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Bilingual teacher helps other immigrants

As a young girl in China, Xiao-Lin Yin-Croft always dreamed of becoming a teacher. It was a dream she would passionately pursue in America.

A Chinese bilingual teacher of third-graders at Ulloa Elementary School in San Francisco, Yin-Croft grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution. “My father was considered intelligentsia,” she says. So directly after high school, she was not allowed to attend university. Instead, the government sent her to a technical school. But when China started to open to the outside world, the country needed interpreters and Yin-Croft eagerly enrolled in an intensive, one-year training program to learn English; she later earned a bachelor’s degree in China.

Yin-Croft and students

After teaching English to community college students in Shanghai, Yin-Croft moved to the United States in 1993 to earn a master’s degree in teaching English as a foreign language. That degree enabled her to find employment in language schools in San Francisco where she worked on the business side, not as a teacher. But that kind of work left her unfulfilled. “I wanted to be more useful” to other people like me, she recalls. So she returned to school to earn a teaching credential.

For 10 years, she has taught at Ulloa, a Chinese bilingual school. Many of her students are immigrants or the children of immigrants from China. “Being Chinese, I went through the process of learning English, myself,” she says. That experience greatly informs her teaching.

Yin-Croft uses not only books, but also field trips and classroom speakers to give students the background knowledge of English and American culture they need. Many of her students know little about San Francisco and the United States at the beginning of the school year. When she asks them to name a city landmark, they often say Costco. “That’s a place their parents take them to,” she says, adding that they haven’t been anywhere else. So each year, Yin-Croft takes students to the Wells Fargo History Museum and the San Francisco Maritime Museum, among other institutions. She also invites firefighters, police officers and professors to her classroom to talk about their careers.

Yin-Croft and former mayor Gavin Newsom

Yin-Croft receiving an award in 2010 with then-mayor Gavin Newsom

“She’s a hard worker,” says Jing Dai, a first-grade teacher at Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School in San Francisco, and a close friend of Yin-Croft’s. “All the parents like her very much. They will send her homemade food” to thank her for teaching their children.

As a testament to Yin-Croft’s outstanding work, the grandmother of a former student nominated her for a teaching award from the mayor’s office, which she won in 2010. “It was a very good surprise,” she says of the honor.

But Yin-Croft’s favorite surprises happen in the classroom. When a Vietnamese student who spoke no English and was barely literate in his native language was placed in her class, Yin-Croft worried about how she would teach him; he couldn’t communicate with his classmates and she didn’t speak his language. Nevertheless, she worked closely with him on spelling and vocabulary, and used dictation exercises to improve his language skills. Their hard work eventually paid off: When he scored a 100 on a spelling and dictation test for the first time, Yin-Croft asked him how he got a perfect score. He answered her with one of the sentences from the dictation exercises: “I think with my brain.” This was the first complete sentence he said aloud, Yin-Croft recalls. “That made me feel very proud.”