In September 2016, I left my job in the technology sector to become a high school computer science teacher. This was a career move that perplexed many people around me. Why would I switch from a promising career in technology to teach? However it made and continues to make complete sense to me. I wrote this article to reflect upon my journey and share how I came to this decision. To do that, I need to tell my story starting from the beginning.
Ages 0 - 5: China
My family and I immigrated from China when I was 5 years old. If my family had stayed in China, I would have been subject to the forces of China’s high-pressure education system. However, my parents wanted a different future for me. They wanted a better life for my brothers and me.
And so my family packed up their bags in 1997 and set off for America.
Ages 5 - 18: America
When we landed in California, we rented a small apartment in the city of San Jose. The area was filled to the brim with immigrants from East and Southeast Asia. I graduated from Lynbrook High School, which had nearly 70% of its students of Asian descent when I attended. Nearly all of my classmates and I were the sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants. We all sought to ascend the ladder of social mobility. Our families all drilled into us the importance of formal education. We knew it was our one-way ticket to the middle class.
As a result of this heavy emphasis on academic success, I graduated from high school and immediately climbed onto the next rung of the economic ladder by attending a great public university: UC Berkeley. It was during my freshman year at UC Berkeley that I had a profound experience that would change my life and shape the way in which I saw my future.
Ages 18 - 21: College
In my first semester in college, I joined a student club that volunteered each week at a local elementary school. Around 15 Berkeley students would walk a mile to the elementary school campus and volunteer to serve as tutors and role models to the 5th graders there.
I remember the first time I arrived on the campus of Washington Elementary. It was a complete culture shock. In the United States, there is a federal program known as the Free and Reduced Lunch program. This allows families near the poverty line to qualify for school lunch at a free or reduced rate. In the field education, the percentage of students of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch is often used as a proxy to measure the socioeconomic status of the student body. At the public schools I attended, only a small fraction of the student body qualified for free or reduced lunch. Whereas my high school had only 3% of its students on free or reduced lunch, Washington Elementary had nearly 40% of its students qualifying for the program.
As I spent my next few months volunteering at this school and interacting with the young 5th graders, I got a clearer and clearer picture of how different life was at this school. Students had different priorities, goals and experiences than I did. Their perspectives on the importance of education and what it meant to be successful was incredibly different from the environment I was raised in. They had fewer resources than my classmates and I did.
I had always intellectually known that I had grown up in a sheltered bubble, but it wasn’t until I came face to face with an alternative reality that it really struck home. Spending time at Washington Elementary was like spending time in a foreign country. This jarring experience gave me a lot to think through. Why was it that I got to attend well-funded, highly resourced and academically rigorous public schools? How come other families didn’t get the same opportunities? Was I more deserving of access to a better education than they were?
From mulling over all of these questions, I came to a conclusion: I had essentially won the lottery of birth. I was fortunate enough to have been born to parents who could immigrate to America, find high-paying jobs and receive the nurture and care so that I could seek and pursue my dreams.
Others were not so lucky. They grew up in areas without well-run schools, in social structures that were unstable and came from families that couldn’t provide them the warmth and resources they needed to thrive. The lottery of life had favored me before I even took my first breath. I had won the coin toss and someone else had lost.
It seemed bizarre to me that the zip code you end up living in could decide so much of your fate. The entire situation made me frustrated, confused and angry at how the world could be so unfair. It also made me ask what I needed to do with my life, and the coin toss privilege I had.
There is a powerful institution in our world designed to provide opportunities to people. It’s called the education system. It’s the same institution my parents encouraged me to master. If I really wanted to do something about the problem I saw in the world, I might be able to find out how if I worked to improve education.
And this launched me on a path to a career in education.
Ages 21 - 24: Work
When I graduated from college, each and every job I took was in the field of education. I started by working as an engineer at an education software company. I went onto work as a statistician consulting with large school districts and charter school networks. The following year, I was a summer fellow in an administrative role in a charter network’s central office.
Yet all of these roles lacked something key to me. I never felt a deep connection to my work in the way that I did when I was volunteering at Washington Elementary. Those days made me feel like my life had meaning and worth. I wanted to feel that again. Then, a few of my colleagues introduced me to The Nueva School, and its unique education philosophy.
Intrigued, I visited the campus. The vision of the school blew me away. It emphasized student autonomy, student voice and student passion. It was the environment I wish I had at my school, and certainly for the students at Washington Elementary. Before I knew it, I was a computer science teacher at Nueva’s high school in San Mateo.
At this school, I get to practice the educational philosophy that I love. I’m able to align my personal identity with the daily work that I do.
In college I was once given the career advice to find something that satisfies all three of the following conditions: you enjoy it, you get paid for it and the world needs it.
Through teaching at Nueva, I have found all three.
When I’m not teaching, I work with families and students from the Bay Area community I grew up to achieve their own personal dreams. In my next post, I’ll share more details about the coaching program I co-founded: Orenda Academy.
You can learn more about it at www.orendaacademy.com.