also a child of immigrant parents who knew no English and went through school on my own and found my own path.

When I say on my own, I mean I did all homework and projects on my own since I was in first grade.

So why am I telling you this?  I am doing so because I was all of those things, which could have been barriers and obstacles to my dreams.  They could have been the reason why I didn’t succeed and didn’t become who I was meant to be. But instead, because of the love of my family and the encouragement of teachers like Mrs. Tyra in first grade and Mrs. Sherman in high school who believed in me even when I didn’t in myself, I grew up to become the teacher that I am today.

Exactly 31 years ago, my family left Vietnam to immigrate to the United States after the Fall of Saigon.  I was only 5 then but I could still remember the joy that my family felt as we relocated to our new home. The opportunity of receiving a good education and the promise of a better future propelled my parents to leave everything behind.

From Vietnam, we flew and temporarily resettled in a refugee camp in the Philippines. 

While many may refer to refugee camps as places of sorrow filled with displaced people and crying children, our refugee camp was in fact, a place of joy, hope and promise. 

The Philippine Refugee Processing Center was a large facility that served as the final stop for many Asian refugees before their final resettlement to other countries, primarily the United States.

Philippine Refugee Processing Center Image from Wikipedia

 At the camp, our family shared a bunkhouse in the Vietnamese community of the camp.  The bunkhouse was constructed with plywood for basic accommodations and a bed with mosquito netting. 

During our time there, we received basic ESL classes and adults were also given Cultural and Work Orientation to help them better assimilate into their new future home.

Our Family with a Teacher from the PRPC

In addition, my siblings were are able to join the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Society, a Catholic youth group organized by other refugee families at the camp.

My siblings with their friends from the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Society at the PRPC Camp in the Philippines

Then in August of 1989, Catholic Charities officially sponsored my family and flew us to resettle in Louisville, Kentucky. 

While I had already attended Kindergarten at the camp, I did not pick up much English and felt completely lost in translation.

Thus, on the first day of Kindergarten, I was completely petrified and terrified after being dropped off. I didn’t understand what anyone was saying and everyone around me looked so foreign than anyone I had ever encountered. 

“Where am I? Who are these people and where is my mom?” were questions that I kept asking myself in my head.

While I remember crying most of the morning, I also remember a friend who shared her crayons with me and made me feel better. 

I can still smell the strong scent of those crayons each time I think back to my first day of school.

It took me all year in Kindergarten to finally open up, become more aware of my surroundings, and learn enough English to participate in class.

Then first grade came and I met Mrs. Tyra. 

She was in early twenties, newly married, soft spoken, and kind.  She taught me to read, allowed me to help in the morning, signed me up for the math club and even encouraged me to compete in the Math Bee that year.

It was hard to believe that just a year earlier, I knew no English and didn’t want to go to school.  Then a year later, I was standing on stage competing before my school and family.

Of all the things that she taught me, the most important thing that I carried with me was to believe in myself and my own abilities.

This lesson could not have been more important than when my high school counselor asked me what I wanted to major in in college.  Deep inside, I wanted to tell her I wanted to be an elementary teacher, but I said I wanted to be an engineer like my older sister instead.  

Growing up in a traditional Asian family, my parents expected us to all follow careers in math and science.  Since my older siblings majored and graduated from Engineering and Computer Information degrees, it was expected of me, as the youngest, to follow their footsteps. 

Since I excelled academically and had talked about being an engineer, it came at no surprise to everyone at school. But I knew in my heart, I wasn’t honest with myself.

During high school, my French teacher, Mrs. Sherman organized book readings at various elementary schools as part of our community service.  I never talked to her about it, but those days were the most exhilarating and exciting for me.

I loved the look of the primary classroom, the smell of the chalk, the feel of the chalkboard, the sight of little tables and chairs, and reading Children’s books!

But instead of simply reading the book that I was assigned to read, I introduced myself and the other students, I gave the kids a quick rundown of the agenda, and read the book like it was my class and they were my students. 

My knack and love for teaching was so apparent that even my French teacher asked me to reconsider my career choice one day after school.

I knew that I definitely didn’t want to disappoint my family, but I had to be honest and believe in my own abilities. 

Therefore, after graduating as the salutatorian of my high school class, I entered college with the secret hopes of becoming an elementary teacher.

Three and a half years later, it came as a great surprise to my dad, when I shared three days before my college graduation that I had in fact, been accepted to the Master’s Program to become an elementary teacher.

Can you see in this picture that he was still a tad bit surprised?

My College Graduation

“But the kids are all going to be taller than you”, he exclaimed.  Well, he’s mostly right.

Nonetheless, he begrudgingly respected my decision and at last, proudly walked across the stage with me and my mother when I received my Master’s degree a year and a half later.

Furthermore,  if my dad needed anymore confirmation that I chose the right path for myself, he definitely got it when he visited my classroom during my second year of teaching. 

Seeing how happy and alive I was while teaching, impressed him and solidified the fact that I had become a teacher as I had dreamed to be.

This lesson of first believing in my own abilities so that I can help my own students believe in themselves came during my second year of teaching when I met a sweet little boy who was smart, kind, and had the sweetest soul. 

As much as he wanted to do well in school, his difficult family life made it hard for him to concentrate in our classroom.  

During many lessons, I watched him daydream and stared out in space.  His hand was holding his pencil, but his mind was definitely elsewhere.  Each time I redirected him, he would stare back at me and then down at his paper.  When I worked with him one-on-one, he was quick to answer my questions, showed interest in the books we read together and worked so hard to improve his reading skills.  Yet when he was back at his seat, he would drift away mentally and had a hard time focusing on his work.

One day I pulled him aside and told him that I was aware of the situation at home and I too felt the sadness that he felt.  I hugged him tightly but reminded him that we also needed to carry on and I believed in him.  

The year came and went and while things did eventually get somewhat better for him at home, I could tell he continued to carry that weight on his shoulders everywhere he went.

After that year, each time I saw him passing me in the hallway, I would hug him and tell him that I loved him as I do with all of my former students.

Then two years ago out of the blue, I received a letter sent to my old school from him that read “Dear Mrs. Dinh, You were my second grade teacher at P. Elementary, just in case you forgot. I just wanted to write this letter to thank you, you are the first teacher I can recall to my memory.  The reason for this is our daily greetings we exchange[d]. You were the nicest I ever had.”

It was him in high school writing to thank me as part of a writing assignment for his football team.

Then a year later, he sent another letter without signing it that read, “Dear Ms. Dinh, I am a senior now. I had a stable education most of the time, attended the same schools and completed all the years required and it all started with your second grade class and you are the memorable teacher out them all if there is anything I wanted to [say], it’s thank you for starting this journey.” 

After reading the letter, I knew it was him as the handwriting matched the previous letter.

Second Letter

When I met him, he was a little boy who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He wanted to do well in school but so many obstacles stood in his way, and I understood that. 

I felt it with him and I told him I understood what he was going through. Through love and the belief that he was smart enough and strong enough to overcome any obstacles, I kept reminding him of what I saw in him and that he was loved. 

Seeing that he had made it onto the football team and was a senior made my heart so incredibly happy because I know he recognized that I had believed in him from the very beginning.

Just like me, he was an at-risk student and one many in society would consider a child with average abilities who was not interested in learning.  He had a caring mom, yet she too did not have the means, time and resources to help him excel academically just like my parents.

We both lacked so much and relied so much on public assistance and the love of caring teachers who saw that we were more than at-risk or a refugee. 

Yet through it all, we realize that while our journey may be more challenging, we both found someone who really saw us for whom we are and the potential in us when others overlooked.

While my journey from Vietnam to the Philippines to America to becoming a teacher has been unique, it reminds me the power that every teacher has to touch and change lives every day. 

It also reminds me the power that those who are in position to write curriculum or create teaching resources to enrich and improve the lives of children everywhere because of our meaningful and inclusive resources.  

If someone had told me in kindergarten that I would become a teacher teaching in the language that I did not know at the time, I would never have believed it. 

But despite everything, I was able to succeed because of my family and the teachers who believed in me and saw my talents and potential even when I didn’t.   

So today I ask that you remember someone in your life may it be a family member, friend or teacher who believed in you from the beginning and let your talents shine in the work that you create to help make education better for all of our students.

Because if we believe in ourselves and our students believe in themselves, then the world will believe in them too.

Believe in Yourself & The World Will Too Mural in Deep Ellum, Texas


  1. As an immigrant to this country, I totally identify with your story. I even remember when I was in high school, we started receiving “boat people” from Vietnam. I remember how lost they seemed. I think they were even terrified because everyone was so different for them. As immigrants, it is our responsibility to put forth our best effort but as citizens (count me as one now), it’s our duty to help welcome our new neighbors because they come with stories that we can not even imagine. Thank you for sharing yours!

    1. Thank you for sharing, Claudio! I share the same sentiments!

  2. Hi,
    I hope to share this exact same story (Laos, at-risk, refugee, etc..) because these experiences have shaped who I am today. I taught 1st for 7 years and this will be my first year in Kindergarten.

    1. Oh wow! I love that so much! I’m so happy to see diversity in our profession! It definitely benefits the kids and gives new perspectives on teaching and learning!

    1. Thank you so much, Marnie! I’m so glad I’m a teacher! I love being able to do what I love!

  3. I missed the conference this year and sold my ticket because I was moving states right before it, so I’m grateful to be able to read your story here! One of my Vietnamese friends immigrated to the US after the fall of Saigon as well, and in part due to my encouragement and working at a camp for kids became a second-grade teacher too, even though her three other siblings went into the medical profession, which she was expected to do as well.

    So precious to see old students reach out and thank us later on as your student did. Thank goodness for teachers that show us how much they believe in us, and take the time to give us extra support. We are so lucky we get to do the same for other students.

    1. I’m so glad it resonates with you! I know that so many other people walked a similar path! It’s so interesting how we can be so different, yet so similar all at the same time! Thank you for reading it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Hi Ha,

    I was taken aback when I read your blog post featured on the Teachers Pay Teachers blog. For a moment, it felt like someone was writing my story. I’m also a Vietnamese refugee-immigrant who was placed in the Philippines. I grew up in Texas and became a teacher here thanks to my loving family and inspiring teachers. I taught for six years before transitioning to a non-teaching positing in higher education. In the back of my mind, I’ve wondered if I should go back into K-12, but it was very hard work and often consuming. I’m always happy to see other Vietnamese teachers, especially females, out there as leaders and role models. Thank you for this inspiring post and for reminding me of why teaching is so powerful. I’ve kept a very basic blog, and I hope to add more about teaching to it soon. — feel free to come by and say hi.


    1. Thank you, Thanh for your sweet comment! I decided to share my story because I know that there are so many teachers out there who have walked a similar road. In these times, we need more voices than ever to speak for our most vulnerable. I’m so glad that you were a teacher. As a child, I wished that I had a teacher who looked like me, spoke like me, and honestly, was a regular education teacher not just a pull-out ESL teacher or ESL aide. All of our students need to see more representation so that they too can see themselves doing what they love. Thank you again for stopping by! Please do keep in touch! ๐Ÿ™‚

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