Tomorrow will be my first day returning to work in education in the United States after three incredible years with Teach For China. So naturally, I’m scrambling at 9 pm to read the news on the Common Core, charter schools and turnaround districts. But as I shamefully cram for my first day back with Teach For America, I stumbled across the opening speech I wrote in June 2012 to welcome our Teach For China 2012 teachers. As I re-read it tonight, it was a much-needed reminder for why and who exactly I’ve chosen to stay in this work for the past nine years and counting.
When I accepted the offer to join Teach For America on a Native American reservation in rural New Mexico, my parents were furious. As immigrants from Taiwan, they had not worked countless hours in a foreign country just for me to become a teacher. But I insisted.
I had decided when I was 15 that I was going to be a journalist to give a voice to the voiceless. By the time I was 22, I had a job at a big newspaper. But something didn’t feel right--I was writing about the communities I wanted to support, but wasn’t actually taking part in them. And so, despite my parents’ wishes, I joined Teach For America looking for an opportunity that would let me be a part of a community.
It was harder than I could have ever expected. Native American communities are vastly behind all other ethnic groups in the United States. Alcoholism is rampant, many families struggle to have enough money for food, and almost every single one of the students I worked with were abused at home. After centuries of oppression, the entire community I was committed to work for was still trapped in poverty.
I taught middle school special education and on the first day, I found out that most of my students couldn’t read or do basic math. My students refused to do work most days and kids bigger than me would try beating up teachers. Most teachers had given up on my students. At 13, most of my students had given up on themselves.
One of my students was Matilda. Matilda’s mother drank and did drugs when she was pregnant, and Matilda was born intellectually disabled. At 14, Matilda was severely at risk: She couldn’t add 10 and 10, struggled to understand anything she read, and had no friends. For many of my students, like Matilda, it would have been easier to give up on them. Teach For America had no training for Special Education teachers. There were many days it seemed like giving up would be the right thing to do. I hadn’t been prepared for this, I wasn’t a trained Special Education teacher, and there was no one who could give me the support I needed. But going into school every day and seeing Matilda and Jennifer and Natasha and Eric, I knew I couldn’t. With no one to tell me what to do, I had to find out myself.
I had to research how to work with students like Matilda and figure out how to find extra time with her and others during and after school. We tried different learning strategies until we found ones that worked for her. I taught her aunt, who raised her, how to use those strategies at home. I called and visited kids every week. We practiced how to “be cool,” and how to blow their noses, and how to make friends with other kids. By the end of 8th grade, Matilda had started learning Algebra and reading at a 5th grade level.
The college graduation rate in Native American communities is about 5%, and 40% of my students enrolled in tertiary education after high school. Matilda was one of them. In May 2011, I traveled back to New Mexico to attend the high school graduation of the students I taught in seventh grade. It was one of the proudest days of my life. And one of the most heart-breaking. For every student I taught who walked across the stage, I could count almost 2 more who didn’t.
I’m proud of students like Matilda who refused to give up against all odds and they are the ones who keep me inspired by the work we do. But it’s the students who I’ve lost track of, the ones who haven’t walked across any stage--the students of mine--Elroy, Derrick, Shiloh-- who, if I’m honest with myself, are most likely in jail, on drugs or homeless right now. They are the reason why I refuse to give up in this fight for educational equity.
In May 2011, I joined Teach For China. I had never considered working overseas, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work in a new organization empowering under-served communities through education. But what started as a really amazing professional opportunity has now become an even more personal mission. For the first time in my life, I realize that I am the product of a student who, statistically like the students I taught myself in New Mexico, should not be where he is right now.
My father, like my own students, was told by everyone to give up every step along the way. He was one of nine children in post-war Taiwan and, like many others out there, didn’t pass his high school exams 50 years ago. By all means, he should have found manual labor jobs like his siblings. But refusing to give up, he asked everyone when upcoming exams for other schools would be coming up and studied hard. Finally, he got into vocational school to become at teacher. He taught first and second grade for a couple years. Afterwards, he joined the military and then made his way into college.
He was the first in his family to graduate middle and high school, let alone college. Later, he had the audacity to get on a plane to go to the United States for graduate school in Kansas City. He couldn’t speak English, had no money and couldn’t even use a pay phone. But much like my students, he persevered. He took every other semester off to wait tables in Chinatown to make enough money. It took him years, but by the time he was almost 40, he had a job he was proud of, and was able to start having a family.
When I began as a teacher, my dad would call to listen to me cry on the phone and then tell me to never give up on my students who deserved far more than they could ever imagine. But what I didn’t really understand until I joined Teach For China and met the students and families whom we serve, is just what it must have taken personally for my father to have refused to give up even when everyone told him he should--just like my students had to do.
I’m part of Teach For China, Teach For America and teach-for-anyone-out-there-who-deserves-it not only because I want our students to dream boldly like my father and my own students. I’m part of Teach For China and Teach For America because I want our students to know it is never too late. I am up here today to say that there will be countless failures and people all along the way who will encourage you and your students to give up or to dream smaller. But don’t give up. And know that it is never too late to take a stand.
Photo by Jessica Shyu with the wonderful Yazzie family which adopted me back in 2005
The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.