Reflections on Becoming an Ethnic Studies Educator
In the fall of 2015 the UCLA Teacher Education Program admitted 15 students to an Ethnic Studies Pilot. These students, English/Language Arts and Social Studies candidates, have enrolled in additional or enhanced coursework to prepare them to teach Ethnic Studies in K-12 schools. They were asked to reflect on their first year of learning.
Not so long ago I was asked the question, “Why do you study Ethnic Studies? Doesn’t Ethnic Studies teach students how to hate?” My response to these questions is simple. Ethnic Studies is a way of life, it is love, it is liberation, it is empowerment. Ethnic Studies does not teach students how to HATE, instead Ethnic Studies unveils the blindfold of oppression that marginalized individuals carry. Ethnic Studies awakens our conscious and opens our eyes to see the world critically in order to see how our history has affected our way of living and to ensure that our history isn’t only the past, but is the present and the future. Ethnic Studies gives marginalized individuals the HOPE necessary to continue fighting, to continue liberating, to continue empowering themselves. I study Ethnic Studies because I found my voice and I am not ready to lose it once more. I will not be silenced. I will keep on fighting to share the narratives and history of marginalized individuals.
I decided to join UCLA’s Ethnic Studies Pilot program because I wanted to join a cohort of like-minded individuals, I wanted to have find long-lasting friendships and be part of a family. In the Pilot program, I found individuals who shared similar life/lived experiences and were passionate about Ethnic Studies. I learned different resources from the Ethnic Studies Pilot program, but what has been most challenging was applying what I had learned in my placements. I found that for the most part teachers resisted the idea of embedding Ethnic Studies into our curriculum because it was not “rigorous” enough. To teachers that don’t believe that Ethnic Studies is rigorous enough I say, how is it not? Ethnic Studies engages students and allows them to think critically about their surroundings and thus gives them the opportunity to become agents of change.
My journey towards becoming an Ethnic Studies teacher began eight years ago when I took my first Ethnic Studies class in high school. After initially learning about the history of oppression and colonization of the Filipino/a people, I discovered something within myself that yearned for more. I went on to study Creative Writing and a minor in Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University, the first and only school in the nation to have a College of Ethnic Studies. There I took more classes to explore my identity as a mixed Japanese-Filipina-American, and sought classes in Africana Studies, Asian-American Studies, Raza Studies (now called Latinx Studies), and Muslim-American Studies in order to learn more about the struggles of other communities of color.
My junior year at SFSU, I became involved in an organization called Pin@y Educational Partnerships (PEP), which trained undergraduate and graduate students to teach Filipina/o American History and Ethnic Studies to students in San Francisco’s Excelsior District from kindergarten to college. For four years, I dedicated my life to PEP, teaching high schoolers at Balboa High School. Through PEP, I was able to understand the relationship between theory and practice. It is important to know history and understand how oppression continues to affect us; it is equally as important to take action against oppressive forces in order to transform our situations. With the help of PEP, I realized my path as an Ethnic Studies teacher, and applied to UCLA’s Teacher Education Program with its focus on social justice.
It has been about a year since I received my letter of acceptance from UCLA. I remember calling my mom after getting the news, looking for a place to live, moving from the Bay Area to L.A., attending Orientation, and the various ups and downs that come with the TEP journey. It was not an easy transition. Coming from activist/organizer roots, I experienced a lot of shock entering a research institution. The prestige of studying at UCLA wore off within the first quarter as I was struggling to fit my prior identity into a new space. The transition was rough. In the beginning, when being in the Ethnic Studies cohort merely meant taking two extra classes in the program, I felt stagnant and skeptical. How could two classes my first year in TEP really prepare me to be an Ethnic Studies educator? Without an Ethnic Studies class to observe and, later, student teach in, how was I putting Ethnic Studies theory into practice? These issues propelled me into action. In true Ethnic Studies fashion, I needed to transform my situation in order to fulfill my needs as a pre-service Ethnic Studies teacher and a woman of color.
As committed to social justice as this program is, I still get the underlying feeling that my experiences and growth as a woman of color are marginalized compared to the experiences and needs of white teachers. This has less to do with the intentions of my advisor and instructors and much more to do with the history of teacher education and the initial purpose of this institution. Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds are stellar examples of the white savior teacher ideology this program combats. Especially in urban schools, there is a need for teachers to realize that they are not saving anyone; rather they are exposing students to tools they can use to transform the odds set against them. While this trope definitely still applies to teachers of color who have not checked their privilege and positionality, this is not the only thing we should be focusing on.
The need for Ethnic Studies in a teacher education program, I’ve come to realize, is two-fold. First, Ethnic Studies is a content area that comes with specific knowledge and pedagogy that teachers must learn in order to be successful in the classroom. Second, Ethnic Studies is a way for us to look past our own positionalities, and consider how the intersections of race, class, gender, ability and sexuality manifest as different power structures in the classroom. With the need to address the white savior teacher, TEP fails to acknowledge the intersectionalities that play out for student teachers who identify as much more than white. This is why my Ethnic Studies cohort felt the need to come together and discuss what we still need from this program, and why we approached TEP Director Joann Isken and the TEP faculty to ask that our needs be met. I need a space to unpack and develop my identity now just as much as I needed one eight years ago, in my first Ethnic Studies class. While I recognize my privilege in being a member of the first Ethnic Studies cohort at TEP, I still acknowledge that this program has a long way to go before it establishes a program that will develop and support the Ethnic Studies teachers our young people need. Every move the first Ethnic Studies cohort has made has been to push this dream forth. I sincerely hope I am around to see this dream realized, for my cohort and all future Ethnic Studies cohorts.
Ethnic Studies reframed my understanding of education. Though I valued the college-driven curriculum in my K-12 education, I always felt a sense of detachment from the content I was learning. I never found myself mirrored in the stories. I never learned to think critically about the “standard” knowledge. I never imagined that I could be a source of hope for my community. I only knew that in order to be successful, I had to learn what was presented, even if it meant forgetting my own identity. It wasn’t until my last years as an undergraduate student at UCLA that I discovered Ethnic Studies. I learned about the struggles and accomplishments of Chican@s and about the systems of power that have marginalized and oppressed People of Color. I absorbed such precious knowledge with great excitement, yet also frustration. How could I have gone through so many years of education without Ethnic Studies? Now, as I begin my teaching career, I remind myself daily of how I am implementing Ethnic Studies within my content area of English Language Arts. Through the continuous support of the Ethnic Studies cohort, I have grown into the educator I want to be: one driven to empower and humanize the schooling experiences of both students and myself.
Teaching Ethnic Studies within an English Language Arts classroom has demanded great experimentation and research. The units I’ve developed with my teaching partner have focused on subverting the dominant narratives in literature and challenging students to ask themselves as they analyze various texts critical questions, such as, “Who has power? Why? How do the texts critique or reproduce ideologies of racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of oppression? How does this affect me? What role do I play in challenging these ideologies?” Engaging students in such dialogue has resulted in insightful realizations for both students and myself. I am always stunned by the experiences that students share in class and see that through their sharing, we transform the classroom into a humanizing space. Moreover, it is always exciting to watch students develop the language to critique not only the literature, but also real world issues affecting their lives and communities.
Developing an Ethnic Studies curriculum for an ELA classroom has not been easy. At times, I find myself feeling doubtful about whether I am truly teaching “Ethnic Studies.” The lack of curricular resources has led me to design my own based on what I envision to be Ethnic Studies. I am grateful for having the individuals in the Ethnic Studies cohort as resources and a source of continual support. Their feedback on the curriculum I design has enabled me to feel more confident and prepared. Despite their support, implementing Ethnic Studies in the classroom has been difficult because of the resistance I’ve encountered from mentor teachers. Teachers have commented that my Ethnic Studies lessons are not “rigorous” enough for students and are potentially “dangerous.” I find myself justifying the reasons why Ethnic Studies is important, yet sometimes my pleas are not heard. Nevertheless, such resistance serves as energy that strengthens my commitment to teaching Ethnic Studies in my classroom.
I was interested in joining the Ethnic Studies Pilot Program because of my dedication, commitment, and passion to social justice. I have many memories of learning very racist and sexist ideologies when I was in high school that I accepted as fact until my later college years. During my undergraduate career, I picked up a second major in Gender Studies and became the Editor-in-Chief of UCLA’s feminist newsmagazine. During this time, I immersed myself in the feminist community to decolonize my mind and to unlearn the very patriarchal schooling that I received.
While I am so thankful for the privilege and opportunity to take Gender and Ethnic Studies courses in college, I still feel disheartened that I grew up without this knowledge. I am the first in my family to attend college and a lot of folks do not get the opportunity to seek higher education, which is why it is so problematic that I was not exposed to Gender and Ethnic Studies until I attended a university. It should not be a privilege to learn about your race, gender, sexuality, or ability, it should be a right. This is what inspired me to become a teacher. I believe that education is a means for social change, and that starts with ethnic, gender, and sexuality studies, not just in secondary school, but in primary school as well.
I was very apprehensive about applying to the Ethnic Studies Pilot, because I strongly believed, and still do believe, that it should be teachers of color that are teaching about their own communities. However, while I still recognize and believe in the importance of recognizing my positionality and immense privilege as a white person, I wanted to be a better educator and a better advocate for my students and my community. The Ethnic Studies cohort is a space where I not only feel a deep sense of belonging with other like-minded folks, but a unique place in academia where marginalized voices are not only represented, but are amplified. This community has allowed me to be a better educator, a better activist, and overall a better human being. I hope to create the inclusive, intersectional, and empowering space the Ethnic Studies cohort gave me in my own classroom.