Duke Truong and his family moved from Vietnam to Seattle when he was in the fourth grade, at a time when ESL school programs were in their infancy. Truong, who is of Chinese ethnicity, had trouble adjusting to the language, culture and schooling of his adopted country; he was actually expelled from middle school at one point. Encouragement from a few teachers and an administrator during those difficult times played a crucial role in his later decision to become an educator, with a focus on helping disadvantaged and marginalized youth.
Truong worked as a teacher for about a decade before enrolling in the Danforth Educational Leadership Program at the University of Washington. After completing the program, he was honored and excited to land the role of assistant principal at Bellevue's Tillicum Middle School, the same school he attended as a student. Here he discusses how Danforth's core values resonate with his commitment to social justice, and how he draws on the leadership skills and relationships forged in the program in his work today.
Did you look at other principal preparation programs, and if so, what led you to Danforth?
I looked at several others. I chose Danforth mainly because the administrators I had worked with really showcased the leadership characteristics I valued – and to find they were all graduates of the Danforth program reaffirmed my decision.
Another reason I chose Danforth was its focus on social justice, which is a very personal issue to me. This focus made all the difference in fully realizing my potential and is essential to who I am as a professional.
My middle school administrator more recently shared an incident with me that took place when I was a student at Tillicum Middle School. A community of parents had petitioned to have me removed from the school. I asked him why he didn't kick me out, and he said his job is to help students who are struggling and provide a safe environment for all students to learn.
How did the Danforth program help you develop these kinds of leadership skills and core values?
The discussions were always around the challenges of being an administrator. These weren't challenges that a technical solution could easily be applied to, but authentic, organic challenges. We spent quality time focusing on the struggle to provide the best education possible and to support students who need a lot of social-emotional support. It was very impactful for me. I've learned so much about who I am as a person and my beliefs for what education can provide for all students.
In addition to discussing theories, many instructors and guest speakers shared what the application of those theories actually looks like. As an administrator, I find myself reflecting back on those discussions and talks, drawing new insight from them as my experiences grow. It was a nice balance of theory and application.
So you feel that Danforth was good preparation for the job?
Absolutely. I don't know if there is one best way to prepare you for all the things that come at you as principal. But the strategies of how to have those difficult conversations when they come up in the moment, how to organize your time and how to make the most out of your classroom observations and instructional conversations with teachers – there were a lot of pieces that tied into the logistics of the job that prepared me well for walking into this position.
What were the Danforth instructors like?
They were fantastic, very attuned to our needs as a group. For example, while the instructors clearly had a plan, if our conversation led toward a specific part of the lesson, they immediately adjusted the lesson to fit our needs. We felt important, like we were listened to and that the class was tailored for us. If you needed more input on an individual level, the instructors were readily available for discussion or just to lend an ear as you worked out your own pedagogy.
Did you find the integrated internship model in the program to be valuable?
Yes, the internship was an integral part of the success of the program. Regardless of which course we were taking, we could find multiple components in the coursework that tied directly with our internships. For example, when I was taking the course on school culture, there would be an assignment – not an artificial assignment, but a real assignment – on what the school culture was at the site of my internship. There were resources and people available to help me do the assignment.
Was it difficult to balance all the responsibilities of the program, including class and the internship, as well as your regular job?
It was very challenging, but I felt supported every single step of the way. We had mentors that came to our internship site on a regular basis. We were free to call them at any time and to talk about anything we felt we needed to. Also, we could connect and share experiences with other cohort members who were also interning, for example, in a middle school.
I would teach from 7 a.m. to noon and then fulfill my responsibilities for the program from noon through the evening. It was great preparation for being an administrator, because you are juggling multiple things every single day. It was a great, true-to-life learning experience.
Do you think the Danforth experience will help you in your career over the long term?
Definitely. I think the experience readies you for the state of mind that is fundamental to an administrator's successful tenure. Because you spend so much time with your cohort members, you feel very connected with them. If I needed to, I could call up any of my Danforth cohort members and talk to them and share my experiences, trusting that they would do everything they can for me because they've got my best interests in mind. There was also a tremendous network of support from previous cohort members who shared in the program's teachings and experiences.
The leadership skills that we learned could be applicable to anything. Looking at all of your data before you make a decision, collaborating with other people – these are skills that I draw upon daily.
Did you feel like the Danforth program prepared you to become a principal or school administrator?
Yes. I felt like after the program I was very prepared for what I'm doing, for situations that present themselves on a daily basis, and on the fly. It was very comprehensive. Danforth is a program rooted in preparing for an unpredictable profession, but one that is always focused on what's best for children as they prepare for their place in the world.