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Jireh Tanabe | English literature and mental health

When I was in eighth grade, I had this very eccentric English teacher. He would whack the desks whenever he wanted people to answer — and sometimes he would only call on the kids who were reliably the ‘smart kids.’ 

I wasn’t considered one of the smart kids, which was fine with me, because I did not want anybody whacking my desk asking for answers. 

But he asked us this one question about ‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck. And I knew the answer. I knew it inside of me. It was this huge feeling of knowing. But I didn’t say anything, because I was super shy. I was three kids back from him, and he kept whacking this super smart kid’s desk. The whole time, I was thinking, ‘I know that the answer I have is right,’ but I didn’t say anything, and he didn’t call on me.

That moment affirmed for me that I was also good at English, like the ‘super smart kids’ were. I could make a good English teacher someday. I had always loved to read, and I was a pretty good writer. In the summers, I would play teacher with my stuffed animals and imaginary students, and I remember sitting in that eighth grade English class and thinking, ‘I can do this.’

There are a lot of kids who seem unassuming, and you just don’t know what’s going on in their heads. They might have the answer. Every kid has potential. 

When I first started teaching, I would stand at the door. And as each kid came into my classroom, I would tell myself, ‘He has potential. She has potential.’ And I think that set me up for seeing them differently, seeing them as people and not just as objects like my stuffed animals back when I was little. I intentionally gave them more than they had coming in. I think that sets you up for success as a teacher.

It can be challenging to be a person of color teaching a subject that others might not expect you to teach. I’m a woman of Asian descent, teaching an English class. Most people might be less surprised if I said I taught science, math, or Chinese, because those are the stereotypical strengths associated with Asian individuals. 

It’s taken a lot of determination and a commitment to excel in my field to reach the point where people see me simply as an English teacher, rather than as a person of color teaching. I’m aware that some students, on a subconscious level, might have reservations or questions about whether I know what I’m talking about, but I’m a damn good writing teacher and I can get kids to think critically. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished as a teacher. 

Growing up in an immigrant family myself, I know that my family saw white teachers as aligned with the American context, so a white teacher might be more trusted to teach English. Whatever the teacher said carried significant weight, and we considered them the ultimate authority figures. It was the same outside of the classroom for us; the teacher’s word was practically law.

So for students coming from different cultural backgrounds, teachers can hold a position of great respect. That’s part of why there’s a need for more representation. We need more people of color teaching and thriving as educators, demonstrating that we are America too.

We’ve recently made changes to the 10th grade curriculum to make it more relevant, while still aligning to common core standards. The student population at Monta Vista is predominantly South and East Asian, and many of their parents are immigrants, but our curriculum was primarily written by white authors about white characters.

Up until recently, we were still studying Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, but we removed those from the curriculum. I don’t think the point was driven home for me until one of my students told me, ‘Mrs. Tanabe, my dad is excited that I’m reading this book that he read 30 years ago. That’s SAD! I don’t want to read the same books he did! It’s 2022!’ She was right, on one level. While the canon has its place and students should be exposed to what came before them, we need to teach in the present. This year, we’ve just completed our reading of Night by Elie Wiesel. It’s one of my favorite units because it allows us to delve into topics like empathy, looking beyond oneself, the role of bystanders, and the consequences of being one.

Following reading The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, I’ve developed a unit where students will read nonfiction texts written by women who have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. These texts are highly accessible for the students, and they’ll engage in discussions and activities related to the books. Some of the titles include The Road of Lost Innocence, Invisible: Surviving the Cambodian Genocide, Because I Have To, I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, In Order to Live, and The Girl with Seven Names.

After reading these books, the students will embark on an interview and research project. They’ll choose a woman they know who has overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges and conduct an interview, much like the one you’re doing with me. They’ll create a montage with photos, voiceovers, and music, which they’ll share with the class as their final project. We’ll conclude with discussions about ‘her story’ and its significance, followed by reflections on their experiences and the challenges women face.

All of the art on display in my classroom was created by students. These pieces come from various projects, including final exams. Many of them revolve around answering questions like ‘What’s the human condition?’ or ‘What’s the hope of humanity?’ These are just a selection of the projects I’ve kept, chosen for their visual impact.

As an English teacher, it might seem unconventional to display artwork instead of motivational posters or text-based decorations. However, I believe that in a world filled with text, students should have the opportunity to come into this room and lose themselves in a painting, photo, or piece of art. It’s how the creative process often begins. Writing is both creative and disciplined, so offering them something to look at and encouraging different ways of thinking about art and expression is valuable.

Each piece of art here was presented by a student, who explained their artistic choices and how they addressed the question, using evidence and analysis to support their answers. (It’s essentially an oral essay, but they may not think of it that way. It allows their thoughts to flow more naturally.)

For example, there’s a piece representing the seasons of Amir’s mind from The Kite Runner. Ryan created this piece years ago after reading the book. He explained that Amir’s mind had four seasons, and he drew them.

That piece with the silhouette of trees represents the hope of humanity. The artist felt that hope can sometimes be obscured by darkness, but as you move forward, light emerges. Hope may not always be present in your current situation, but you must trust that you’ll eventually reach it. 

The one with the man and the exploding chest is from The Kite Runner, created by a Korean transfer student who was with us for a year. She explained that this artwork represents the moment when Amir gets beaten by Assef. In that painful moment, he realizes and seeks atonement for his actions. It’s a convergence of all the pieces of his life despite the pain he’s enduring. Interestingly, that student aspired to reform schools in Korea after her experience here.

Over the years, I’ve given a lot of thought to what can be done to retain high-quality teachers. I believe we need to lighten our workload by removing tasks that aren’t directly related to connecting with students. While we’re often encouraged to build connections with students, encouragement and intention aren’t enough — it’s having the time and space to create those connections that truly holds power.

We are constantly asked to supervise or advise clubs, attend meetings, grade, lesson plan, and more. Budget cuts and declining enrollment mean fewer resources and more crowded classrooms, which can hinder our ability to connect with students, especially those who may be more reserved and hesitant to approach us. I have 31 students in my sophomore classes. I can barely talk to each student each period. So I resort to giving individual feedback to the kids as much as I can, and that’s a lot of work but it benefits them, so why wouldn’t I do it? If I can’t make them better while I have them, I don’t think I’ve done my job or been an effective teacher. It takes me a long time, with lots of energy, to give specific feedback in a timely manner, but it’s what I ‘advertise’ — they WILL be better writers by the time they leave my class.

I also feel that curriculum-wise, we need to be experts. I am not an English teacher because I like to read and write; I’m an English teacher because I can teach a child how to read carefully and write analytically, listen and speak powerfully, and think critically. I can break down the mystery of the skills by using the content I teach to reach students. If I can’t break down the mystery or explain it, then I’m not doing my job; there are those of us who are working super hard for students to achieve and achieve more and kids get it. There should be a way to retain those of us working hard to help kids achieve what they didn’t think possible, because that is the heart of teaching and learning.

The good that’s happening here isn’t tangible. It’s not in their grades, but kids are learning.

I’m known as a hard teacher. To me, being a hard teacher means that I’m holding kids accountable. I’m seeing kids and their work. I’m asking them to do something that they’ve never done before because I know they can do it and they’ll need it when they leave. 

If they can walk into the next classroom or the next part of life and feel prepared, then I did my job, right? It makes me feel good to know that students walk in ahead of the game because they worked hard to achieve something with me. If they focus on the grade, then they aren’t truly learning; if they are learning, then the grade will be their reward. And taking the intellectual risk pays off — it always does and always has. 

I had a former student tell me that he always wanted to do his best in my class because I inspired that in him. Another just told me that when I invested 20 minutes (that I don’t remember) explaining to her how the phrases ‘a jumble of emotions’ and ‘an amalgamation of experiences’ had different connotations, she became a lifelong lover of words. She’s going to minor in literature and major in pre-med. Another told me that when I did Reading Wednesdays, she fell in love with reading again and now makes an hour a week to read for pleasure. These kids inspire me to want to keep doing this job. 

But sometimes it’s hard to remember, because people tend to equate easy with meeting kids where they are and caring for their mental health. As two immigrants’ older kid, watching my parents navigate life was seeing that it’s never easy for a person of color, even when we were finally financially comfortable. So I’m not sure why accountability isn’t lauded, because kids are having a tougher and tougher time getting into college and finding jobs in their fields. We need to teach kids resilience after making a mistake or failing — that seeking out your teacher when you have a question is showing scholarship and self-advocacy. The process needs to be valued over the end result.

Students are facing mental health crises. Part of it stems from pressure from their community or their family. So to have school fully assume the onus for the stress is a little misleading. 

Right now, teachers are being encouraged to do things like reduce homework, not give zero grades, not penalize for late work. It’s difficult to lessen homework and still hold the kids accountable, but I think it’s possible. I’m experimenting with different things. I think it’s harmful if we do these things in the name of equity because when the kids leave our classrooms, they will have a false sense of reality. 

What am I supposed to do, as a part of the system? Removing homework doesn’t lessen stress because it doesn’t teach them how to deal with stress. We’re doing things like not giving zeroes, or letting the kids do retakes and not giving late penalties. I’m not doing those things because I don’t think those things are going to teach them what’s necessary in the next chapter of their life. When you don’t pay your taxes, somebody’s gonna come knocking on your door asking you for the money. You don’t get a redo. If you don’t make a basket in basketball, you don’t get to stop the game and say, ‘Wait, ref. I want to redo this shot.’ No, you get one shot. That’s it. You miss; you deal. So are we setting kids up to learn life? Or are we setting them up to fail because we don’t want them to be stressed? 

I think the question we should be asking is ‘how can we help kids deal with stress?’ and not just ‘how can we reduce their stress?’

For me, it goes back to somehow having a smaller load of students so that I can put more time into connecting with kids and building more relationships on a daily basis. The relationship piece is huge, because stress is a part of life, but how you deal with it depends on the support you have in place.

I always do these little valentines, where I put up hearts for every kid and write personal messages on the back. During COVID, I wasn’t able to do it virtually, but one of my former students reached out on LinkedIn. 

I never thought this kid would seek me out later in life. But she wrote, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I was in your Lit class over ten years ago. During the time I was in your class, I was navigating a very dark time and… one day you handed me a note that read, “Behind your smile is pain. You are an incredibly strong person and will defy the odds. Keep looking up. -Mrs. T.” I’ve read and reread this note countless times when things have gotten hard in the last decade. I don’t remember how I must have showed up to class for you to go above and beyond and hand me that note but I wanted to thank you. Your words have brought me comfort and strength in hard seasons.’

Then she told me she paid it forward: ‘I shared your words of encouragement with a friend who was admitted to a mental facility after a suicide attempt. To say that your note was impactful is an understatement. I wanted to let you know how you impacted my life, how your kind words and your love as a teacher went beyond curriculum, and that I am eternally grateful. And in a much better place a decade out.’ 

I received this message during one of my hardest teaching moments, during COVID and Zoom learning. And what this student told me really helped me figure out that it’s not the content that we teach, it’s not the skills that we teach, but it’s the connections that we make. Even if we’re not in person! And as teachers, we make connections sometimes even without saying anything. One of my mentors called this ‘peopling’ and she’s absolutely right. I wish there were more of her to teach more of us in the field now how important peopling is in this digital age. We are observers of life, and we are privileged to be there to make connections with people during critical moments. 

That’s the power behind teaching.

–Jireh Tanabe
English Teacher at Monta Vista High School
Cupertino, California