Fostering belonging

May 21, 2024


Before being appointed Endowed Professor of Teacher Education and Teacher Learning for Justice at the University of Washington College of Education, Dr. Betina Hsieh was on a mission to foster a profound sense of belonging among educators. Indeed, this commitment has been the cornerstone of her career even before her official appointment in January 2024. Her goal is to address the pervasive sense of invisibility and marginalization experienced by both teachers and students.  

In many ways, this effort has always been personal for Hsieh. Shaped by her journey as a second-generation Asian American woman raised by a single mother, Hsieh recalls her mother's decision not to speak their native language. “My mother didn’t speak to me and my brother in her native language because she believed our success hinged upon our ability to speak English. While it was [a decision] made with our best interests at heart, I think about what was lost in that,” Hsieh shares. Realizing the impact of cultural suppression on her sense of self fueled her determination to combat cultural invisibility, particularly within educational settings. “When you're invisible in curriculum, in culture, in teacher education,” she adds, “you’re denied a true sense of belonging.”  

To address this gap, Hsieh's research has highlighted the broader issue of dehumanization in teacher retention and attrition. Stemming from her co-authored book with Dr. Jung Kim, “The Racialized Experiences of Asian American Teachers in the US Applications of Asian Critical Race Theory to Resist Marginalization,” her work presents alarming findings from her national survey study that applies not only to this subset of educators but all educators.  

“One thing we found in our research is even though there were very common experiences among Asian American educators who have been suffering within the system, there is also a commonality in many educators feeling so alone,” notes Hsieh. “When you feel alone, it's easy to be gaslighted,” she adds.  

Among approximately 1,000 teachers and former teachers surveyed, 84% reported experiencing physical or mental health challenges linked to their work.

Centering joy amidst the challenges

Navigating the complexities of education today requires a concerted effort to support teachers amidst numerous challenges. From inclusive curricula to teacher shortages, the landscape is fraught with obstacles. Highlighted by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction's 2022-2023 Report Card, the underrepresentation of minority teachers relative to the student body illuminates the urgency of diversifying the educator workforce. Accordingly, 85.5 percent of teachers in Washington were reported as white while about 51.5 percent of K-12 students identify as people of color. 

In response, initiatives like the UW College of Education Diversifying the Educator Workforce and partnership programs like the Seattle Teacher Residency, aim to recruit, support, and retain educators of color. These efforts not only intend to combat the teacher shortage but also promote a sense of belonging and improved outcomes for all students by reflecting their diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Deborah Massachi, co-director of the UW ConnectEd Office for Professional and Community Learning, echoes the urgency of supporting BIPOC teachers, aligning with efforts to address systemic challenges in education. “If we want to diversify the teacher workforce, we need to support BIPOC teachers to navigate our current education systems while we all work to rebuild them in justice-oriented ways. We can't keep doing what we've always been doing and expect different results. We have to take a good hard look at why teachers of color are not able to stay in the field and respond by implementing changes to our systems,” she explains.  

Dr. Hsieh with her child, Jojo, at a Bluey show.

Hsieh emphasizes the importance of addressing these challenges from a generosity of spirit. She believes that recognizing teachers as humans underscores the significance of this endeavor. In her work, joy is a central theme, drawing inspiration from her daughter's infectious enthusiasm for life. “My daughter is an amazing teacher. She is almost nine and just so full of life. She prioritizes joy, playing with her friends, and expresses herself fully. She’ll ask me ‘Do you want to do mad libs with me?’ ‘Do you want to look at dogs together?’ She’s been such a gift,” Hsieh shares.

As a professor, Hsieh infuses joy into her practice by modeling humanity in her approach to education. At the 2024 American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting in Philadelphia, she shared an activity co-designed with former colleagues to highlight “dark funds of knowledge,” focusing on hidden cultural home knowledge that students bring into the classroom. She encourages educators and students to draw from their personal experiences and histories, challenging the notion of deficits and embracing cultural care as a fundamental principle.  That can include making every class start with a check-in activity to acknowledge that everyone present is human first.  

“I draw from my life, my racial and linguistic identity. I talk to educators and students about cultural care and share stories about how my mom showed her love through food. I also share how I navigate grief and how personal traumas have helped me be a more empathetic person,” she says.

By sharing stories about her racial and linguistic identity, navigating grief and personal traumas, she fosters empathy and understanding among educators and students.

Charting a path forward

As the Endowed Professor of Teacher Education and Teacher Learning for Justice, Hsieh is at the forefront of transforming teacher education at the UW College of Education.  Central to her vision is the transformation of the Ed.D. in Teacher Education and Teacher Learning for Justice, a program designed to empower future leaders and researchers in reshaping educational systems. Through community partnerships, research, teaching, and community-based design work, the program aims to cultivate justice learning from diverse perspectives. Hsieh is exploring transitioning the current Ed.D. structure to a Doctor of Practice degree, aligning it more closely with theory-informed praxis and innovative educator leadership, particularly in curriculum and instruction.  

Dr. Hsieh presenting her work at the 2024 AERA conference in Philadelphia.

In conjunction with this initiative, Hsieh plans to introduce a “Homecoming/ Back to School” event in the fall. The aim is to foster a strong professional community among the alumni, providing networking opportunities and gathering feedback for program enhancement, ensuring continued responsiveness to educators' needs and promoting justice and equity in education “I’m very excited. I want our educators to know [they] always have a home at the UW,” she shares.  

Through her advocacy for teachers' well-being and her commitment to inclusive justice-centered education, Hsieh is reshaping the landscape of teacher education. Her research offers practical solutions, fostering a compassionate and effective education system, amplifying marginalized voices, and promoting authentic inclusion, laying the foundation for a future where all educators feel valued and empowered to make a difference.

As Hsieh continues her journey as a leading figure in teacher education, her work will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the field, inspiring future generations of educators to prioritize belonging, joy and humanity in their practice.