Recently MOCA received a collection of items related to the story of Vivian Tom, a teacher that received the U.S Teacher of the Year award in 1974. Ms. Tom was a Chinese-American teacher born in Hawaii and moved to Yonkers in 1959 where she began her long tenure at Lincoln High School. By the time of the award, Ms. Tom was already the head of the social-studies department who taught courses such as Asian studies, Sociology and Social Issues of Society.
Vivian Tom was a brilliant individual and has earned many recognition and honors, including a Ford Foundation fellowship, a Fulbright scholarship, a Haile Selassie university fellowship and membership in Delta Kappa Gamma educational society. As an educator, Ms. Tom believes that critical thinking is the key to success for students, and it is the role of the teacher to create and nurture a classroom environment for this purpose.
“To be truly free, a student must possess the tools—the knowledge that gives him the power to act. This comes from learning and a teacher must give direction. She must know when to lead and when to follow; when to act and when to listen.” – Vivian Tom.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of a brilliant and successful educator is through the statements of students who are taken under their wings. A New York Times article on Ms. Tom provides insights into her reputation as a high school teacher. Students would describe Ms. Tom as someone that treats them with respect all the while maintaining a proper and positive student-teacher relationship. Furthermore, in Ms. Tom’s classroom, students were encouraged to take what they learn and try to apply them in a practical manner around the community. On many occasions, they were also challenged to examine prejudice and cultural differences through food, including offering students “friend grasshoppers, chocolate-covered bees and kangaroo-tail soup.”
The Times article also recorded her interesting response to being awarded the U.S. Teacher of the Year: “How can they pick one and say, ‘You’re it’? I’m not the perfect teacher — I have my problems in the classroom. But I’ll accept it for interest and pleasure in teaching.” A world-class response from a world-class teacher.