Mary Waring was given two career options growing up.
“My mom wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor,” said Waring, a Vietnamese-American who attended SUNY Geneseo to study pre-law. “I got involved in volunteer work while I was at Geneseo and was tutoring part-time at a juvenile detention center, and that’s when I realized maybe I could be a teacher.”
In her 23rd year of teaching high school English in East Meadow on Long Island, she is now working with colleagues from across the region to share the story of her career pathway with Asian-American and Pacific Islander students who may not otherwise see themselves reflected in the classroom.
Waring, a building representative for the East Meadow Teachers Association, is one of roughly 30 educators from public and private K-12 schools, colleges and education-related fields who last year formed the Asian Pacific American Council of Educators-Long Island (she is the organization’s secretary). The council took off with encouragement from both the Long Island Latino Teachers Association and Long Island Black Educators Association.
The celebration of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May brought recognition to the fledgling group, including a recent profile of Waring’s work. But the association’s commitment to uplifting Asian-American educators and encouraging Asian-American students — and their peers of all races and backgrounds — to consider a career in education is year-round. The need is particularly acute amid the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.
“Instead of asking the question, ‘Why do people have such hate toward Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders?’ I always say, ‘How can we solve this problem?’ And No. 1 is educating,” said Soh Young Lee-Segredo, APACE-LI president and a member of the Hempstead Classroom TA. “That’s why I’m saying we need a voice, we need to stand and advocate for those teachers who feel they are so lonely in so many Long Island school districts, where they identify as the only ones who are Asian.”
Diversifying the education workforce is a core tenet of NYSUT’s Take a Look at Teaching initiative, and the need is clear: While students of color make up 56 percent of total enrollment statewide, teachers of color represent only 19 percent of the workforce, according to state statistics. The percentage of Asian-American teachers statewide is in the single digits, and Lee-Segredo said that on Long Island, the number is just 3 percent. At the same time, the educator pipeline has not been built out to bolster their ranks. A 2019 study from the State Education Department found that in 2016-17, just 1 percent of Asian or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander college students in New York were enrolled in an educator preparation program.
APACE-LI’s work dovetails with that of the statewide union. Lee-Segredo, an International Baccalaureate world coach at the elementary level and the only Korean teacher in her district, said she wants the council to be a model for students who see these teachers and say: “I think their work is so meaningful. I want to one day become an educator to change students’ lives.”
APACE-LI members also want to be a resource for those parents who may not otherwise feel they have a strong voice to advocate for their children and connect with their school districts because of language or cultural barriers.
That connection with families doubles as a critical part of encouraging the next generation to pursue a teaching career. When Waring recently sat down for a local news interview, a group of 15 or so Asian-American students snuck themselves into the library where the conversation was being taped.
“I can’t help but wonder if maybe one or two were listening to the interview and hoping that maybe seeing my face on the TV screen, or them showing the clip to their mom or dad who never would have encouraged them to become a teacher, opens the door for them,” she said.
More than two decades after her own door opened, Waring went back to college, where she happened to have her first ever Asian teacher during the last year of the program.
To mom’s elation, she finally earned that doctorate — in education.
“The big joke in the family was my mom could now call me doctor,” Waring said.
Long Island educators interested in joining or learning more about APACE-LI can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.