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.

One thought on “Identity Role Models Needed: How Teachers’ Identities Affirm Diverse Students’ Futures”

  1. Thank you Daniel for sharing your story. Identity is a major struggle for me while teaching in China as a foreign teacher. I am ethnically Chinese, was born in China, and am fully fluent in Chinese, while also being Canadian. This uncommon mix makes me incomprehensible to many people- both students and staffers. People will not stop trying to dissect me apart, by endlessly interrogating me on where I was born, when I moved where, etc. I’ve tried to not speak Chinese to others, as a way to circumvent this problem, but it doesn’t work. It feels wrong and I feel like I’m not living my true self.
    Your story gives me courage to perhaps present myself in a more authentic way at my next teaching job.
    Cheers!

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