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Q&A: Principal Relates His Address to College Graduates

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Passing over the political and cultural figures who often grace graduation ceremonies, Wheelock College in Boston this month selected an elementary school principal as its 1993 commencement speaker.

Bak Fun Wong, the principal of Boston's Josiah Quincy School since 1987, is "an excellent example of how a strong, creative principal can create a school environment which enables teachers, parents, and the community to work together on behalf of children,'' according to Gerald N. Tirozzi, the president of Wheelock College.

A native of China, who grew up and began his teaching career in Hong Kong, Mr. Wong told the graduates in his May 14 speech to use the "dual lenses'' of Eastern and Western philosophies in going about their work as teachers and social-service providers. In making the point, Mr. Wong used as an example a problem he dealt with in his school.

Mr. Wong spoke about his experience with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q.
Why do you think you were selected for this honor?

Wheelock College had a few projects with the school. They know this school; they know what I'm doing in the school. Our philosophies and our practices are really close. That's one reason.

Another reason is that, according to their press release, they feel I make a contribution in shaping the dialogue and structure of the school.

Q.
What is it about your philosophy that you share with the college?

A.
I believe every child can learn. They learn at their own pace, they have their own learning styles, but they can learn. Our responsibility is to discover their style, and match their style, and motivate students to learn. That's one of the reasons why we have all these programs in the school: We have bilingual programs, special-education programs, advanced programs, and regular programs.

We [also] believe every student is equally important, and equal. ... It's only when we believe that that we can see differences as valued. It's a plus, not a minus. If a child comes from a different ethnic background, or a different cultural background, that's beautiful. ...

Wheelock has a lot of student-teachers in our school. We share our values with them.


Q.
What did you tell the Wheelock graduates?

A.
The theme for my commencement speech was: "Viewing change through dual lenses: individual transformation and structural reform.''

Basically, I told them that this is aworld that is changing so fast--I used the examples of Eastern Europe, Russia, and Asia as a starting point--then I shared with them [the fact that] the world is so much closer because of technology also. ... The world is so much smaller. We have to face that.

In facing change, Eastern philosophies and Western philosophies differ. In the East, they look for the perfection of the individual. If you transform the individual, families will be in harmony, society will prosper, and the world will be at peace. In Western society, we tend to perfect structures and laws. If something is wrong, we get a new law, a new policy, or restructure the organization.

I want to caution people not to go to [either] extreme. We have to have a balanced view, and perfect the individual and structure together. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act definitely improved the lot of people of color by giving them a recourse. But racial harmony was only achieved through [the transformation of] individual attitudes. ...

That's how I deal with the children in my school. I challenged the graduates to put on the dual lenses.

Q.
Did you talk about your speech to the students and faculty at your school? What was their reaction?

A.
This is something I am sharing with my school. It was taped, and the classes are going to watch it.

One thing I want to do in my school is make teachers see what students see. The story I talk about [in my speech] is of a student who was brought down to my office because he didn't want to take off his down jacket. I said to myself, "With all of the experience I have, I should handle this.'' Since the student refused to talk to me, I used the school's rules and told him the consequences of not talking to me.

But, I said to myself, "That's perfecting the school rules.'' I knew the boy; he's not like that. Something's wrong. So I talked to him like a child, and then he started opening up to me. Through my other lens, I was really sensitive. [It turned out that] his mother was pregnant, and he wanted to be ready for the birth. I was able to make a deal with him. ...

I hear so much from the students in elementary school. It's a great thing. What we see here is so honest, so challenging. That's something I think the student-teachers and Wheelock College see.

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