Sau Ling Chan: Daring to Fail

During third period, as students rush to get to class, they bump into biology and AP Psychology teacher Sau Ling (Charlene) Chan pushing her cluttered black cart. She smiles warmly at the students and continues to walk towards her next class. She is always dressed in business attire, and her thin, flowing, black hair bounces in rhythm with her confident gait.

Without her cart clearing this large path, it may have been hard to spot her in the crowded hallway because of her small stature.

However, if students are in either her Advanced Topics biology or AP Psychology class, they know to look for her and never forget the lasting impression she makes on them every day. Chan has only taught at Stuyvesant for about nine months, but already, her impact at Stuyvesant is evident.

From a distance, her formal nature and precision with her actions and words may make her appear very serious. However, when a student spends five minutes talking to her, they will find that their initial impression was wrong.

Chan enjoys telling interesting stories from her fascinating career as a teacher and research program director. She is an understanding and kind person, and her intriguing personality has her students looking forward to attending her classes.

When Chan was in school, she always did well, acing all of her classes with top marks. “My parents tried to sway me to go into medicine, as is common among Asian communities,” Chan said.

Yet Chan always wanted to be a teacher. “When I was young, I still remember playing with my younger cousins at home, where I would roleplay being the teacher, and they would be the students. It was a lot of fun,” she said.

While attending New York University, she had a difficult time deciding what to pursue. After two years, she was forced to make a decision on what her major would be. With such a critical decision placed on her shoulders, she suffered from a lot of psychological turmoil as she questioned who she wanted to become. Chan knew that she wanted to go into teaching, but out of respect for her parents, she decided to put more consideration into being a doctor.

She took pre-Med classes that were geared towards taking the MCAT, a standardized test that is required for admission into most medical schools. They were advanced math and science classes, and she took them because she thought that by taking these courses, she would benefit regardless of whether she became a teacher or a doctor.

Making her decision was further complicated because she had never had any experience with either career. Chan lamented on the fact that there were not as many internship possibilities as there are now, so she was not able to truly see what she enjoyed doing at the time.

Fortunately, Chan finally heard about an opportunity to volunteer at a hospital. On the day that the application was due, a nurse at the hospital checked over her vaccine record and told her that she was missing a booster shot, so she would have to go to the doctor again. Chan said, “I thought to myself, ‘I’m volunteering, and yet you ask so much of me.’ I was actually upset.”

After leaving the hospital, Chan realized that the nurse actually did not ask for much. It dawned on her that she was simply overreacting because she did not have a real interest in being a medical doctor.

Her parents understood her decision to not continue pursuing this career path. “My parents always tried to be diplomatic. They weren’t entirely surprised. They weren’t exactly entirely happy with it, because they thought that, you know, I could have a different lifestyle,” she said laughing. “Now, I think they are very proud.”

Chan fully embraced teaching once she was given the chance. During her her junior year at NYU, she was hired to teach by the elementary school she went to. She loved teaching the students and found that it was easy for her to spend late nights grading because she truly enjoyed what she did.

Chan was noticed for her talent as a teacher and was accepted into the Columbia Summer Science program. She humbly acknowledged that it was rare for someone like her, with so little teaching experience at the time, to be accepted into the program. The program is highly prestigious, allowing only 10 teachers from the whole city per year into it. During her second summer at the program, Chan got a scholarship at NYU, where she was able to get her masters degree.

Even now, as a teacher at Stuyvesant, with all the grading she has to do, Chan is still enthralled by teaching.”The students here are extremely intelligent; teaching them is a continuous challenge. For example, they bring up some things I have never heard of, and it motivates me to let me go and research it. That’s really cool,” Chan said. “You form a relationship. It would make me happy to see [the students] excel beyond what I was able to achieve as a student and then as an adult. That’s what we need in society. Where else can we find this group of students, than at Stuy.”

Her first job teaching was at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in 1996. “It was a steep learning curve; you make all your rookie mistakes. My first year was very hard because teachers have to write all of their own lesson plans, and you have to write your own exams.” Chan said. “I learned a lot my first year, and it was most memorable from the students who did not do well in my class.”

Chan’s most embarrassing moment as a teacher came when a student of hers expressed strongly to her in front of the class that Chan was at fault for her bad test grade. “When you’re young, your ego tends to be very big. When you get older, you become more humble,” Chan said.

At first, Chan was angered that the student would fault her for her own test. “It’s the adults that have the problem, not the students. The same student that got upset at me before bumped into me and was the first to say ‘good morning’ [the next day]. I was the one who was still holding a grudge,” she explained.

Chan learned from this and focused on making herself better at guiding students. She realized that the students are a reflection of the teacher. “I want the students to have fun and be challenged while they’re learning. Doing both is not easy, because what is challenging is not always perceived as fun,” Chan said.

Moving on from teaching at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, Chan taught at a research program for 11 years. “I had school leaders who trusted in my work and would let me do whatever it takes to raise the program,” she said. “My favorite part was the field work. It is a huge challenge, but it is a lot of fun. The students come together, and you get to see the fun side of them.”

Speaking about how she taught the students, Chan explained how her teaching process had changed: “I used to think that if it was a biology class, then you had to do a research paper within biology. But then I learned from my former assistant principal that ‘No, why don’t you open up completely and let the kids choose. Let them decide.’” Chan kept these ideas with her and continues to follow the advice.

With Stuyvesant students, she had to adjust her teaching style. “Working with a group of talented and gifted students like [Stuyvesant students], you have to get to know your students first. For instance, you need to find out how much they already know. I emphasize connecting with my students. I try to get my students to laugh a little bit at the start of the lesson, because regardless of what I’m trying to teach, I’m interacting with humans,” Chan said. “The knowledge that you get in class, though it is important, it may not be something you necessarily need down the road. But, by getting to know the person who is standing in front of you, you get a broader picture.”

Five years ago, she started her own non-profit organization called International Research Experiences Inc. She takes students to conduct research all over the world and forms collaborations with scientists from different universities to assist the students in their research. She has taken students to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, the Netherlands, Malaysia, and Cambodia.

She and the students spend time in forests and labs collecting research while collaborating with experts in the field. When asked about the time she spent on these programs, her eyes lit up and asked if I wanted to see some footage of her and the students in action.

Her favorite memory was when she was leading a program in a forest in Vietnam. Her group consisted of her, her American students, a videographer, a professor from Columbia, a professor from Vietnam, and Vietnamese students, who received scholarships to come on the trip. “We’re literally working in the forest, where we have to hire a forest ranger to hold a machete to open rows for us, with the rain pouring down on you, your shoes all wet, and it’s truly unforgettable,” she said.

Chan did not feel the need to have children of her own at that time, because she felt that her students were her own by proxy. At one of her first teaching jobs, Chan realized that one of the students in her class was having family issues and could not afford tuition. Chan offered to pay for her, which would have cost nearly 80% of Chan’s salary per month. Despite the student saying no, this shows how Chan does not see teaching as a job, but more of a calling.

Now, Chan has her own toddler named Quentin. She does find it difficult balancing teaching and taking care of her son. She wants to spend more time poring over research and new discoveries. “[However] when you’re a parent, you have a huge responsibility of nurturing them,” Chan continued. “As a teacher, you’re sometimes asked about your teaching philosophy, you know, what do you think is the most important thing to be taught. But the same is true about being a parent, what kind of parent do I want to become, how will I achieve that without imposing it on someone else. That’s challenging.”

Chan’s worst fear is not being able to meet the expectations she places on herself. She has been able to achieve everything she has wanted in her career up until this point. She attributes her success to her willingness to try new things and her resilience. She wants her life to be fun and adventurous. But, with a child, she is finding it harder to be adventurous with someone dependent on her.

She expressed her concern on finding a happy medium. “How do you maintain a career, elevate those around you, the students in my case, and my non-profit work, while I’m raising a child?” she said.

Looking towards the future, Chan is excited for her summer. She wants to gain perspective on her first year teaching at Stuyvesant, and she wants to figure out ways to improve on how she taught. She also wants to integrate more Stuyvesant students into her non-profit research program. She is looking for ways to gain financial assistance for students, so that more students can travel abroad for the program.

Her message to Stuyvesant students is to not become wrapped up in grades as the defining trait for success in life. Instead, it is much more important to dare to think bigger. An enriched life is one with intense dedication to finding your passion.

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