Nguyen to depart SHS after more than a decade

May 29, 2019 — by Jeffrey Ma, Elaine Toh and Ananya Vadlakonda

During the winter of 2016, English teacher Ken Nguyen watched keenly as a class of sophomores, split into two teams and scribbled on the board while they tried to review their knowledge of “Lord of the Flies.”

Senior Annika Donez hurried to beat her classmate for the final few points, writing down the chapter titles of the entirety of the novel, leaving the rest of the students cheering and Nguyen laughing.

Moments like these marked the lively, engaged classroom Nguyen cultivated in his 11 years at Saratoga High. Nguyen recently announced he is leaving the school and departing for Seattle to be closer to his elderly mother.

Following the passing of his father in 2015, Nguyen has regularly called his mother and traveled between California and Washington state to support her with paying bills and translating the correspondences. For him, it was a “shouldering of burdens that [his] dad used to take on.”

To further aid his mother, he decided to take the next step and move to Washington altogether. He plans to continue teaching and has already secured a teaching position at a school there.

“I’m not qualified to do anything else,” Nguyen joked. “Or, it's more like that this is what I love to do. This is my calling. This is my passion.”

But he will leave behind many grateful former students. Donez, who had Nguyen in both 10th and 12th grade for AP Language, said, “I also feel bad for future classes because they’re going to miss out on Mr. Nguyen, and he was such a special teacher. He was really different from other English teachers.”

Prior to working at Saratoga High, Nguyen taught English at Leland High for six years. At Leland, Nguyen was an active participant in different school committees, trying to improve the student experience in that district. However, after experiencing resistance from “old timers who had left their best days behind them,” Nguyen said he got tired of the “big district bureaucracy” and started to look for open positions at other school districts, eventually securing a position at Saratoga High in the fall of 2008.

Having taught at Leland for several years, Nguyen found his transition here slightly difficult.

“The reputation of [Saratoga] precedes itself,” Nguyen said. “I would liken it to what you might feel if you were to become part of a group project where all of your classmates are rockstars in academics and you feel a little like an imposter.”

Consequently, for his first year at the school, he worked to prove himself as “somebody who's not just a lightweight.” But he ultimately established himself as a rockstar in his own right, said both his students and colleagues.

English teacher Natasha Ritchie described Nguyen as “incredibly smart” and said that his curriculum designing skills, willingness to teach AP Language and background in nonfiction and rhetoric make him extremely difficult to replace.

As a central member in the English Department, Nguyen also helped redesign the English 10 curriculum with the addition of the cultural novels unit to incorporate “voices that are reflective of our student population,” Ritchie said.

Nguyen, along with a team of other English teachers, including Ritchie, added the novels “The Joy Luck Club,” “The Kite Runner” and “The Namesake.”

“It’s definitely was probably my favorite curriculum development moments with him,” Ritchie said, “just making sure we have central questions that will really bring these texts to life. That was great.”

Ritchie called Nguyen’s contributions to the school significant.

She cited Nguyen’s “willingness to be a technology nerd,” making use of the Chromecarts in his classes on a regular basis, and willingness to help other teachers incorporate technology into their courses as one of his standout contributions.

On a more personal level, Ritchie remembers Nguyen’s amazing capabilities as a chef and his eagerness to host his colleagues for celebrations.

“Since he and my family are really close, he's made many a meal for us. My son never thinks anything comes anywhere near his pho, which is accurate and correct,” Ritchie said. “He even came to Santa Cruz last summer and cooked several different kinds for all of our varying diet needs.”

In addition to cooking for her family, Nguyen has opened his home for the entire staff for a backyard picnic or grill, Ritchie said.

“I always remember how much of a community he helped build,” Ritchie said.

Nguyen said that he will miss this community he has contributed so much to.

“I really feel like I had built a home here. I thought I was going to retire here, but, you know, life didn’t allow for that happen,” Nguyen said. “I think I’ll miss the kind of energy and the vibe and the students the most.”

For an essay Nguyen wrote about his time at SHS, see pages 10-11 in the Senior Magazine.