‘I’m not afraid to be vulnerable’


Koua Yang, teacher and coach at Harding High School, says, “I just want people to know how challenging and how rewarding teaching is.” (Marjorie Otto/Review)

Harding teacher shares his philosophy on how to connect with students 

“I just really love working with kids. They just make me happy,” says Koua Yang, a Harding High School instructor, coach, and one of 11 finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award, an award that celebrates Minnesota’s teachers and their work.

For 16 years, Yang has been a social studies teacher at Harding High School. He currently teaches Asian American studies and human geography, and coaches the boys and girls tennis teams.

“It was instilled in me early on that education was important by my mom. My mom was my greatest teacher,” Yang says.

 

The journey to America

Yang and his family, which consisted of his mother and two older sisters, immigrated to the United States during the winter of 1980, when Yang was 4 1/2. 

He says in 1976, the year he was born, his family left Laos after the death of his father, a CIA-trained Hmong soldier who fought against the North Vietnamese. 

The family lived in refugee camps in Thailand for four years before they made the journey to St. Paul, where his grandmother and uncle had settled.

Yang attended first and second grades in East Side schools, and then finished his schooling in the Como Park neighborhood.

In high school, he participated in wrestling and tennis all four years and was the first Hmong student to place in the Minnesota State Wrestling Tournament. 

He attended Augsburg College, where he was a member of the wrestling team. During the 1999-2000 school year, Augsburg assigned Yang to do his student teaching at Harding High School. 

His students loved him so much that they brought petitions to the principal at the time urging him to hire Yang. The principal told Yang not to apply anywhere else and that he would have a job at Harding that fall. He’s been working at the school ever since.

“I kind of found a niche here,” he says.

“I know what it was like to struggle as a student. I knew what it was like to not be proficient in a language — a foreign language.” 

Yang explains that his past holds an important role in his career as a teacher and how he interacts with his students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

“Sharing that path, that navigation piece is absolutely crucial. It also gives them hope. Because then they realize, ‘Hey somebody went through it, too; somebody like me went through it and they were pretty successful at it. I can do it, too,’”

 

“My door is always open.”

Yang says that he is in a unique situation as a teacher. Students often come to him to talk about struggles at home, in addition to school, because they can connect to him on a personal level.

“I think that’s the part that can become emotionally and spiritually draining. You absorb so many of their issues. You have to have compassion and in order to do that you kind of absorb their experience,” Yang says.

“We need a person like Koua, especially in the community,” says Pong Vang.

Vang coaches tennis with Yang and is Harding’s Hmong cultural specialist. He works with students and parents in the Hmong community and has been Yang’s colleague 11 years. He describes Yang as “a great resource.”

Vang says that when he first started working at Harding, he was unsure of how to connect with the students. He says Yang showed him how to build relationships with the kids.

He says Yang is not only a mentor for his students, but also for the Hmong community as a whole. 

Yang lives on the East Side with his wife and 3-year-old son and explains, “If you don’t know what the community needs, then you don’t know what the kids need.” 

Vang adds that the Hmong community has lost many of its elders, and he believes Yang will be able to fill some of the cultural vacuum created by their deaths. 

 

“This is an extension of the classroom.”

Besides teaching Asian American studies and human geography, Yang says he teaches relationship building and life skills out on the tennis court.

“Sports in general have become a vehicle for these kids because now it’s a part of their identity. They found another niche in school to be a part of. Now they are a part of a bigger family,” Yang says.

He never turns kids away from the team because he wants them there, building relationships, learning life skills and staying out of trouble. He says sports keep the kids motivated and in school.

However, many of his players are unable to afford tennis gear, so Yang goes to local tennis clubs to ask for donations. He also gives his players his gently worn shoes and clothes. 

“Fortunately for them, I’m their size,” Yang says, laughing.

Vang says one memory of Yang that particularly sticks out is from a tennis tournament in which Harding performed poorly. He says many of the young athletes were nervous and anxious because of the intensity of the competition. He recalls Yang turned to his players and said, “Hey, sometimes in life adversity comes your way.”

Inspired by their coach, the students won the tournament the next year. 

 

“It’s about the students”

Yang says he can’t take all the credit, that teaching only works when everyone — the students, the parents, the teachers and the school district administrators — each hold themselves accountable. 

He says the support systems in place for students do not get enough credit and that it is those systems “make a complete teacher.”

The students need to be held accountable for their actions and their education, Yang explains, adding that one his mottos is: “Students don’t receive an education; they earn it.” 

He says while he is honored by his consideration for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award, he says it is the success of his students that is the real reward. 

“The kids will be the best testimonial. They’ll tell you exactly how important the role of a teacher is.”

 

Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

 

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