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February 14, 2000

Breaking down the barriers that keep Asian Americans out of teaching

By Jennifer McNulty

In a city like San Jose, where a large percentage of residents are Southeast Asian, the dearth of Asian teachers is glaring. Nationwide, only 2 percent of K-12 teachers are Asian, and for June Gordon, an assistant professor of education, those numbers are a call to action. Much of her research focuses on why students of color do not go into the teaching profession--and what can be done to change that.

Photo of June Gordon
June Gordon
Photo: Don Harris
As part of a recent research project, Gordon and a team of UCSC undergraduates have identified four major factors that contribute to the scarcity of Asian American teachers. Gordon will present those findings in a paper called "Asian American Resistance to Selecting Teaching as a Career: The Power of Community and Tradition," during the Sociology of Education conference at Asilomar on February 26. (The paper is also being published this year by Teachers College Record.)

Parental pressure is a major factor in the decision not to go into teaching, found Gordon, but other considerations include feelings of personal inadequacy when measured against traditional Chinese expectations of what it takes to be a teacher, and a fear of working outside one's "comfort zone." A further finding revealed that Asian Americans tend not to see Asian teachers as necessary for their academic success or social adjustment in schools. But Gordon contends that Asian American participation is essential for a balanced, informed teaching force.

"Their presence is not only important for Asian American students but for all kids," said Gordon. "We have got to have multiple voices at the table."

Gordon's paper represents the culmination of a two-stage research project in which undergraduates who have declared a minor in education first were interviewed about their own reluctance to teach. A subset of those students then conducted a total of 52 interviews with Asian Americans in several California communities, including San Francisco and Sacramento.

For Gordon, who specializes in the needs of urban schools, the project brought together two interests: the challenge of building a multiracial teaching force, and the transformative power of university teaching.

Gordon is author of the forthcoming book The Color of Teaching, to be published this year by Falmer Press. As a professor, she enjoys witnessing the changes her students undergo as they conduct interviews on critical issues that are relevant to their lives.

"I call it transformative pedagogy because it changes lives," said Gordon. "I develop research questions to intervene and expose half-truths and misperceptions. Meaningful research stimulates dialogue, and that happened in this process."

As they conducted interviews with community members, the nine undergraduate researchers "started to use their knowledge to educate their community, which had the effect of increasing their own commitment to teaching," said Gordon, who is unabashed about her goal of getting students "hooked" on teaching in urban schools. "They saw themselves as scholars, as experts."

Since the study began, all of the student researchers have entered graduate education programs or are working in an educational setting, said Gordon.

The research itself illuminated the pivotal influences that undermine the confidence and interest of young Asian Americans who are considering going into teaching. Gordon recognizes the tremendous diversity among Asian cultures regarding language, religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class, but the themes that emerged in her study continued to be placed by the informants, regardless of ethnicity, in the context of traditional Chinese belief structures, she said.

Pressure from parents who want their children to pursue higher status professions that pay more money is a daunting challenge faced by aspiring Asian American teachers, said Gordon. Although teaching is held in high regard throughout Asia, immigrants to the United States quickly learn that here professional status is equated with money, and parents often discourage their children from becoming teachers.

Feelings of personal inadequacy are also rooted in the culture of China, where to become a teacher is "to be near perfection," explained Gordon, who earned her B.A. in East Asian studies at Stanford. "In this country, it's the opposite. We sum it up with that old saying, 'Those who can't do, teach,'" said Gordon. "But in Asia, you have to be extraordinary to become a teacher, and these abilities must be demonstrated prior to entering the profession, in contrast to America, where the classroom is often perceived as a crucial learning ground. From these notions, you can see how Asian Americans might be reticent to choose teaching as a career for fear of being accused of hubris."

Cultural differences appear also to account for the strong fear of working outside one's "comfort zone," which Gordon explained as the realm of culture and values, including language, in which one feels at ease.

"Asian Americans we interviewed say they would be willing to teach others 'who think like me,' and by that they mean people who share their respect for teachers, for hierarchy, and for structure," said Gordon. "But others have similar reservations, and yet still go into teaching. Those fears don't stop many middle-class white women, who make up the majority of the teaching force. Clearly, it's a combination of factors, and some Asian traditions contribute to the aversion."

The fears may be aggravated by the need to "save face" that is common in Asian culture, added Gordon. "In any school, you have to be able to be challenged, to be laughed at," she said. "This is not easy for many Asian Americans who have been raised in traditional households."

Those interviewed expressed little need to have their children taught by Asian American teachers, which Gordon attributed to the desire of many Asian Americans for their children to acquire the tools of access as quickly as possible. The first step towards access is language. To illustrate her point, she noted that even though she speaks Japanese and Chinese, English speakers would probably want to learn those languages from a native speaker rather than from her. Immigrants tend to be similarly biased in favor of native English speakers, she said.

Despite these views, most respondents felt it would be valuable to have Asian American teachers for newly arrived immigrants to assist in the transition to a new country and language, added Gordon, who is committed to increasing the diversity of educators in schools.

"This project helped reveal some of the biases my students were up against, and as a result, several of them overcame their own resistance to teaching," she said with satisfaction. "That's a positive step."

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