Personal

“Are You Chinese?” My Journey as an Asian American Educator

My first teaching job straight out of undergrad was teaching 6th grade math in New York at a school located in Washington Heights. A majority of my students identified as Dominican and a few identified as black; we had no students who identified as white or Asian. At my school, I was the only Asian American middle school teacher. On the second day of school, one of my students asked me, “Are you Chinese?” I confirmed that I was, and she uttered, “Konichiwa!” (“hello” in Japanese) before darting past me. Though her intentions were pure, her words in that moment manifested my internal fear of not belonging.

With my advisory students during Field Day my first year of teaching.

Carrying these doubts about belonging with me, I struggled to find my own voice as a teacher, so I tried to find mentors whose teaching styles I could emulate. While I was surrounded by talented teachers who did AMAZING things in their classrooms, I struggled to become a reflection of these teachers I respected. My identity as an Asian American female shaped my personality, influenced the assumptions my students made about me, and affected the way they reacted to me. I discovered that the strategies other teachers suggested were not as effective when I emulated them. Thus, I experimented with various teaching voices — from the super nice and understanding teacher to the no nonsense “is-that-a-bag-of-chips-that-you’re-eating-in-my-class? *dumps in trash*” teacher. Needless to say, I STRUGGLED.

Me and Frances at the start of my second year of teaching.

In December of my first year, my school hired Frances as a long term substitute teacher for 5th grade math. Frances went to college in California (like me), moved from California to New York (like me), and is an Asian female educator (like me!). Frances assisted me in my last period class every day for a few months; through that experience, I learned what it looked like to be an authoritative Asian female educator. Because we were the only two Asian females in our school, we formed an easy friendship. We spent many evenings after school on her couch — wine in hand — watching recordings of my class while she gave me feedback. It was powerful to have a mentor and co-worker with similar shared experiences who could provide me with accessible feedback every step of the way. Though it took me several years to create my own authentic teacher self, this relationship opened my eyes to the authoritative teacher that I could be.

Growing up, I did not have many Asian teachers. While I was always taught to value education, teaching was a career path that I had only fleetingly considered. My father’s side of the family in China has a strong legacy of accomplished educators, but being an Asian American teacher in the U.S. did not seem to carry the same weight. Asian Americans as a group tend to not find teaching attractive; suspected barriers to entry include the sociocultural “model minority” expectation, legacies of exclusion based on racism, and tendencies to enter STEM-related fields.

Within the past three decades, racial and ethnic diversity has grown more quickly among U.S. public school students than among teachers. With the growing diversity within the U.S., it is becoming ever more important that we as a teaching community join together to continue working to bridge the gap in teacher representation. At my current 5th-8th grade school, both the principal and assistant principal identify as Asian American females. It means a lot to see people who share parts of my identity in positions of leadership. I can only imagine what it could mean for students! It can be a powerful experience to see the marginalized parts of your own identity (e.g. gender, race, sexual orientation, SES, disability, age, etc.) reflected in positions of leadership, whether they are reflected directly in leadership or celebrated by those in leadership positions.

I have now come to understand how CRUCIAL it is to promote a diverse teaching workforce in order to foster a variety of teacher-to-teacher mentor relationships, empowering all teachers to reach their full potential as educators and giving students the opportunity to have their own experiences reflected in or celebrated by their teachers and schools.

 

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As we continue to celebrate APAHM this May, I encourage all of you to continue listening to the stories of others and hear their experiences. My friends Staci (@donutlovinteacher) and Jen (@thedimpledteacher) have put together an incredible challenge this month that has resulted in the outpouring of so many beautiful stories of educators in the API community. Search the hashtag #APIteachers on instagram to find the stories. Staci also put together a blog post highlighting some of her favorite Japanese American books!

My friend Liz from @teachandtransform has also compiled many great resources for this month. My favorite has been her daily APAHM homework assignments where she shares a person of API descent or event in history for us to research. It has taught me so much about API in the United States. So often the history and stories of API are left out of our history books and these daily homework assignments have opened my eyes to SO many new topics throughout APAHM. She also has a patreon in which you can learn more about topics of APAHM.

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Acknowledgments: Thank you to all my family and friends who read over and provided me with feedback for this post. Thank you to my sister Samantha Yi for helping me with the images and to my husband Fred Chua for supporting me as I put this post together. Special thanks to my sister Stacey Yi and Greg Minihan for spending hours with me, before a cross country flight, to refine this post so that it best reflected my experience. A final shoutout to the API educators who I have been so blessed to work with and who have pushed me to refine my authentic teacher self–most of whom are pictured in the photo banner. THANK YOU!

2 Comments

  • Benita Eldridge

    Dear Stephanie

    Thank you for your very ‘real’ and honest blog about being an Asian American teacher. I read your post via TpT! I know that you struggled with being an Asian minority in your school. However, I am pleased that you found your authoritative voice in the classroom due to having a mentor. How wonderful! You are surely becoming a lead teacher who will be able to help other teachers find their voices in their classrooms.

    I believe that it is important for students to see teachers of all ethnic backgrounds. I am African-American and have taught for many years in Upstate New York and we still grapple with a lack of minority teachers in our schools! Please do not give up!

    Thank you for being the trailblazer and thank you for showing minority students of all backgrounds that they can achieve! May you have many more successful years in education.

    Regards,

    Benita M. Eldridge

    • mathwithmsyi

      Dear Benita,

      Thank you so so much for this thoughtful and loving comment. I can’t tell you how much it means to me! Your students are so lucky to have had you as their teacher.

      Love,
      Stephanie Yi

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