By Ji Soo Song, AmeriCorps member serving on the ServeDC team at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School

A growing body of evidence suggests that students benefit both emotionally and academically when taught by racially diverse teachers throughout their K-12 education. The effects range from positive attitudes toward schoolwork and school faculty to a higher likelihood of graduating high school and taking a college entrance exam.

However, students are often taught by a homogenous group of teachers. In July 2016, the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary John B. King, Jr., published a study titled “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce,” examining the current racial makeup of American public school teachers. The Department noted that only 18% of the educator workforce are teachers of color. Asian and Pacific Islander (API) teachers are a minority within this minority, representing only 2% of all elementary and secondary public school teachers.

Although their numbers are small, API educators are not invisible. By stepping into their classrooms every day, teachers like Felicia Cheng, who teaches 9th grade statistics in Brooklyn, NY, and Susie Chao, who teaches high school English in Fairfax County, VA, subvert the societal and cultural expectations often placed on APIs. 

During my service year at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Southeast Washington D.C., I have had the opportunity to meet a kindergarten teacher named Ms. Soo Kim. She is another example of someone showing that APIs do have an important role to play in American public education.

In addition to my service at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, I serve as the coordinator for City Year Washington, DC’s API affinity group (a group that brings City Year AmeriCorps members with similar identities, hobbies and interests together to build community.) In November 2017, I was able to chat with Ms. Kim about her experiences as an API educator and ask for any advice she has for young APIs hoping to teach in the future. Below is a paraphrased version of our conversation. She has given me permission to use her name.

How did you first get interested in education and teaching?

Ms. Kim immigrated to the United States from South Korea when she was 13. She studied education at Smith College, but because of her introversion and personal lack of confidence in public speaking, she was not initially interested in a teaching career. However, this outlook changed once she enrolled in a class discussing the state of urban education and educators who are flipping underserved schools. There, she was inspired by the stories of figures like Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, and Shantelle Wright, founder of Achievement Prep, to take on a teaching profession. 

What brought you to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School?

Because of the urban education class, she specifically looked for teaching jobs in Title I schools (schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families), which initially led her to Malcolm X Elementary School, also located in Southeast Washington, DC. She taught first grade at Malcolm X before leaving to teach kindergarten at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Many of the City Year AmeriCorps members in the API affinity group have stories about unique moments of interaction with their students because of their heritage. For example, many of their students have touched and asked about their hair texture. What is one interesting interaction you had with students that resulted from your Korean heritage?

At Malcolm X Elementary School, Ms. Kim was teaching her first graders about U.S. history, which led to a discussion about the physical appearances of Americans. When Ms. Kim asked her students whether she looks like an American, her students immediately answered, “You’re White!” In another instance, when another Asian colleague at Malcolm X briefly stepped into the classroom, her students remarked, “Your sister is here!” From those two interactions, Ms. Kim quickly concluded that her students had not had many interactions with APIs and that she could be the first Asian person her students had witnessed in their community. She brought a White colleague into her classroom and pointed out physical differences between the colleague and herself, but also made sure to emphasize that Americans can take on a variety of appearances.

What is a culture shock moment you had due to differences between your childhood background and the environment of Southeast Washington, DC?

The presence of a strict male figure is a common scene in South Korean households. Ms. Kim quickly realized through her teaching career that this was not the case for some of her students, who she witnessed were lacking in a consistent male figure in their households. Sometimes, when her students told her that their father is in college, it actually meant that the father was in prison. She realized through this experience that some of her students need examples of gentle and self-managing male figures at school that they can look up to daily.

Do you have any advice for young APIs aspiring to work in the field of education?

Ms. Kim wants young APIs to be prepared to go above and beyond during their first few years, especially if they are trying to teach in a Title I school. APIs are not a common sight in this environment and the general assumption is that APIs do not know the full extent of what Black and Brown students’ experience. At the beginning of her career, one of her superiors asked if she even knew about Southeast DC, a question which is asked of many young teachers coming into the community to teach for the first time. Ms. Kim, however, wants young APIs to not take these questions as personal criticisms, but as inspiration to learn more about the community and to be firm in their purpose in teaching. 

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