Eight Questions for Emerging Leader Janet Tran

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We’re always looking for new ways to insert ASCD voices into our conversations on Inservice. With this in mind, we’ve developed a question and answer session for our ASCD Emerging Leaders. The Emerging Leaders program recognizes and prepares young, promising educators to influence education programs, policy, and practice on both the local and national levels. Learn more about Emerging Leaders on the ASCD website.

Janet Tran on Education1.       Tell us about your role as an educator. What does your typical day look like?

Currently, I am the education manager at the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Presidential Learning Center at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. My work is anchored upon creating engaged and conscientious citizens through teacher and student programming. After nearly a decade in the classroom, I stepped out to embed civic learning into the schools. In my current position, I’m beginning to see that day-to-day activities have really gone the way of the dinosaur. Some days appear glamorous, as I escort a former U.S. Supreme Court justice. Other days, I may be hauling books across a long underground hallway. Hours later, I am nose deep in an Excel spreadsheet until the guest list matches our check-in system. I think 21st century jobs are not constrained by job descriptions but instead dictated by benchmarks and goals.

2.       What’s your education philosophy summed up in one sentence?

Education is the great equalizer.

3.       Why did you become an educator?

My parents’ combined education does not equate to an elementary school degree. They were refugees from Vietnam and were denied many of the privileges that American students take for granted. Through education, I raised myself from poverty, expanded my own world, and collected enough agency to help others.

4.       As an ASCD Emerging Leader, how do you hope to have a greater impact on education in your community and beyond?

I was first attracted to ASCD’s focus on intentional and effective education through curricular design. ASCD’s Whole Child approach, however, is the aspect that kept me coming back. When we look at our students without context, we fail them as educators. When we educate within context, our students feel engaged in their learning, their school, their community, and hopefully, their country at large. I believe civic learning is the social justice issue of our time and one of my main goals in education is to help reinvigorate civic learning in the schools and into the fabric of American life.

5.       What professional development books, DVDs, webinars, and courses have made a difference in your career?

Corwin, M. (2001). And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students. HarperCollins.

I read this in college when I was wrestling with whether or not I was cut out for inner-city teaching. I decided to take a leap of faith and as a result, have an army of Tran Alum who make me proud on a daily basis.

DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Karhanek, G. (2004). Whatever it takes: How professional learning communities respond when kids don’t learn. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

DuFour’s work really illustrated what it looks like to have designed responses to failure. Schools should not leave learning to chance!

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. A. (2005). Understanding by design. ASCD.

The art of teaching came easily to me. My students and I would have a great time in the classroom together and they’d even learn a few daily objectives. However, the science takes time. Learning in my class, I came to realize, was happenstance, piecemeal even. Using the Understanding by Design® Framework forced me to be intentional about my choices, and to answer that painful question students ask, “Why are we learning this?”

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

                Intuitively, I knew that my students were capable of learning and did so regularly outside the confines of the classroom. How could I translate this informal learning into classroom success? While this book does not answer the question directly, it certainly widened my lens on learning and informed my practice as an educator.

6.       Was there a pivotal moment when you realized your career choice in education was the correct one? Describe that time.

It was an hour or so after school when I saw a former student we will call M standing in my doorway. I had a rocky history with M, as I often forced him to have nutrition (okay, serve detention) in my classroom in order for him to learn things that he would miss when he was truant. He was bright, but deeply struggled with addiction, and in fact was even resuscitated on campus after an overdose.   When I finally got a hold of his mother, she begged me to help her by getting M incarcerated. He ended up getting incarcerated on his own. I knew M had spent the last few years imprisoned for attempted murder. I’m ashamed to say, but my first thought when I saw him standing in the doorway was that he had come back to exact his revenge.

Instead, he had come back to apologize for what a mess he was and to thank me for taking the time to care. He wore a mechanic uniform, and fidgeted the whole time as we talked.

What struck me was here was a kid that, in my opinion, I did not go the extra mile to help. I always assumed I lost hundreds of students for every single one that I helped. Staying in touch with M, however, has made me realize that teachers can impact students even when it seems like we’re getting nowhere.

7.       If you could make one major change in education, what would it be?

Schools originally had a civic mission. It was the responsibility of the school to instill knowledge about the founding of America. While I don’t endorse blind patriotism or state-sponsored jingoism, I worry that our country is only as good as its citizenry. To paraphrase one of my heroes Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, democracy is not genetic. This country is far from perfect, and never was, but what makes it unique is that we strive for such perfection. When we distill civic learning to a multiple choice answer, we enable binary thinking in a complex world.

8.       What’s the craziest thing a student has ever said to you?

So many crazy things, but in the interest of keeping it clean, “Miss, do you need a high school degree to teach?”