“I have reconciled this over the past years, within myself- I can’t be a teacher without being an activist. And I can’t be an activist without being a teacher.” That’s something I repeat to myself most days to remind myself why I do what I do.
After reading Jose Luis Vilson’s post titled Race, Class, and Acceptability as a Connected Educator [Aspiring to Karen] tonight, I immediately commented, “thank you for this, and for continually pushing me to speak out despite my fear. My vision is much more important.”
This summer, I started this blog- this was to be my blog project to chronicle my thoughts on education, and my experiences trying to wade through these attacks on teachers. I was trying to be bolder, braver, put my voice out there. I wanted my friends and loved ones to understand what I was going through. And I wanted to develop my own voice, build my vision on what I want education to look like.
This always happens to me as the school year starts. As a third-year teacher, I was quickly flooded with all the work, love, energy needed for the first weeks of school, and I realized quickly that I couldn’t keep my writing up. Or, I was scared that my writing would take away time from what else I needed to do.
Alongside that, a few weeks ago I contemplated quitting teaching for the first time in a long time. So much change and turmoil was happening in my classroom with no signs of getting better. I cried five out of seven days one week, feeling like all my work wasn’t helping. The measly strand keeping me on was that whoever would replace me would most likely be a new-ish teacher as well, perhaps worse than myself, and I knew a mid-year switch of teachers would be awful for my students.
So I went up to my assistant principal this morning and told her why I was crying yesterday, outside of an incident that put me over the edge. I told her that week after week I’ve had to restructure my room and have been frustrated because of things outside my control (late hiring of an aide, addition of 2 students in the 2nd week of school, then adding 3 kids to my room 4th week of school, then losing an aide next week, alongside all of the other paperwork and work outside the kids that’s due). I structure everything in my room based on the amount of aides I have- I can’t teach academic content outside small groups and supervision of aides, so losing aides is a big deal. I told her that I try to be flexible and I work hard to make sure I’ve got everything I need. I told her that I’m trying so hard and I believe I know what I’m doing but that there’s just no consistency in aides, in amounts of students, in anything the past weeks. I have nothing to stand on. I’m making up curriculum because I don’t have anything, and I’ve asked for curriculum repeatedly, I’m learning the students, trying to make routines happen. As was said to me on Tuesday, it’s almost impossible being a curriculum developer while also being a teacher of students with low-incidence disabilities (but I did it last year somehow). This is so hard when you’re working with twelve human beings with low-incidence disabilities who are all high-need and need love and care before all else, including teaching. I told her I am working extremely hard to be flexible, but at the rate of such change that this work isn’t sustainable at all. I’m burning out rapidly, I’m emotionally exhausted, and I need time to get things done which I don’t have. I told her I wasn’t going to quit, but then tearfully explained that I couldn’t do my job if there were not one shred of consistency here, and I needed something to hold onto. And I told her that if I were a first-year teacher at the school that I would have never told her all of these things, that I wouldn’t know how she would react, that I would be scared of her reaction. I told her that she’s seen me teach and she knows I can do it. I know I can do it. I just need support. She told me that she’s seen me at my best. She asked what I was asking for, and I told her I didn’t know what kinds of support I wanted yet, but I needed her to know what was happening, that I wasn’t just crying out of nowhere. She asked if I was okay to teach today. I was fine. Focus on the kids and building relationships right now, she said, and the rest will come. I will have rotating aides while someone’s hired, which leads to more inconsistency for me, and then most of all for the kids. And if I’m not consistent where I am and where we are, where will they be? #rantover #imdone #itsFriday
(Facebook post, October 3rd, 2014)
I was angry at myself. The masters degree, the years in classrooms, teaching for two years already, for this? Was I working hard enough? What wasn’t working? Should I rest? Should I take a break? Should I just keep working?
I knew from my undergrad ed program, Sonia Nieto’s works, others’, that I needed to share what I felt, get advice, anything but be an island. I posted long, depressing, but completely honest statuses on Facebook about what I was going through. The worst thing, I thought, would be to sugarcoat what’s going on with teaching. Friends out of the woodwork texted, called, offered ice cream. Teachers and activists I’m connected with locally and nationally on my Facebook “liked” in solidarity, messaged me and shared their first years of teaching, how some classes were rougher than others, that they’ve felt this way (some of them currently). I saw teachers on Facebook also sharing their struggles, new and veteran alike. I met teachers in my school who were in the strugglebus, too. It wasn’t just me. Maybe it was an October thing.
The best advice I got were from two teachers, both early childhood teachers. Jennifer told me to have cause for celebration in the classroom- have something to look forward to in the day, and plan it in. The kids need that just as much as you do. And I thought of it- I got my class a classroom pet, to help my students understand how to care for others, to take turns, to share, and have joy and pride in community. One of the kids thought, “Dorphie.” They love Dorphie the betta fish (easy maintenance, right?) Kirsten told me to have fun in the classroom. And we do- we have fun with Have Fun Teaching’s What Do The Letters Say, a parody of “What does the Fox Say?” that goes over letter sounds. We do exercises, we paint pumpkins, we make fish crafts to understand the anatomy of Dorphie, we have fun. And that has made such a difference.
And all that saving grace came from me speaking up. All of that.
Sharing my voice is something I wasn’t taught to do at home. My parents, Chinese immigrants who never learned English, asked me and my brothers to get good grades, focus on school and get into a good college, make a living to support us in retirement. They covered the rent, the cooking, the chores, to this day not letting me wash the dishes at the house. Above all, they taught me to do the work myself, because I can’t rely on others to do it for me. They lived in a world of scarcity, a China of war, poverty, and regular hunger and starvation. I got it. They’ve called me nosy, a busybody, for doing all my extracurricular activities starting in high school, then in college, then now. My dad doesn’t want me doing my union work, not because he’s scared of retaliation, but because I’m doing volunteer work without getting paid, and because he knows I have a tendency to overwork myself. He didn’t want me to go to Michigan last Monday and join United Students Against Sweatshops’ campaign against Teach For America, their TFA Truth Tour. He wants me to focus on what he never had- money and resources. And above all, he wants the best for me.
But I have to share my voice. I have to speak up. I was forever changed at 13 when I found out about my uncle Vincent. If my 2nd great aunt Lily Chin didn’t speak up for the hate crime death of my uncle Vincent Chin, would anyone have spoken up for him? If Helen Zia and the other Asian American attorneys, activists in Michigan didn’t speak up, who would know Vincent’s name today? Would other thousands of Asian Americans be who they are today without those voices speaking up for Vincent and for themselves? Because, as I learned in college the hard way. if I don’t speak up for myself, who will? As I learned at the charter school and in my one year with Teach For America, if I just keep going and work myself to be a shell of myself, what’s the point if I’m just going to get fired anyways? What happens if I don’t speak up?
It’s incredibly hard to be a full-time teacher, dedicating time to my students with autism and other low-incidence disabilities in my classroom, getting each of them at their individual levels, while also juggling all of the paperwork, training of aides, materials, doing committee work in my school, while ALSO trying to be a loving friend, daughter, girlfriend, grad school student, activist, all the identities I encompass outside of school.
But, as I told my loving boyfriend a week ago, and as I have told many over time, “I have reconciled this over time- I can’t be a teacher without being an activist. And I can’t be an activist without being a teacher.”
It’s not an either/or situation. I am a teacher AND a person. I am a teacher AND an activist. I am a teacher AND a blogger.
“When I dare to be powerful- to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I’m afraid.” -Audre Lorde.