Asian American Sub Stories 1

No, that’s not Asian American Sob Stories, but Sub Stories – as in Substitute Teacher Stories. Of course, the two (Sob and Sub) aren’t mutually exclusive; every sub teacher, after all, has sob stories to tell.

From my long-term sub assignment filling in for the wonderful Mrs. Shia at Sunny Hills, which covered the entirety of the Spring 2020 semester.

Longtime F.A.D. blog readers may remember that since starting my professional life as a Houston-area public high school teacher in the mid-1990s, I’ve switched vocational hats a few times. The first occasion was in the early 2000s, when I became a church minister, and the second was in 2014, when I started working as a women’s rights advocate and sexual violence prevention educator.

A couple of years ago, I decided to return to teaching, partly out of necessity (there aren’t many jobs in women’s rights advocacy, either in nonprofit or higher ed), partly because I’ve always enjoyed helping young people, and partly because I’m good at it. Little did I know how long it would take to get a full-time gig. I ended up substitute teaching for nearly two full years before some wonderful folks in Irvine Unified gave me a shot. (I still have the voice mail from my school’s assistant principal saying they wanted me.)

Notice that at the 1985 Academy Awards, Sally Field doesn’t actually say what people quote her as saying.

During my two years of subbing, I experienced a wild (and wide) variety of classroom situations. Some of these were amusing and LOL-worthy; others were poignant and moving; and still others were disheartening, even shocking. They all helped me to grow and gave me good preparation for re-entry into the world of secondary education, many years after I stepped away from it. I hope to occasionally share some of these sub stories with you.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m calling this series Asian American Sub Stories. It’s not because each of my sub stories will clearly relate to the fact I’m Asian. Some will indeed connect quite obviously, others just obliquely. But most will reflect that linkage in some way.

I hope you find these sub stories to be meaningful! I’ll start with this one:

At Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, Asians form the largest racial group. (If memory serves me right, it’s around 40 percent of the student body, with Latinx students constituting about one third.) Among the Asian students, those with Korean heritage make up the largest ethnic group by far.

One of the teachers I subbed for the most at Sunny was the absolutely amazing Mrs. Bueno, who teaches Algebra 2-Honors, a super-advanced IB math class for seniors, and a zero period AVID. She has a ton of Asian American students, many of whom seemed to enjoy the times I busted out my K-pop-heavy YouTube playlist in between classes. (This is the continually evolving “When the News Sucks” playlist that I first wrote about in the early months of the Trump Administration.)

This was probably the latest I ever left Sunny while on that long-term assignment.

On one occasion, a super-catchy song from 2010 called “Good Day” by singer and actress Lee Ji-eun, better known as IU, was playing while students were coming into class. A few of the Korean American students were singing along, but when the bell rang, I stopped the song, right as IU was about to hit a well-known 13-second high note. They let out a collective “Awwww” as their anticipation suddenly deflated.

One of them then asked, “Can you play that music during class, too?” I explained that, sorry, I wouldn’t in order to protect them from distractions.

Then I heard one of the teens say to another, “When I hear these songs, I feel better about myself.”

Evidence that I didn’t just sub at Sunny. In fact, I rotated among ten different schools in three districts.

I wish I had gotten the chance to chat with him about what he meant. But I’m guessing that he didn’t say that just because “Good Day” has such a happy tune (though the lyrics are actually kind of sad, as the then-18-year-old IU worries that her crush won’t return her affection). If that were the case, the student would probably have just said, “I feel better.” Instead, he said that he felt better about himself. My hunch is that he somehow felt seen by hearing the K-pop song at school, because:

  1. It was a hip and popular tune,
  2. Sung by a major celebrity who looks like him,
  3. In a language that he grew up hearing and/or speaking,
  4. Played at a suburban American school. Generally, schools like that are places where students are implicitly asked to set aside their racial and ethnic identities to focus on academic success. Further, at these schools, authority figures are mostly white and the curriculum highlights mostly achievements by white folks.

I could be projecting onto him what I would have felt in his shoes, but I doubt it. Representation matters, baby! That includes academic settings. It’s intuitively true and supported by research – a minority student whose racial and ethnic identities are affirmed at school performs better (links here and here). I’ll return to this theme in future posts. (And please rest assured, former students and colleagues, I won’t be saying anything that would embarrass anyone.) For now, I leave you to enjoy this “Good Day”!

The music video has a lengthy introduction. Vocabulary lesson for today: “Oppa” is the Korean term a younger woman would use to address her older brother. But it also can be used by girls and women to refer to a male outside their family that they feel close to – including a boyfriend.