All posts by Daniel Wickner

Daniel Wickner is an Upper Primary classroom teacher at Hong Kong International School and has taught internationally for ten years. Being multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual, he strongly identifies with the complex cultural intersectionality of international school communities and is passionate about supporting students’ healthy identity development.

Identity Role Models Needed: How Teachers’ Identities Affirm Diverse Students’ Futures

This article was originally published on WISEducation.

I’m a half-Asian, half-White straight cisgender American male without disabilities of Korean-Japanese and Russian-American Jewish ancestry who speaks English, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese. I’m writing this because it matters to my students.

My identity matters for how effectively I can reach, support, and affirm each of them.

I have written extensively on classroom and institutional practices to support student identity development and student learning. All teachers, regardless of identity, can and must make the strongest effort to recognize, learn about, and provide space and support for the identities of each of our students– using a wide range of strategies and structures. We cannot only focus on the students who look like us or remind us of ourselves; rather, we must try our hardest to think outside of our own identity and view each child’s world through theirs. Growing this collective ability in education, particularly international education, is my life’s work. 

But there are limits. 

I felt those limits as a student. Growing up in the U.S. with American teachers, my national identity was constantly affirmed and strengthened by their presence. Likewise, I had plenty of straight, cisgender, White classroom role models. The other aspects of my identity, though, were barely represented or seen at school.  Not a single one of my teachers was Asian and I had to wait until university to catch my first glimpse of an Asian-American biracial educator — a professor with whom I never actually took a course: Prof. N. Just seeing Prof. N around campus had a profound impact on me because his mere existence and presence symbolized that there would be space for that part of my identity in the adult world (and in the education field). I have never spoken to him and he does not know who I am, but Prof. N matters to me. He matters more to me than the vast majority of teachers whose classes I sat in and whose assignments I completed. He matters more to me because he made my future visible, tangible, and real– a deeply motivational effect that has been shown empirically. Prof. N exists and thrives, thus I knew that there would be space for me in this world to exist and thrive too. 

And I feel those limits as a teacher. I know that every one of my students with Korean, Japanese, or other East-Asian ancestry has felt a connection with me, especially those who are also multiracial or multicultural. My presence may even be important to students of those backgrounds that I never directly teach– just as Prof. N meant a lot to me. International school staff diversity is deeply lacking, and even though I teach in Asia, I may be the only Asian homeroom teacher they have or see for years– and almost certainly the only multiracial one. Seeing me and knowing me affirmed their futures. But what about my Black, Indigenous, Latinx, South Asian, and Middle Eastern students? My LGBTQ+ students and those with disabilities? Though they may see me as an identity role model in some ways (nationality, interests, personality) and though I work hard to create a safe/brave space for their identity development, provide opportunities for identity exploration and expression, and affirm them daily through a wide range of practices, I know– deep inside– that I will never be their Prof. N. 

I will never be their Prof. N because my existence does not (and cannot) affirm the parts of their identities that need the deepest and most tangible affirmation. My existence and success do not (and cannot) fully affirm their futures and demonstrate to them that they will have a valued place in this world. I can talk with them, learn all about them, protect them, mentor and invest in them, care deeply about them, and be there alongside them as they discover and craft their identities– but I can never truly be with them in the trenches of their biggest identity challenges and through the unique obstacles they face. I know it, and they know it.

I need help. 

I need help from educators with disabilities to be identity role models for my students with physical and mental challenges. I need help from openly LGBTQ+ educators to show my students they can be their true selves, express their genders with pride, love who they love, and thrive in all ways. I need help from multilingual and multicultural Black, Indigenous, and other educators of color from all over the world to help my students envision a more just world where all BIPOC can flourish. And I need school leaders to help by recruiting, hiring, retaining, protecting, and empowering these educators to be completely themselves– to unabashedly share their diverse identities and, with their mere existence, help my students see their futures and know that they are possible.

The moment this crack team of Prof. Ns walks through the front door, they have already affirmed our diverse students’ identities and futures in ways I simply cannot.

Imagine the results when they actually get to work.

A Focus on Identity

“We felt heard, we felt understood, we felt visible.”
—Sara K. Ahmed, Being The Change

As educators, it’s easy to get tied up in what we’re teaching: which standards, content, units, skills. How we teach (our craft) and why we teach (our purpose) also attract plenty of our attention. With the reality of covid-19 distance learning, even where and when we teach is weighing heavily on our minds.

But it’s who we teach that must always remain at the center.

That’s not to say we don’t care about our students—we all do, immensely—but are we caring for them in all the ways they truly need? How well do we truly know and understand them? How well are we supporting them as they work to know and understand themselves?

In other words, how much do we intentionally focus on identity with our students, in our teaching, and in our schools? How much does our understanding and expertise around Identity factor into how our schools operate?

Identity is the ongoing exploration, formation, and expression of 1) who we are, and 2) our place in this world. Despite fantastic work from identity leaders and academics, it’s a concept that gets surprisingly little airtime in our classrooms, curricula, professional conversations, or recruitment interviews. In fact, the word “identity” only appears in the Common Core standards four times… in the math standards.

Consequently, the most common way for people to learn about their identity is when it is used against them, i.e. through trauma. Being bullied, teased, excluded, ignored, rejected, dismissed, abused, systematically disempowered, or micro-aggressed due to one’s race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, culture, religion, or class—that’s how we tend to learn our identities, especially the second (and often more painful) part: our place in this world.

Like other BIPOC individuals, I have needed to grapple with my racial and cultural identities for my whole life, starting from the day kindergarten classmates laughed at my onigiri lunch. I have needed to explain my mix of races and cultures to thousands of people in four different languages, listening as they ask “What are you?” and “Where are you really from?” but always hearing “Explain how you’re not one of us.”

Like other BIPOC individuals, I feel like I’ve earned a Ph.D. in Race and Culture, decades in the making, and I use that extensive knowledge and experience to support my students as they explore and construct their complex racial and cultural identities.

But what about my gender identity? As a cisgender man, society has not taught me (through trauma or guidance) to confront and thoroughly understand that part of my identity, while transgender individuals have that hard-fought Ph.D. In other words, our membership in a dominant identity group systematically exempts us from having to learn deeply about that aspect of who we are and truly understand our place in the world (at the top).

Unless I take the time to profoundly reflect—that is, to reflect on my own gender identity and how it was formed, my own cisgender biases and blind spots, the myriad privileges that society has bestowed on me for being cisgender, the pervasiveness of cisnormative language, practices, and structures across the world along with my complicity in reinforcing them, and the centuries of gender-conformative human history—then I will struggle to empower students (transgender and cisgender) to uncover the complexities of gender identity and seek equity and justice. And I do struggle. And I will reflect, learn, and do better.

Are you a member of a dominant identity group? (Hint: we all are, in some way) I encourage you to substitute race, sex, disability, culture, sexual orientation, class, religion, etc. for “gender identity” in the previous paragraph and see how it sounds.

This constant exercise of Identity Self-Reflection and Growth can help us all become finer teachers—“Identity Experts,” if you will—for our students as they go through their own identity journeys. Recognizing, understanding, and confronting our privilege, biases, blind spots, and complicity—wherever they exist—allows us and our students to truly see systemic inequity and injustice, wherever they exist.

Modeling identity exploration for our students by sharing our own ongoing identity journeys and challenges will illustrate to them that their identities matter and can evolve throughout life. Creating a safe, brave, patient, and accepting environment that prioritizes identity and empowers students to actively and autonomously investigate, construct, and share their own will help them deeply learn who they are… before trauma arrives to teach that lesson.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash.