5th year in, why do I teach?

As I close out my fifth year of teaching, I’m consistently asking myself, as I have in all the years I’ve taught- do I still want to do this? Am I here for the right reasons? And, if I’m still in this, how can I be better for next year?

This year was tough, with transitions everywhere- moving to New York City, my hometown and where my family is, was tougher than I thought. I had to rebuild all of my relationships here while also maintaining the ones I’d made strong over my time in Chicago. Learning a whole new system and way of teaching (elementary integrated co-teaching is done very differently in Chicago and New York), was very tough. Learning my school’s culture, routines and balances took time. My co-teacher this year did not cut me any slack this year, for better or worse, and I grew for it, for better or worse. And, learning new curriculum is always hard. Finding where I belonged was the constant question this year.

But, the thing I loved about this year was the diversity of my staff and students, and what we get to do as a staff because of it. For the first time ever, I got to teach kids who looked like me as a kid: Chinese, some born in America, some not. I got to teach many different kinds of Latinx students, and a range of other students as well. Our fifth-grade graduation was conducted in four languages on Friday- English, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese.

And, we got to reference, if not teach to, that diversity. My school gave all the teachers $200 to spend mid-year on supplies for the class- this would be unheard of in Chicago, where I spent the majority of my teaching thus far. I spent a good chunk of the money buying Asian American literature for our classroom library, including a wealth of Laurence Yep books. A student just finished Child of the Owl, sharing with me today that she really enjoyed the book and that she didn’t know Chinese people could be in the books she read. I told her Laurence Yep was one of my favorite authors as a child for precisely that reason- that I could see myself in the books and in trying to figure out how to be both Chinese and American at the same time. “So that’s why you bought all his books, Ms. Tan,” she said. “Maybe all of his books are like that, and that’s good.”

We have been reading Esperanza Rising in class, a perennial favorite with all the fifth-graders I’ve ever worked with, and all of my Latinx students just soaked it up, constantly asking when we’d finish it. The kids related to the Spanglish, the switching of languages, and the feeling of overcoming tough obstacles. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to finish Esperanza before the school year ended, but hopefully my students will get to pick it up at a later time. What a wonderful read.

I told someone on the phone Monday that the slog of the teaching days can drive many a teacher out. That feeling that we lack autonomy? That can drive anyone out of any profession.

But why do I stay, I asked her. I stay because, if I can get the kids to love themselves and how bicultural and multicultural they are, then I’ve done my job.

I related how I didn’t prize being Chinese as a youth, and that I lost my language as a result- oh, how I wish I were fluent in Cantonese today.

It would have made such a difference as a kid to have someone who I judged as American tell me that my language and culture were important. It would have been so key to have teachers who looked like me and spoke my language. It would have been great to have Chinese teachers who could catch me saying something inappropriate in my Chinglish as a kid (and, believe me, we said some pretty bad things in Cantonese).

Today I not only get to nip inappropriate Cantonese (and some Mandarin) conversation and phrases in the bud, but I also get to nip inappropriate Spanish phrases in the classroom as well. But, I never shut down the speaking of languages in general, because my students should own their language.

I also take the chance to practice with my students. Recently, when I told one of my students, “Gracias por la oportunidad para practicar mi Espanol. No tengo mucho tiempo para practicarlo,” my students retorted back, “What about the weekend? [to practice your Spanish] You have us! You have the weekend! You should use apps to practice your Spanish.” My fifth-graders, holding me accountable for the work I have to and want to do to serve my students.

The coolest thing about pushing this multicultural piece? I get to now practice that and model that for my students. I get to show how I prize my own culture on days other than Chinese New Year. We get to break down less important holidays like Cinco de Mayo and celebrate what might really count like El Grito.

So why do I teach? To teach the importance of multiculturalism means I have to model what it looks like to be multicultural. This means I get to be fully multicultural myself, and that is a gift that my students have given me, and continue to give me, time and time again. You know Maslow’s hierarchy, that people want to be self-actualized? My students do that for me, with me, remind me, and see me. And, I see my students, every day, for a whole year. That’s something I’m not giving up anytime soon.

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