Even now, I don’t see many Asian teachers in the public school. I have met a few teachers from India but not any from China or Japan. But when I first started teaching, I believe I was the only Asian in my district. In fact, they didn’t know how to classify me on forms because back then the only choices here in the south was Black or White. Imagine the students when they first appeared in my classes. I usually started off the first week with telling a lot about me and my family’s history. They couldn’t understand why I looked different but I couldn’t even speak Chinese. I am the only one in my family that can’t speak Chinese because the schools discouraged my parents from teaching me to be bilingual when I was young. They felt it would hinder my education.
I have faced prejudice because of people’s ignorance and I feel that with education, this is changing. Early on in my career, I had a student removed from my classroom because the grandfather, who had served in World War II, did not want any Japanese teacher teaching his granddaughter. Unfortunately, he thought all Asians must be from Japan. I didn’t try to discourage the transfer because I don’t think it would have solved anything.
I have also taught in classes where the minority students didn’t see that I was more of a minority than they were. When I had to discipline a student, he complained to an assistant principal that I was just prejudiced against minorities. The assistant principal brought him to my class and made him look at me, asked the student if he could see that I looked “different,” and asked the student to tell him who else in the school looked like me. When the student couldn’t, the assistant principal asked him who was the minority? That ended that discussion for the student and for my class. I was never accused of that again there.
If a teacher belongs to a different culture, I think we need to introduce our students to this culture. It is more meaningful when it comes from the source than if they just read about it. On Chinese New Years, I try to explain different customs and the meanings of the customs. I have also brought in some Chinese food that I eat. When I am open to the discussion, students love to ask questions and learn about my heritage but many have been too embarrassed to ask. I like to talk about how I was brought up with Chinese parents in an American society and the conflicts that I faced growing up. This usually brings up a lively discussion about how people treat each other and what we can do to change this.
My students also did not understand about Jewish beliefs until we read the book The Four Perfect Pebbles by Marion Lazan. There are not many Jewish people where we live so I felt this was another opportunity to bring diversity into the classroom. We read the book and I went to a local synagogue to buy some Jewish games to show the class. The best part of the lesson was when we invited the author to talk to our students. Instead of just having my class in attendance, I invited the entire student body and the community. The author was a wonderful lady who told about how she grew up during the holocaust and how she was at the same concentration camp as Anne Frank. Many of my students were moved and inspired by her message of accepting each other in spite of our racial and cultural differences. I even got a letter from a parent who is Jewish for having this event.
If we invited people of different cultures to our classroom to explain their culture, I think it would help our students accept each other’s differences more easily. We would find out that we actually have a lot more in common than we thought and this would definitely help our students be more successful in preparing for the workplace.
Photo credit: Scrapbook page of Marion and Me by Pat Hensley