Equity & Diversity

How Teachers Can Break Down Stereotypes of Asian American Students

By Ileana Najarro — October 20, 2022 5 min read
Asian male student in classroom with head in hand doing desk work.
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When Chris Montecillo Leider was growing up in southeast Alaska, a high school English/language arts teacher once lamented to her, asking why her friend—a fellow Filipino student—wasn’t more like her. After all, the teacher said, you’re both Filipino.

The two youths shared very different experiences: Montecillo Leider was born in the United States, while her friend was a newly arrived immigrant.

At the time, Montecillo Leider was confused why her teacher would ask that. Now, as an assistant professor in the department of applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, she and her peers discuss how what happened to her reflects how many educators perceive Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, students as monolithic and the impact that has on students’ access to equitable education.

As a growing number of states are implementing or considering requiring Asian American studies curriculum in K-12 schools, researchers including Montecillo Leider and Trish Morita-Mullaney, an associate professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at Purdue University, offer insights into what educators need to be cognizant of when working with AAPI students, including learning more about AAPI histories.

Their takeaways are based on a panel discussion on centering the experiences of AAPI English learners and educators they participated in last month at this year’s WIDA consortium conference.

Acknowledge stereotypes AAPI students experience and the impacts

The model minority stereotype is a construction of Asian Americans as a successful racial/ethnic monolith—often portrayed as exclusively East Asian. It’s a stereotype that overlooks or erases the diversity of experiences within the AAPI community by lumping everyone together under one dominant narrative, said Morita-Mullaney.

“If we were in Fresno, California, and talking about the Southeast Asian community of the Hmong, we’d be having a very different conversation than if we were in Carmel, Indiana, [with] a predominantly Chinese American community. The narratives would be very different,” she said.

The recognition of this diversity by educators and policymakers is essential when it comes to making sure students’ needs are met.

When AAPI academic performance is aggregated, for instance, it can look pretty good, relatively speaking, Morita-Mullaney said. But when disaggregated into distinct groups within the AAPI designation, differences emerge.

“There are populations that are being underserved, because there’s an assumption that they’re high achieving and so doing that disaggregation is super important,” she said.

Part of what contributes to erasure of AAPI diversity is a lack of curriculum covering AAPI histories across the nation. California schools have for years engaged more with AAPI history in part because, for cultural, historic, and economic reasons, many AAPI immigrants entered through the state over the years. Recognizing this, AAPI researchers back in the 1990s began a network called East of California to shed light on the importance of representing AAPI history in all states at the pre-K-12 and higher education levels, Morita-Mullaney said.

Montecillo Leider, in Boston, hopes that more teacher-preparation programs bring attention to the diversity of the AAPI diaspora and its nuanced history to better prepare teachers working with this growing student population.

Recognize the intersectional, complex identities of AAPI students

Yet another form of erasure AAPI students experience in K-12 schools concerns English-learner programs.

Much research in this field, Montecillo Leider has found, tends to focus on Spanish-speaking multilingual learners. That may be due in part to Hispanic students constituting the largest racial/ethnic group identified as English learners in public schools—about 77 percent, according to the latest federal data. Asian students were the next largest racial/ethnic group, accounting for 10 percent of the EL population.

This emphasis on Hispanic English learners can end up further lumping all Asian ELs together. And, because of the model minority stereotype that Asians perform well academically, their language learning needs can go ignored or erased, Morita-Mullaney said.

“When race imposes on language within the AAPI community, the race takes over so that the identity category gets positioned and amplified more deeply than does the language learning piece,” she said.

Center the voices of AAPI students and families in decisionmaking

Breaking down stereotypes and the efforts of erasure requires at times a level of discomfort.

Morita-Mullaney calls for educators to engage in critical listening, in which they listen to what students and parents share about their experiences without rushing to form a strategy or find an immediate solution.

“As teachers, and as administrators we have been taught to be certain about everything,” she said. “And so you are in a paradigm of certainty, then you’re going to get technical and pragmatic and create a solution.”

By contrast, she said, “critical listening doesn’t have an endpoint. It’s not solution-oriented. It is more, ‘I have to disrupt myself and I have to commit to that.’”

“People just need to wrestle more with their discomfort,” Morita-Mullaney said.

In their work, educators must also engage AAPI students and families. But they must do so without overburdening them to teach others about their culture, their languages, and their needs.

Morita-Mullaney recommends educators localize their own research into the AAPI communities they serve and work with community centers, local churches, universities, historical societies, and others who have insights into a given population. That helps provide a starting point.

Guides, like one put together by the CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals on the languages spoken in New York state, can help too, said Montecillo Leider.

With more information, educators then should ask families and communities directly what their goals are in education and what support they think their students might need.

Growing up, Montecillo Leider couldn’t recall a time when her school district asked her Filipino community whether they wanted a bilingual program and what they could do to better support the influx of newcomers from the Philippines.

“We had a large presence, but we were never positioned as a community who may have had particular needs or interests in expanding on our heritage languages, for instance, or learning more about our own histories in school,” she said.

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