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Teacher Terence Li with two students

SFUSD & Stanford Alum Returns to Teach

03/06/14

Currently in his first year of teaching, Terence Li began the year with 11 students in his 3rd grade class at Chinese Education Center. There are now 18 students in his classroom and not one has been in the United States for more than a year. Soon his class will have another new student who just arrived in the U.S. The Chinese Education Center is designed to serve elementary age newcomers from China who arrive throughout the year.

Navigating Between Cultures

Though Li’s family immigrated to San Francisco from China a few years before he was born, his family spoke Cantonese at home, and he understands what it’s like to navigate between two different cultures.

“I feel fortunate that I went to Jean Parker Elementary and Francisco Middle School, both SFUSD schools where there were staff members who my parents could communicate with in Cantonese,” says Li.

Making Connections

Even as Li graduated from 8th grade and headed to Mission High School, he was focused on getting into college. Though the high school was outside of the Chinatown area where he had attended elementary and middle school, he says he was excited to go to Mission High because after visiting the school he and his parents felt certain it had the kind of support he would need to get into college.

They were right. In his senior year, Li was accepted into several colleges and universities. He chose Stanford University, where he studied human biology, Chinese, and education.

“I would attribute getting into Stanford to being open to hearing advice and suggestions from my teachers. Being open to communicating with adults in the school helped me establish valuable networks,” says Li.

“I feel that a lot of my success in school resulted from talking to people and being humble enough to ask for help.”

Li says he feels that his afterschool program at Francisco Middle School also helped him learn how to get along with people from all backgrounds.

The afterschool program had many different activities that brought people from all different backgrounds to attend: Capoeira, martial arts, sport tournaments, cooking, and board games. Li said he signed up for as many activities as possible.

“The afterschool program at Francisco helped to push me to connect with others. I was brave enough to step out of my comfort zone and I had a lot of help along the way.”

Finding a Spark Through Service

During high school, Li went back and volunteered with a Francisco Middle outdoor education program. It was during this time that he realized that he could influence younger people and he was excited about making a positive difference.

“While away for an overnight trip, I taught students some things my parents had taught me about keeping your shoes and things in order. I realized, ‘Wow, I can influence other people.'”

“Going into college, I had something I really wanted to do—share my experiences and do what I can to get others to share theirs.”

Li says his parents are fully supportive of his choice to teach.

“My parents are extremely supportive of me being a teacher. I think they saw that I was into it and they’ve been supportive all along.”

Creating a Safe Environment for English Learners

When Li graduated with his teaching credential he says he looked for a place to teach in SFUSD where he felt he could have a big impact.

“I realized the amount of Chinese I know is a skill set that can serve San Francisco well and I shouldn’t turn my back on it,” says Li. He says the decision for him was whether to teach English speakers Chinese or English to Chinese speakers.

“I decided I could really help Chinese speakers who are learning English. There needs to be a transition because it’s completely new for the students. I’m trying to make it a safe environment for students to try.”

Six months into his first year of teaching, Li says he has gotten to know his students. He also feels he has gotten better at communicating with parents and finding ways for them to get involved in his classroom.

“We make the classroom a safe place but once they go outside the classroom, it’s harder to find a safe place to use the language. We get a year to prepare them and then most of them move to an English only program.”

Chinese Education Center’s principal Victor Tam says that Li’s passion for supporting the underserved made a big impression on him, and Li continues to carry that passion into his day-to-day work with the students and families.

“Li goes 110 percent. He supports those who may not otherwise have a whole lot of support. He is the first teacher these kids have in the United States—he is going to make a difference in helping these kids and their families.”