Years in education: 4
Korean American immigrant
First Generation American
Former high school English, Comparative Religion, and Race & Ethnicity teacher
Q: What did you have in common with your students?
A: I'll start with what I did not have in common: wealth. I was the son of poor immigrants, and while I had some educational privilege vis a vis my father, who was a grad student at the University of Washington, we struggled to pay our rent, rarely went out to eat, and exclusively shopped the clearance rack at the Gap. So when I started teaching high school English at the Overlake School, a private school in the heart of Microsoft Country, it was hard to ignore the the luxury brands, top-flight tech gizmos, and general (mis)understanding that success was wholly earned, not inherited. Accompanying any such bastion of pooled resource, of course, was racial homogeneity, and the subtler microagressions and self-inflating savior complexes that serve as an undercurrent to interactions with the Other.
And yet as I spent more time there, getting to know my students more personably, I began to witness the suffering that unites us all. Sure, one of my homeroom students' families collected Ferraris, but what was there to enjoy when dad was moving across the country after a nasty divorce and brother had left for college, the family splintered and dispersed? And while I, with greater access to the American Dream than my parents, felt burdened with the need to achieve status and monetary success, validating my parents' sacrifice, these students were in a pressure cooker of their own, surrounded by competitive, wealthy, high-achieving parents who expected their kids to attend an Ivy League school, then go on to realize their obvious genius in realms of business, law, tech, or science.
It was this realization, that our worldview as children, no matter where you come from, is limited by that of our parents and our surrounding community, that I began to accept their social blindspots as the target of my mission as an educator, not as evidence of willful negligence rendering them undeserving of my energy or care. I had to overcome my own biases and insecurities regarding class in order to be a more complete educator. Sure, it tested my patience when a student dismissively asked in reference to reservation-bound Native Americans, "Why don't they just leave?", but when I considered the students' lives--family vacations on Kauai, a car for almost every sixteen-year-old, an out-of-state liberal arts college expected, they needed nothing more than to ask that question, and for me to reply as best I could with the reality of our time.
Despite the homogenous environment, there were a handful of students that more readily shared my life experience: students of color, and students receiving financial assistance, although the latter were less visible. Most of the former were of East and South Asian descent, so I think it was especially affirming to see someone that looked like them bucking stereotypes in tech country: in his twenties, teaching Literature in a department full of middle-aged white women; coaching sports; singing with the high school choir during free periods; hackey-sacking with the skater kids during lunch; leading a singing-songwriting workshop during project week; and eventually, leaving behind a stable career in education to pursue a life as a independent musician.
One student, a reserved Asian-American boy whom I also coached, made sure to pull me aside before I left the school in 2013. He thanked me for coming to Overlake, and told me that having me around was immensely helpful for his confidence, and helped stabilize his sense of identity.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
A: People who don’t understand that representation matters—especially during childhood, when students are constantly assessing any social limits to self-actualization —are usually those who saw themselves reflected everywhere, from CEO to lovable chimney sweep, rock n roll star to geneticist, pro athlete to high school teacher.
It is essential that students have teachers that reflect their identity, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, or interests. Students who feel underrepresented in their school setting will feel further alienated if there are no adult educators that can instill confidence, affirm their individuality, and remind them that, despite social labeling, you alone will construct your identity.
This isn’t to say the only effective educators are those that look and think like you. It’s important to have opposing philosophies and a diverse array of ideas and identities—often it’s the search for commonality that can lead to a great teacher-student relationship. But as things stand now in both public and private school sectors, there are few teachers of color, let alone those given the social and financial resources to affect true change within school settings. We need to be recruiting, training, hiring, and retaining underrepresented teachers, and aggressively correcting systematic barriers that stand in the way.
Joe is a violinist-looper, singer, rapper, and storyteller who weaves his experiences as a Korean-American immigrant and high school teacher throughout his innovative performances. He has opened for world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, rapper Warren G, and Senator Bearnie Sanders. ROLL CALL founder Kristin Leong interviewed Joe about the joy and heartache of being a bicultural artist for KUOW Public Radio. Get a behind-the-scenes look into their conversation and listen to the 8 minute audio feature here. Learn more about Joe and stay up to date on his latest tour schedule at joekye.com.
Photos (c) 2019 Kristin Leong
ROLL CALL founder and KUOW Public Radio producer Kristin Leong with Joe Kye in the recording studio at KUOW in Seattle, January 2019. Listen to the audio feature Kristin produced about Joe here.
Humanizing the gaps separating teachers and students.