NYC schools staff have been back in classrooms this week without students and it’s clear: we’re not ready to reopen NYC schools. I wrote much of this statement on behalf of MORE-UFT: Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, a caucus of my teachers union UFT. The original statement can be found here.
3 Days Into NYC School Reopening and It’s Clear: Schools Are Not Safe
September 10th, 2020
In our first 3 days back in the school buildings, NYC schools staff have witnessed conditions and situations that confirm what we knew all summer: that we must have fully remote learning until NYC schools are safe and fully funded.
Just three days into staff reporting back to work, we were horrified to hear about at least 16 schools where staff tested positive for COVID-19.Teachers at MS88 reported that they were not given this information immediately, contact tracers did not reach out to staff who were in contact and exposed, and staff were asked to report back to work this morning. This is unacceptable for our schools, and could have easily been avoided through allowing staff to report from home or through mandatory testing for all staff. This a preview of what will happen when students report on the 21st, again without any required testing beforehand. It is clear that our city does not have the capacity to sufficiently test all school community members and, instead of seeking to remedy that, they are forcing school staff and students into fatally decrepit school buildings. Many members have taken “priority” DOE tests at NYC Health + Hospitals and still haven’t received results in a weeks’ time or, worse yet, have been told their tests have been lost. Meanwhile, there are likely many more staff members who have worked in school buildings the past 3 days, who are unknowingly positive for COVID-19 and may be unwittingly spreading the virus among coworkers. These cases occurred in school buildings as staff completed in-person professional development virtually, looking at computer screens, which could be done from any location with an internet connection.
Staff without medical accommodations for remote work reported into school buildings starting Tuesday, many not seeing the “50-point” checklist agreed upon by the DOE and UFT prior to the return to schools. Schools received building ventilation reports the night before staff were supposed to return, and members are rightfully concerned that these ventilation reports don’t measure air change rates, but only whether supply/exhaust fans, windows, and air conditioners exist or are operational in rooms. According to the NYC DOE’s own inspection reports, over 13,000, or 57% of, school bathrooms are inoperable at this time due to ventilation issues. In the same vein, NYC DOE conducted 1,400 building ventilation checks all within a span of a week, further raising questions about the quality and thoroughness of building inspection reports. As industrial hygienists and lawyers have informed us, we must demand this information especially to stop the spread of an airborne virus during a global pandemic.
Members also report they’re not getting the agreed-upon PPE, temperature checks, and supplies needed to maintain safe conditions. Depending on schools’ conditions and the goodwill of principals, some schools opted to start virtual professional development outdoors, and others conducted PD completely remotely from the safety of members’ homes. We applaud those choices to protect staff while knowing piecemeal protections at individual schools do not stop the systemic issue of putting bodies into unsafe school buildings. It should not be left up to individual schools to take common-sense measures to limit risk to their staff. All staff should be able to participate in virtual professional development and meetings from home.
The return to school buildings laid bare the inequities and funding issues we’ve had in our schools for decades, as we see photos, videos and emails from UFT members about broken bathrooms, broken sinks, broken windows propped up by binders for little ventilation, air vents covered with packing tape, mouse droppings, and dead cockroaches. If our schools can’t fix the sinks and maintain basic sanitation, how are we to trust that rooms will truly be deep cleaned each night and PPE supplies will be consistently provided?
Already with the cases announced yesterday, we’ve witnessed the same lack of transparency from the NYC Department of Education that we saw in the spring and summer regarding supplies, funding, safety, and logistics to make reopening schools in-person safe. We demand rapid transparent communication about cases within school buildings to keep us safe.
What we have said all summer about school reopening has reared its ugly head, and we’ve only had 3 full days as staff doing virtual professional development in school buildings. We demand that professional development and learning continue fully remotely according to our Health Justice Agenda and that we delay reopening until schools are safe and adequately funded.
I’m disheartened that, with countless dealbreakers and after countless statements by educators, parents, students, principals, CECs, and elected officials, even with an in-person delay of Sept. 21st, that NYC schools in conjunction with my weak teachers union UFT is STILL ramming through an unsafe, unfunded schools reopening plan. We won’t give up the fight, though.
We will not die for this economy. We demand so more from our leadership and for our communities.
Below is a speech I gave today at Columbus Park in my hometown Chinatown, a park I played at as a child and continue to gather in as an adult. Much love to you all this Labor Day, and thank you for reading:
Labor Day in Chinatown #AsiansForAbolition, Columbus Park, 3pm
This Labor Day, I am unmoored. We’re all reeling from the effects of police violence on our communities and the effects of this global pandemic on all our lives.
I am a special education teacher, and I am proud to be born and raised right here in Chinatown. I wanted to give a triumphant speech today. But I had a tough time writing this speech this week because, as a teacher, there is not enough time in the world to grieve and rage at the fact that my boss, the Department of Education, does not care about my life or my students’ lives. At how Mayor de Blasio, just weeks ago, dismissed and walked away from Patrick Mock of 46 Mott, Patrick who gave out hundreds and hundreds of free meals to Chinatown residents over the course of the pandemic.
To our leaders we’re props to reopen the economy. We’re supposed to prize the economy, money and capitalism. To work harder and harder to earn our housing, food, health insurance, education. And if it doesn’t work out for us, we’re supposed to blame those who took It from us, instead of targeting the capitalist system that divides us from one another, that won’t give people what we need.
Is it working out for us? NO. It is this wrong thinking and anti-Asian sentiments that led to the economic collapse of my Chinatown months before this pandemic hit New York City.
And, it is this kind of thinking that led to the murder of my cousin Vincent Chin. Vincent was murdered in 1982 in Detroit, at the height of an autoworker’s crisis there where Japanese auto companies were being blamed for the loss of American jobs. The two white men thought my cousin was Japanese and beat him to death with a baseball bat.
For years after that Vincent’s mother, Lily, my great-auntie, went all over the nation to speak up for justice. Because my great-auntie knew what mattered most: our humanity. Lily didn’t care that US auto companies were cheating the American public and purposely building terrible gas-guzzling cars to sell. No, my great-auntie Lily cared about her son’s life, about Vincent’s laugh, smile, his spirit, that he was going to be married the following week, that he was about to start a new job, and have a beautiful family. And all of my family and the wedding guests went to Vincent’s funeral instead.
We lost the case, because a white judge decided the white men who killed my cousin Vincent Chin weren’t the type of men you send to jail. Because white America had never met Asian Americans like me and didn’t empathize with our lives. We lost the case, and my great-auntie and my family lost faith in the American justice system.
We KNOW this system is broken for BIPOC people and has been for a long time. We KNOW this system does not prize human lives.
Instead of being divided by it, we have to come together. I will never forget the image of Jesse Jackson standing next to my great-auntie Lily Chin and fighting for justice. My great-auntie’s efforts launched protests and an Asian American movement. Asian Americans who look like me today, never forget the struggle it’s taken to have our political identity. Our lives matter, AND we know: all lives don’t matter if Black Lives don’t matter.
We stand here this Labor Day because our fight won weekends, sick days, holidays, living wages, and time for folk to rest. But we need much more during this pandemic and beyond. We need investment in our communities and resistance. Our government won’t invest in us, otherwise we would’ve already defunded the police, not defunded education, and we would have already taxed the rich to fund Chinatown and all New York City communities. Otherwise we wouldn’t be forcing educators and students back into unsafe schools and no funding. We would have gotten justice for my cousin Vincent Chin, and for all the victims of violence and murder.
Thank you to the mutual aid efforts of groups like Welcome to Chinatown who supported restaurants and sent food to our essential workers this spring, Think Chinatown who built barriers and platforms for outdoor dining, and Dumplings Against Hate, providing interest-free loans towards Chinatown businesses. Thank you to everyone who’s donated time and money to truly make Black Lives, and thus all lives, matter. We must fight back in solidarity and know what matters most: our humanity. Thank you.
Quite bluntly, if we open NYC schools now with the NYCDOE’s plan, people will die. That simple. The schools plan is a logistical nightmare, our school buildings have crumbling infrastructure, our schools have been defunded for decades, and there’s no money for resources. Educators like me want to be back in-person, but not like this.
We haven’t mourned the dead yet. We haven’t sat down and reckoned with the harm, the violence, the inequity done to our communities.
In my small classroom of 12 students, 3 paraprofessionals and myself, we had 14 deaths of family members and friends during the pandemic. As of now, and from what I know.
No one needed to die. We could have stopped all this.
And we just keep chugging away, like none of this death and destruction happened, is happening.
DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC!
I’m not putting 1.1 million students and their families in more danger, and I’m not putting my colleagues and our communities in danger, especially WHEN WE DON’T HAVE TO. When there are other options! It’s our moral and ethical imperative to keep each other safe right now.
The NYC schools plan is reckless, and there are too many unknowns, like what do we do for students with disabilities? English learners? Even as simple as, what remote platform will students be using since most of a student’s time will still be remote learning from home? (There should be ways to support students of the highest need, but there are ways to do that without bringing all 1.1 million students, schools staff, and their families into school buildings and putting us in danger). Other schools have come up with more comprehensive plans, and specific schools have called to be fully remote only to be rejected by the DOE.
Will this kind of movement be enough to stop an unsafe school reopening plan? I hope so. There is so much at stake if we can’t stop this.
Today, in Sunset Park, where my students and their families live, where my school is, positivity rates for COVID-19 rose to almost 7%. Sunset Park is a neighborhood where the majority of residents are Latinx and Asian and where half of the population in the zip code 11220 make less than $50,000. The mayor says he’s doing a huge contact testing and tracing protocol in the neighborhood, but that’s too little, too late. It’s clear we don’t have the testing and tracing protocols in place to have prevented the spread in my students’ community. I can’t imagine what the spread will do to my school’s community if we were to reopen my school building September 10th.
I’ve spent most of my summer reading news constantly, writing, talking with reporters and community members about the schools reopening plan, and organizing with other teachers to get the resources and funding that our students deserve and to stop schools reopening if unsafe:
“I think every single one of us who’s going to be in the school building is going to be extremely anxious,” said Annie Tan, who teaches 5th grade special education in Sunset Park.
Tan, who declined to say what school she works at, added that multiple students in her class have had family members pass away from COVID-19.
“I’m not letting them go through that again,” Tan said. “It’s not happening.”
How can we trust the Department of Education will have systems in place for all 1,800 schools? When we don’t even have a nurse in every school? Or a counselor, or social worker?
I can’t even begin to tell you the conditions of schools buildings:
“My students’ bathrooms up till the beginning of March had broken sinks had no soap,” said Annie Tan, a special education teacher in Brooklyn. “How can I trust that all these safety protocols will actually be in place when schools reopen?”
How can we trust the Department of Education to provide what schools and students need when we’ve been defunded for decades?
To actually reopen safely this fall, New York schools would need a lot more funding. There is just no plan that is feasible right now given the budget cuts. My school’s whole budget has been slashed. We have no money at all this year for materials. And keep in mind that we already didn’t have enough soap in our school in early March; we had broken sinks in our students’ bathrooms. Last year I had to buy my own air purifier for my windowless classroom. Schools have been defunded for decades, and that’s led to crumbling infrastructure, even cockroaches and rats crawling around some people’s classrooms.
Simply put, we just don’t trust the NYC Dept. of Ed to protect us. We don’t trust them to do all the safety protocols needed to prevent mass spread of the coronavirus across the city. Fixing all 1,500 school buildings’ ventilation? Windows, for that matter? Having student self-check their temperatures before coming into school buildings?
I went further in my interview with New York Magazine writer Keith Gessen, saying we can’t put the onus on our students, their families, and our staff, of deciding whether or not to come into school, deciding whether we want to take the risk of getting infected and possibly spreading COVID-19 to our families and communities:
Annie Tan, a fifth-grade special-ed teacher in Sunset Park, shares the same fear. “I want to be back in school when it’s safe,” she says. “But I also don’t want kids to feel in a year’s time that their presence killed someone. I honestly think that’s going to happen.”
People keep talking about the socioemotional health and wellbeing of students. I want students to see others in person and know full well students need to socialize in order to learn. But what kind of socialization will kids have, sitting 6-feet apart from one another, desks all faced forward, not being able to leave the classroom for 5+ hours, eating lunch at their desks DURING instruction, with no recess? Wearing masks all day? Will students be able to hear me, hear others, with their masks on? And yes, all this is part of the “plan” right now.
Can we protect student mental health when there will inevitably be COVID-19 spread? From inevitable deaths due to that spread?
AND, when there are COVID-19 cases, and WHEN there is community spread, some student or some staff member will inevitably feel it’s their fault for bringing the coronavirus to their communities. And WHEN there is death in NYC, we won’t have time to mourn, just as we haven’t mourned the too-many NYC Dept. of Education employees who passed of COVID19.
A prerequisite of student learning, of educators being able to teach, is to feel safe and to BE ALIVE.
And teachers have been gaslit and made to feel crazy about bringing up all the concerns I’ve been talking about for the past two months.
All of this falls on our “leadership”: our mayor, our governor, our schools district, our union leaders. No one is leading. No one has plans that are workable. All of that’s been laid bare now, and we’re all dealing with that impact:
It’s been quite an emotional ride this summer. A lot of educators are going to be resigning, retiring, or taking unpaid leaves this year if we go back in-person to school buildings without the proper safety measures. I know a few already who have.
And, I’m going to say it: like many teachers, I’ve had to weigh seriously for the first time whether to leave this profession that has shown so clearly during this pandemic doesn’t love me back.
I am still hopeful that we won’t be reopening in-person this fall, and that we’ll have time to plan for student learning. Remote learning was terrible because we didn’t have planning time, but I’m hopeful we can stop an unsafe reopening in time for some professional development and time to collaborate on robust, good remote learning. And provide the Internet, tech, and other needs our students and their families need. (While, you know, also providing healthcare and cancelling rent and paying people to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19 and other sensible things that would kill less people)
And, I’ll be fighting like hell for the next month to stop this unsafe schools plan. Last Monday, August 3rd, the National Day of Resistance Against Unsafe School Reopening, I marched with other educators, students, families, and organizations who are feeling the exact things I’m feeling right now. I’m still talking with reporters and even going on radio shows with other educators to stop reopening. We will continue marching and rallying and acting because we have to, until an unsafe school reopening is successfully stopped.
In Manhattan’s Chinatown, I grew up around anti-Blackness. I heard comments in Cantonese like, “Don’t hang out with that black kid,” “That Spanish kid is a bad influence,” and “Don’t bring your black friend home.” It was a given for me that first-generation immigrants and their American-born kids had different views on Black people in America.
My friends and I thought it pointless or didn’t have the courage to confront anti-Black racism in our families. “They’re set in their ways,” my friends said. On top of this, many in my Asian American community, even if they didn’t explicitly exhibit anti-Black racism, were silent on Black Lives Matter. With my experiences growing up and as a Chinese and Asian American educator with Chinese, Latinx, and Arabic students, I am constantly grappling with how to address and counter anti-black racism.
The Movement for Black Lives believes that all people can contribute regardless of age. The BLM intergenerational principle states, “We cultivate an intergenerational and communal network free from ageism. We believe that all people, regardless of age, show up with the capacity to lead and learn.”
If all people are capable of leading and learning, could my parents, my grandparents, my uncles and aunties and cousins, learn, too? Could they, too, confront and unlearn anti-Blackness?
The Akai Gurley and Peter Liang case divided the Chinese community. Many believed Liang received unjust treatment as a Chinese American officer; had Liang been white, many thought, Liang would likely not have been convicted. Others thought that other police officers, such as Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner case, should be prosecuted just as Peter Liang had.
A few days after the guilty verdict was rendered, 10,000 Asian Americans, predominantly Chinese Americans, rallied in Brooklyn in support of Officer Liang. Protestors came for different reasons; some called for accountability of all police officers involved in fatal shootings, and others wanted a lenient sentence for Liang. Some protesters brought signs reading, “One Tragedy, Two Victims,” asserting that both Liang and Gurley were failed by the justice system.
As with the Liang verdict, many found the Brooklyn rally divisive. The rallies in support of Peter Liang were organized and attended by many Chinese immigrants whose first language is Chinese. Some of my cousins had gone. Many, including myself, saw the divide in opinions as falling on generational lines, with older people supporting Liang and the younger generation tending to see the need for justice for Gurley. Many in the Chinese community felt this rally was empowering, and others saw it as dividing ourselves from other communities.
I thought, How could 10,000 mostly Chinese people be rallying for an officer who killed a man? How would this rally look to the black community, to Akai Gurley’s family? I was dumbfounded.
“Vincent Chin has far more in common with Akai Gurley than with Peter Liang.”
I then called for justice for Akai Gurley and his family.
When I wrote the article, I didn’t think anyone in my family would read it, as it was in English and most of the elders in my family only speak Chinese. Within three days, tens of thousands of people had read and circulated my article, now on Huffington Post, and commented by the hundreds. My family inevitably heard about my article and read my words, as snippets were translated in Chinese newspapers like World Journal.
My family was furious at me for a number of reasons, the largest reason being that I had brought our family into a heated political conversation around police accountability and anti-Black racism by invoking our relative Vincent Chin’s name. Vincent’s mother, Lily Chin, spent years fighting and never got justice for her son’s murder- why should we fight then, or be political?
My family asked me to take down the article, which I didn’t want to do, and couldn’t do even if I wanted to. After a week or so, the controversy died down, but the rift within my family was clear and present.
That is why I think so many people rallied for Peter Liang that day. Liang, to those rallying for him, represented the invisibility and struggles that Asian Americans identified with. Peter Liang was supposed to be an example of the American Dream, yet, in my opinion, was scapegoated and left behind by the New York Police Department. To be clear, these issues do not excuse Liang for his role in Akai Gurley’s death. As I wrote in my article, “[Liang] may have been unaware he was complicit in a system of injustice that preys on Black lives, yet he voluntarily operated in that system.” To many, the Peter Liang case represents both the brutality of Asian American invisibility and the systemic injustice toward the Black community. But, while Peter Liang was not a victim, many in the Asian American community saw him as such- and why wouldn’t they?
If we don’t have these conversations, minds and hearts can’t be changed. We need to be willing to talk about these issues with those closest to us.
As more people were killed in 2016 police shootings, notably Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, hundreds of Asian Americans came together to create intergenerational resource for our community. Rumors swirled that the killer of Philando Castile was an Asian American police officer, and many worried the divisions of the Peter Liang trial would play out once again. Christina Xu, an ethnographer in Brooklyn, tweeted and asked Asian Americans to start drafting letters to our parents around Black Lives Matter. Xu opened a Google drive document, which hundreds of people contributed to, and Letters For Black Lives was formed. The letters were translated in over 30 languages and customized for different groups of people.
The goal in 2016 for these Letters for Black Lives remains today, according to this blog post on their website:
“[to speak] empathetically, kindly, and earnestly to our elders about why Black lives matter to us. As many of us are first- and second-generation immigrants ourselves, we know first-hand that it can be difficult to find the words to talk about this complex issue, especially in the languages that resonate most with our elders. Our hope with this letter and its translations is to make it easier for people to craft their own starting points, and serve as a first step towards more difficult intergenerational conversations about race and police violence.”
One quote from the letter particularly strikes me in the way it ties Asian American first-generation immigrant struggles and the struggles Black people face in our society today:
“you’ve suffered through a prejudiced America, to bring me closer to the American Dream. But I hope you can consider this: the American Dream cannot exist for only your children. We are all in this together, and we cannot feel safe until ALL our friends, loved ones, and neighbors are safe. “
The Letters For Black Lives campaign was inspiring and gave hope that the Asian American community could and would hold in solidarity with Black Lives. You can read the full letter in English, access audio recordings in different languages, find translations and more at the Letters For Black Lives website.
The Black Lives Matter movement has forced many non-Black people of color, like myself, and our communities to consider our relationships to anti-Black racism. What is our relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement? Do we accept anti-Black racism as something to fight, and do we accept the Black Lives Matter movement as valid? And, if we accept those two things as valid, how do we confront anti-Black racism in our own communities?
The Letters For Black Lives campaign bridged generational, cultural, and language barriers while speaking to communities with love and acceptance. This philosophy was in stark contrast with the anger I used while writing my own piece. In order to build our own communities, we cannot come into the work just with anger, but come with the hope and understanding that everyone is capable of learning and leading.
This means we have to learn and lead as well. As teachers, we do the work with our students, but I know now I have a lot of work to do in my own community.
As a teacher, I trust in my ten-year-old students, so shouldn’t I trust in my community? It was too painful to realize I was fighting racism and other systemic injustices in my classroom but that I didn’t have the courage to face the same issues within my own family and community.
I knew what I had to do. As a direct result of this work, two summers ago I moved from Chicago back home to my hometown, Manhattan’s Chinatown.
I am working now to build within my own community. I am trying hard to build with my parents and family, which is incredibly difficult with our cultural and language differences. But, as the Black Lives Matter principle espouses, everyone has the capacity to lead and learn. I take Cantonese classes and speak with Chinatown tenants who face eviction and harassment.
I have a lot to learn from my elders, and my elders, hopefully, will learn from me, too. And, in time, hopefully we will lead together for a more just world for everyone. Justice, after all, is not “just us.” I’m so excited for the world we kids and elders organize and build, together.
We just had a virtual graduation for our 5th-graders which was emotional, bittersweet, and left me teary-eyed throughout. While this is not the graduation we wanted, we still wanted our students to get the most out of it, and so I spent 3 days writing and pre-recorded the following speech for graduation. Hope you enjoy.
Ms. Tan’s Graduation Speech, June 23rd, 2020
Good morning everyone. I’m Ms. Tan, and I have been a fifth-grade teacher at our school for the past 4 years. I am so honored to be your Master of Ceremonies for the graduating class of 2020!
We teachers and staff here have seen you, the Class of 2020, grow into thoughtful, responsible, considerate and caring leaders. We are so proud of your accomplishments over the past 6 years, where you grew stronger not just in your ability to read, write, and do math, but in analyzing the world around you, in asking questions, and in wondering why the world is the way it is. You have learned and applied everything you learned about the 8 Habits* and become leaders not only in your classrooms but in your homes, community, and beyond.
This is not just a day to celebrate our graduating class but also to celebrate the parents, family and friends who have worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to make sure their children succeeded. Parents, today is a culmination of your children’s successes, failures, losses and triumphs. Today is a day we celebrate the end of your child’s journey in elementary school.
Today, your graduation day, students, has been something you have been dreaming of for six years, and something I dreamed of as well. Like many of you students, I come from a family of immigrants, where my parents speak a language other than English. There was pressure on me to learn English quickly so I could translate mail, help my parents go to appointments, and to succeed here in America.
Like all of you, I had teachers and family that believed in me, pushed me to work hard, and helped me find my voice. Because of everyone who supported me, and because of my own hard work, I was one of the first in my family to graduate from high school, then college, then a masters degree in teaching. And that is why I became a teacher- so I could help students like you also feel confident and strong enough to find your voices and succeed.
I eagerly volunteered this year to be your Master of Ceremonies. But I honestly struggled writing this speech. There is no sugarcoating that this is not how we wanted to celebrate this graduation day. We all have been waiting for this day, to see you in your dress-up clothes and caps and gowns, and celebrate in-person. We were ready for hugs, tears, laughter, and so much fun at the end of the year.
And then, so suddenly, we went from our classrooms, walking the hallways back-to-back up in two lines, sharing the same pencils and hall passes, sitting knee-to-knee in the cafeteria and in the auditorium, to learning from our homes. We once took things, like going outside and breathing fresh air in without a face mask, or not washing our hands, gross, for granted. We took going into school for granthhed. We all did.
I want to make clear that we are in a historic moment right now. We are in a moment in history now that students like you will study in 50 years’ time. This historic pandemic has hit the entire world and has changed everything. It has changed the ways we have been able to be with each other. It has changed the way we work. It has shown us how society works, and what doesn’t work. It changed how we were able to go to school, and how we’re able to do this graduation this year.
It is okay to be scared, confused, angry, and overwhelmed by all of this. And, you are not alone. As much as the adults in your life have tried to remain strong, we are also feeling all of those feelings.
And yet you, students, made it through these past few months to finish the 5th grade. As we very quickly and suddenly changed as a society, you students used everything you learned at our school to make it to this graduation day.
We switched quickly from seeing each other in person to seeing each other only on video chats. We got used to frozen screens and the weird sounds of our voices when our WiFi signal went bad. We learned to mute and unmute ourselves quickly if something in the background was loud.
Parents, family members, thank you for getting our children to this graduation day. Since we moved to remote learning, you’ve taken on a much larger role of teaching our children, whether it’s working as essential workers and making money for your families, then coming home to help your child complete assignments, or accepting our texts, phone calls and emails.
You all have been so gracious as we navigated this remote learning together. Thank you for being patient as we learned how to use these different platforms, figured out what times of day and what worked best for you and your children, and made sure all our students could get through this.
And students, so many of you have been doing so much work not just as students, but as older brothers and sisters who figured out Google Classroom not only for yourselves but for your siblings, helping your parents and relatives with Google Classroom or some email we sent you, or trying again and again to play a video or complete online assignments and math forms. You students worked so hard and worked through so much to believe in yourselves, built up ways to be sad and mad and finding hope all at the same time when things were hard.
Thank you to all the teachers and staff who made sure all of our students got to this Graduation day. We teachers and schools staff got so much closer to our students and families: now we text and call back and forth like we never would have before. We have laughed together at the small moments and cried together at the hard moments.
We know nothing can replace being with each other in person. We all miss being in school- and that’s something, kids, I KNOW you never thought you would say! We all miss each other and hope to see each other in person when it’s safe to do so. But the relationship, the love, the care, the hope we give one another, all of that has remained strong, maybe even stronger, and will still be there once you leave our school. That is how we got through this tough time: together.
But some of us have had terrible losses. Our community has lost grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, siblings, children, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends. I want to acknowledge all of the family members and friends, those who helped our students get where they are today but who are not here today to celebrate with us. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge those we have lost. Thank you.
It is hard to stay the course. But the end in mind is making sure everyone is safe. We remember that everything we are doing is for our community. Everything we do in the future is for our community. We continue to work as a team and fight to make sure other lives are not taken too soon. Now and later, we know it’s always our duty to do what’s right. It takes all of us to do the right thing, to put first things first, but also stand up when something is wrong.
This time is hard, but this is just the beginning for you all on your journey towards becoming independent, thoughtful, critical citizens of this earth. This is the beginning of you learning to sharpen the saw, utilizing all the strength, courage, and willpower you have, all the struggles you persevered through, to pass your next tests. I don’t just mean math tests, but tests of your endurance and your ability to keep going, especially when things get hard. Take care of yourselves- whatever you’re feeling is okay, and you have people to support you through those tough times. And continue to believe in yourselves.
This is not the end of the community you have with us. Those hugs, tears, laughter, we aren’t able to have them in person now but we can have them later. You get to have them now with your family members and community. As we learned through all this, things don’t just stop when a scary infectious disease comes. If this time has taught us anything, it is to rely on the community we have. Know that we are here. You are all loved and supported, always. You have our contact information now- use it!
Keep doing the right thing and speaking up when there is wrong in the world. As Mohandas Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in this world.” I hope you all find your voice and go make this world a better place for everyone. Thank you.
*Note: we are a “Leader in Me” Lighthouse school, meaning we implement the 8 Habits framework to help students learn how to work independently and interdependently.
When I tell people that I love Twitter, they look at me first like I’m crazy, and then tell me I’m one of the few people using Twitter “right”! I’ve been on Twitter since July 2013, for many years under the username angryteachr, and writing under that name: I changed my username to AnnieTangent to reflect my whole humanity and not just the space I take up as a teacher.
Twitter has been a generative space for sharing ideas, my activism and organizing, and in my eventual writing and storytelling, especially in being more clear and brief in my ideas generating and sharing. When I have a small idea or something that’s happening in the moment, I often use Twitter as kind of an experimental space for my writing, and also to get immediate feedback from my Twitter community, who are virtual acquaintances but strangers in real life. Who knew?
So it made sense that, when I was in an anxious-COVID-19-induced spiral early last week, I started tweeting about it:
Last Monday night I was in a terrible headspace, which ebbs and flows during COVID19 times. I realized that I’ve been attacked on all sides of my identity for the past few months, as a Chinese Asian American who’s teaching immigrant families living in Chinatown, NYC. And the tweet thread really resonated with folk, which I am happy about: you can read by clicking the tweet above.
As I note in the Twitter thread, I began thinking about these intersections of identity I inhabit because my friend and fellow storyteller, Nestor Gomez, who started the Immigration StoriesPodcast that I’ve been featured in, asked me to tell a story about teaching and immigrants during COVID19. I, with my imposter syndrome, didn’t think I had something worth writing, but Twitter validated that, indeed, I had something important to say, and that it’s hard, especially for all of us who are currently in a DEFENSE mode, and especially for all those people who are ALWAYS in defense mode:
This week I also happened to be clearing out my emails and discovered emails from 2012, when I was deep in my first-year teaching disaster with Teach For America and a charter school which relied on young, impressionable teachers and which has since closed. I again went into a shame spiral around how terrible that first year was, what mistakes I made, and remembered I almost left teaching entirely because of Teach For America. I’ve written about my experience with Teach For America before and was involved with a #ResistTFA movement that made TFA recruitment go down 25% in the past, so I didn’t expect to get so emotional.
But it’s funny that the shame and the guilt that comes from teaching, especially when you’ve been made to fail at it, doesn’t go away, especially since teaching is an art built on relationships. Instead of staying isolated in my shame, I decided to write about it over Twitter again:
Who knew Twitter would help me generate so much over the years? I am grateful for meaningful social media connections over the years, and hope you all are finding ways to connect and get out of the shame spirals.
I can’t believe I am still “creating” and pushing out new work during this #COVID19 pandemic. Another thing I’m immensely proud of my latest interview in The New Republic about remote learning, speaking up as a teacher about how it has been extremely difficult trying to work around the inequities of public schooling before and during this pandemic. It has been shared all around by teaching communities online, and I hope has complicated the narrative around what remote learning and schooling looks like right now.
I have 12 students, and I have three paraprofessionals in my classroom. And in our class alone, we’ve had something like 13 deaths, among our students’ and staff members’ families. So it’s been a challenge trying to roll out assignments while also supporting the mental health needs of my students, their families, and staff: Is this assignment I’m pushing right now really important when my students’ relatives are dying or sick?
“My mom has always expressed her love, not through words lost in translation, but through food, whether through her Cantonese steamed fish with ginger and scallions, pork spare ribs with black bean sauce or soy sauce chicken. So, while distancing from Mom, when not getting takeout to support Chinatown restaurants, I’m learning my mom’s dishes. I remembered watching Martin Yan as a kid on PBS and whipped out his old-school ‘The Yan Can Cook Book’ to make those spare ribs. And I picked up ‘Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen’ by Grace Young, a chef who’s been chronicling Chinatown coronavirus stories, then picked up a whole fish from a still-open Chinatown seafood market and figured out, with Grace’s help, how my mom would make that fish. Last week, Mom came to Chinatown for her monthly trip to the Chinese pharmacy, bringing compliments on my WeChat fish photo and multiple containers of her soy sauce chicken. And I knew she’d always be with me.”
And now for the meat of this post…
On PBS’ “Asian Americans”
I finished watching the 5-hour “Asian Americans” PBS documentary series last night (which premiered this Monday and Tuesday on PBS and which you can stream free all #APAHM /watch on Amazon Prime), and just WOW. I knew a good number of larger themes in Asian American history, like exclusion and anti-Asian immigration laws, but the documentary series, particularly the 3rd episode “Good Americans” walked through the “model minority myth,” its use to attack non-“model” Black and Brown groups, and the subtle ways it was (and has) been used to subvert white supremacy, which is so nuanced, especially today. I watched an interview with Geeta Gandbhir, the director of the 5th episode “Breaking Through” that the theme of the last episode was supposed to be “Justice or Just Us?” That is a larger question, especially with the coverage of the Rodney King Riots and Latasha Harlin’s murder, that we have to grapple with as an Asian American community.
I was really fortunate to be able to film with Geeta Gandbhir, the director of the 5th episode “Breaking Through,” ever wise in questioning and thoughtfulness, over two days, one day interviewing in late June 2019 in a Brooklyn studio, and then a 2nd day in multiple locations throughout the Detroit area. From my knowledge, I was supposed to represent one of a younger generation of activist in PBS’ “Asian Americans,” but again you can’t fit all of Asian American history into 5 hours!
I still can’t believe I was filmed for a PBS documentary (especially since I first learned about Vincent Chin through ANOTHER PBS documentary) even if my interview wasn’t included in the final cut of the documentary. I am constantly thinking about the legacy I want to leave for my students and, hopefully, my children one day, and hope this feature helps others also consider their legacy.
On the 2nd day of filming in July 2019, I was toured around by Helen Zia (!!!) for a whole day. Helen Zia was one of the lead activists on the Vincent Chin case and has since served as one of my idols and mentors through my life. We first visited Vincent and Lily Chin’s house, where my great aunt would make food for all the organizers- Lily had worked in the back of a restaurant and knew just how dirty the food could be back there, so she didn’t want the organizers fighting for her son to be fed that food. We walked over to the office where Vincent was supposed to start as a draftsmen, which was just blocks away, so he could be a good son to his mother Lily. We actually went into the Ferndale Public Library to use the bathroom and, on a whim, to see if any of Helen Zia’s books were in that branch- to no avail.
Helen and I filmed in front of the Ferndale plaque commemorating Vincent Chin’s death and legacy, then had lunch in the location formerly known as Golden Star Chinese Restaurant where Vincent Chin used to pick up shifts and where Asian American organizers, such as Ronald Hwang and Jim Shimoura, Asian American lawyers in Michigan back in the 1980s, organized to fight for justice. (I wish the digital feature had shown some of Helen’s, Jim’s, and Roland’s stories together, but, again, “Asian Americans” only had five hours!)
We went to the former McDonald’s site where Vincent Chin tried to run away from Eben and Nitz, where Vincent’s skull was bashed into the pavement with a baseball bat, and for which Ebens and Nitz never served a day in jail. And we bought flowers and brought them to Vincent Chin, Lily Chin, and David Bing Hing Chin’s graves at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Of course, right at the end of the day at the cemetery, it began raining, and it felt right, like something new was coming. It was a long day, 9am-6pm, and full of emotion and rawness. I will never forget that day, knowing just how much work it took to build an Asian American movement, and how much more we have to build.
Watching the documentary now, I KNOW there are SO many stories that were missing- you can’t fit all of Asian American history into 5 hours. And so, we have to tell them. NO one will tell our stories for us. Without Lily Chin’s organizing and activism, no one would know Vincent Chin’s name today, and I take that with me every day. That’s why I’m dedicated to writing a book about my family moving forward, because no one else will. And that’s why I continue writing, and storytelling, and doing all the activism and organizing in the forefront and behind the scenes to make our society better.
Wow, we teachers are on week 7 of COVID19-induced #remotelearning. It’s been hard, to say the least. I talked about it on the Warriors of Education Podcast with fellow NYC teacher Karen Sarah Watson about how pandemic disaster crisis-induced distance “teaching” is going. See more, my thoughts on Teacher “Appreciation” Week, and reflections, below:
I took a mental health day today from work, the first break since school buildings closed March 16th- we NYC teachers have been going nonstop with remote learning since school buildings closed March 16th.
In essence, my bandwidth is shrinking, it’s been really hard to focus on anything for more than a few minutes, and I’ve been definitely demoralized and unmotivated, to the point where friends are worried about me constantly venting about how HARD teaching is right now. While I’ve been able to do my work remote learning, I’ve had a low-grade numbness on the top of my head for weeks, and was struggling with insomnia, both due to anxiety related to all this.
It’s easy to feel isolated about being a teacher right now, especially when all around us there’s disaster striking us during this pandemic. One issue has been that there have been SO FEW VOICES public about how hard teaching has been! A lot of teacher friends and reporters (yeah, I’m talking to them thanks to my teacher tweets) have noticed the lack of teachers speaking up right now. I think it’s because we’re all so busy and tired and demoralized to even be able to put words to the page. We literally changed the face of teaching here in NYC in under a week, with no plans or constantly shifting plans from our Department of Education or Chancellor to guide us. My friend attempted a metaphor: “How can I fish without the hook?” It gets closer to the idea that teaching doesn’t work remotely in so many ways: it’s done in-person, and to try to recreate what we teacher professionals have in our brains and hearts onto an online platform is too much.
I’ll try to sum up my remote learning days in one sentence: I basically put up assignments, supports for those assignments through videos and other visuals, online, for kids to watch and then complete tasks, via quizzes or responses, look through and plan lessons from curriculum that’s from the last-minute test prep books we received and the online curriculum we have left, check in that students are logged in, while also dealing with student tech/literacy/language/device/financial/unemployment/mental health/family issues, being tech support for students/families/colleagues while also being tech support for myself, attending staff meetings, having Gov. Cuomo or the Mayor or Chancellor or the Department of Education change things on us with short notice (Zoom?), cancel our Spring Break with less than a weeks’ notice, with no certainty that we’ll be forced to work through summer and be forced to go into school buildings when schools reopen before things are safe, ON TOP of working gently with families dealing with pandemic issues where students and their families have dealt with COVID19 deaths, AND, the highlights of my days, having twice-weekly Google Meets chats with my students where we just catch up and build a community together.
Remote learning is completely different from teaching. Remote learning is NOT teaching.
As you might imagine, it usually takes 45 minutes or so to explain remote learning in depth to the friends and people who will listen.
And remote learning? It really sucks.
I haven’t had any time really to think about how to make this funner and more engaging for my students- there’s just no time to plan. And it’s so hard to stay motivated. And so, mental health day to just write and rest and reflect.
So on top of how hard it’s been to try to teach, us teachers are breaking. We’re being gaslighted in believing we don’t deserve raises or to be paid well when we have a pandemic (right now we’re only being compensated for 4 of the 7 cancelled Spring Break days we worked), and we’re giving ourselves because we want the best for our students. Here’s how I was feeling last week:
It is really hard to stay motivated around remote learning when we shifted our whole entire industry in a matter of days, with no rest, with little to no guidance from the city on how to do this, working nonstop to make sure Google Classrooms, a platform neither I nor the students have ever used before, is running, and when we’ve gotten no rest time from this. On top of all the financial losses and death tolls our community is suffering right now, WHY are we focused so much on productivity?
AND, schools are about to be decimated, on top of all this: NYC’s Mayor, despite the HUGE digital divide and inequity that’s been exacerbated by remote learning and COVID19, proposed $827 million in education cuts! That will devastate schools moving forward, with little chance of us getting that money back into classrooms for many years. And it is very scary. Asking us to do the impossible: doing much, much more with much, much less.
ON TOP of all this, people are talking about opening up NYC schools in September, but frankly I don’t see it happening. We have overcrowded classrooms and small school facilities as is, where multiple schools are sharing the same cafeteria, auditorium, and gym, and where classrooms, like MINE, don’t have windows! Here’s another tweet on my feelings on said topic:
That’s why it was so refreshing to talk to a fellow NYC teacher a few weeks ago about this pandemic disaster crisis induced distance remote learning mess that we’re in right now. Karen Sarah Watson is the creator of the documentary Warriors of Education and just formed a new podcast of the same name. I spoke about also trying to grieve for Chinatown and the anti-Asian racism happening now, and admitted something about my current class of students that no teacher should ever admit freely, haha.
“Today I talk to Annie Tan about her work and how she’s adjusting to remote teaching. Annie is an elementary special education teacher in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where she teaches primarily Chinese and Latino youth. She is a storyteller and activist featured in The New York Times and The Moth. Find her on @annietangent and http://www.annietan.com” Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts!
Thank you for reading, and for hearing a teacher’s voice. Please speak up if you’re a teacher right now. We need your voices.
I participated this summer in the filming of PBS’ upcoming documentary “Asian Americans” and will be featured in a digital extra! Watch the documentary online or at your local PBS station May 11th and 12th!
This week, I was honored to speak with friends and college students. I recorded 2 podcasts: with Plum Radio and Class Time with Kenzo Shibata, and also did a virtual keynote speech for NYCAASC, the NYC Asian American Students Conference (what an honor!), all of which you can access RIGHT NOW! More, including links, below:
Despite the stuff I’m doing above, I am not pushing productivity (I’ve had to unlearn ableism as a special education teacher, now in my 8th year teaching, wowza), especially as so many people, including my students, are going through losses and trauma right now during this coronavirus pandemic. I’ve also been trying to do at least the minimum to get through the drudgery of #remotelearning, exercising for the 1st time in weeks, making masks out of old tees and new recipes, working with teachers to #FundNYSchools, and trying to keep my spirits up during this time. Speaking to friends on their podcasts and to NYC Asian American students this week were helpful in that.
I, like most of my friends and students right now, have been at much less than capacity lately, but it’s my community of people and supports who have gotten me through. I am grateful to be employed right now and to be able to give to different causes and mutual aid. If y’all need help, reach out.Think through who your pod is right now and do some mapping- your people need you and you need them. And, it’s more important than ever to speak up for community and against the injustices happening now. I hope you all are finding ways to preserve your mental health and make your change right now.
Plum Radio Podcast: First up, I had SUCH a great time talking Sunday 4/19 with Dolly Li, fellow Brooklyn Technite and host of Plum Radio, talking about Chinatown, teaching, and how the case of Vincent Chin, my cousin, and the current coronavirus outbreak are just two waves of anti-Asian sentiment throughout American history. (Dolly helped me figure out how to use a Shaoxing cooking wine bottle + a stack of board games to make a video rig for the Instagram Live last Sunday while I recorded audio with my Zoom H5 recorder for the podcast!) You can listen to the Plum Radio Ep. 3 “Same Blood, Different Skin” now wherever you get your podcasts!
NYCAASC (NYC Asian American Students Conference) Keynote! Saturday 4/25 I was so fortunate to join Asian American students as one of NYCAASC’s Keynote Speakers and be able to share my Crushing the Myth story of seeking out my family history on my own terms and, in the process, finding my Asian American groove, then getting to answer questions! It was such an honor, as I was, back in the day, once a college student attending NYCAASC! So proud to be in such good company as a keynote speaker for NYCAASC with Angel Pai, host/model/business owner and Calvin Sun, ER doc/world traveller, and to be speaking amongst the likes of Angel Yau, fellow storyteller, Jerry Won, podcast host of Dear Asian Americans, my district assemblyperson Yuh-Line Niou, who’s a badass, to name just a few! Thank you, NYCAASC, for having me!!! You can watch my NYCAASC keynote on Crushing the Myth’s Facebook Page, where it streamed live starting at around 15 minutes in (some of the workshops were running a bit late, so I’m basically ad-hoc hosting before everyone joins in, hah!).
Some of the comments on my NYCAASC Keynote & Q&A on the Zoom chat, which I’ll treasure, and as a reminder that I don’t have to suffer from my imposter syndrome:
🙌🙌🙌 Preach on the feeling of isolation but realizing we have each other and our world is so much bigger.
Yay, Annie!!! Woo hoo!!
W A O
It was very inspiring and motivating
felt that abt how learning about histories gave us hope
That was incredible!! Thank you for sharing your story with us!
thank you for sharing this! sobering reminder that our families may never tell stories because they are too painful to relive
Something that so many Asians deal with is vulnerability and affection, and it is due to being overworked and worrying about the future under fear and panic, patriarchy, silence of womxn and not being able to be themselves since there is so much oppression and tradition, so essentially breaking free from trauma, facing fears and healing is what will bring light to the community
I am so proud that I’m still standing, and we’re still standing, and we’re creating art and virtual gatherings and finding ways to be in community with one another through all this. The students and kids are all right, that we have to open ourselves up right now as the world is closing in and closing down. The kids are who are getting me and teachers through remote learning right now. We gotta do right by them, and continue speaking out for em. I hope you all have a wonderful week, and continue learning, being in community, and speaking out.