UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2007
[pitter patter]
Language of Love
The secret to happily teaching kindergarten for 37 years is dedication and lots of fun
by Patricia Ratledge

Rounding the corner in front of this kindergarten classroom, the noise is unmistakable: It’s the sound of absolute joy. Inside, on a bright patchwork rug of letters and numbers, 124 tiny feet are stomping and turning on command. A few are even in sync with the mariachi music.

Susan (Wong) Quan ’76 (M.Ed.) and Olga Valenzuela, her teaching partner of 31 years, are rehearsing their combined classes for a performance still months away, calling out directions in both English and Spanish. The translation is essential.

That’s because each fall, nearly 80 percent of the kindergarten students at Martin Luther King Elementary in El Centro, Calif., arrive speaking little or no English, the highest percentage in the Imperial Valley region. Their days are quickly saturated with English so they can move on to tackling reading, writing and the other core subjects mandatory in today’s accelerated kindergarten curriculum.

Quan feels a strong bond with her charges because she, too, has danced in their shoes. Raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown by immigrant parents, Quan entered school speaking only Chinese. She learned English simply by being immersed in it.

“I empathize with these children,” Quan says. “In order to be successful, they must speak and comprehend the language. Without it, they can’t do anything. That will be their barrier.”

Quan has only three hours and 20 minutes each day to break down that wall, word by word. Her methods are simple: English and lots of it, repetition and reward. Kids recite poems in English to earn playtime, color worksheets to increase their vocabulary and blow imaginary bubbles to celebrate. Three days a week, Quan and a core group of her English learners huddle for an extended language lesson after school is officially dismissed.

In return, her students call her “teacher,” the English version of the highly respectful title of “profesora.” And in this hardscrabble farming community, where families can lose focus on education in their efforts to get food on the table, Quan’s students faithfully report to school. Her most recent monthly class attendance rate was 96 percent.

Just two years from a planned retirement, Quan still works like a new recruit. In the classroom, she breaks into song to keep attention from wandering, encourages with hugs and prompts her kids to participate in every lesson. She credits her special education studies at USD with giving her the skills to see her students as individuals with different needs. She’s constantly looking for ways to inspire each of her students.

“When they come to kindergarten, they say, ‘No puedo; I can’t,’” Quan says. “The challenge is to make them believe in themselves.”

It doesn’t take long for Quan’s students to turn “I can’t” into “I’ll try.” Former students return when they’re in high school or college. A few have even become teachers themselves.

“They come back and thank me because I’ve always said, ‘You can do it,’” Quan says. “Do your best and you will succeed.”