News & Views

Apprentice Teacher Reflects on Identity

by Olivia Mao, Fifth Grade Apprentice
“Where are you from?”

I’ve heard the question millions of times. It's the kind of question I've grown used to hearing and it took a while for me to realize that most people don’t want to hear that I am from Connecticut. 

“No, where are you really from?” 

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized the truth behind the question of where I was from. Being an Asian American, I often struggled with understanding my identity and that I was different from others. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand that my identity as an Asian is an important facet of who I am and I hope to further share that heritage with my students.

While I hoped to share this with my students, I had no clue how to dive into the depth of the history of Chinese New Year. I gathered all of the activities, snacks, and handouts of the holiday and quickly got to brainstorming ways to help my students understand that this holiday isn’t simply fun but has many interesting meanings. Chinese New Year is all about wishing well onto others and wishing for a prosperous new year for those around you. It’s about embracing family and celebrating the ones you love. Sometimes we forget to celebrate our loved ones, and this goes hand in hand with teaching students to treat those that we care about with kindness. 

I was quickly surprised to see the positive reactions of my students who were looking forward to celebrating the holiday with their families. Some of my students even came to me after the lesson to thank me for sharing my culture with them. I loved seeing the students open up in such a mature and developed way, but unfortunately not everyone handles diversity in such an open minded way. 

When I heard the news regarding the Atlanta shootings, I was appalled. It was the first time in my life that I was forced to recognize that someone could hate me simply for my race. It scared me and it hurt to see these things happening in the world around me. Not only did it scare me, but it worried me to recognize that my students could be feeling the same fear that I was.  

It was while talking about identity and stereotypes that I aimed to help my students understand some of the many problems of discrimination around race. Within our lessons on immigration, we taught our students about the struggle of traveling to a country to start a new life, with the goal of teaching empathy for all. 

While I have my own personal experience of being an Asian American woman, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Asian American Footsteps Conference. At the conference, I had the chance to learn from fellow Asians from many different walks of life. While I was there, I learned that everyone has their own story, that everyone has experienced different obstacles, and that everyone has the power to share their stories. I hoped that I could soon share this experience with my students so that they could further grasp racism within our world and how to talk about our identities in a civil and fair way.

As one of the few Asians within our community, I find it important to help students understand diversity in a mature way where they can learn to respect one another. I hope that at New Canaan Country School we continue to find important ways to talk about diversity in a way that structures the scaffolding for uncomfortable conversations, allowing our students to be confident talking about difficult topics. We can’t always avoid the challenging subjects in life, and teaching our students to be comfortable with the uncomfortable is important. 

Identity is a hard thing to break down. It’s intricate and confusing. It’s important to help students learn to understand both themselves and those around them. Whether they are Asian, African American, Latino or anything else, I hope that through our lessons students can take pride in their heritage and feel optimistic to share it with those around them. I don’t want any of my students to ever feel as if they aren’t able to be open about themselves or to ever feel as if they are threatened simply for being themselves. While it is a tricky subject to navigate, I hope that my lessons can help students feel proud of who they are and where they came from. In school, we learn the most important lessons that guide and frame the way that we think, and lessons like this are crucial to a student's education. 

While understanding identity and racism is something important to me, it has been with my students that I have found my passion for teaching empathy regarding these topics. 

“Where am I from?” 

I’m from Connecticut. But my identity can’t just be boiled down to just that. I’m a proud Asian American, I’m a loving sister, I’m an apprentice teacher, I’m a talented pianist, I’m a people person who never gets enough. I’m simply me. These are all parts of my identity, who I am. I hope that I can inspire my students to be as proud of their identities as I am of mine.
New Canaan Country School admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin and are afforded all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, age, sex, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry, or disability in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, financial aid policies or any other school-administered programs.