Mai Chang Vue has spent over 15 years working in education, including the past five-plus as principal at Anthony Middle School in Kenny.
In June, she earned arguably the most prestigious award of her career to date.
Vue was named Middle School Principal of the Year for Hennepin County and the surrounding cities by the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. She said the award came as a “great surprise,” attributing it to Anthony’s students, staff and families.
She’s now eligible to earn the statewide Middle School Principal of the Year award, which the association will bestow in early 2020.
Vue was born in 1982 in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand and came to the U.S. with her family when she was 3 years old, emigrating to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Her career has included teaching high school art in La Crosse and working as principal at a
St. Paul charter school, among other jobs.
Vue spoke with the Southwest Journal about her path into an education career and her job at Anthony. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you get on the path to becoming a principal?
Just growing up being the oldest and English being a language barrier for my parents, I always felt like I was a teacher. I was always teaching my siblings and my parents and those around me, and I did a lot of tutoring. After high school, you’re supposed to choose a career, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m really good at this. I enjoy helping people.” So that’s how I got into teaching.
And then in teaching, just kind of learning more of the ropes and observing the principals I worked with, I realized, “Hey, if I’m going to further my education, what else can I do to make a bigger impact?” So I decided to go into administration.
Wellstone International High School principal Aimee Fearing, who nominated you for the award, wrote that you use data to evaluate learning. How do you use data to inform your work?
It means really taking a look at students as a whole child. I look to see: Where are our deficits? What can we do differently to make change, whether it’s change to improve the school or change to improve our students?
I think the qualitative piece is most important for me. For example, if I take a look at a student, I’m not just looking at the student’s test scores. I’m really learning more about the student, getting to know the student, talking to the parents and teachers to really try to support the student.
I know that test scores and all of that seems to be at the forefront of everything, but at the end of the day, I really believe that we need to take a look at the student as the whole child.
What does your job look like on a day-to-day basis?
I try to be in the classroom as much as possible. Sometimes that’s not possible when you’re in meetings or you’re meeting with parents or there’s some operational issues you have to deal with. … I do try to support the teachers as best I can by providing them with feedback or just being there. Sometimes just being there helps.
But my day-to-day, it varies every day, whether it’s in the classroom, at the district headquarters, in a meeting or with a parent. It could even be mopping the hallway or picking up trash. It’s whatever I need to do to ensure that the school is running smoothly and that students are engaged, feeling safe and enjoy being in school.
What are the challenging parts of your job?
Seeing that a student is struggling hurts me — or if they’re not getting the services or the tools that they need. We try to be as creative as we can to ensure that they have what they need to be successful, but I think my challenge is sometimes just knowing that we as a school or as a building or as a district can always do more to support students.
What are the more rewarding or satisfying parts of the job?
There’s so many different things that I feel happy about. When I go to Southwest High School or I’m in the neighborhood, and I see students that have already graduated from middle school — that’s really rewarding for me. Just learning what they’re up to and how much the teachers at Anthony have really impacted them and how much I’ve impacted them as well.
You and your team had to make budget cuts for the coming year, in part because of a recent change to the way the district distributes federal Title I dollars. How did you go about that process?
We knew with the Title I cut [about $225,000 of a $5.4 million budget] that we couldn’t lose our support staff. They’re just as important as teachers. They’re kind of the glue that holds everybody together, and so we wanted to ensure that we had them.
Last year with the budget, there was funding for extended time that was taken away and then last minute put back into our budget. We used that funding for our core classes to make them smaller class sizes, to prepare ourselves in case we were going to lose funding, which we did.
We still are able to retain our programming. At the same time, we made sure we’re not going to be cutting a whole department or a whole section, because we still had to meet [International Baccalaureate] requirements. It was tough, but we had to shuffle things around, be very creative with our master schedule as far as class offerings. So we were able to make it work, even though we won’t have that Title I funding.
Is there anything else you’d want to say about the award or the school?
We’ve got a really passionate and hardworking group of staff members who just go above and beyond to ensure that students’ needs are met. We all kind of do that at Anthony. Everybody’s just collaborative. The families are just simply amazing. There’s a wonderful PTA that I enjoy working with as well.
We have students from different cultures and all walks of life, and I think that’s just something we celebrate and continue to celebrate at Anthony.