Isolated and Overburdened, Asian American Educators Struggle

Voices | Diversity and Equity

Isolated and Overburdened, Asian American Educators Struggle

By T.K. Lê     Jan 16, 2023

Isolated and Overburdened, Asian American Educators Struggle
A rally against violence in San Francisco on March 26, 2021.

On April 15, 2020, high school teachers in the Newton Public Schools district near Boston were doing what K-12 teachers were doing across the country: They were teaching on Zoom. Moving classes online was a quick pivot with few standardized privacy protections. For one teacher of AP Chinese Language and Culture, that morning changed from confusing to horrifying when a group of white supremacists infiltrated the virtual class, inundating the students and teachers with racist slurs, mocking noises and violent screen images.

While the principal and superintendent made public statements, the Asian American students in the class were dissatisfied with the response. Instead, distressed students went to teachers who made them feel safe. Frustrated by the administration’s inaction on anti-Asian incidents like this one, Asian American teachers in the school where the digital attack occurred strategized ways to support and empower their Asian American students. This year, they will celebrate their third “AAPI Awareness Day,” featuring panels, conversations and performances from both students and outside speakers in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

Throughout the pandemic, EdSurge has continued its Voices of Change project, reporting on K-12 teachers and administrators guiding their students through the uncertainty of school closures and the trauma of mass death from the rapid spread of COVID-19. EdSurge Research has spent the last year gathering stories from Asian American K-12 educators working during a time when violence against Asian Americans is at an all-time high. Participants from across the U.S. and from various positions in the K-12 education sector gathered in structured small group discussions to connect, share their stories and learn from each other in virtual learning circles.

Many Asian American educators EdSurge Research spoke to initiated Asian American affinity groups, professional development workshops and outreach programs with little or no support from school leaders. They did this out of concern for their students’ well-being, but for many, incidents like the Zoombombing in the Boston-area school dredged up painful childhood memories of the racism they experienced growing up.

According to recent data from Stop AAPI Hate, one in five Asian Americans experienced a hate incident in the first year of the pandemic. From its onset, then-President Donald Trump, eager to distract from the failures of his leadership, glibly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” using racist slurs to blame China for the virus. This stoked existing anti-Asian sentiment throughout the U.S., and Asians and Asian Americans became the scapegoat for lockdown frustrations. Then, in March 2021, Robert Aaron Long, a white man, went to three spas in the Atlanta area and fatally shot eight people, the majority of whom were women of Asian descent. Atlanta police denied race was a factor. By and large, the 80 Asian American K-12 educators we interviewed cited these incidents, and the silence of their colleagues and school leaders, as deeply frustrating and traumatizing for them. For many, it brought up long-repressed experiences with racism.

The teachers we spoke to recounted in detail all they did at their schools in response to anti-Asian hate. Many we spoke to had to learn, on their own time, how to address racism for themselves, their students, their colleagues and their administration. They had to take on the emotional labor of explaining how microaggressions, insensitive comments and non-responses were racist. They had to decide whether it was worth the risk to their jobs and their mental energy to talk about racism in the news, to call out interpersonal racism or to suppress their emotions for the sake of everyone else. Finally, many teachers took on programming, curriculum development and professional development by themselves. This was an additional tax to their mental health.

Feeling Isolated

The day after the Atlanta spa shootings, Leah Werther, a high school teacher and diversity, equity and inclusion coach in New York, drove to school and sat in the parking lot, crying. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have anyone that I could talk to in my entire school,’” she told EdSurge Research. Werther is one of the few educators of color in her district.

Many educators stated they were either the only one or one of a few Asian American educators or educators of color in their schools. More than one of these teachers described how they thus became a safe person to whom Asian American students could disclose incidents of bullying and racism. One high school English teacher in Boston recounted his Asian American students telling him that their peers were using racist slurs against them, that they had previously raised concerns with administration, and that there had been no action taken. He and another Asian American teacher supported the students, walking with them to the dean’s office to address the issue directly.

Stephanie Chiu, an ESL teacher in New York, looked to a Facebook group for educators and staff in the district on the day of the Atlanta shooting. She scrolled through posts, looking for someone to talk about what happened. “No one posted anything,” she recalled. She was hoping for an expression of sympathy for Asian students or links to resources for how to hold a conversation about the event. “No one said anything until I posted something,” she added.

Bearing the Burden

Several educators who received funding for outreach and programs aren’t sure what’s going to happen after the money runs out. Some schools have made no efforts to institutionalize any of these special programs, even though students are vocal about their support.

And while some schools implemented cultural celebrations like Lunar New Year and Diwali, some educators told EdSurge Research that they wanted to engage with racism more explicitly. Those at schools without a diverse educator population or institutional support for deeper conversations took extra time to create curricula and other classroom materials on their own. For example, a second-grade reading teacher in New York, dismayed at the lack of diverse books on her classroom reading list, and her administration’s slow response to make updates, wrote and published her own level-appropriate book that affirmed Asian American students’ culture.

For some, efforts were met with hostility. A high school literature teacher in Pennsylvania supplemented a textbook lesson on the Declaration of Independence with the 1619 Project in order to address the harm of slavery and note the contributions of Black people to the foundation of the U.S. He was surprised with an audit from upper administration, a tacit warning that they disapproved of his efforts. A high school language arts teacher in New Jersey, knowing her supervisor would block her, went directly to her principal to implement an AAPI history month celebration. A history teacher in suburban California witnessed colleagues being stripped of assignments and leadership roles as retaliation “when people in power don’t like what you’re doing.”

Lacking support, educators felt exhausted at the amount of work it took to navigate their institutions and execute successful lessons. “We need time. We need capacity,” a high school teacher in California said. “A lot of us do make an effort in our own time because it’s important to us.” She noted that being one of a few people who values talking about race, and doing anti-racist work, makes it difficult to create meaningful, long-term change.

The Costs of Putting ‘Students First’

At the same time Asian American K-12 educators were processing their grief and fear over COVID-19 and anti-Asian attacks, they were tasked with supporting their students. Several Asian American educators work with diverse populations, which includes Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students—many of whom were directly affected by racial disparities in the pandemic response and continued state violence against their communities. These educators took care of their students and ensured they met their goals while also trying to maintain their own mental health.

The expectation from institutions that education workers continue “business as usual” in order to “put students first” forces individuals to ignore or minimize their own needs and concerns. “We try and care for ourselves so we can care for our students who don’t feel seen,” one high school English teacher said. She then recounted a time when she demanded that she herself be seen by school leadership. There was a department meeting on Zoom the day of the Atlanta spa shootings, and no one mentioned anything about it. She and two other Asian American teachers opened their mics. She asserted that she did this because she needed to be heard, but added that she also needed to show her colleagues how to listen to their Asian American students.

Taking care of our students means taking care of our teachers. Supporting students and dealing with their own pandemic losses has led to teacher trauma at a time when educators are experiencing burnout and leaving the profession altogether in record numbers. There is a mental health crisis in schools, and it’s not just the students who are experiencing the crisis. If true and meaningful change is to happen in our institutions, we must center the people at the front lines—this includes teachers.

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