On Education, Part 2

Thoughts

Seven years ago, when the Penn Class of 2012 learned that Geoffrey Canada would be our graduation speaker, I had the same reaction as many of my classmates: “Who?” At that time, I had never heard of Waiting for Superman and was frankly pretty uneducated on social causes; instead, I was gearing up to start my first post-college job in financial services. Despite my initial disappointment at not having someone more ‘famous’ as a grad speaker (I know, first world problems), I remember feeling inspired that spring as I watched Canada stand on stage in his cap and gown, speaking passionately about his work with children in Harlem. There are certain fields of work that touch the soul, even for those who aren’t well-acquainted with them, and education is one of them.

Last week, I watched Geoffrey Canada walk on stage once again as he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at ASU GSV X. Admittedly, I still don’t know a ton about his undoubtedly impressive accomplishments – but this time around, I knew a lot more about the field of education than I did seven years ago. As he spoke of educators who believed in him as a student and students who trusted him a generation later, I paused and took a moment – just grateful to find myself in the education sector.

For me, the conference hadn’t started off on a particularly positively note: my first conference activity was a school tour to  a charter school in San Diego. The school itself was incredible: I met 2nd graders who had reflected on their own needs using Maslow’s Hierarchy; I listened to 6th graders explain their agendas for upcoming Student Led Conferences with their teachers and parents.

Unfortunately, the school was also facing the prospects of being shut down. “I have to be the bearer of bad news,” the principal shared with our group as soon as we sat down: the school was currently slated to close in June of this year. Despite this, we were there for a school tour, and so after an initial introduction about the school’s philosophy and curricula, we dispersed to explore the campus and visit with students.

What I didn’t expect – and, as we know, this is a common theme with adults – was that the students knew much more than I thought they did. I sat down to talk to a pair of 4th grade girls sitting by the playground. “Are you going to help us keep our school open?” she asked bluntly.

“I’m not sure,” I responded regretfully, “but it sounds like you like school here. What do you like about it?”

“This school helped me so much socially! I met my best friend here,” she giggled, and pointed to her friend. I sat with them for another ten minutes, listening to them chatter about everything from wanting the newest iPhone to guessing what new school they’d end up attending the next year.

As I continued to visit classrooms in the school, other students, spotting new adults in the classroom, kept asking us: “Can you help us keep our school open?” Later, a teacher shared about how several of her students had even watched the close decision being made in Sacramento on their televisions at home. “They came in crying the next day,” she said, shaking her head, “It was heartbreaking.”

There’s always so much happening at conferences, and ASU GSV this year was no exception. Yet between the coffees and receptions and sessions and keynotes, my mind kept wandering back to those students I met on Monday morning: “Can you help keep our school open?” Helpless as that question made me feel, I also knew that more than anything else at the conference, it reminded me of why working in education is such a beautiful endeavor.

As I looked around me at the handshakes sealing partnerships and hugs reaffirming relationships, I saw trust being formed between conference attendees. And outside the walls of the conference, there are students all over the world who in turn trust adults to help them experience to the best possible educational journey. Adults like their teachers, who work tirelessly day in and day out despite being underpaid and overworked. Adults like me, who trusted the system when I was a kid and was lucky that the system worked in my favor. Adults like Geoffrey Canada, who took that trust and took it as far as he could, and then some, whose students – now older than he thought possible – still stop to thank him on the street.

It is that trust that I take away from ASUGSV 2019. I feel deeply aware that it is an honor and a privilege to even be allowed in this field of work. Education, like any other field, is not perfect – and yet despite the mistakes that we adults make, these students continue to trust us. In roles like my current one, where we’re several steps removed from students in the classroom, it is imperative to be even more vigilant about the implications of our actions: I do not take this trust lightly, and want to make damn sure that whatever decisions I make do not breach it.  I’m not sure how long how long I’ll work in education, but I do know that in this moment, I’m very thankful for this precious, innocent, undeserved trust from our students to us imperfect, well-intended, still-learning adults.

On Confidence

Thoughts

Preface: This summer, I’ve been participating in Education Pioneers workshops as a Visiting Fellow. We were asked to share our leadership stories with our teams, so I cleaned mine up a bit and am sharing in this blog post. 

The very first time I remember feeling confident was as an emcee. I’d planned the entire program, from the exciting opening speech to the closing cake-cutting ceremony. My “captivated” audience – which consisted of my parents and my sister – laughed and clapped and participated at all the appropriate moments, filling my six-year-old self with pride at my success. My confidence extended to the classroom, where I won a sky-blue ribbon as the 1st grade calligraphy champion. I remember dashing along the streets near my home in Yokohama, excitedly showing the neighbors my proudest accomplishment to date. Then, my world changed.

For the next three years, my confidence waned as I struggled to learn English first in Canada, then in the United States. I failed to understand the directions for my ESL homework. I asked my 3rd grade teacher what “f***” meant in front of the class, who found it hysterical (I thought it was a bird, because it rhymed with duck). It wasn’t until I wrote an essay about flamingoes that things started to change.

My 5th grade teacher was the one who gave us the assignment to write an expository essay. When I received my flamingo paper back to see a “105% A+” on it, I was ecstatic. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I’d done something not only right but well – and in an English writing assignment at that. In fact, that entire year, my teacher made me feel like I could do anything; that I was smart; that I was skilled: a seed was planted because he had confidence in me. For that, to Mr. Gowler (who has since passed away), I will be forever grateful.

As I continued on through junior high and high school, I continued to receive external validation. I was now on the accelerated learning paths, which showed that my teachers thought I was smart (or at least good at testing).  I held leadership positions in different school clubs, which showed that my coaches thought I was somehow leadership-worthy. I was even voted Homecoming Queen my senior year (the ultimate “validation” for my 17-year-old self), which showed that my schoolmates thought I was kind of cool (let’s just assume that they counted the votes correctly).

By the time I graduated high school, I knew that I had a strong community that had confidence in me. I joke about high school being my glory days, and I hope that I didn’t peak in high school. However, it’s worth noting that those years will be the only time in my life where such a strong support system – my parents, my friends, my teachers, and other peers – were there for me daily in such close proximity (literally in a one-mile radius, because that’s how close I lived to school).

But talk about a big fish in a small pond: everything changed when I got to college. On the first day, freshmen were gathered in an auditorium and asked to raise our hands if we had been valedictorians at our high schools. Uncomfortable laughter bubbled through the room as we looked at one-another and realized that over half the audience had hands raised. And so at college, I found myself a mere B-average student; I got rejected from club tryouts and didn’t even bother running for leadership positions. Many other kids had that “it factor” that I once thought I had; seeing theirs only caused me to doubt myself. Moreover, there was the added social factor: what group did I fit in with, and who was my core community? I continued to sift through these questions as I graduated and moved to New York; in my two years there, I found that the city only made me feel smaller.

I appreciate how those years humbled me, serving to socialize me with the ‘real world,’ so to speak. But I can’t say I was too bummed to move past them when I found myself in Shanghai and having the absolute time of my life. I won’t get into it too much since I’ve already written about it, but that year in China helped me rediscover the essence of me – and be proud of it. I was in totally my element for many different reasons: culturally, socially, professionally, I felt so confident. And looking back, it was my time in Asia that helped me to put together the final piece of the confidence puzzle: in order for it to be complete, I had to believe in myself. I had to have confidence in me. 

My 5th grade teacher first gave me confidence, and my community helped to confirm it. But similar to motivation, confidence isn’t sustainable unless it comes from within. Luckily, I was given the incredible opportunity to be in a place that encouraged me to be the best me that I could be, which bestowed on me a sense of confidence that was not only deep but also sustainable. I work in education because everyone should have access to the three pieces of this puzzle:

  • Every child should have access to a teacher, a mentor, a someone – just one at the very least – who plants that seed of confidence, who believes in that student more than the student himself.
  • Every child should have access to a community, whether it be comprised of parents, teachers, friends, mentors. And despite the gaps – absent parents, lack of friends – the community will rally together to give a student confidence, stronger together.
  • Every child should have access to opportunities that helps him develop confidence in himself, so that even when the world knocks him down, he believes in himself enough to get right back up again.

In my day-to-day, it’s easy to forget the reason I work where I do as I get bogged down by Powerpoints and spreadsheets. But in taking the time to reflect on my why, I remember my personal North Star: it’s not enough to blab on about how blessed I am because blessings are nothing if not shared with others. I have the confidence now to pursue what I believe matters – to set our students up in systems where they can find their own confidence, so that one day they can pursue what they believe matter.

On Education

Thoughts

I did not cry when Donald Trump won the presidency.

Not because I agree with the insane things he says. Not because I believe that he is a good man (not even close). Not because I had any optimism about his presidency. But because, as irresponsible and as selfish as this is, I simply didn’t feel like whether or not he was president would directly impact my day-to-day life. As an Asian female, I’ve already accepted the racism and sexism around me as a fact of life: it was bound to happen from time to time, but I could deal with it. I’d already dealt with it.

I did cry, though, when these things happened:

  • In 3rd grade, I cried when I heard that my bus driver had been fired, because as an English-Language Learner, I did not understand what “fired” actually meant. Instead, I imagined my kindly bus driver tied to a stake and literally being lit on fire, and the thought of this awful cruelty was too much for my 8-year-old self to bear.
  • In 8th grade, I cried when a classmate threw a book at my head for daring to say that David Beckham was ugly. I cried because it was embarrassing. I also cried because my teacher failed to reprimand the book-thrower, who was one of his favorite students. My faith that I could unequivocally trust all my teachers was broken.
  • In 11th grade, I cried when my coach, whom I deeply respected and admired, yelled at me for skipping swim practice. I knew I’d messed up. I knew I deserved it. I cried because I cared so much about what my coach thought of me, and it devastated me to disappoint him.
  • In my senior year of college, I cried when I nearly failed the last finance course I needed to complete my major. I was terrified because failing meant one of two things: 1) that I’d wasted my previous three years’ worth of financial aid and tuition by failing to get my finance degree, or 2) I’d have to somehow pay for another semester to actually complete that degree.

The above events serve to describe the moments that made me as a person. These were the years – my K-12 years, my college years – these were the years that were formative in my development. These were the teachers and educators – for better or for worse (luckily, mostly for the better) – who have irrevocably impacted me.

These were the times when I prided myself on performing well on state and national assessments, unaware of the difference between growth and proficiency. These were the times when I confided in a compassionate counselor about my fear of school shootings, unaware of the bipartisan debate on guns in society. These were the times when I carefully filled out FAFSA, unaware of how crippling student loans could become in a jobless economy.

I’m aware now of these things, and much more – but I’m thankful I didn’t have to be. I was lucky because the system did not fail me: I trusted my family, my teachers, my schools, to seamlessly guide me through my educational journey, and they did. And so even though I was so unaware, it worked out for me: I just concentrated on being a kid, a student, growing up. Because I trusted the system not to fail me.

I am one of the lucky ones, and that is an awful fact.

The gaffes from the DeVos confirmation hearing make me think twice about what it means to trust the system. Sure, it all turned out fine for me – but every single child, every student, should have the opportunity to go through a system that’s built to maximize the probability of their success. With DeVos’s appointment as the Secretary of Ed, this probability is not being maximized: on the contrary, the system will be built against the only users who matter.

How many more will have to worry about progressing in their education because lawmakers are measuring them by metrics they’re destined to fail? How many more will have to worry about a peer bringing a gun to school because lawmakers are unwilling to make the claim that guns have no place in schools? How many more will think twice before taking out student loans because lawmakers have no idea how to structure a service they’ve never had to use, implement consequences they’ve never had to face?

How many more students – the ones who aren’t so lucky – how many more of them will be negatively impacted in these formative years? Because their needs are being ignored? Because they can’t trust the system not to fail them?

Maybe I should have cried when Donald Trump won the presidency.