Class of Spring 2024: CEHHS graduate Weirong Huang

April 29, 2024

The ’20 education alum returned for a master’s to pursue her passion for teaching English language learners.

A colorful graphic featuring a headshot of student Weirong Huang
Graphic by Violet Dashi

Being a kindergarten teacher who specializes in working with English language learners was never Weirong Huang’s plan. In fact, when Huang was offered her first permanent teaching position working in a Dearborn Public Schools’ classroom with ELL students shortly after her 2020 graduation from UM-Dearborn, she almost turned the job down. As someone who just a few years earlier was learning English herself, she doubted whether she was the best person to help students. Moreover, while she spoke English, Cantonese, Mandarin and several other Chinese dialects, she didn't know any Arabic, which many of her potential students spoke as their first and only language. But Huang ended up taking the job, and three years later, she has no regrets. In fact, helping children learn English has become such a defining part of her life as a teacher, she decided to return to UM-Dearborn for her M.A. in Education with the English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement, a degree she officially claimed at Saturday’s commencement ceremony. 

Huang, who grew up in southern China, initially came to the United States on a two-year visa working as an au pair for a family in the Dearborn area. But she says she also saw it as an opportunity to continue her education. It’d been a dream of hers to open a preschool in China, but she wanted to study in the U.S., where she says the educational philosophies were less strict and focused more on children's individual interests. After her au pair job ended, she enrolled at Oakland Community College and later transferred into the education program at UM-Dearborn. At the university, she says she found exactly what she was looking for — namely, a program that exposed her to a range of creative educational approaches. In particular, she remembers being shocked — in a good way — the first time she visited UM-Dearborn’s Early Childhood Education Center. The school follows what is known as the Reggio Emilia model, where young children are encouraged to explore the world around them — continuously constructing and revising their individual theories about how the world works, like little scientists. It was basically the antithesis of the “factory” model of education. If she ever did get to start a preschool, Huang thought she’d want it to be just like that.

In her classroom at Snow Elementary in Dearborn, Huang says she likes looking for opportunities to use constructivist techniques with her kindergartners. But day to day, language is always front of mind. In a typical school year, Huang has about 20 5- and 6-year-olds, about half of whom start the year knowing little or no English. Moreover, nearly all of her ELL students are Arabic speaking, so she’s learned a variety of techniques for overcoming the language barrier. In Dearborn Public Schools, English learners aren’t grouped into special ELL classrooms — they attend classes with their English-speaking peers. Huang says this approach has a variety of advantages. One of the biggest is it lets her pair ELL students and bilingual students. Kids being naturally helpful, it’s never hard to get volunteers to translate, though she says this buddy system can definitely lead to a chatty classroom. Another technique: Using more language-neutral tools to jumpstart language learning. “For example, when we do our daily writing assignments, we do a drawing first. Then we write about what we’re drawing,” Huang explains. This gives students a low-pressure task that lays the foundation for their language activities, which helps build their confidence.

Huang says one of the biggest lessons she’s learned both through her program and in her three years leading a classroom is that assessment has to be treated as a nearly continuous activity for English learners. “Maybe you have a student who you just think is quiet, but that’s when you have to make sure that maybe he’s not just quiet, he’s struggling with the language,” she says. “So you have to have little conversations with them all the time, to see where they’re at. My students tease me because even at recess I’m assessing them. I’ll call them in and ask them to count to 100 and then send them back to play.” Little “tests” like this allow a teacher to see if a student is struggling with something. If they are, Huang knows to give them a little extra time — until she sees that unmistakable spark of understanding in their eyes. “You have to always be watching,” she says. “As a teacher, you have so many eyes.” 

Initially, Huang thought her own status as an English language learner would be a liability in the classroom. “I honestly feared that if parents knew that about me maybe they wouldn’t want me teaching their kids,” she says. Now, she doesn’t worry about it. If anything, she sees her own ELL status as an asset that helps her relate to her students. She knows what it feels like to come to a new country and be so scared to speak that you just stay quiet. She also knows how good it feels to work hard and overcome that fear. She’s open with her students about her own story, which she says helps build a bridge between them, no matter what language they speak. “I think they are amazed that I’m from China because they think all teachers live at the school,” she says, laughing. “They don't think you have a personal life. Or that you have kids their age, or have a guinea pig and two tortoises, or like to draw. So I like to share a lot with them. So much of education at this age is just about inspiring them and building their confidence and setting them up to become lifelong learners. So whatever common ground we can find and have fun with, you have to use it.”


Story by Lou Blouin