In his first year as a teacher in Arizona, University of Washington PhD student Lin Wu struggled to make genuine connections with his Mexican American students.
As a first-generation immigrant from China, Wu had personally experienced the challenges that accompany being accepted by U.S. mainstream culture. Unaware of the historical struggles that Chinese immigrants faced in the U.S., Wu found that he had suddenly become the “other.” It was this othering experience that initially prevented Wu from seeing beyond his own struggles.
When he opened up about his experience going through a change in his immigration status and being marginalized by white privilege, however, Wu found that his students responded by becoming more willing to embrace him. As they shared with him their individual and communal challenges in U.S. society, Wu started to see connections between his own experiences and those of his students.
“When they shared their personal stories with me, I started to connect the dots between my own struggles and my students’ struggles. Once I connected those dots, I was able to build a better relationship with them. Gradually, my students and their community accepted me as someone they could trust and I found a sense of belonging in their acceptance.”
A Teacher’s Belief
While growing up in Northeast China, Wu always had teachers who established genuine relationships with him and believed in his potential. Before English was being taught as a mandatory subject in elementary schools across mainland China, Wu’s parents made the decision to hire an English tutor for him.
“My first English teacher was amazing. One of the best things that she ever did for me was that she believed in me and my ability to learn a different language: to speak it, hear it, read it, and write in it fluently. She instilled confidence in me.”
That confidence propelled Wu into the field of education. After coming to the U.S. in 2006, Wu earned his master’s in English and took a position as a Chinese and English teacher. Over the next seven years, Wu took on various administrative roles at his school and eventually became the principal.
“After being a teacher, administrator and principal, I could see that it takes a whole village to provide all students with a quality education. I recognize that teachers play an important role in our students’ lives. However, I also think that it takes principals and administrators to be in a supportive and collaborative relationship and to work with each other, so that we don’t place all the burdens on teachers.”
Advancing Culturally Responsive Education
While Wu valued the sense of community he had developed with his students and their community in Arizona, the opportunity to pursue a doctorate in the UW College of Education’s Multicultural Education program called to him.
“The program’s goals spoke to me as a professional educator and aligned with my vision of what equitable education looks like,” Wu said. “The UW has Professor James A. Banks and Professor Geneva Gay, two leaders in the field of multicultural education. I knew I had to come here.”
As Wu explored Gay’s work on culturally responsive teaching and how to apply her theories to his experiences as an educator in Arizona, he began to notice a recurring issue. He found that studies on equity and multicultural education tended to slip into a black and white binary, with insufficient attention paid to teachers and students of other ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Specifically, Wu discovered that the experiences of Asian American teachers had not been researched or included within the literature.
“There are stories about Black teachers being culturally relevant to Black students, there are stories about White teachers being culturally responsive to Black students, and there are stories about Latino teachers being culturally relevant to Latino students, but there are not a lot on Asian American teachers. I kept wondering why our stories have not been told and who should be the ones to tell our stories.”
Wu’s ongoing research focuses on Chinese American teachers who work with Mexican American students and how the complex histories of Chinese and Mexican peoples, especially along U.S.- Mexico border, shape the relationships between teachers and their students.
Last year, Wu conducted a pilot study which included two Chinese American teachers and four Mexican American students. This April, he presented his findings at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting.
In the future, Wu intends to provide scholars and educators with a more nuanced understanding of the contributions that Asian American teachers make in the field of education. Wu has found that there are many examples of Asian American teachers doing excellent work with marginalized students in their classrooms and he believes that their stories should be heard.
“I do recognize that the term ‘Asian American’ can be problematic, but I also think it would be great for Asian American teachers to read research that taps into our diverse yet unique experiences. That’s the impact I hope to make in education: to bring a more nuanced perspective of what it means to be an Asian American teacher working with ethnically diverse students. And I think it’s time for us to tell our own stories.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications