Two East Side teachers finalists for Teacher of the Year


Ong Xiong, a kindergarten teacher at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet, teaches in a dual immersion Hmong classroom, where 90 percent of the students’ materials are taught in Hmong and the other 10 percent are taught in English.

Michael Houston, who is one of 11 finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award, has taught and coached at Harding High School for 13 years.

Phalen Lake teacher finds passion in protecting Hmong language

Walking into her kindergarten classroom at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet, Ong Xiong laughs about how busy her students keep her.

“It’s like trying to keep grasshoppers in a basket,” she says 

Xiong is one of 11 finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award, a program that is underwritten by the Minnesota teachers’ union, Educate Minnesota. The Teacher of the Year will be announced at a banquet on May 7.

Xiong has worked at Phalen Lake for seven years — it’s her third school. She now teaches a Hmong Immersion class, but originally started there as a fourth grade teacher. After her first year at Phalen Lake, she was asked if she would be interested in helping with a new language immersion program as a kindergarten teacher. 

She says she didn’t realize how personal the Hmong language immersion program was going to get. 

“This identifies who I am,” Xiong says when talking about teaching and preserving the Hmong language.

The language immersion program, which is in its sixth year, is the result of an effort by St. Paul’s Hmong community to preserve its language and culture through an institution like St. Paul Public Schools. There are also Hmong language immersion classes taught at Jackson Elementary school in the Frogtown neighborhood. Students speak, read and write in Hmong for all but 30 minutes during the school day. 

Xiong, who was born in Laos, immigrated to the U.S. and began kindergarten in St. Paul at 5 years old.

“It’s close to the heart for me,” says Xiong, explaining that Hmong is considered an endangered language and that if it were lost, there would be no one or no country to go back to in order to relearn it.

Xiong says she had never set out to teach the Hmong language, but now that she is, it’s a “personal endeavor.”

 

‘Someone who looked like me’

Xiong lives in Maplewood with her husband and three kids, ages 16, 14 and 9. She graduated from Humboldt High School and attended the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1996. She was the oldest daughter in her family, and had one older brother.

She says she had many influential teachers when she was a student, but none that looked like her. 

“I wanted to be like them to someone who looked like me,” Xiong says, adding that for the first 10 years after she graduated college she noticed how few Hmong teachers there were. 

Xiong has put a lot of time and work not only into her teaching, but also into her students. She shares a story of a girls group she started during the mid 2000s at her former school, Achieve Language Academy. 

She says at the time there was an increase in gang activity in St. Paul within the Hmong community. She decided to start a girls group to give girls — fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders — a safe space to talk about issues, to empower them, teach them leadership skills and “to show that people cared about them.” 

She says she wanted them to have an alternative to joining a gang.

The group would meet once a week for two hours and do crafts like paj ntaub, traditional Hmong weaving.

“They hungered for that place and space,” Xiong says, adding many were going through an identity crisis. Many of the students from that group are now lifelong friends of Xiong’s. Some are starting families of their own. 

Jennifer Moua, now 25, was a part of the girls’ group when she was in middle school and says Xiong was an inspiration for them to “strive for whatever our goals or dreams are.”

Moua says as a group of Hmong-American women, Xiong helped them find where they fit into Hmong-American culture, maintaining their Hmong roots while also navigating and changing the patriarchal traditions of Hmong culture.

“Not only was she being a teacher, she was a mentor and a friend,” Moua says.

Mee Xiong, 23, is also a former student of Xiong’s. She says at the time she was a bit of a “troublesome” student but that Xiong helped guide her and other girls towards focusing on school work and positive decisions.

Mee says Xiong helped to remind her of her Hmong roots, teaching her about the culture, history and language. 

“I will forever remember everything Ms. Ong ever helped me with,” says Mee. 

 

Seeing the whole child

Kate Sinakhone has worked closely with Xiong for six years on the dual immersion program and also nominated her for the Teacher of the Year Award. She says there are a lot of pressures on teachers today with testing and that students are often just looked at as data.

But Xiong, she says, “Sees the whole child, she sees this child as a full human being.”

Sinakhone says Xiong recognizes that “everyone is one their own learning journey.”

“She really builds classroom community,” Sinakhone says, adding that Xiong teaches the kids how to take care of one another.

Sinakhone says it’s also important to note how much extra time Xiong puts into preparing for her lessons for the Hmong immersion program. She says Xiong, and other teachers in the program, are translating every book and every worksheet into Hmong 

“The sheer amount of work to honor the language they’re teaching” is tremendous, Sinakhone says

“It’s a lot of extra work,” Xiong says, “But the passion is driving me.”

Xiong says she gets a lot of support from other teachers and staff at Phalen Lake and that the school is a wonderful environment to work in. 

“It’s humbling to be nominated,” Xiong says, adding that if she wins the Teacher of the Year Award, it would be for all her colleagues who work hard at Phalen Lake.

 

‘You can teach anything with trust and personal relationships.’

As Micheal Houston’s students leave Harding High School for the weekend, they each take time to give him a fist-bump before leaving on a warm, Friday afternoon. 

“I’m kind of an enigma to [my students],” says Houston, a soft-spoken math teacher and coach.

“Sometimes I tell them I’m thirty-something or twenty-something,” he laughs. “I’ve been going with 20s lately.”

Houston, who says he’s actually 37, lives in Woodbury, and has worked at Harding High School for 13 years, ever since he was a student teacher at the school. He coaches varsity football and up until recently also was a track coach.

Houston is one of 11 finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award, a program that is underwritten by the Minnesota teachers’ union, Educate Minnesota. The Teacher of the Year will be announced at a banquet on May 7.

Houston says his decision to become a teacher fell into his lap. It was never a career he had intended to pursue, but one that seems to be a perfect fit today.

 

‘You can control your path’

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Houston grew up in a single-parent household in what he describes as a rougher part of Columbus. He says he didn’t really get to just play outside whenever he wanted because of the neighborhood he lived in. Instead, his mom and grandparents would often give him puzzles to play with. He credits this to establishing an early interest in mathematics.

Houston says he didn’t finish high school with the best of grades, so he took a year to go to community college. However, he and his mother weren’t getting along at the time and he felt like he needed to get away — he says the stress of his mother working two jobs and “not knowing if we’d have food on the table regularly” created tension between them.

He says many of his friends had already left on full scholarships to play football at college. He says he was at a “crossroads” in his life where he needed to decide “to grow up and become an adult, or not.”

He applied to the University of Minnesota and got onto the Gopher football team. 

Eventually, Houston transferred to Concordia University in St. Paul. Only a few majors were offered there and, and he says “through a process of elimination I decided to give teaching a shot.”

Houston says he finds he can use his experience while being at the crossroads of his life to show his students that “you can control your path.”

“I’ve overcome the kind of at-risk background,” he says.

 

Student connections

Houston says the aspect of teaching he most enjoys is getting to know his students.

He acknowledges that math can be a difficult subject to teach and to keep students engaged with, but, he adds, “You can teach anything with trust and personal relationships.”

Humor helps too, he says, adding, “I believe teachers, foundationally, have a big heart.”

Erik Brandt, an English teacher and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program coordinator at Harding, nominated Houston for this year’s award and can attest to his big heart. Brandt, too, was a finalist for the award a few years back. 

“[He’s a] phenomenal example of someone dedicated to teaching,” Brandt says.

Brandt often works with Houston as a part of the International Baccalaureate program and says Houston is very aware of where his students are and where he thinks they could be by the end of the school year. 

He adds, “It makes a difference for some of our students to have teachers from the same background.”

“He’s in it for the long haul and for the kids,” says Brandt. “The story of [Houston] needs to be told and celebrated.”

Houston says being nominated for the award has made him reflect on his teaching. 

“The lives I’ve impacted, it’s surreal,” he says. 

Across the East Side at Johnson High School is someone who decided to become a teacher because of the impact Houston made on her life.

“Mr. Houston is the biggest reason that I became a math teacher,” says Lillian Hart, a former student of Houston’s who has been teaching at Johnson High for four years.

“He made teaching look fun and effortless. Sitting in his classroom was one of the first times I recall thinking, ‘this teacher must really love their job,’” she says. Hart took many classes taught by Houston, was his teaching assistant and Houston wrote her a letter of recommendation for college.

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this honor,” Hart says.

 

No sense of foreshadowing

Houston says if he could tell his younger, 20-year-old self he was going to be a teacher, standing up in front of a group of kids lecturing, he would call himself insane. 

He says he was always very shy and hated public speaking, noting the first time he student-taught a class, “did not go well.”

But instead of being deterred, he pushed himself extra hard. “My innate drive forced me to get better,” Houston says.

He says thinking back to that first time, he would have never imagined he would be where he his today, a finalist for the Teacher of the Year Award, adding he wouldn’t be where he is without his colleagues at Harding. 

“There are a ton of great teachers [at Harding],” Houston says. “We do it because we care about the kids.”

 

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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