Where are the Unicorns?

I was recently asked to do an assignment for a graduate program I’m attending, where I was to describe my teaching philosophy and then provide evidence through academic journals, texts, etc. I added the usual Freire, Baldwin, Apple, and then added some Delpit and Hammond, but as I was doing my research, I became struck by a disturbing reality. I couldn’t find any text by Asian American educators. I couldn’t find any written experiences that validated my queries or quandaries that I experienced as an Asian American teacher.

Unlike other ethnic or racial groups, Asian Americans suffer from unique phenomena that hinder our education experiences including: Model Minority Myth, Perpetual Foreigner, as well as stereotypes on academic pursuits. The experiences of K-12 Asian Americans is a battleground. Put briefly, the Model Minority Myth reinforces stereotypes of docility, meekness, and that our success is predicated on “some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving.” The Perpetual Foreigner is where you have the classic “lunch box story” or the “where are you from” questions. No matter how long one’s family has lived in the United States, the assumption is that they don’t belong. Don’t get me started on the expectation that just because I’m Asian, I’m good at math or I should be teaching STEM. Why is it so hard to believe that I love teaching history?

Am I really a unicorn?

I know that my existence in schools, as an Asian American male educator, is a rarity. When I was teaching at our local high school, I was 1 of 10 (+/- 3) Asian American teachers and the only one who identified as male. At one of the elementary schools I am at, I am the only Asian American educator. At the other, I’m one of three, but the only male. I know that I’m even more rare because my passion is not to teach in a STEM field but in a humanities one. While the population of Asian American students continues to grow each year, the number of Asian American teachers continues to shrink. “Only 2% percent of U.S. public school teachers are Asian American, and fewer than 1% are Pacific Islanders, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.” Suffice to say, it takes one to know one, “where are the unicorns?” Why aren’t there more Asian American teachers. Why aren’t education schools recruiting Asian American teachers? Why aren’t high schools and colleges not encouraging students to explore the realm of teaching? We know that students succeed when they encounter teachers and administrators who look like them, eat like them, talk like them. So where are the Asian American teachers?

Rewind back to 2017, when I was last in grad school at Tufts, reading about teaching theory, pedagogy, and actively practicing it. We’re reading great theorists and educators and writers, many of whom I wrote about in my assignment, and even then I wondered, why aren’t there any Asian American voices. Somehow, I come across Michelle Kuo‘s amazing book: Reading with Patrick. A fantastic memoir about her time teaching in the Mississippi Delta for Teach for America. I purchased the book and read voraciously. (Side note: Michelle writes this amazing weekly newsletter and it has been so cool to read about her journey emigrating back to Taiwan. Check it out here: https://ampleroad.substack.com/)

I got to meet her once at Harvard. It was super random haha.

 For one, I was so excited to read a memoir about teaching by an Asian-American author. Two, a lot of what she was grappling with in terms of teaching and racial inequalities and tensions were things I was just beginning to understand and wrestle with. Reading this book, especially during that season of learning and experimenting really helped put my education into a specific context, one that I never expected to be able to. As someone who has struggled in figuring out where his place is, in the realm of education and teaching, this book provided answers but also raised more important questions. 

In the intro, she writes: “I read Malcolm X, also from Michigan, whose mother had been committed to a mental hospital in my hometown of Kalamazoo. He warned black readers not to trust white liberals: I don’t care how nice one is to you; the thing you must always remember is that almost never does he really see you as he sees himself, as his own kind. He may stand with you through thin, but not thick. And I heard that same reprimand in James Baldwin, who said that liberals bought all the right books, have all the proper attitudes but no real convictions. And when the chips are down and you expect them to deliver on what you thought they felt, they somehow are not there. They somehow are not there. I took this allegation literally. Where should I put myself? 

I am someone who grew up as an international student, who now wants to be a teacher . I ask myself that question too: “Where should I put myself?”  I remember a couple years back, I was sharing about my US History II curriculum at a Parent Open House. I spoke about my identity as an international student, one who hasn’t spent a great deal of time in the US, and explained how my curriculum was a take on critical US history as a result. I wanted to teach about unexplored narratives, counter the “American Dream” and show what the cost of success was. All of a sudden, a Korean-American immigrant mother, accused me of being “not American enough” to teach US history. She said: “you made it, why don’t you believe in the American dream?” I was struck. Where should I put myself?

I don’t know why I wrote this, I don’t know why I spent time dropping my thoughts, especially since I have homework assignments (in a field that I have very little joy in doing, and yet here I am). I will continue asking the question: Where are the unicorns? As well as wonder, “how can I help encourage more Asian Americans to become teachers?”

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