This week in teaching, the world, and the Moth Radio Hour!

I’m currently in tears, snot dripping out of my nose, an hour after finding out about the Jason Van Dyke verdict. Van Dyke was just found guilty of second-degree murder in the killing of Laquan MacDonald, and guilty of aggravated battery on each of 16 counts, one for each of the shots fired that night by Van Dyke. I didn’t think at all he would be found guilty- I thought there might be a hung jury or an acquittal, but it’s true: he’s guilty, and that’s that.

This week I taught my 4th- and 5th-grade students about plays: how actors act out different truths to share lessons and themes and stories. We read two plays: one on Martin Luther King Jr. as a child, and one with Sylvia Mendez, whose family was key in getting California schools to desegregate in the 1940s.

“They fought hard, Ms. Tan, and they wanted all the people to be together.”

The kids loved acting out the characters, but then we got into deeper conversations on race: how white people materially had better conditions under Jim Crow laws, how black and Mexican folk couldn’t go into the same pools, the same bathrooms, and schools, and how kids like Sylvia had to eat lunch outside in the dirt surrounded by a cow pasture and cow manure (“Poop, Ms. Tan!”) and electric gates that would shock the Mexican kids when they went to Hoover Elementary.

“That wasn’t fair, Ms. Tan. How come the white people could get all the nice things and the Mexicans couldn’t?” We noted that almost all the kids in our class were Mexican, too. I noted that all the kids in our class were not white, that we came from different backgrounds, and among us we spoke 4 different languages. That, if Jim Crow laws existed today, that our paraprofessional, who is white, couldn’t be with us.

And the kids said, “Are there racists now?” And I had to say, “Yes, there are a lot of people who still think they’re better than other people just because of their skin color.” We talked in past weeks about how women couldn’t vote before and how women get paid less and are assumed to do domestic duties. How hard is it to tell the kids the truth of the world, that so many people in my community are anti-black, that so many aspire to be white?

I’ve had students who wanted to scrub their skin to reveal the white underneath. And I had the duty to tell them they weren’t white. This white supremacy exists early on already in childhood, ugh.

This week also coincided with the end to our memoir unit: we took four weeks to brainstorm different events in our lives where we’ve learned lessons or changed as people, adding dialogue, details, feelings, reflections: and my students were so proud of their work. They typed out everything: “Ms. Tan, can I get a copy to show my mom?” And all the kids asked for copies to show their parents. It felt legit, to have a real typed-out copy to show. I gave the copies out today, one set for me to give feedback on, one to put in our Celebrations binder, and a last one for the kids to take home: and I can’t wait to hear how their parents saw their work.

Then, I brought the kids over to the smartboard and showed them the current homepage of The Moth:

Themoth.org screenshot Annie Tan.PNG

(Side note: I was shocked last night when I went on the Moth website and saw my face! I’m also astounded at the cosmic alignment that made the ending of my memoir unit, weeklong unit about fighting for civil rights, and my Moth Radio Hour debut align on the same week! WHATTTT.)

And the kids were like, “THAT’S YOU, MS. TAN.” (And asked why I was wearing contacts and all that, of course.) I told my students that I, Ms. Tan, like them, had just published my own memoir this week, my own short story, and that it was on the radio this week. I told them the power of stories and that they can change people. I told them we write memoirs to help people be better and for them to change the world. That they could change the world, too, one day, with their writing.

“Ms. Tan, are you crying in the photo?” One student asked.

I didn’t even notice that: yes, I was. The story I told on that Moth stage was near and dear to my heart, a story I’d never told anyone before telling it on stage at a Moth StorySLAM last October. And that story is being heard around the nation this week on the radio, and next week in the podcast world.

In a world where Brett Kavanaugh is about to be confirmed and in a world where Jason Van Dyke could have walked free just yesterday, I have been in despair. I’ve not been getting as much sleep as I need, been busy in NYC with friends and writing and my partner, and I feel my body breaking down, emotionally and physically. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court have broken my spirits somewhat, and I’ve been listening to the WBEZ podcast 16 Shots to get updates and hope that Jason Van Dyke would get convicted of something. If he were acquitted, riots and protests would ensue in my beautiful Chicago.

But that didn’t happen, and justice has been served. Rest in power, Laquan MacDonald. I hope the sentencing of Jason Van Dyke in the coming days and weeks is fair.

“It’s not fair” though, were the last words that Vincent Chin spoke, I told my class. I shared photos of Vincent Chin, shared that he was supposed to get married the next week, that he was killed because the two white guys that killed him thought he was Japanese and hated him, and the kids were shocked to hear that the guys never served a day in jail.

I showed the pictures of people marching and rallying for Vincent Chin, demanding justice for his murder. That people decided they needed to speak up because things weren’t right.

“It’s like Martin Luther King and Sylvia Mendez,” one student said.

I’ve never told any of my students in my seven years teaching thus far about Vincent Chin. About my family story. And then I told them I was related to Vincent Chin.

I told my students a condensed version of the story I told for the Moth, my memoir that I had published this week on the Moth Radio Hour.

“No wonder you cried in that photo, Ms. Tan.”

I had chills leaving my classroom this afternoon. I didn’t know the world I’d be stepping into after the safety of being with my students all day. And, this story is always hard for me to tell, yet a story I must tell.

And now, again, I am crying, but now crying for justice for Laquan.

We can do this. We can continue to speak up and change the world. And maybe sometimes justice can be served.

Rest in power, Laquan MacDonald. Rest in power.

You can listen to the Moth Radio Hour episode at https://beta.prx.org/stories/253066 or at your local radio station around the country this week. I’m really proud of this story.

 

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WATCH: My Story on “80 Minutes Around the World!”

A few weekends ago, on Saturday, September 8th, I performed at Nestor Gomez’s first NYC edition of 80 Minutes Around The World: Immigration Stories! I’m really proud of this story, which took me 4 weeks to write. Check out a 37-second a preview below, and please follow the link to watch the video of my story and other ones from that night that were amazing!

You’ll hear in the story that I moved to Bay Ridge, which is now a ten-minute walk from my workplace in Sunset Park, where I’ve just started my 7th year teaching! This beginning-of-year has been long and exhausting so far, but I feel like I’m in the groove now and getting more sleep. My students and paraprofessional are wonderful- I’ve got ten students, six 4th-graders and four 5th-graders, and I can’t wait to grow with them this year.

And stay tuned for some news on Tuesday… ❤

Annie

 

Current status-

Last math tests.

One more IEP.

Student progress reports.

Essay upon essay to grade.

The nine assignments I have to finish before the 31st to get the 3 credits want from this P-credit course.

Answering those emails.

I know little of this will matter come June 26th when the school year is finally done here in NYC, but right now they feel like everything. Right now I feel overwhelmed, while my students are anxiously awaiting summer as much, if not more, than we teachers are.

This May has been hard.

This school year has been hard.

Teaching under Trump has been hard.

But,

as I wrote in the beginning of the school year,

Tomorrow is another day. And, next year is a new year. That’s pretty amazing, actually.

Those were wise words.

To June 26th.

Teacher Un-Appreciation Day.

I am literally crying in my classroom right now because I feel so unappreciated today, this #TeacherAppreciationDay 2018.

I have no tissues in my classroom to wipe my tears or clear my snot out because we ran out of our student-supplied tissues a few weeks ago. Every few days a kid remembers to bring some in, or I or my co-teacher remember to buy some and bring some in, but right now we’re out. Luckily my paraprofessional grabbed a pack of paper towels from the custodian before leaving, so there’s that.

I have no soap in the school to wash my hands with because we’re also out of student-provided soap- the bathrooms always run out of soap, both for the students and teachers, so it’s a daily practice that students have to bring their own soap in to use for the bathrooms.  I and my co-teacher have been buying soap for our kids to wash their hands with but the bottle’s been lost somewhere in the school.

I’m not in the bathroom right now sobbing quietly because there’s only one women’s bathroom on the 3rd floor and there must be at least a hundred female staff members on this floor who all have to use this bathroom, when there’s less than ten total male staff members across two schools and they have the same amount of bathrooms as we do. Two women’s stalls for the whole 3rd floor. I also can’t trust that there’ll be toilet paper in the women’s bathroom because the bathrooms are so heavily used. Gender neutral staff bathrooms, anyone, for a profession dominated by women?

I’m writing a lesson right now with the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, a fun and interesting and deep set of lessons, ones to kick off our fantasy writing unit, a set of lessons I wouldn’t have felt full autonomy over had my observation cycle for my evaluation not concluded a few weeks ago. Just how much agency do we have as teachers?

My students are energetic as ever in May, and they’re having a lot of issues being kind to one another. They’re leaving for middle school next year, so it makes sense that they want to spend time with one another before we’re no longer together. A lot of kids feel these standards and work are too much and don’t see the point, and I try every day to make the content and learning accessible and meaningful. We just ended state testing last week, which felt torturous to a lot of our students- they said so! Every day I’m trying to create a community where the kids feel safe to learn, and that takes trying every day. One of my students was testing for her reading level with my co-teacher, reading a story about a family having a tough time. When my co-teacher asked the student how the lesson of the story could connect to her life, she burst into tears and ran out of the room because the story felt too close to home. I try not to bring my students home with me, because I deserve my own life, but of course I take my work home with me, and with that, all of their lives and stories. I’m glad for my insurance providing mental-health benefits, but oftentimes we take home too much.

I am going to have Chipotle tonight for dinner because it is “Buy One, Get One Free” tonight for teachers. I was going to be sad about going by myself and not knowing who I’d have the second Chipotle meal with, but then I remembered the field trip that we were going to have tomorrow got cancelled, and so now I’m going to bring that extra Chipotle meal with me to school. We were informed about the trip being cancelled about 12:30pm today, and when we had to tell our students the news they were rightfully disappointed and angry. Yeah, today of all days.

Every year on Teacher Appreciation Day, all six times I’ve experienced this day as a teacher, there has been some appreciation, some little gesture, toward us teachers, from our school leaders and/or PTA. (I know that I’m deeply appreciated by my students and their parents, by the way- we teachers are with them all year, after all, and that is never in question.) It didn’t matter how big the appreciation was, but it mattered that there was something. For a few years, when I taught in Little Village, Chicago, it was a catered meal to the staff- great Mexican food. My first year teaching, it was just a little pack of candy in our mailboxes- but that mattered. A hug, even a non-teacher just saying, “Happy Teacher Appreciation Day” was enough. It doesn’t take very much to be appreciated.

Today, nothing. I feel like today was a hard day teaching, yes, but even one appreciation today at school could have made all that better.

It sounds ridiculous to be complaining, like #firstworldproblems, like I’m griping and being far too emotional over one day. But, really, this is a teacher’s day to get something we don’t normally get- some recognition for the hard work we do all year.

It’s conditions like these, except harsher in places where teachers don’t have unions and rights to appeal, where austerity politics are slashing school budgets and governments would rather close schools than fund schools, alongside the lack of appreciation and will to do better, that have pushed so many teachers around the country and around the world to go on strike. No wonder. We’re striking for what seems so basic- clean classrooms with enough supplies, books, and materials, and for our autonomy as teachers. What other profession must I get a full degree and licensure and continue to meet all requirements (in NY State, we’re required to also have a Masters degree, so two degrees) then be made to feel so dumb, so awful, to have so little agency over our jobs, over our teaching?

We teachers aren’t appreciated, not really. Neither are our students or community.

I’ve put so much on this day, the one day in a year where I’m supposed to be appreciated, because, the truth is, all the other days of the year we aren’t appreciated. Maybe today was needed, because it was a real wakeup call- that one day of appreciation can’t make up for all the real-world lack of appreciation for teachers year-round.

Yeah.

This Chinatown resident’s take on the #OmerFast #JamesCohan “August” exhibit.

22853418_10155576639801066_5385220761482982216_nIn response to the controversial #OmerFast “August” exhibit that depicts a Chinatown storefront pre-gentrification, I shared this speech yesterday at a Chinatown rally to Say Goodbye to Omer Fast’s Racist Show at James Cohan Gallery, hosted by the Chinatown Art Brigade and Decolonize This Place. I shared as a resident of Chinatown and as a Chinatown Tenants Union member of CAAAV- Organizing Asian Communities. I also shared a condensed version of the speech in Cantonese to Chinese press, which is below the English text:

In June 2011, New York Magazine called the street I grew up on, one block north of here on Broome, the smelliest block in NYC. My neighbors, neighboring businesses, and Chinatown quickly became laughingstocks. Of course, shortly after the article came out, the city came and fixed the sewers, and with that fix went much of the smell. It was never Chinatown residents at fault.

The media has always reinforced the idea that Chinatown is squalid, and its people primitive. That pre-gentrified Chinatown was run-down, broken, and needed to be fixed by gentrification. The idea is that new businesses and art galleries should replace and supposedly beautify those spaces.

This art gallery adds to this narrative of Chinatown- it is one more addition to the hundreds of years of abuse, harassment, and attack against Chinatowns and Chinese American people. It is a direct threat to my neighbors and community.

I moved back to my hometown after five years in Chicago to again be a part my communities’ full vibrancy and humanity. Chinatown created a space for my family, my community, and myself to be fully Chinese and American. There are very few places in the world with this vibrancy- and we as tenants are here to protect that community and others like it.

As a teacher in Sunset Park, I teach my students not just to love reading and math, but to love their languages and their cultures. I work with parents, families, and communities in their languages, in Chinese and Spanish. I come to their community centers, their storefronts and businesses. We learn together not just to be tolerant of, but respect and appreciate cultures other than our own. THAT is a gesture to community. A gallery coming to a neighborhood, pushing a racist vision of Chinatown on Chinatown? That is an insult.

I implore the James Cohan Gallery, Omer Fast, and all the people who come into Chinatown- you are welcome here, but do better. Listen to the people who live here. Do not contribute to the loss of businesses and homes that have devastated our community. We are not your puppets to mock, nor your props to make money off of. We are, and will continue to be, one of the most vibrant communities in New York City. We are here to stay.

Here is the condensed Cantonese version I read aloud to Chinese press. (Forgive if there are grammatical or vocabulary errors, as this is the first speech I’ve ever written in Cantonese, written with help from a fellow Chinatown Tenants Union member.) 

你地好。 我係譚歡欣。 我今年28歲。我更Brooklyn唐人街做老師。 我在紐約唐人街出生,又在芝加哥住過五年。再搬返紐約,係希望多的識,瞭解,同埋認識中國個文化同埋歷史。

我給我嘅學生上課既時候我會介紹呢中國既文化,歷史,同埋佢地既藝術,同埋地理知識。同樣 講偈咗使比亞既文化地理知識。我讓佢哋從小認識到 文化差異學會理解和尊重。

我覺得呢個Show 是對我地唔尊重,同埋歧視。我地歡迎所有既民族都來唐人街,但係希望你地都要尊重我地。

The day I decided to be a teacher.

I’m finishing up our first 5th-grade writing unit, memoirs, with my students this week. I decided this year that I’m going to be writing authentic pieces with my students and up my own writing ante. I’ve been working with the students on the elements, craft, and purpose of memoir writing, including reflection, elaboration, and development. So, after a four-week writing process, here’s my piece and truth about the day I decided to be a teacher.

“I don’t want to go to first grade!” I yelled, slamming my spoon into my bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. My mother looked at me consolingly, but we both knew I had to walk out that door. Mom dressed me, and we, along with my two brothers, walked the two blocks to P.S. 42 in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

As we walked to school, I thought back to the year prior and recalled how I had cried every day of kindergarten. I had so many questions when I was five years old. Why couldn’t I speak Cantonese at school? Why did all the teachers looked different from the people in my Chinese community? I felt I didn’t belong in that classroom, 202, and it was a fight to finish the year. I felt like a baby- I was the only one to cry after the first month of school. My mom and a bunch of the other kids called me a crybaby, and I felt so alone. Fast forward a summer, and I wondered if first grade would be a repeat of that awful kindergarten year.

At the front entrance of P.S. 42, I held my mother’s hand for a minute, not wanting to leave. “You have to go in,” my mom said. “And,” my mother added, “you have to walk your little brother in, too.”

Trying to put on a brave face, I said, “Okay, Mom.” I waved goodbye and walked with my little brother into the lunchroom. Anxiously, I walked to the sign “1-212,” my new class, and waited with my new classmates for our teacher. A brown-haired teacher walked up and guided us through the lunchroom, up the stairs, past the principal’s office, and into our new classroom.

The sky-blue walls of 1-212 already felt calmer than the bright yellow walls of last year’s classroom. All of us kids milled around the entrance of the door as Ms. Sheridan called out names from her attendance sheet and pointed us to our desks. When Ms. Sheridan finally called my name, I quickly put down my things and followed the rest of the students to the classroom rug, where we were to meet together as a class for the first time.

Ms. Sheridan looked on at us with a kind face. “Hello, everyone! It is so great to meet you. My name is Ms. Sheridan, and I will be your first-grade teacher this year. I want to know your names, so I want you to go around and share your name and your favorite color.”

About a dozen students shared their names and their favorite colors. Nervousness built as I heard my classmates share “blue” and “green” as their favorite colors over and over again. I knew I had a different answer, and different was not good, especially after kindergarten. After what seemed like forever, it was my turn.

“Hi. My name is Annie, and my favorite color is yellow.”

Immediately, a number of kids behind me started to laugh. “Yellow?” one of my classmates exclaimed. “You’re weird!” I stood out as different, just like I stood out last year in school. Different was bad.

I pushed away the river of tears that was welling up in my eye sockets. I didn’t want to be a crybaby again this year, but all I wanted to do in that moment was cry.

“Annie,” I heard suddenly from the front of the room. I looked up in terror, not wanting anyone to call my name. It was Ms. Sheridan. I was scared of what was coming next.

“Annie,” Ms. Sheridan repeated. “My favorite color is yellow, too.”

I heard a kid gasp behind me. Another student said, “My favorite color is yellow, too!” No one was laughing anymore. I felt a smile creep up on my face. “Let’s keep going,” Ms. Sheridan continued.

I stared in the front of the room, surprised at everything that had just happened. First off, I couldn’t believe that the teacher had heard me. But mostly, I couldn’t believe that Ms. Sheridan stuck up for me.

A tear came down my face, but it was out of happiness. I really thought first grade was going to be as terrible as kindergarten. But, unlike last year, I knew I had Ms. Sheridan to stick up for me, and to protect me. I felt this year was going to be okay, because Ms. Sheridan would make it okay.

I was right about Ms. Sheridan- and I loved school from that point on. Our class made popcorn from kernels, shook heavy cream into butter and milk, and had Easter Egg hunts later that year. I became a master speller and rocked the math tests. I felt confident and proud of myself. And, most of all, I wasn’t crying anymore.

I will never forget the joy I felt in that moment- it was the first moment of kindness, generosity, and understanding I felt in school. Ms. Sheridan changed how I looked at school, and how I proceeded onward. I didn’t feel alien anymore.

Most of all, I knew how much one person could change someone’s life. It was one day of my life and a small moment, but from that point on I declared that I was going to be a teacher when I grew up.

At the time of this writing, I am in my sixth year teaching. I hope I am a great teacher to my students like Ms. Sheridan was for me. I hope my students feel as confident and proud as I did in first grade. Most of all, as a teacher, I hope to teach my students that they can make that big difference for others. It only takes one moment and one act sometimes.

 

@themoth StorySLAM- At home with my parents.

I shared a version of this story last night at The Moth StorySLAM, Sept. 21st at Housing Works Cafe in SoHo, NYC. The theme was “OUTGROWN”-

sept 2017 moth storyslam

There is nothing more soul-sucking and date-killing than telling someone, “I live at home with my parents.”

After living in Chicago for five years, I moved back home to New York last summer. My parents were so elated that they gave me their master bedroom, moving into a smaller room in our apartment in Chinatown! After being away so long, I figured it was time to move back- my dad was getting older and needed more medical help, and my mom was going to retire soon.

Because I’d moved home, I now needed to find a new teaching job (check!), find and rebuild my friend groups again, maybe start dating in New York again, and, of course, build a new relationship with my new roommates- my parents.

At first, it was okay. Then, of course with parents, the questions and the comments and the guilting and the shaming came. “Your room is a pigsty! This is not how a woman’s room should look like!” “You need to come home at 10pm!” my dad said in Cantonese, as he doesn’t speak English. (Spoiler alert- he doesn’t exactly like that I’m here right now!) “Don’t drink alcohol!” Yeah, like this 27-year-old single woman is not going out in New York City and drinking. Yeah. It came to a head after the work Christmas party, when I got home, after being on the train for two hours, phone dead, no calls home, parents furious.

January, February, March came, and I complained to anyone who would listen. Overwhelmed at work? It’s my parents’ fault because I have no room to think at home! No friend life? It’s my parents’ fault for nagging at me!

Finally April came and I had decided, as everyone in my life was telling me- my therapist, my friends, my potential dates in life- I needed to move out. Petrified, I told my parents over dinner- “Mom, Dad, I am planning to move out. I want to move closer to work, and I need my space.”

My dad stared me square in the face, and I was anxious because my dad isn’t always the most rational person. But he told me, “Annie, we want you to stay. We want you to help with rent. We want you to help with translating mail and other documents at home” (as they don’t speak English). And, we want you to pay rent here so you can save money with us. We can help you save, and when you’re ready to buy a home you’ll be able to.”

I stared back for a few seconds. I hadn’t even considered what my parents wanted- I was thinking of me the whole time. I had no conception that my parents would want me home. I felt like I was the typical Millenial moocher, that they wanted me to move out.

And in those few seconds, I started thinking- I loved my mom’s cooking, and I loved having my lunch packed for me every day for work. I loved my dad’s bad dad jokes and how he commented on the world around him. I didn’t mind translating mail or phone calls or documents at all- in fact, I felt really good about being able to help my parents. “What would we do without you?” they’ve commented many times in the year I’ve been home.

Moreover than that, I really like telling my parents about my days. How teaching is with my students, and what I did with them that day. About the teachers I work with and the parents of my students. About my friends and what they’re up to in life. About the activism I do and all my volunteer work outside my teaching.

It’s like my parents, for the first time, saw me as someone that wasn’t just their kid anymore, but some human being trying to find their way in the world. And I was beginning to see them in that same way. I’ll always be their kid, but something had shifted in the time I’d been home.

In those few seconds, all my reasons for moving out fell away. My commute was an easy three stops away via train, so it wasn’t really ever about the commute. I realized I just needed space, boundaries at home. I asked to use a room to do my work and to relax, and I asked for space, and they agreed immediately.

I realize now I moved back to New York not just to be closer physically to my parents, but because I was going to get a chance to know them fully as an adult. There’s something about building a relationship with your parents as adults, and it’s a beautiful thing. Two months after that conversation, in June I started taking Cantonese classes, so I could maybe one day have really full conversations and get deep with my parents.

I am seeing this time right now as an investment in my future- if or when I get married and have kids, I know my relationship with my parents will be fuller because I put this time in for all of us to build, together.

I thought by now, at 28 years old, that I’d outgrow this stage in my life. I don’t cringe as much now when I tell someone how I live. Because, at this moment, I’m very happy I live at home with my parents. I am very happy doing so.

For now.

Reminders for teachers.

Reminders to self these first few weeks of teaching (and good learnings I have picked up over the years)-

  • The basics- Drink water. Take your lunch. Finish your lunch. Go to the bathroom.
  • Don’t kill yourself working at night. You still have students to teach tomorrow.
  • Caffeine is good. Sleep is better.
  • Things happen.
  • Everything you want to get done won’t get done. Everything you need to get done will get done.
  • You don’t know the kids yet. It takes time to build relationships.
  • It’s the nature of teaching that everything can get upended at any moment. You know this. Prepare for everything else that could possibly happen, and, for the rest, you must go with the flow.
  • Use the people around you. They’re awesome. You also have great friends, former coworkers, and supports around you. Use them.
  • The kids are pretty darn smart. They are always good. Do no harm, and do great good if you can.
  • Tomorrow is another day. And, next year is a new year. That’s pretty amazing, actually.
  • As Colleen Wilcox puts, “Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.” Ain’t that the truth.

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.