[WDYL] Educational Autobiography

This is a version of an assignment I was asked to write for my graduate school’s “Applications of Effective Teaching” course. It is an implementation of an educational autobiography [buy the book here]. This post mentions some schools, by name. Many of these schools have now changed, both for the better and worse. The stories I tell are based on my own experience, as well as clarifying interviews with those who are close to me.

What I remember most is the feeling of confusion and uncertainty. There on the fence, I tried to play back my actions in my head, but the signal almost felt too low to escape from the noise. I felt nervousness going out to the playground for the first time, uncertainty not knowing anyone else, and dread when the paraprofessional shouted at me to stand against the fence for running at recess. It was my first brush with power in education. I hated that feeling. I decided from that point on, I’d be a good kid.

I usually tell this story as a joke, but it feels important to include my first memory of the education system in my education-centered story, where the pervasiveness of moments of nervousness, uncertainty, and dread are notably missing. I hope that by making this scene the threshold to my narrative that I can show you that the rest of my education existed within a privileged silo. And, in telling this story, I’d like to dissect how my skewed experience of education impacts my ability to truly empathize with my students.

As I’ve made clear in the past, I am a 23-year-old, able-bodied, mixed Korean/white heterosexual cisgender male. I grew up in a household where I experienced zero Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and was fortunate to have multi-generational contact with my grandma, who has lived with my family for many years. In these ways, I am privileged. The more I explore the world, the more I realize this fact.

But the one thing the American dream fails to mention / Is I was many steps ahead to begin with.1

In the past, I gladly accepted praise as earned of my own accord. Of course, I have always had great appreciation for those who’ve supported me, and I have always held humility as a value close to my identity, but in this first year of teaching, I’ve come to recognize how the marginalization of others conveniently cleared the course for my own fortune. By virtue of my upper-middle class socioeconomic identity, my views about what public education looks like are skewed by my experiences in the “high-performing” tracks at my district’s schools. In fact, standing there, with my back against that fence on that first day of school, I was already in a track of my own, oblivious to my advantage.

Quil Ceda Elementary was a split school: just half of the student body benefitted from a parent-teacher co-op model. To gain access to this part of the school, a parent in the family had to volunteer two and a half hours every week in classroom and serve on another school-related body. The noble goal, of course, was to involve parents more deeply in their child’s education. But what about the other half of Quil Ceda?

The remainder of the school was populated by students that fell within the district boundary. Maybe this would be less abhorrent if it were in an affluent white neighborhood, but as it were, Quil Ceda sat within the sovereign nation of the Tulalip Tribes. This means that, largely, the other half of the school was disproportionately representative of the indigenous students of these tribes. Of course, a division of this sort creates de facto segregation. “Neighborhood” students did not have equal access to the same resources that existed two classrooms down the hall. And what happened in the parent-centered governing bodies when there was an oversupply of resources? The parents explicitly fought against providing the same help to the other half of the school.

These inequities, manifestations of tracking, only continued throughout my K-12 career. I went from the co-op to the “Highly Capable” (HiCap) program in third grade because someone suggested that I should take the test that screened for entry to the HiCap classroom. Of course, not all students were offered this test – a gap in information that perpetuated privilege.

Moving into middle school, I joined a 180-student “options” school (i.e. parents had to request that students join the school before their student would be offered a spot). If there were more student applicants than spots, there was a lottery. Unsurprisingly, minorities were underrepresented, as random selection is only equitable when the information shared with families is equitable as well.

My high school, The International School of Communications (The ISC), was also underrepresented in terms of systemically-disadvantaged groups. One of several options in a model of Small Learning Communities (SLCs), students were able to choose this high-performing school, while other SLCs had much less success.

I remember my time at all of these schools extremely fondly. Bestowed upon me was the privilege of the upper-middle class: a trail guide for the narrow path, followed by few, that led to the top of the mountain while the others were led through the blackberries, too tiresome and thorny for most to get above the clouds.

In early 2014, I joined a band of students at The ISC called redISCover. redISCover’s goal was to preserve the ISC amidst changes to the structure of schools in our district. We loved our school. We didn’t want to see it fail. Even after I graduated in 2015, I continued to fight this battle.

In 20182, the Marysville School District’s board voted to shutter the SLC model, ceasing The ISC with it. Given the politics and lead-up, this was mostly unsurprising, but those of us who were passionate about the school’s philosophical underpinnings and passionate execution were devastated.

It wasn’t until my Junior year at The University of Washington that I began to critically look at the system of American education.

Along with my major in Computer Science, I began taking education courses about the history and politics of education. These courses forced me to reconsider and reflect on my understanding of what the purpose of education in a democracy was. Here’s where I landed at the end of my Senior year: “the purpose of public education in a democratic society is to expose individuals to the current and historical hegemonic values and processes of that democracy, while providing tools for these individuals to critique and question these espoused values.” Suddenly, after writing these words, I realized that it was my responsibility to begin this process of questioning in the context of my own life. What were the hegemonic values and processes that laid the stepping stones for my success?

In the beginnings of this reflection, I joined Teach For America. Upon the news that I’d be moving from Seattle to New York, I recognized the great opportunity this presented me – a position in a diverse, complex, and forward-thinking school system as I continued to develop my ideas about education.

What New York has offered me, so far, is clarity in my reflection: it is only now, after working five days a week with students who have been marginalized, that I realize the extreme marginalization that was happening in my hometown. New York’s system of school choice has led me to experience the de facto segregation that my education courses explained but failed to make visceral. My experiences of school choice in Marysville were a microcosm of New York’s – the most segregated school system in the United States3. I had fought for years to preserve this system of choice because it is what had afforded opportunities to me. What I had missed, by design, is those who were marginalized.

What I regret most is that this realization did not come sooner. I’ve spent the year contemplating how my experiences could be transcribed to the context of my students’ education, not realizing that my experiences may not correspond to their context. I am a 23-year-old, able-bodied, mixed Korean/white heterosexual cisgender male. None of my students share these exact identity markers. My privileged experience matches some of my students’ experience more than others, but it matches none exactly. It’s clear to me now that I did not make a big enough investment in my students’ lives, in their stories. Because of this, I can’t truly have empathy to the extent that’s necessary to practice culturally-relevant pedagogy – without the fullness of empathy, it’s impossible to meet a student where they’re at.

Yet I’m also aware of the danger of a single story4 – my students are more than my perception of them. I’m humbled daily by my students’ resilience, by their grit and their ingenuity. The connections they make that are beyond any place my mind would dare to travel inspire me to move outside my comfort zone, into the area of growth that will allow me to connect with my students in a more meaningful way. I hope that, through these connections, I can modestly learn where my students are and rendezvous with them at that point, where they will be seen, fully and complexly.

  1. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (Ft. Jamila Woods) – White Privilege II. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://genius.com/Macklemore-and-ryan-lewis-white-privilege-ii-lyrics.
  2. Powell, Steve. “Marysville OKs 2 Comprehensive High Schools with Boundaries; 3 Ongoing Committees.” Marysville Globe, August 3, 2018. https://www.marysvilleglobe.com/news/marysville-school-board-to-take-another-look-at-secondary-schools-report-monday/.
  3. Shapiro, Eliza. “Segregation Has Been the Story of New York City’s Schools for 50 Years.” The New York Times, March 26, 2019, sec. New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/26/nyregion/school-segregation-new-york.html.
  4. Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story | TED Talk.” Accessed May 25, 2020. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamandangoziadichiethedangerofasinglestory?language=en.