When Linh Pham began teaching English at Tucker High School six years ago, “I didn’t go into teaching for honorable reasons,” she admits. With a degree in English Literature, creative writing was her first love, but she knew that “it wouldn’t necessarily sustain me.” With her eyes on moving away from home and getting married, she knew that teaching was a more steady career path, and, armed with her masters degree in Secondary English Education from Georgia State University, six years ago she came “home” to teach at her alma mater, .
“I only thought I’d last two or three years,” Pham admits, and “I didn’t see it as a long-term career.” After a tough first year, though, she really began to connect with her students and realized that teaching may, in fact, be her true calling.
Pham teaches English and Theory of Knowledge for Tucker High’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program. The program, she says, “demands that students be well-rounded. Theory of Knowledge is a philosophy-type class which requires analyzing, critical thinking, and essay writing.” She said that it really asks students to perform “at the college level,” more so than just memorization and regurgitation of facts.
Katrina Walker, the IB Coordinator at Tucker High School, speaks well of Pham’s teaching and of her high expectations for students in that class. “The IB Theory of Knowledge class asks students to rigorously question what they know in the various fields of knowledge and how they know it. She doesn't accept pat answers in the course and uses personal examples to get students to test the things they've sometimes accepted without question,” Walker said.
As a member of the IB committee, Pham helps with the selection of students for the program, and also mentors them on their individual essays, which usually represent close to two years of work on the topic of their choosing. When she started working with students on the essays, Pham realized that a high school library didn’t often have the resources necessary for students to do adequate research on their topics, which range from examining the backgrounds of serial killers, to human sex trafficking, and everywhere in between. With the individual essays, Pham says, “students are really given the opportunity to study topics that they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to research.”
While encouraging them to think outside the box and expand their horizons with the essay, Pham realized that a good teacher would also give her students the tools necessary to do this well, so she began taking her students to Georgia State to use the library there. She mentioned that many students, upon entering the collegiate library, “are blown away when they realize how many more resources are available to them.”
Another skill that Pham wants to make sure she imparts in her students is learning how to trust and depend on their peers, so she instigated a “Team Building Day,” drawing on activities she participated in while in college. She mentioned that working well with others and learning that it’s OK and necessary to rely on them at times is an important life skill, but one that doesn’t always come naturally.
As if all of these things don’t keep her busy enough, she also sponsors the Academic Bowl and International Night. One former student, D’Andre Young, spoke fondly of Pham’s commitment to her students and to the extra activities that she plans. “She is one of the most exciting teachers I have had because she constantly found new ways to keep us interested. We would have class outside or try new delicacies from other countries, and we even helped teach the class,” Young said.
Another graduate of the IB program, Cailey Forstall, also spoke of Pham’s commitment to her students. “There were very few teachers that were so willing to be more than just a teacher. She was like a mentor to me, and the time she put into helping her students in the IB program was more than I could say. She had an open-door policy all of the time and was sweet enough to invite us into her home, as well,” Forstall said.
Pham spoke of that commitment to her students, saying that on a day-to-day basis, “you don’t necessarily realize the impact you’re making.” Then, later, they call, and “I realize that I made a difference. All students, wealthy or poor, benefit from a teacher who cares.”
Pham knows from experience just what it means to need guidance and support during the school years. Born in post-war Vietnam, her parents were determined to move their children out of the country. On their first attempt at leaving, they were caught, and her father and brother were imprisoned for a time. Not ones to give up, the family tried again. This time, a storm blew their boat off course and they ended up in international waters off the coast of Taiwan. They spent some time in a refugee camp there while looking for a sponsor, and once they found one, they made the move to the United States.
Pham grew up on the gulf coast near Biloxi, Mississippi, where she says there was not a large immigrant population. There were only three or four non-English speakers at her school, including herself and her brother, and the school had to bring in a special ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher especially for them. Because she was different and didn’t speak the language, she was bullied as a child. Her father, though, told her that “if people are picking on you, you get better than them so that they don’t have anything to bully you for.” Being a non-English speaker himself, he went to thrift stores and bought his children “tons of books,” Pham says, and through reading and television, she learned the language of her new country.
Despite wanting their children to learn English and helping them to do so, her parents continued to speak only Vietnamese at home, because they didn’t want their children to lose that language. Pham appreciates the benefits of a multicultural and multi-language upbringing, and she is working to find ways of providing some semblance of that for her students. She’s currently in the process of contacting an IB school in Spain to try to set up an exchange program with them. “More than with the student tours,” she says, “they would get the full cultural experience of the country with an exchange program,” including language immersion. The majority of the IB students take Spanish classes, but there are also French and German programs at Tucker High, so she’s looking at exchange programs with those countries in the future, as well.
“Tucker High School is more than just football,” she says, and “there is a really good group of teachers who really care about the students. I’m sad to see how many students have left the community to go to other schools, but I’m glad to see them coming back.”
Tucker High’s principal, James Jackson, calls Pham “one of the hardest-working staff members at Tucker High School. She cares about the students and has high expectations for them” and says that “she’s a blessing to the school and to the community of Tucker.” Another former student, Payton Campbell, goes so far as to call Pham “a saint,” saying that “everything she did as a teacher was planned to perfection.”
Pham’s commitment and dedication have not gone unnoticed. Last month, the honored her with their “Tucker Citizen of the Year” award, citing her exceptional dedication to hundreds of students in the Tucker Community.