Asian American educators share experiences for AAPI Month webinar

A panel of educators shared their affirming experiences in the field, ways they worked to create inclusive environments and challenges they’ve encountered during a webinar, Learning in community with Asian American educators,” hosted by the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools on May 25 in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The event kicked off with some fast facts courtesy of moderator Betina Hsieh. Hsieh teaches at California State University, Long Beach, is president of the California Council on Teacher Education and a member of the California Coalition for Educator Diversity.

According to Hsieh, Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the U.S. with more than 22.4 million Asian Americans in America representing more than 20 countries, 50 ethnic groups and more than 100 language communities.

Illinois and New Jersey have both recently passed bills that mandate the inclusion of Asian American history in curriculum with similar bills currently being considered in California, Ohio, Florida, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. In 2021, California was the first state to require ethnic studies in high school.

“While 7.2 percent of America’s population is Asian American, and that’s rapidly growing, only 2.1 percent of teachers nationwide are Asian American,” Hsieh shared. “In California we’re doing a little bit better, we have 5.8 percent of California teachers who are Asian American, but we also have a higher population of Asian American students in public schools — 9.3 percent — and we still see a persisting gap.”

Challenging experiences

Panelists included Nichi Avina, a middle school science teacher in Palm Springs Unified School District and 2022 California Teacher of the Year; Victor Tam, a principal in San Francisco USD and founding board member of the California Association of Asian and Pacific Leaders in Education (CAAPLE); Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, assistant professor and faculty coordinator for the South Bay MAT program at University of San Francisco School of Education; and Alexis Turzan, civil rights staff attorney for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

As for what inspired them to become teachers, most panelists responded that they wanted to make a difference in the lives of students.

Sharing challenging moments from their careers, Tam recalled his transition from classroom teacher to principal at a school with a largely white faculty that served mostly Asian American families. After three years “with tension,” Tam was ready to “throw in the towel” and questioned his leadership abilities until his assistant superintendent affirmed his talents and encouraged him to apply for a principal position at a new school, which he did. He was grateful for the guidance and support.

Tam later said that supporting more Asian American educators to reach leadership roles is something worth fighting for.

Nationwide, just 0.9 percent of principals are Asian American, according to statistics brought up by Hsieh.

Agarwal-Rangnath also mentioned the challenges of finding her identity as a teacher as well as people to affirm her.

“I think one challenge for me was like some of the statistics shared, there were no other Asian Americans at my school,” Agarwal-Rangnath said. “There were folks of color, but I had colleagues turn to me and say, ‘you’re not a person of color.’” It was a challenge to find who she was as a teacher, her influence and how she saw herself in her work.

Teacher of the Year Avina recalled hearing other teachers speak badly of students and finding the importance of sparking “courageous” conversations with colleagues.

Turzan talked about fighting expectations and putting students before all else.

Positive experiences

The importance of helping students find themselves and understand who they are and be confident in that at as young an age as possible was reiterated throughout the event.

On changes that can be made to ensure students have positive educational experiences, topics including building relationships and focusing on respect, engaging in honest and open communication, helping students to feel safe and addressing mental health and encouraging students’ curiosity and enthusiasm were mentioned as well as having professional development to help teachers expand their understanding of different cultures.