I am in a new school this year, so the students are learning who I am every day.
My students now know that I am Chinese. Some know that I am from New York, and some know, in fact, that New York is in America. They know some Chinese phrases like Ni Hao, which they know because they asked, and they also know that my parents don’t speak English and I speak Chinese. And most know I speak a modicum of Spanish, enough to understand what is being said and enough to communicate basic needs, wants, and commands.
My students know I try to be respectful of Mexican customs and traditions, and that yes, I will celebrate Dia de Independencia de Mexico with them.
They know I teach at their school because I wanted to work in a place where most kids were born of or were immigrants themselves. They know because I told them. I am with them because I was taught that there was a cultural divide between being Chinese and being American, and that I had to choose one or the other to survive here. I lost my Chinese language and, as a result, it is very difficult and emotionally draining for me to try to communicate deeply and honestly with my parents, who do not speak English. I teach in Little Village because there is a cultural divide being taught to students about being Mexican and American, and I want to un-teach that divide.
And they know I am very willing to answer questions, honestly and openly.
After a fifth-grader asked if I ate “cooked meat in China,” I knew exactly the stereotype being asked about. The students found out that yes, Chinese people in China eat beef and pork and chicken like in the USA. That I am not from China but New York (reiterated of course). And yes, dog is a delicacy in certain parts of China.
I’ve been asked by many students over time this question, or have had students allude to this stereotype before. So as not to make Chinese people look bad, I usually would have left it at that and moved on. But today, I revealed for the first time that “Yes- I have eaten dog before.” My students now know the story that I was tricked into eating dog by my dad (who told me it was goat meat). And yes, after asking, they now know the consistency of dog is somewhere between a chicken and beef- stringy, more chewy than chicken but less so than beef.
I teach as my profession, but I also teach kids everyday about who I am. And, after some distracted, somewhat disrespectful chatter today, I told my students something along the lines of this-
“When you talk, I listen. When I talk, you listen. That’s the only way it works in this class. When I say it’s time for discussion, then we can talk together and figure things out together. But if you can’t hear what I’m saying, I guarantee someone is going to miss out. We build together and learn together by listening to one another.”
I thought about it just now and thought at first what I said was fine. Then I realized what I was telling my students about me-
that my voice mattered the most in the classroom.
I made it sound like my voice practically was the only one that mattered in the room. I very much privileged my own voice when I said my spiel. And I wish I had added this-
“Your voices matter. We may have the solutions to changing the world, stopping violence, empowering others in this room. I want to hear those voices, and I know you do, too. But I know I lose focus when more than one voice is talking at a time, and I want to make sure everyone is heard in here.”
I’m pushing myself this year to learn my students and give them opportunities to discuss. One of the things I’m working on, which is in the Danielson Framework (hooray…) is having students discuss more in the classroom. Without my voice. This is hard, as teachers want to know they have a modicum of control. The English as a second language grad school program I just finished pushed student production of language through speaking and writing.
I really want to push for my students to be as independent as possible this year. And without me hovering.
So I’m hoping that, by the end of the year, what students will know about me is that I am kind. Honest and myself- I talk to students the same way I would talk to adults, with developmentally appropriate language, of course. I’m open to compromise. I’m silly but firm when necessary. That I won’t tolerate disrespect. That I know a lot, but don’t know everything. That I am willing to listen and change. That I am a flawed human being who wants to relinquish control so badly but was taught to keep control as much as possible. That I get hurt, sad, frustrated, too.
And I want, at the end of the year, for my students to know and experience that I truly value students’ voices as equivalent to mine. That means I need to give them time to speak.
I’ve been covering math for a co-teacher who’s away this week and next, and so I’ve been teaching math this week. The substitute was amazing, and we realized together that the Go Math! Curriculum was far too high given where the students were at. The students were clamoring for review. So we slowed it down and broke it down. We made sure every student could ask questions about numbers before moving forward. We provided extra examples, extended time, you know, all of the kinds of accommodations and modifications a special ed teacher would give to students.
After a week of review on place value, one student came up to me today during reading class and asked, “When is Math, Ms. Tan? I used to not like math but now I love it.” Why, I asked? “Because I understand it now.” And when we walked to math class together, she glowed and said, “This is my time!”
Yup, I’m going to try my best to make sure it is your time, students. Your time to glow.