Thank you Annie for being here. Annie is a special education teacher in New York who has been a prominent voice in the premature opening of schools in her city. Annie is also an activist who cares deeply about sharing the cultural journey that she undertook with growing up in New York’s Chinatown. Annie has told her story and shared her thoughts on a variety of platforms, which include CNN, NBC and PBS, world famous. Now, we’re lucky enough to have her on Novus Navigator. So thank you for being here.
Haha, I don’t know about world famous, but thank you for that kind introduction for sure.
Yeah, definitely. So we’re excited to get to know more about you. And if you could just share a little bit about your background, sort of what you do now and how you came into that, that would be great.
Sure. I started teaching in 2011 and I’ve been a special education teacher basically since that time. I have been studying how teachers organize to get the schools that our students deserve, whether it’s the right funding, the right resources, voices speaking out for justice.
And so I’ve been doing a lot of that work since I was an undergrad and I knew an undergrad that, you know, I think I put in my OkCupid profile back when I had OkCupid that I am going to change the world one day because, you know, as a teacher, like, I knew I wanted to make change on a small scale within a classroom, but I also wanted to do it on a larger scale and affect the education of many students across the nation, if possible, and especially since our public education system today is made up of majority students of color.
Growing up here in Chinatown, where I still had majority white teachers, I felt like it was really important for me as an Asian-American and Chinese American woman to represent in the classroom, but also speak up out loud for the rights of our students, the rights of our teachers and our communities, and really set an example that students could follow and teach teachers and families to follow so that we could say out loud, for example, Black Lives Matter, or we could stand for affordable housing for health care. Yeah, I think it’s been really important, I think as a practice for me to know I have to speak up so that others know that they can do the same.
Got it, I’m curious to know if you were cognizant of some of these things that you mentioned as someone growing up in the school system where you sort of affected by your teachers, not representing accurately the student population, then is this something that you grew up wanting to sort of change? Is that what sort of pushed you into education, would you think?
I think there I grew up with mostly Chinese students like New York City Chinatown. In the 90s and early 2000s, it was ninety six percent Chinese students. So I got to really be myself, there were different ways you could be Chinese, whether, you know, you you wanted to listen to k-pop and j-pop or you wanted to be a Twinkie, yellow on the outside, white on the inside or whatever, you know, whatever iterations you get of being American, especially as a kid of color, I just got to explore what it meant to be Chinese and American at the same time. But then when I left for high school and I took a test to get into a magnet, specialized high school here in New York City, it actually desegregated my schooling where I saw a lot more black and Latinx and white folks.
And I realized there was something wrong with that, that while I loved growing up K through 8 in Chinatown, it was not OK for me to only grow up with Chinese people.
And I think growing up that way, and especially so again with mostly white teachers, because I think my profession is about 80 percent white at this point. Like.
You don’t get the fullness of an education when you’re not being represented, right, and I think through my schooling, like. Like the curriculum that we studied, I only learned about really three events that happened to Asian-Americans, which was the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment and the Vietnam War. And that’s trauma, trauma, trauma, like looking at people of color through a deficit lens. Right.
And oftentimes when you’re looking at people of color in history, that’s kind of how we’re presented. I remember in a creative writing class, I read Zora Neale Hurston. Their eyes were watching God and reading about black joy, but then black trauma at the same time. I was like, there are more stories out there that need to be told all the time. But I don’t know the stories because we’ve been I know a student that say they’ve studied Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird three times in their curriculum, you know, but there are so many BIPAC stories out there and BIPAC people to talk to about what the world looks like. And that’s not to say white teachers can’t. It’s just when the curriculum and the personnel are overwhelmingly white, how much can you grow from there without other people bringing in different viewpoints? So for me, as a teacher, it’s been really important to have other educators of color, especially Asian-American educators, to really talk to about, you know, I’m one of the only ones in my school usually that are Asian-American staff members and or like I’m talking to another teacher who’s newer and really needs support.
But there’s not so many of us in the profession. Just off the top of my head in New York City alone, I can maybe name 10 Asian-American teachers like that are not in my school building or but it’s harder to find us. We represent, I think. Six percent of teachers here in New York City, which is awesome, but 15 percent of our students are Asian-American.
And then across the US, Asian-American teachers only account for two percent of all teachers when we make up six percent nationally of students. So. Yeah, representation matters, but also representing Joy and Liberation Matter and presenting ourselves and presenting BIPAC experiences through a non trauma lens is super important in perspective that’s also decolonized, which I’m still learning like day to day.
Yeah, that’s interesting, I wonder, I think you mentioned that like 80 percent of the teachers where you work are mostly white.
That’s across the nation, by the way.
OK, across the nation
I wonder if this is something that’s like if it’s steadily, you know, more accurately representing the student populations and what you might attribute that to if you think it’s going to slow. Do you have any ideas about how that process could be accelerated, how we could get more representation and sort of the school system and the teachers there?
So there have been pushes to diversify the teaching force. Unfortunately, just like with the SAT, there are standardized tests that are culturally biased. And I’ve definitely taken tests where I saw something about a porch or about a stoop or, you know, like I might know what a stoop is growing up in New York City, but I don’t have any porches. Like, that’s not that’s not a thing. Right. But there, you know, like even now, like, I have questions in the math curriculum that I have to give my students. And then they might be about golf courses. My students don’t watch golf. We don’t know anything about golf.
So for our students to have those questions and then for our teachers have to take exams that are culturally biased like that, that means we have teachers of color who have passed students teaching, who have gotten great remarks, you know, like in past their programs at schools, but then go and take these tests and can’t pass the test for some reason. So that’s one barrier. But you also can’t teach if you don’t get to college. And we’ve just seen the rates of students of color going to college and finishing in the first place, not being as high. So there’s got to be a real push towards that for, you know, not suspending students K through 12. We have a disproportionate amount of students who are black and indigenous getting suspended K through 12, which means they’re probably not going to go to college at the same rate as white students, unfortunately, are. And then finally there, if you’re looking at admissions to elite colleges. Right. We’ll notice that legacy status as well as playing sports, has given students a higher percentage of getting into colleges than affirmative action even allows for in terms of diversity.
So there’s a lot of institutional barriers, but also. Just systematically, we are not treating our students from a trauma and deficit lens that unfortunately makes it so that a lot of gatekeepers keep the doors closed. I was very lucky as an Asian-American to have positive stereotypes on me, people thinking I was really good at math or I was very quiet and studious and obedient. And Annie over there, like she matches the mold as an East Asian Chinese kid.
And so we’re going to elevate her and give her the test prep she needs in order to get to a specialized high school and the S.A.T. test prep so she can get to the S.A.T. so she can get into college.
And then you get to college and you’re like, but life is not about tests. Teaching is not about tests either. So there’s. A lot wrong with our education system that I’ve had to really come to as an educator, like am I going to teach my students how to communicate well and discuss and listen to critique and analyze or am I going to teach them how to do well on a test? Or is it both? And those are all things, as a pedagog, that I really have to think about every day.
And I think everyone who is a student has to think about what profession matches me, what am I willing to do and what am I not willing to do any? Anywhere you go into, including teaching, you’re going to have to think about what you’re willing to compromise and what you’re not. And unfortunately, we have a system that gatekeepers a lot and where we’re pressured to keep the system the same, even if it’s unfair or unjust.
And that’s why I’m an activist today, that, you know, a lot of my special education students are disproportionately students of color who are referred as a student with special needs students with disabilities, when sometimes those students needed support at a certain age, they needed someone to listen to them. They were acting out because there might have been a family situation that was overlooked or there’s a student in class who was bullying them or they didn’t have the resources to get what they needed because we don’t have a society, as we have learned during this pandemic, that actually supports communities collectively and makes us all very individualistic and looking after only ourselves instead of looking after the collective.
So, I’ll just say this last point before you ask me the next question, because I know I’ve been talking a lot, but that. The reason why our education system is not serving students of color is the way they’re needed is because we are segregated. And segregation has the largest impact on S.A.T. scores, on just ability to have housing or on income. And we know that there is a higher correlation between income and SAT scores than anything else, really. So what are we going to do about it?
So I wonder, since, you know, I guess white teachers are still representing the huge majority of teachers in our school system, and I know I think you at Chicago Public Schools for a little bit, you can argue about why you left Chicago for New York another time in Chicago here.
But I love Chicago by the way, I was the former co-chair of the special committee of the Chicago Teachers Union. I have very many friends, many hundreds and hundreds of colleagues all throughout Chicago Public Schools. I miss you all dearly. I love Chicago. I just wanted to be home in New York where I’m from and be closer to family. Otherwise, I think I could have stayed there forever.
Yeah, deep dish kind of beats thin crust pizza, though, right? Haha
It’s a casserole. Now that was like a beautiful, awkward laugh right there.
Haha, yeah. Yeah, no, let’s get back to the actual if we’ve got these teachers that are not representing the actual student population, what would you say to those teachers and what would you say to the administrators that actually lead their schools? How could they better connect with their students if they’re not representing them culturally?
I mean, I, I teach students that are not me, too. It’s not like I’m teaching all Chinese or Asian American students myself.
But the main thing is to learn your students’ cultures and human lives and get to know them. Like 80 to 90 percent of my job is still on my relationship with students. Have you ever had a teacher you hated and learned from them?
Did you learn from that teacher?
A little bit hard to
Right, and so when you stand there like a teacher actually really sees you and where you came from and are interested in what you eat and like what your family celebrates and what’s important to you. You’re probably going to learn a little bit better from that person because they know and care to know a little bit about you and your cultural background and what’s important to you. Right.
And. I think that just goes for all teachers like I think.
As long as we adopt this mindset that we don’t know everything that we know, according to Paolo Fairbreeze, models of thinking, like we’re not just banking information into students’ brains and then expecting them to be empty receptacles for our like putting in information like if we treat students like, they bring in valuable life skills and experiences and information that should be brought to the classroom.
Then that would totally, radically shift all classrooms because I, I feel like so many teachers. Feel like they’re and this is just what the teaching profession is like, that we’re saviors, right? And there’s the savior model of education that like if I just teach this kid how to read, if I just impart my knowledge, then this kid will be OK in life.
Right. But that’s not OK. That implies that I’m better than the students that implies my culture is better than the students. And that implies that the student has no value that they bring into the classroom and no student wants a teacher that’s like that, like that’s not OK in any regard. So. You know, as I just said, like, I don’t represent all experiences, I represent my own experience, but I can learn from other people’s. I can also seek diverse books and diverse writers and diverse voices and especially what remote learning right now and digital learning and virtual tours of places like there are so many resources out there for us to, like, widen our scope.
And it’s up to us to learn that outside of the school setting because we can’t teach what we don’t know. And I think, for example, like about the Black Lives Matter movement and what happened with George Floyd. I would not have felt prepared to talk about George Floyd with my students. Had I not read up on the Black Lives Matter movement years prior, you know, and listen to concerns and demands for the Black Lives Matter, we would get schools and other things right. And I want to know about water protectors. If I didn’t look up, what happened to Standing Rock and if I wasn’t reading all the time, I would just be stuck teaching what I know and not be able to expand my mind beyond that. And I have to give my students the freedom to explore topics that they’re interested in and trust their research abilities and teach them critical and analytical thinking skills so that my opinion is not the right one.
It is one opinion. And also I don’t bring my politics into the classroom like that. My students don’t know I voted for Biden. Right. I think given that my students are immigrants and kids of immigrants, it was right for me to vote for Biden. But I also, as a teacher, should not bring my own biases into the classroom. I should stand for immigrants and health care rights and housing rights, but Yeah, like there’s ways that teachers should not indoctrinate students in their own opinion, but we should always broaden and we should always let our students have freedoms to discuss and create spaces for our students to be able to discuss in our classrooms. Yeah,
Gotcha, that’s cool.
And I don’t want us to go too over, but I do want to get this last question before I hand it off to Brendan. I wonder how you sort of see the pandemic influence education? How has it influenced your students? How has it influenced your own work and your own health and safety? Maybe we can talk a little bit.
Sure. When school closed in March here in New York City, we were very relieved because honestly, like a lot of us, teachers were joking that like schools serve as babysitting sites or childcare sites and that, you know, they would never close schools. And the reasoning behind and so I’m hearing like sirens in the background. And that’s very concerning. Anyway, a big reason why Mayor de Blasio here in New York City didn’t want to close schools is because he said what will happen to homeless students or what will happen to people needing food?
Right. And then I thought to myself. When the schools become the site for shelter and for food. That just goes to the fact that we’re a very weak country in terms of supporting our people, we are not collectivists, we very much focus on ourselves in our own individual selfish needs. And that’s why almost three hundred thousand people are dead today of coronavirus here in our country because we didn’t prioritize community care at all.
Schools are that place, but should not be the only place.
So in April, we had a small classroom of 12 students and three paraprofessional assistants and myself, and we had 13, 14 deaths from coronavirus during that time. And that was very scary and reminded me that right where remote learning is, because we’re trying to keep each other safe right now. And now today is November 29 and Mayor Bill de Blasio said we’re going to reopen schools after having shut down schools on November 19, saying that, you know, elementary kids, our youngest kids and our special education students may not transmit the virus as much as the older kids.
Even though right now New York State has the highest in terms of the past week, we’ve had the highest increase in infections across all of America. And now people are saying schools have to reopen because businesses and the parents have to go back to school, but it’s again a complete show of, oh, we care more about these businesses and this is Trump’s doing. He did not provide community relief, and that’s why businesses and bars and restaurants have to remain open right now, whereas in Europe, they’re being paid to stay home in lots of places so that they don’t spread the virus. We just don’t have that community care in our society.
It’s been made very clear through schooling and unfortunately, I think teachers have borne the brunt of it, as have a woman who, like I believe is like 80 to 90 percent of people who have left the workforce have been women during the pandemic because they have to raise our kids and parents and families have had to bear the brunt because we refuse to do community care for our communities.
And we rely so much on public services like schools to do that work. And that’s not to say that. All students should even be going remote. It’s just that we need to actually provide the ventilation, the staffing necessary, the funding necessary, the resources in order to make in-person learning safe. But those have not been put in place across America. And we’re seeing here in New York City, like there is almost five percent infection rates of kids, zero three, four years old. And that’s very concerning and we should all be concerned about children getting this because we see these long haulers who have symptoms months from getting coronavirus the first time.
Who knows what this will do to children? I can teach remotely at home, but I can’t teach if people have passed. That’s just just just the truth. And it’s very concerning that we are. Putting their interests over others right now.
Yeah, absolutely, I hope that you’re able to stay safe in the coming weeks and I hope that the mayor hears those concerns before we end here, I do want to pass it to Brendan to ask some of the questions that we got from students of Brendan.
Hi Annie, so these are just a couple of questions that students have been asking us and we would love to ask you as well. So the first question is, what do you expect from students during the pandemic? How can they be their best?
So that requires teachers to create the best learning environment and that is that means we build relationships together.
And, you know, I start off like a lot of days, like just putting on, like, poles over zoom, like, would you rather eat a worm or eat a cockroach?
Like, those are just some things like my students have brought up, you know, I teach fifth grade so different based on the population, but like having fun and actually building relationships, I think, as I said earlier, is a prerequisite to good learning.
Teachers have to check in with students, but also teach like I know some teachers who have case loads of like two hundred students. You know, because of just the way remote learning and balance here in New York City. In terms of students finding time outside of screen time to relax, I think we’re all on our screens so much that we lose sight of things that we can do outside of screen time, whether it’s taking a walk around the house. My dad, when he was disabled and like he was home ridden like so he couldn’t leave the house.
He would just run back and forth between the living room, the kitchen, just to get some exercise. But there’s, you know, finding things to do like that. Take time away from screens. I know I get zoom fatigue and the research shows that, you know, kids who have their cameras on all the time actually struggle because they are just waiting for a response and are hyper aware of how they look on screen.
But if students actually have their cameras off, sometimes it actually helps them relax and focus on the listening, or sometimes even with asynchronous learning, meaning like they’re given tasks to do by themselves and doing them independently, it takes a lot of pressure off. So there are some students who are actually thriving during this time period because they don’t do well under teacher supervision for whatever reason.
There are a lot of students, unfortunately, though, that don’t have Wi-Fi or don’t have the devices needed to really do in person learning well or sorry, remote learning well. So I really encourage schools to check in on students, whether they have the Wi-Fi in the devices. I know here in New York City public schools there’s I think seventy thousand students who still don’t have devices, unfortunately, and that’s not OK. But I find for myself that if there is any place in the house where you might be able to pull off a table might be quiet. I know a lot of my students have like cousins or grandparents in the house all the time and it gets very loud.
And they’re all trying to do remote learning all the time, asking your school if they can provide headphones. Finding a bedroom that no one is using is really important. So, you know, we’re just all of us are just trying to do our best. Right now, I’m remembering that I think there was someone saying that us staying home and us not seeing our relatives and not seeing other people is the ultimate act of love right now and reminding ourselves not of what we’ve lost, but what what we’re gaining and what we are fighting for and fighting for a vision rather than all the things we miss right now.
It’s actually great that you bring that up because kind of ties into our next question. So what advice do you have for students who are struggling to adapt to online learning? I know you mentioned a lot about making sure your environment is adaptable, you can talk a little bit more clear and have your camera on. Do you have any other advice for students?
Check in with your guidance counselors, your school counselors, the school social worker. That’s what they’re there for you to try to help make your remote learning situation in your home situation better.
You know, sometimes, like I remember during this pandemic, like the past year, like we were providing counseling services to parents who really needed it. There were some parents who needed food and we were able to refer them to different organizations that provided food within the community, that of mutual aid being one.
And, you know, I think this pandemic has really taught me to advocate for my own needs. That’s something I as a kid of immigrants, I’m terrible at saying out loud what I need and trying to see if it’s possible to make it work or at least even just saying it out loud and not be able to get out at this moment might just be like a major relief off your shoulders because you’re just like.
Right. Like I’m struggling because I don’t have a notebook like and like just even saying out loud, I don’t have a notebook like, oh, this is like the basic stuff that I need to get through this, but like, you know, and then.
I really this time, you’ve got to, unfortunately, advocate for yourself in a way that.
You never have before because it’s not like a teacher is there to, like, see that you don’t have a notebook or a pencil. I often ask my students to have a notebook in front of you and then I’ll offer to mail paper.
I have mailed papers to my students before and pencils and other things because my students needed it.
Right. It’s hard. It’s really hard right now. And we just have to know this is not forever what we’re doing. This is an act of love and an act of community that we’re in our household right now doing what we need to do. And hopefully you’ve got people in your life to talk to as well. I think the thing’s make me sane as well are my oldest friend, who is also my roommate. I know people may not feel safe to talk to their parents, but they’re there for you, your cousins, your siblings, your friends. Also just see if you can contact your friends. I think for me, like in the very beginning of this pandemic, it was so easy for me to feel so isolated. But I’ve definitely just had calls from friends where we played among us on my phone or we played, I think, Jackbox is a game. There’s like free games like your phone online and then just just conversations and like feeling left alone and isolated. I think so many of us feel very, very isolated right now. There are ways to socially distance and see each other, if that helps. I know taking walks has helped if you’re allowed to take walks where you are. I know there are a lot of hot zones all around America right now where it’s really not safe because there’s so many people with coronavirus. But I know some vitamin D has really helped as well, just fine.
But it’s very hard. I completely get it is very hard for all of us to really cope with all of this.
And just notice within your body how you’re feeling as well, like whether you’re constantly tense and like you haven’t been able to sleep or you haven’t been able to do activities like you normally do, like reading or watching TV and noticing in your body. Like what? Like. Like, where does it feel tense and then like there are things called mindfulness, stress reduction based techniques that you can do to help.
Body scans that you can do to help really help regulate your body again. And also, like I should, like, kind of like these silly exercise videos to my students. We’ll do a little break. There’s one called like eight four two one where you shake your arms and legs eight times and four times and two times and one time that just are a nice movement and breaks and also is a special education teacher. You can make it like a sensory toy for yourself. So like, one thing you could do is you could just fill up a bottle like a water bottle with like water and then you could put some dyes into it, whether it’s like some natural food die or like some glitter. If you happen to have glitter or some glue on there. And then you just you just shake it up and you see the bottle or you just hear it and it also helps textures help. So like I’ve used things like a Velcro brush, like just to rub them, like that helps students with autism as well to have a sensory output and release and yeah, just finding some way to help. I used to have the stress ball that I squeeze often and also just every 20 minutes or so, like looking away from your screen for about 20 seconds helps the fatigue, like, off your eyes. So sometimes I’ll look at this print that I have or I’ll just color or write like with a pen in my notebook. And just staring away from a screen helps your brain regulate and that might actually help you sleep. So does exercise really help you sleep right now in these really hard times.
I know that was a lot of things,
But no that was great, it’s a whole completely different environment and timeline to adjust and adapt to.
Yes. Oh, and another thing I’ve seen this done with my students in person. Just get a bag of cornstarch or flour and then put it inside like a balloon.
You can get like a pack of balloons at 99 cents or 12 of them or something in a box like cornstarch or flour. And then you just stick some flour, cornstarch into the balloon, tie it up, and then it can be like a perfect squishy toy for myself.
Yes, that’s perfect, we do have one final question we can wrap up with, and that is, how do you encourage students of color to have a stronger voice in education and business?
In terms of their education, it’s just being quiet for me, like I just got to shut up and know when to let the kids talk and that’s been really hard over zoom for sure.
But like giving the kids unstructured space to talk as well has been really important so that they know their voices are important.
There are some students who don’t know how to read in my class. So we start with writing their voice and having them copy and paste what they say out loud. So like I’m scribing and they realize, oh, like these are my words. And then they start associating phonetic sounds and letters with what they’re saying and then they get motivated because they’re like, oh, I want to write down what I say, especially in remote times.
There’s actually been some anecdotal evidence from my classroom that my students reading levels have increased because with digital literacy and that’s all having to be online all the time, you have to have a level of reading or writing in order to chat back and forth on Zoom or on like Instant Messenger on among us or just reading instructions for a video game that you’re playing. So there are some benefits to remote learning that a lot of people have been seeing in terms of business. It’s again, like speaking up like I think oftentimes I’m I’m thirty one years old right now and I am surprised at some of the things that come out of my mouth, not because I’m scared of them, but because I didn’t think I had that thought and I didn’t think I was as brilliant as I was. And it’s just constantly not letting that imposter syndrome get to you that feeling like I’m not good enough or I’m not strong enough or I’m not important enough to stop you from seeing what you need to say. And I’ve been able to.
Beyond things like the Moth Radio Hour and PBS, because I have heard that voice over many, many years, and as I keep practicing speaking up, I realize, oh, like someone needs to hear this, because this is something that I needed to hear when I was younger. And that’s why I am a teacher today, that someone needs to hear what I’m saying and then use that to improve their life.
It’s good to hear that you can be that voice for the many people that are scared to speak up or they have to practice a little bit more.
And I was just going to say that it’s OK for you to be anonymous right now, like in sharing that, that there can be trusted adults that you share things with and who can voice that for you.
So, like, a lot of what I do is also listening to other people and not trying to talk over people and trying to get the viewpoint in a way that you. Humane and empathetic and humble, and I think those three things go a really long way in building relationships and community, and that’s really what we need to be doing moving forward during this pandemic to just be kinder to each other right now.
I definitely thank you for so much for the advice and the answers you provided for us. Those are the questions that we had and I had for at least for the students. I think Josh will have some closing remarks. Thanks.
Thanks again for joining us. Super appreciate it. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. They thought it was all super insightful. I think your kids are lucky to have you.
And I think kids around the nation are lucky to have you voicing some of their feelings, a realness and education for them. Thank you for that.
Can I say one more thing actually?
That I think I’ve had the courage to speak up because there have been so many mentors that have spoken up. You know, like I was thinking today of the quote from Frederick Douglass that “Power concedes nothing without a demand” and that going back to what I said earlier about our needs and dictating what we need right now, we can’t, we cannot fight for what we don’t know what to fight for, you know, and I know, so I’m related to, I’ll just say that there have been so many people who have fought before us to for us to have the rights we have today. And we carry their legacy and their burden to make things better for the people that we’re going to leave behind. It’s really up to us to make this work better, and we can’t be selfish in what that looks like.
One hundred percent. And if we’re interested in keeping up with you, I think we can do that on Annie Tan dotcom and then we can also follow you on social media channels at any tangent. Is that correct?
Well, thank you so much for being here again. Really appreciate it. I think we all learned a lot.
And I think the people listening learned a lot so thank you
Absolutely. Thank you, Josh. Thank you, Brendan.