Drop the MICroaggressions
by Tu Vuong
My career has been shaped by women — a clear, conscious manifestation of mentors, if you will. Coupled with that has been change. Well before the ubiquitous internet meme and catchphrase "trust the process" became rampant across social media over the last decade, I learned early on that my career would not only be impacted by change, but that I would need to embrace it to grow. However, embracing the uncomfortable and trusting in it are two very different phenomena.
Growing up, my mother taught us, "you can only lose what you cling to”. To this day, her words still resonate with me both personally and professionally. I have vivid memories of when I was seven years old, wanting only to hold on to my scuffed up, nearly soleless Converse sneakers even though they were worn in from walking to and from school and playing tag and tether ball in the yard at recess. I never understood the underlying message my mother meant at the time; I only wanted to cling to my well-loved and lived-in shoes. It was only later in life that I truly grasped the old adage. She was referring to life's fleeting moments, not tangible items. Change is constant. Learn from experiences, then let them go.
My family and I are immigrants to Canada from Vietnam. In 1979, when I was one month old, my parents made the difficult decision to leave the war-torn country, a once resource-rich place they had called home. As plans and negotiations took form, they were faced with gut-wrenching choices. In the end, my parents decided to divide our family of four to embark on the perilous journey of fleeing the country, but surmised it would be less treacherous if my father escaped with my brother first and then devise a subsequent plan for my mother and me. Pursuing every detail of their plan, my father paid extortionate amounts for a spot on an overcrowded, rickety vessel and fled with my brother. They were lucky enough to survive the harrowing sea passage to Singapore. They remained there for several months until finally, they resettled in Ottawa as part of Marion Dewar's Project 4000. In 1982, my mother and I were reunited with my father and brother in Ottawa with only the basic necessities in hand, all that we needed. You only lose what you cling to…
Like the considerable number of Generation Xers, I remained resolute on a bridge year after my post-secondary studies to explore the world before settling into my career. Uncertain but determined to see what was on the vast other side, I packed my bags and jetted to Seoul to teach English. I walked out of the airport and looked around to find my new school director. She was there to meet me and to help ease my transition into the city of 11 million; she had held up a scintillating sign that read: TU, IF YOU'RE LOOKING FOR A SIGN, THIS IS IT. Bleary-eyed, I chuckled at the airport pick-up sign and her humour, but there could not have been a more apropos sign unbeknownst to me. This was not only the first “sign” of my teaching career, but as it turned out, she would be my mentor over the next three years in establishing the foundation of moving my thinking forward through listening to others and asking thoughtful questions that would encourage reflection — most importantly, introspection. At times, I was not ready for it. She would go on to instill in me the courage to "find comfort in the uncomfortable" — change, as I came to understand. At 21 years old, with a degree in psychology and very little teaching and travelling experience, I researched, listened intently, asked questions and taught the best way I knew how, driven by this new freedom and craving for growth. This was my sign.
The honeymoon phase of living abroad quickly became a lesson in reality. During my first year in Seoul, I signed on with a private language academy, teaching English to a sweeping range of students. My morning started with a conversational class with stay-at-home housewives, followed by phonics with preschoolers. For the remainder of the day, I taught reading and writing classes to elementary and secondary students, whose Korean names were anglicized by some of their waeguk teachers. Soo-Bin became Sue , Hyun-Suk became Harry. Interestingly, the first Korean term I learned from my students was waeguk-saram. I had heard it more times than I could possibly count. Wae means outside; guk means country and saram means person. It literally translates to “outside country person". Whether I was interacting with my students' parents or someone of Korean heritage in a social setting, often times one of the first questions they would ask was, "Where are you from?" followed by awkward, seemingly scrutinizing questions about whether my first language was English. I never imagined that I would experience prejudice in a metropolis city solely on the fact that "you look like us" and not a waeguk as I was bluntly told by a number of Koreans. In hindsight, I am confident that when I was asked those questions, it was by no means meant to be insulting; however, I could only describe my personal experience at the time as a sense of “us versus them”. I later coined this my A wae kening moment in education.
I returned to Ottawa in 2004. As luck would have it, within a month, there was a job opening with a local school board for an educational assistant in English as a Second Language. Since then, I have worked in a multitude of capacities, from educational assistant to classroom teacher to consultant, both in schools and system-wide, largely with newcomer families and students. With each new role came a new female mentor who continued to forge and frame how I thought about equity and advocacy in education. With each new venture, a recurring question echoed in my head — what are these opportunities and relationships trying to teach me about leadership?
When I was first hired on as a permanent teacher, I attended a mandatory New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP) welcome breakfast and professional networking session. I remember walking into the great boardroom with other NTIP teachers and with high hopes and excitement, I began to survey the roomful of educators, some of them former teachers. This was another defining awaekening moment — I was the only racialized educator in the room. Not one new hire was visibly a minority. Not one educational leader present was visibly a minority. This has always struck a chord with me. Upon reflection and a philosophical conversation with an esteemed colleague afterwards, I clearly recall asking myself, how do we connect and identify with newcomer students when educators in the system are not representative of the students themselves? My big takeaway from that morning was that I would consistently work towards creating a space where students could identify and see themselves in the learning environment. This takes continuous reflection, being self-aware and checking my own biases related to my experiences while taking the time to learn about my students' lived experiences. Today I would ask: How does membership in a professional organization impact its colonial practices? How can we lead with our identity in a hiring system that does not intentionally create a space for it?
After several years of teaching, I embarked on a journey that led me away from teaching in the classroom. I took on a kindergarten to grade 12 system consultant position in English as a Second Language. This was the most challenging role that I had ever undertaken, and the most impactful. I was fortunate to learn alongside progressive female mentors; one in particular, trusted that I would "establish my own voice to the role" and it would be an authentic reflection of my lived experiences. In this role, I understood what it truly meant to listen intently and to ask thoughtful questions to bring insightful, respectful dialogue among colleagues. I found myself frequently circling back to these powerful words by poet Nayyirah Waheed, as she eloquently writes:
"When I am afraid to speak
is when I speak.
That is when it is most important."
Waheed’s words resounded with me when I was invited by a colleague at a school to attend a celebration of a completed book project. In the midst of the Syrian crisis and the so-called crisis in our nation of welcoming and “accepting refugees”, the book had good intentions. For the project, a handful of “refugee” students at this particular school were asked and invited to detail their stories, along with their experiences and impressions upon their arrival to Ottawa. On the surface, the project seemed celebratory of the students and their families’ resilience and successes. However, by centering on one dimension of their stories, it perpetuated deeper structural and systemic inequities.
A reflection piece I sent to colleagues that challenged both favourable sentiment and assumptions that although the project had good intentions, they did seem one-sided as the stories only depicted the positives of being here in Canada and the students’ gratitude to Canadians for ‘allowing them to enter Canada’. There seemed to be limited space where the injustices in Canada could be shared in this book. This piece often gets overlooked by ‘Canadians’ and perhaps this is where the expectation of gratefulness resides. It perpetuates us and them and only serves to create an illusion of inclusion and surface empathy. Often times, what is noticeably missing in texts like this is the impact these students have had on the lives of their school community. How have other students been changed by their relationships with students from diverse experiences? How are the structural changes in the school different as a result of these students? The book can be a starting point for these powerful conversations. How can we leverage our leadership to bridge and balance positionality for collective empowerment?
Recently, I returned to the classroom. Students in one of my courses completed a podcast on their journey story, with a shift in perspective. Rather than focusing on the “single story”, they were motivated to share their strengths along with challenges to enlighten and empower their school community. In effect, "the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story" (Adichie). They did not want to be labelled as “ESL students” or “refugees”. At the end of their podcast, the students asked two very powerful questions of their teachers and school leaders: How has your thinking changed about newcomers after listening to our stories and experiences? Each student has wisdom – how will you use our strengths to make our community stronger? These questions encourage their community to gain a deeper understanding of the immigrant story and to use their stories to leverage the equity work.
Over the years, my personal growth and shift in mindset have not happened by accident. My journey story along with guidance from caring, creative visionaries have had a profound impact on who I am and where I am. Intentionality in wholeheartedly placing my trust in the journey and my interactions with leaders along the way have called on me to reflect on myself and relationships with others. This is integral to collective growth and empowerment. Their discerning questions and expertise have encouraged me to find comfort in the uncomfortable and have inspired me to pause and reflect – personally and interpersonally. To whom am I accountable?
Through lived experiences, I have learned to unlearn; through honest self-reflection of professional membership and change, I am called to mindful activism for the marginalized.
Tu Vuong is an educator with nearly 20 years experience overseas and locally. She has worked in a number of capacities in education including K-12 ESL consultant, educator trainer, teacher and advocate for newcomer families and students. Recently, she started a new venture called Lead Your Way, a program to support newcomer students in building confidence to communicate in English in a new cultural setting, to advocate for themselves and to be leaders in the community. She has been a lead in various projects with the Ontario Ministry of Education, Apple Education and local school boards.