Duy Nguyen

My day job is principal at Northside Elementary in Middleton. 

I came to the United States from Vietnam in the mid-1980s. My parents and I were refugees, we were sponsored by a church group from Green Bay. It took four different trips to reunite our family.

My parents ultimately left Green Bay for Minneapolis, which had a larger Vietnamese community. My parents opened a grocery store and through high school, I went to school in Minneapolis. I returned to Wisconsin for college. 

My original plan was to focus on science and become a dentist. But that shifted when I spent time working with a program my brother started in Green Bay: The Coming Home Project. 

This group worked with Hmong and other Pacific-Asian teens who had had some kind of run-in with the law; it provided a way for them to do community service. My brother pulled me into the group so I could see firsthand some of the things he had experienced: the struggle these teens faced trying to hold onto the culture their parents were so incredibly proud of, while also understanding why they’d come to the U.S. 

These teens needed a bridge to help them figure out how to navigate the parts of their tradition they wanted to hold onto, along with how to “be” American. Lots of them had younger siblings who really looked up to their older brothers and sisters who were now caught up in the justice system. I was intrigued by the idea that I could learn from them and be a part of their story.

After that summer, I came back to the UW and switched my major to human development and family studies. After graduation, I taught kindergarten in the Madison schools—at one point I was the only Vietnamese kindergarten teacher in all of Wisconsin. I saw the diversity of Madison and the needs of the different communities through the eyes of an educator and started thinking about moving into a leadership role. 

I became an elementary school principal in Waukesha. I wanted to find a way to build and establish a LAB school with the diverse  community in mind knowing that I believe our diverse community is a strength of ours. I reached out to Carroll University. We partnered to create the first lab school in Wisconsin. We brought in professors and education students from Carroll to our school. They applied theories and learning in real time, which allowed them to find the connections as well as disconnects between theory and practice. It was incredibly valuable for everyone involved in this partnership. 

During the pandemic, I hope we’re taking a broader look at education and shifting our thinking around what and how children think and learn. 

As a refugee and a person of color, I was taught directly and indirectly by a racist system that I was not normal, inferior, broken and that I didn’t belong. Therefore, I believed that my whole self was not good enough because my whole self would not be accepted. I want to establish with my families and our teachers that our children are whole. They do not come to us broken. They come to us with prior experiences and knowledge to be valued and acknowledged. That we’re not saving kids—we’re there to be saved by them. We need to have an alternative narrative and appreciate that the answer is within our kids. That’s one of the things that excites me about being an educator. Kids have their own truth and they’re not afraid to speak it-we can support them to activate their full potential. 

I’m so fascinated by what kids are thinking and feeling; they are naturally curious. I want to support teachers to be curious about kids again. When you’re curious and fascinated by children’s thinking you start to appreciate and allow them to be their whole selves— that will go a long way to addressing issues around equity.

I would love to change the way school success is defined. We rely too heavily on high stakes tests that perpetuate the racist system. Instead, I think there must be a better way to gauge students’ growth and learning—maybe a whole-self portfolio approach. What assets do our students already have and what can we build on? As an educator, I am thinking about what intellectual tools or learning strategies will our students need to acquire the knowledge to think critically about all topics, and, more importantly, how do they use this knowledge to improve the world in which they live.

So much of what the school system still adheres to is the old model of pouring facts and information into our children’s brains as opposed to studying our children’s thinking so that they can reveal to educators how they are thinking and learning. I wonder if this strategy was applied to me when I was younger, could I have created a stronger positive identity and be my whole self sooner? Instead, I see my leadership role as a person of color to present a counter narrative so that all of my students see differences as normal and are worthy of respect. 

My most memorable caffeine is Vietnamese coffee, which is a really rich coffee drink made with condensed milk. Vietnamese coffee was part of my family as a child and I remember there was an entire process around making it. I had Vietnamese coffee in Vietnam when I had the chance to go back there and study—I have fond memories of sitting with friends and talking—but I’ve never tried to make it myself. It makes me think of my older siblings and of my mother and dad who risked their lives to come to the U.S. 

My current caffeine of choice is either an iced coffee in the summer heat or an Algerian tea.

My favorite place for caffeine is Graze, which is a great place to pick up a coffee when the Farmers’ Market is open. Or we like to get a Algerian tea at the Mediterranean Café. 

The people I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with are Bill Moyers and someone from my family. 

Bill has done so many different interviews with so many different people. It’s sort of like using your wish from the genie to ask for more wishes! He’s interviewed so many amazing people, including Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander—people working around criminal justice and equal rights. I’d love to channel his experiences and learn his interview skills. 

I’d use those newfound interview skills I gained from Bill to sit down and talk to my family, especially my mom and dad. They have stories that I find fascinating now as an adult and I look to them to reveal both happiness and pain. I am saddened that it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized there were so many amazing, powerful stories that complete me. Understanding my own stories would help me show students how to share and appreciate their own powerful stories. 

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: creating a system that’s more inclusive and equitable so we can all be our whole selves.

I take my roles of being a leader and a person of color seriously. I believe that diversity is a strength and that we are all deserving of acknowledgement and acceptance for who we are, especially BIPOC. If we respect and value diversity, I have to live my values by respecting the students, my staff, and the larger community. I want to work on bridging the intersectionalities and experiences of all groups of color to build a stronger alliance so that we can create a better future for all kids.