"Education is a family business, I always say," Pleasanton Middle School's new principal Joe Nguyen told the Weekly during a recent interview at the campus that he started leading less than two months ago.
The business of teaching runs in Nguyen's family at least three generations -- his grandfather was an English professor and his mother taught grammar school -- and also spans the globe.
"A lot of great memories I have in my mom's fourth-grade classroom in Vietnam," Nguyen said.
After seven years as principal at Iron Horse Middle School in San Ramon, Nguyen was appointed by the Pleasanton school board in late spring to take over the Case Avenue campus this school year, succeeding retiring principal Jill Butler.
Nguyen's career started in the United States, but the life lessons from his parents started as a child in Vietnam, where he was born.
"Education was important in that my family immigrated, or were refugees from Vietnam in 1975, and growing up my mom and dad always made it very clear: 'The reason why we left was so you had an opportunity to have an education.' So education was always at the forefront."
Nguyen reflected on his first brush with the American public school system when his family arrived to Oakland that year.
"(I) was an English learner in the '70s, which meant we got pulled out (of the classroom) a lot to read books on tape," he said. "I wanted to stay with my classmates and learn English that way. I learned a lot of English through 'Sesame Street.'"
Eventually his family settled in San Leandro, where Nguyen spent the remainder of his childhood before moving to Los Angeles for college. While pursuing pre-dentistry at UCLA, Nguyen took an upper division class at UCLA that landed him in a fifth-grade classroom as a teaching assistant "just helping the teachers, and I caught the teaching bug."
Realizing that he loved the classroom more, Nguyen switched his major and returned to the Bay Area after completing his bachelor's degree in psychology.
"I loved UCLA but I didn't love LA -- too many people," he said. Nguyen then got his master's degree and teaching credential at CSU East Bay, and eventually found himself at Iron Horse.
Nguyen's start as an administrator "fell in my lap" during his seventh year teaching at Iron Horse.
Family needs had prompted him to think about a job in the tech industry. "I knew I needed to make a change but didn't want to be done with kids," he recalled.
A job offer came soon after Nguyen's job search began but it wasn't right. "Eleventh hour, I decided not to take it because I love teaching. I just was one of those teachers," he said. "A month later at a staff meeting, our principal said he was going to leave ... so the assistant principal interviewed and was hired to be the principal, and he approached me and said, 'Joe, would you be my assistant principal.'"
"I didn't even have a credential so I was an intern. I had to get my credential while working as administration, so it really fell in my lap," Nguyen added.
He would go on to become an elementary school principal in Castro Valley and then in San Ramon before returning to Iron Horse as principal for the 2011-12 school year.
Nguyen's move to Pleasanton came about after Hart Middle School reached out to Iron Horse for assistance creating a multi tiered systems of support program. "Basically it's a school structure where you create teams and different levels of intervention services, both academic and behavior. We spent five years building that up and saw a lot of success," he said.
"They were going to start that this year and they came and visited at Iron Horse," Nguyen said. "I worked with their intervention specialists and teachers. Then when I saw that Pleasanton Middle School needed a principal, it was an opportunity for me to come and do this work here."
Whether it's a new city, country or campus, Nguyen's path has always led him back to school. "I feel like it's the best job in the world; even with the challenging times now of being an educator, it is absolutely enjoyable and fulfilling."