Vanida Chanthaphone can still remember the isolation she felt in kindergarten and first grade.
As the daughter of immigrants, her primary language at home was Lao. Her mother moved to Dover, New Hampshire, after spending a few months in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1988.
At 5, she learned to speak English. But she didn’t know how to read and write — let alone how to fit in at school or communicate with classmates.
Chanthaphone’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Lewis, changed everything. Mrs. Lewis taught her students at Horne Street Elementary that it was OK if they did not know English and it was all right for them to use words in their home language to explain how they were feeling or thinking.
“I got more confidence and I said to myself, ‘You know what? I want to do what she does,’” Chanthaphone recalled.
Now, at 26, Chanthaphone is an English teacher at Fort Worth ISD’s William Monnig Middle School, where she has taught sixth- and eighth-graders for the past three years. Like her second-grade teacher, Chanthaphone aims to inspire her non-English-speaking students to gain the confidence they need to fulfill their potential in life.
“I want to be someone for students who don’t predominantly speak English at home to have a safe place to be when they’re at school,” Chanthaphone said. “I want them to know that I’m someone who will advocate for them and someone who will be there for them and encourage them to be who they want to be.”
That approach has earned her accolades, including being named Fort Worth ISD’s secondary teacher of the year this past summer. Additionally, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, recently nominated Chanthaphone for the Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award from Humanities Texas.
A few weeks ago, Chanthaphone chatted with Granger. They talked about how both of them were teachers and how they wound up in the classroom. Chanthaphone told Granger about her work with non-English-speaking students. When the Fort Worth Republican heard that, she knew she had to nominate her for an award.
“Ms. Chanthaphone goes to great lengths to help these students keep up with their peers who learned English as a first language,” Granger wrote in a letter to constituents. “She forgoes lunches and devotes her down time to make herself available to these young people, patiently helping them comprehend and master English.”
At the beginning of each school year, Chanthaphone recounts her story to her new classes. She tells them she knows what it feels like to not want to participate in class or raise her hand. She reminds them that she once sat in their seat and felt different because of her upbringing. But she stresses that’s what makes each of them special.
Her students, though, are usually unconvinced. They don’t believe Chanthaphone because she has her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She has to whip out photos of her graduating college and tell them about her parents and what school was like.
Then it finally clicks.
“They understand because when they do make a mistake or tell me a story about themselves, I will tell them, ‘I get that. I was once like you,’” Chanthaphone said.
Students open up more when they have that aha moment. Chanthaphone can foster better teacher-student relationships and have conversations about how she can help students who come from a non-English-speaking home.
In the classroom, Chanthaphone allows students to communicate in whichever way they feel most comfortable. For some, it may be raising their hand and voicing their thoughts. For others, it may be them writing their thoughts on a lesson on a piece of paper and handing it to Chanthaphone.
All she wants is to see her students succeed and give her insight into their thought processes.
However, Chanthaphone does encourage her students to go out of their comfort zone. She wants them to work with students they don’t know. Teamwork and collaboration with unfamiliar people is important for students because in life and in work students will be dealing with people they’ve never met before, Chanthaphone said.
“I’ve always wanted to be the teacher who supported students and advocated for them in and outside of the classroom,” Chanthaphone said. “When I get notes or see Facebook posts from parents talking about previous teachers and include me, I feel like my goal has been completed.”
Monnig Middle School Principal Kellye Kirkpatrick met Chanthaphone three years ago during a late spring job fair at the Education Service Center Region 11 building in White Settlement. Chanthaphone was moving to the Fort Worth area from Aldine ISD. Kirkpatrick was struck by Chanthaphone’s energy and love for students.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Chanthaphone has gone above and beyond for her students, Kirkpatrick said. The principal has seen how well Chanthaphone connects with students and meets them where they are — all while still maintaining high standards and holding the kids accountable.
“You can tell this was her calling. This is what she was meant to do,” Kirkpatrick said.
Many of the lessons Chanthaphone uses to help her students can be traced back to what worked for her in Mrs. Lewis’s classroom. Chanthaphone will admit it’s not rocket science — it’s about empathy and treating students like the important human they are.
“When they have teachers that think that way, you don’t have to ask them to do the work, you don’t have to ask them to sit still and behave,” Chanthaphone said. “They naturally do it because they believe in growing and being successful.”
Chanthaphone would know, because Mrs. Lewis transformed her into the teacher she is today.
“And it all stemmed from the second grade,” Chanthaphone said.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.