Liz Dinh-Aziz had options for her first teaching job: a higher paying position in Los Altos, where she would work with higher-income students, or a job with Independence High School in East San Jose, where she was once a student.
The choice felt instinctual—it was time to come home and teach the students she identified with most.
“You can leave and move on, but there’s something about going back and trying to help the youth that feel the same way you did,” she says.
As a foster teen, Dinh-Aziz attended Independence for a year and today recalls a turbulent childhood devoid of a single adult she felt comfortable confiding to, at home or at school. Her mission as a teacher is to ensure her students don’t have to feel isolated and alone like she did.
In 2003, Dinh-Aziz started teaching English. Determined to create a familial classroom community, she did everything she could to make students feel loved and respected, including routinely reading and commenting on every page of her 170 students’ journals every year.
“There was a time in my life I didn’t think I wanted kids, so my students were my kids,” she says.
Three years later, Dinh-Aziz took on a role as an activities coordinator and a 12-hour day became the norm, her work on campus sometimes stretching from 6:30am to midnight.
“If you want to be a good educator, your job is constant,” she says. “I didn’t have a life. I even broke up with my boyfriend.”
For Dinh-Aziz, the payoff compensated for the sacrifices. Beyond the personal euphoria she felt from “crazy adrenaline rushes” when her students showed enthusiasm for their learning, she didn’t write a single behavior referral as a teacher or activities director.
“When you have [your students’] hearts, they’ll reach for the stars,” she says, explaining that care and empathy are the keys to creating an effective education system. “Kids don’t care what you teach them if you don’t care about them first.”
Dinh-Aziz loved her job, but after eight years at Independence she felt a strong calling to work with the most troubled students in the school system. “I felt like I wasn’t doing enough,” she says, which is why she took a position as a student disciplinary advisor at Yerba Buena High School. “I knew I would see the toughest kids with the worst attitudes. I was one of them, so I know those are the ones that are hurting the most, that need me the most. That’s who I want to work with all day.”
As an advisor, Dinh-Aziz’s interaction with students begins when they’re most vulnerable—she meets them when they are sent to her for dentition or interacting with police.
“When they walk into my office they’re always upset. Sometimes they’re cussing. They are in a delicate place,” she explains, her desk covered with photographs, colorful student letters, and a collection of Vietnamese grass nón lá hats hanging on the wall. Dinh-Aziz stays connected to her heritage by leading the Vietnamese Student Association at Yerba Buena.
Like all of her student interactions, detention meetings each deliberately start the same. “I always ask how they are doing,” she says. "I make it a point, no matter the circumstance. I really ask and really care. I’m very strict and I know I need to teach them right from wrong. But It’s not about punishing. It’s about teaching. They will get disciplined, but I care first.”
Dinh-Aziz frequently integrates her own challenging life experiences and what she’s learned from them into her lessons. “Make your disadvantages make you powerful,” she tells her students, acknowledging common obstacles they face such as gang violence, domestic abuse, drugs, poverty and unplanned pregnancy. She also reinforces the belief that there is opportunity to be found in even the trickiest situations.
Detentions conclude with a written reflection from the students. “They’ll tell me I’m the first person they relate to, or the first person that seems to care,” she says. “I can’t believe it's taken them this long in the system to find someone like that. It’s heartbreaking, but also wonderful that they feel inspired.”
Some of those detention letters are among Dinh’s most treasured possessions.
“Every time I feel burnt out or disappointed in the system or discouraged, those letters are the things that keep me going,” she says.
Whether in her office or walking around campus as students greet her with smiles and hugs, Dinh-Aziz continually refers to her position as less of a job and more of a calling. The demands are worth it, she says, including the financial burdens of living in the Bay Area with a limited salary.
“Living in the Bay [with this salary] is ridiculous. It’s outrageous,” she says, adding that her childhood gave her an added advantage of being especially inventive when it comes to making ends meet.
“I’m a different kind of cookie,” she says, recalling the mud pies she’d mix with old tin cans in the absence of toys. “Being in that place, I became very frugal. I see pennies, I pick them up.”
Dinh-Aziz’s experience embracing even the smallest opportunity and using creativity and persistence to turn challenges into assets proves the philosophies she teaches today. It also continually drives her in what she admits is extremely draining work, emotionally and mentally.
“My interactions with youth bring me back to where I was at their age. I could never turn my back on them when I myself had no one,” she says. “My interaction with youth gives me strength. Somehow I know I’ve made a difference in their lives. When I’m feeling the burnout and the system feels broken, I don’t ask myself, ‘How do I help them?’ I ask myself, ‘How do I not?’ There’s no other place for me.”