How has the last 18 months changed you as an educator? Have your priorities shifted? Do you have a new focus or north star?
I was asked this at a professional development at the beginning of the school year and I’ve been writing this reflection ever since then.
18 months ago, in March of 2020, I was a building substitute, running around supporting the Baldwin in whatever way possible. The pandemic dramatically changed things and like many, I was forced to reconcile what this new frontier of education would be like. 18 months later, as the pandemic continues to burn, science both celebrated and vilified, but equally as important, is the hate and despair that continues to be present. Black Lives Matter, the death of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many more, catalyzed a carnal yearning for justice, for their names to be said, for their stories to be told. Then, as if more was needed, the attacks on AAPI women and elderly bubbled to the surface. The deaths of those in Atlanta, the maiming of those in New York City and San Francisco, highlighted yet again, how much pain and destruction that was present.
How does this relate to education? Well, as a teacher, as a building substitute, I went from problem solving and filling gaps, to being more present to listen and acknowledge the stories of my students. I’ll clarify, I still do those things, but stopping randomly to getting to know students, to speak to them in their language, these are things that I’m more conscious in doing. There’s no problem, no emergent issue that is more important than making sure the kids know that they’re valued.
I remember, last fall, I was asked to write a recommendation letter for one of my students, and in his request, he highlighted an instance the previous fall on how I inspired him. As a Chinese-American teacher, I told the class that I was teaching Chinese Exclusion Act because I am Chinese. I was explicit in my motivation and thus expressed how important it was for me to share this story. He as a half-Korean, half-White student, was blown away about how clear I was in why I teach the things I teach. He told me that this unafraid, unapologetic presence of mind I had, inspired him to learn more about himself. The last 18 months have shown me that we need to be more explicit in connecting students narratives to the classroom narratives, and to show them that what they bring to the table is valid.
Whether it’s the things they hold in their backpacks, what they hide in their lunchbox, what accents or vocabulary that they suppress, that all of that is valid and good. There is beauty, there is brokenness, and all of it is valid. Students are experiencing the same trauma and pain that we as adults are going through but they may have trouble processing it. We need to help shoulder their burdens.