By Katharine Webster
Assoc. Prof. Phitsamay Uy
was the first refugee from Laos to receive tenure as a professor of education in the United States. And for years, she was the only one.
Determined to change that, Uy has started a mentoring network for Asian American and Pacific Islander teachers and education
students under a National Education Association grant, with help from three other Asian American educators in Massachusetts.
“One of my goals was not to be the only one and to try to bring as many educators up through the K-12 and higher education ranks as I could,” says Uy, who joined the College of Education
Working with Yan Yii, president of the teacher’s union in Canton; Jean Wu, senior lecturer emerita in Asian American studies at Tufts University; and Katie Li, who teaches humanities to new immigrants at Charlestown High School, Uy received a $35,000 NEA Community Advocacy and Partnership Engagement grant to start the Asian American Educator Mentor Program in fall 2019. The grant was just renewed.
The grants are aimed at supporting teachers of color, who are greatly underrepresented in the nation’s schools – even as the school-age population is becoming more diverse. Nationwide, 79% of teachers are white, but nearly half of K-12 public school students are Black, Hispanic, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American or multiracial, according to the U.S. Census.
Uy says the need to support Asian American and Pacific Islander educators is particularly acute. Although educators are highly respected in most Asian countries, many Asian American families discourage their children from pursuing teaching careers in the United States in favor of higher paying jobs in technology, health care or law, she says.
Only 2% percent of U.S. public school teachers are Asian American, and fewer than 1% are Pacific Islanders, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The mentoring program has gotten off to a strong start, with the number of participants increasing from 15 to 40 this year and expanding to include several veteran teachers in California and Minnesota, since they are now meeting on Zoom, Uy says.
The group meets for three hours on a Saturday every other month for an educational presentation by a community organization or scholar on a particular topic, followed by discussion. Smaller mentoring groups consisting of one education student, one or two early career teachers and one veteran teacher meet during alternate months.
The early career teachers and education students in the mentoring program say that perhaps the greatest benefit is simply meeting other people who understand their experiences – and share their fears, especially with the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sophomore Linda Lak, who emigrated from Cambodia a decade ago, says the group’s support is giving her the confidence she needs to become a teacher. Lak, who graduated from Lowell public schools, entered UMass Lowell as a nursing major.
“I felt like it was the ‘right’ thing to do, but it wasn’t what I truly wanted, so after giving it one year, I switched to education,” Lak says. “Growing up here, I’ve seen a lot of teachers and they inspire me a lot.”
Lak just changed her major again, this time to English
, to strengthen her mastery of her second language. Her goal remains the same: to become an elementary school or bilingual education teacher in her hometown, Lowell, or a similar district, so that she can help other immigrant students.
As a bilingual student herself, she was often afraid to raise her hand and answer questions until she felt more confident in speaking English. Now, in the mentoring group, she’s learning more about her identity as an Asian American and how to confront stereotypes.
“I just feel this sense of belonging and community. That’s really important for me,” she says. “I’m learning more about what it’s like to be a teacher of color, and I think that’s important, because knowing what they have shared, I won’t be surprised when I experience these things in the workplace and will know to speak up for myself.”
Bianca Anonas, a Filipina who teaches U.S. history at Lawrence High School, says that she sometimes feels like her ethnic identity is invisible not only to white students and teachers, but also to her Black and Hispanic students and colleagues. In the mentoring program, she can share concerns and strategies.
“I asked my students how many teachers of color they had, and several of them said, ‘Zero’ – and I was like, ‘Wait a second! Look at me, guys!’” she says. “Sometimes Asians are more associated with whites because of the model minority myth. A lot of people think, ‘Asians – oh, they’re rich,’ or, ‘They’re all in the honors section,’ when Southeast Asians are in the lowest poverty group.”
Anonas says that the presentations by community organizations, readings and discussion topics have helped her gain a better understanding of how the histories of different Asian immigrant groups are connected. And that, she says, is helping her to be a better, more inclusive educator.
“It’s just making sure that I’m not complacent or letting things go, but continuously being able to advocate for students who are Asian, for teachers who are Asian, and pushing for a curriculum that’s more reflective of that diversity,” she says.
Sahaj Rijal, a junior chemistry
major who is in UTeach, an education minor for students majoring in science, engineering or math, says that last year, he asked his mentoring group about how to teach better, especially online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would definitely ask them, ‘How do I not leave out a student who is struggling and still get through my lesson?’” Rijal says.
This year, he feels more comfortable contributing to the discussions, which have revolved around topics that the program participants want to know more about, including how to handle microaggressions.
Rijal, who emigrated from Nepal with his family when he was 10 years old, says the other people in the Asian American Educator Mentor Program understand what it’s like to bridge two cultures, while not feeling fully accepted by either one.
“What I like is that you have this connection to 40 Asian American educators who have gone through similar things that I have, or worse things, and still come out teaching and helping other Asian American teachers and students. Hearing part of their journey is very interesting and inspiring,” he says.
“They’ve created this safe space for Asian American educators to come together and talk about these things and not be judged.”