My mother’s dream was to sing and dance on stage. It would be difficult to accomplish, as it was a taboo for a woman to become involved in the entertainment business in her generation. So she gave in to her father’s urge and married my father. Inevitably, her dream continued to remain unfulfilled, even though her desire was never relinquished. For this reason, I understood why my mother frequently lectured to us in her own terms, the girls in particular, about the less privileged, about striving to become somebody, namely one of the financially independent at any cost. She did not allow us to do any kitchen work or sowing lest we become a housewife, the one, “living for the husband”. Ever since my adolescent years, I’ve held my mother’s expectations in my mindset. All of us girls inherited the perfectionism wrought in her “trivial” work of cooking and house cleaning. Exceptionality was her norm and we followed her example.
My teaching career has been mostly with Hispanic bilingual students. I don’t speak their language nor share their cultural background, but I have been acting as their avid advocate for almost two decades. Dealing with a subset of low-socioeconomic students and their parents, most of whom work as kitchen helpers in popular restaurants on the Kemah Boardwalk, has pressured me into establishing a teaching mission for my students: fulfillment of the American dreams of Hispanics for a better future.
With this purpose in mind, I put my students to work so they could become the best they could be. “No half-way, but all the way” has always been my motto for their learning environment. When I began to realize that my parents couldn’t afford time for helping their children with school work, I started making frequent phone calls to put those academically less fortunate to work at home. I did this in lieu of their parents. In order to manage time effectively for maximizing outcome of instruction, I use a timer to count every second without rendering any segments of loose time. My students don’t take recess unless earned through their merits. My rationale behind this restriction is that my transitional bilingual students face the dual task of simultaneously having to learn the language and the academics within a timeline set by state regulations. The matter becomes even more serious when you note that the non-native speakers attending the schools in the study sample show a deficit in their command of non-technical vocabulary, compared to their native speaking counterparts, amounting to about two years at each grade level tested (Childs & O’Farrell, 2003). There’s just so much to do and too much to catch up with in order to equal or better the mainstream level of achievement, let alone the competition in the real world.
I thought I was doing the right thing for my students until two years ago. It was the first day of school when one of the parents protested, asking the school that her son not be placed in my class. Her older son was my former student, whom I still remember as an unusually intelligent third grader, but with one critical issue. He always had trouble completing class work, especially homework. I remember calling him various times at home to remind him to complete his late assignments for the next day. Likewise, I frequently sent notes home, translated into Spanish. Eventually, my assistant principal (an Hispanic female) called me in for a parent conference. The child’s father expressed anger that I did not understand how hard they had to work to make ends meet, plus he said that he didn’t believe the account of the problems I documented about his son was accurate as it was contrary to what his son had told him. He said that his children were all been academically successful until his third son was placed in my room.
In short, I was too hard on his son, and the parents didn’t wish to jeopardize their fourth son in any way by his being placed in my room. I was already known as a tough teacher among the Hispanic parents and students. My reputation didn’t bother me as I considered my students’ success as my own, regardless of the price they and I had to pay. However, the conference ended in pain and bitterness. I felt my high expectations that I held towards my students was stomped on by the parents who did not value my life-long work ethic – maximizing one’s potential to its highest degree for success, which can accomplished only through hard work. The value system that sustained me all my life turned somebody against me.
A couple of days later, the assistant principal expressed concern, saying that I did not understand the Hispanic culture. She said that the highest priority in the Hispanic culture is not necessarily in education as it could be in the Asian culture. She carefully insinuated that I seemed a bit too hard on parents who didn’t need to be told to do more than what they could manage especially in the midst of their daily struggle just to be able to put food on table. She also confessed that she kept herself from telling me in the past that I was a bit too hard on my students, as well. I was hurt, stunned, and dumbfounded. The school always strives for the highest passing rate in the name of school, but it seems that the school surely was discouraging hard work by students.
From time to time, that incident made me question things: was my striving for success truly geared for the success of my students, or was it simply for my own self-attainment? Is it truly the students that I cared for, or the perfect 100% passing record that I’ve kept throughout my entire teaching career? My husband jokingly calls it “Asian pride,” but I call it hard work. This I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.