It’s a typical Saturday evening and all the aunties have gathered around the kitchen island preparing for dinner when they begin their favorite topic of conversation: bragging about their children. One auntie says, “My daughter just got early admission into Stanford! We are so excited!” Two other aunties roll their eyes while another says, “Congratulations! My son’s robotics team got into the finals.” My mom is a quiet observer of the conversation until she finally musters up the courage to say to the others, “My daughter is a prekindergarten teacher, and I’m proud of her.”
When I tell my extended family that I am an early childhood educator, they either smile politely and say something like, “How great, you get summers off with your children!” or give me a questioning look, “But your husband is a doctor, why do you work?” My career choice is written off, even though I have an advanced degree and am National Board Certified. It isn’t respected, even though I work hard and make an impact. And as a woman, I’ve even had family tell me that it would be a better use of my time if I didn’t work at all, but rather raised my own children instead of “just watching other peoples’ children.”
I am Asian American. My parents came from India in the mid-’80s a few years before I was born. Like many immigrants, they were struggling back home, so they chose to come to America for a better life for their children. They left everything they knew behind — family, food, culture, language, way of life — just so that my siblings and I wouldn’t have to struggle. In their mind, economic security was the only way to a better life. In many ways it is, so they moved across the world for it. That’s why stereotypically, Asians enter high-paying professions such as medicine, law and engineering. The reason many Asian Americans don’t go into education is because it just doesn’t pay enough to justify our families’ sacrifices. That’s why the aunties brag about college admissions and extracurricular: For them, that is the only way to economic success and validates their decision to move to America.
I hadn’t planned on becoming an educator. I began college as a journalism major. While attending classes, I applied for a work-study job that placed me in a Title I prekindergarten classroom. I spent the year with a class of 20 children and saw firsthand how their teacher changed their lives and set up their low-income families for school success. I saw these children become better at engaging with their friends, solving conflicts on their own and learning how to listen and follow directions. At the end of that year, their families learned the importance of reading every day with their child at home and mastered navigating the public school system. I became an early childhood educator because of this impact.
Today, teaching is more than just a job, it’s my passion.
Research shows that 90% of a child’s brain is developed by age 5. The work of early childhood educators is critical. Our most important outcomes aren’t measurable on standardized tests, so it’s difficult to prove the impact of my career to my family and to society. What I do in the classroom has consequential, long-term effects on how children will continue to learn. My role as a prekindergarten teacher is to teach children how to be curious, how to ask questions, how to socially engage with their peers, and how to solve problems when things get challenging. While there are studies that show the direct impact of early childhood education on things such as third-grade reading levels and high school graduation rates, it’s much more difficult to measure being a well-balanced citizen.
As I interact with my family and others who question my profession, I ask them to consider what our world would be like if we didn’t have dedicated educators. I ask them to think about a single impactful teacher they had and consider how their educational journey would have been different if all their teachers were like that because they felt supported, respected and well-paid. What if more people decided to go into teaching because the profession could make up for all those things our families gave up in order to obtain the American Dream? Not only would we have a much more diverse teaching force, but our children would really get the education they deserve.
Margi Bhansali is a National Board Certified Teacher and teaches prekindergarten for Chicago Public Schools. She is currently a Teach Plus Senior Writing Fellow.
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