By Lucy Yang (she/her) and Natasha Dandiwal (she/her), teachers, North Vancouver and Delta
Over spring break, Natasha and I met to catch up—and discuss facets of our teacher identity. We worked together as secondary English teachers in Delta, connecting immediately as women of the IBPOC community. As our careers progressed, we turned to each other for support and collaboration. Our conversations were wonderfully validating, filled with an ease that was refreshing and welcome. This came from a deep understanding and appreciation of the affordances and challenges of teaching as women of Asian descent. This conversation focused on cultural and professional identities, things we have both had to balance throughout our careers.
Having come to Canada as a child, I have always been aware of the hybridity of my cultural identity as a one-and-a-half generation immigrant, where the rules of the home differed from and often contradicted the rules of public spaces, such as schools. Students like me learned to code switch, linguistically and culturally, based on what was appropriate and expected in particular contexts. Learning these different codes of behaviour was our responsibility, and there was an obligation and pressure to demonstrate cultural competence that aligned with mainstream values and norms, while maintaining the home language and culture.
When I started training as a teacher candidate as a young East Asian woman, the necessity to demonstrate such cultural competence and legitimacy became immediately apparent, to “off-set” prevailing narratives of my race and gender. On the first day at my practicum school, I was mistaken by a staff member as an international student. One of my fellow teacher candidates, a Caucasian man in a suit, was taken to be the new vice-principal.
In terms of cultural identity, I am hyperaware of narratives of the docile East Asian woman. Negotiating and challenging stereotypes of passivity often require the use of external markers of legitimacy and authority as designated by dominant Anglo-Canadian and patriarchal norms. For example, I may speak slowly and loudly, consciously deepening my voice while adhering strictly to the local accent, to assure students and staff that “despite” my ethnicity and associated assumptions, I have a justifiable claim to my position as an English teacher. However, this type of justification is more a reinforcement of established narratives and structures than it is a challenge to the inherently problematic nature of legitimizing one set of norms and values over another. Why should, for example, speaking in higher pitches or with an unfamiliar accent be any less authoritative?
Having recently changed school districts and positions, I find myself on a journey of re-establishment and relegitimization of my teacher identity in new spaces and roles. Working as a teacher teaching on call, my cultural identity, combined with the entry-level associations of teaching on call, compound the need to anticipate and resist assumptions. Moreover, there is often an expectation of a linear and unidirectional movement in teaching: from on-call, temporary, part-time, to eventually full-time permanent work. Any reversal of this order, especially to teaching on call, needs to be explained and justified at the request of administrators and colleagues. In fact, in some school districts in BC, a reversal is not allowed—once a teacher has attained a permanent position, they cannot subsequently choose to work on call, unless they resign and reapply.
I wonder what this suggests about how we view and value different teaching roles and identities, and to what extent this unidirectional movement in the teaching career reflects the kind of work ethic and culture epitomized in the past. Perhaps it would be beneficial to rethink this structure to better support today’s teachers and their multifaceted professional identities.
My background is in both English and social studies; however, I have noticed a difference in how I and my pedagogical approaches have been perceived in both areas. My ability, knowledge, and experience have not been questioned when teaching social studies. That has not been the case when it comes to teaching English. During our café chat, Lucy and I came to the conclusion that our approaches being questioned could be because two Asian women are teaching English, the language of the colonizer. It is not our ancestral language; our families were forced to learn and adapt to the language, not by choice, but by necessity, in order to survive the complexities of the world. Therefore, having an IBPOC person teach that language is in conflict with the perceptions of colonial society, and this creates an environment where we can be questioned on our pedagogical intent.
Many years ago, I came across a situation where I had difficulty in engaging a group of international students. I approached the school’s international co-ordinator and her response was unexpected: the students told her that they had come to Canada to learn English from a “Canadian,” not an “Indian.”
Recently, I was questioned by parents on why my English pedagogical focus was on diverse texts dealing with IBPOC issues, why I was approaching it through an anti-racism and social justice lens, and if I would be presenting opposing viewpoints. This was after senior students were asked to reflect on their intersectionalities, how they were privileged in society, and asked to question the systemic and institutionalized discrimination that exists. My pedagogical approach was to focus on Indigenous authors and authentic stories, look at the stereotypes that are present in fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and critique Shakespeare’s Othello. I stated that everything was thoroughly checked to ensure that my lessons aligned with Ministry standards and BCTF recommendations. This was emotionally difficult for me, as I was aware that many of my White colleagues were teaching and approaching the subject in a similar manner. We had collaborated together on the lessons, content, and assessment. Yet, my colleagues’ pedagogical approaches were not questioned. Why was it that I had to justify myself? How could I not consider that the colour of my skin played a role?
Experiences like this take a toll on IBPOC bodies. We begin questioning our abilities, questioning whether we have the right to teach the way we do, we begin to overcompensate by going beyond what is expected of us. I have become hyperaware of my surroundings and my interactions with colleagues, students, and parents. I feel as though I have to justify and prove that I am worthy, when my credentials should be enough. While we as a profession have autonomy over our pedagogical approaches, that I as a POC do not have the same level of autonomy as my White peers.
I have been teaching for 18 years across three provinces. I hold a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, a Bachelor of Education in Secondary Education with specialization in social studies and English, and a Master of Education in Equity Studies. In each position I have held over the course of my career, I have directly experienced or witnessed microaggressions and blatant racism from parents, students, and colleagues. This may seem harsh considering there is a concerted effort to incorporate equitable, anti-racism, and social justice principles within education. However, we continue to downplay the prevalence of racism, in all its facets, in our classrooms, in our halls, and in our professional careers. We would like to believe that we are progressive, diverse, and inclusive, but that is not the reality. Many IBPOC educators have to compensate for what we experience, reducing it to a moment that we should ignore, despite the physical and emotional toll that it takes. Many of us believe that we do not have the same privilege to vent frustrations, in fear that our actions will solidify our place within the established stereotypes associated with our race. For me, that is the stereotype of being the aggressive, loud, Brown South Asian woman with an agenda.
Change cannot come to fruition until those within the structures of education are educated on the harms and the normality of the racial experiences of IBPOC teachers. But herein lies the problem: teachers are not mandated to participate in anti-racism training. Unfortunately, those who would gain the most from interacting with, learning about, and reflecting on systemic racism within our educational structures are often absent at workshops and learning opportunities centred on anti-racism. As a result, the changes that many believe have been implemented are left at the surface. So what must we do as educators? How do we ensure the safety and the emotional health of our IBPOC teachers? How do we continue to confront racism without being dismissed as another “loud” or “docile” IBPOC teacher?