Photo: Jonathan Kozowyk
How Do We Get — and Keep — More Asian American Male Teachers?
New York City initiative cofounded by alum finishes first year trying to do just this
In late 2020, when Tony DelaRosa, Ed.M.’18, got a call asking if he wanted to cofound New York City’s first affinity program for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) male teachers, he jumped at the opportunity.
At the forefront of his mind was the marked increase in racism against Asian Americans that had followed COVID-19 — an increase DelaRosa experienced personally. Having been an AAPI male teacher himself with Teach For America, he was cognizant of the challenges AAPI male teachers face at the best of times — isolation, stereotypes, and the burden to be “always taking up space” for their identity group. Never mind when those challenges are coupled with the trauma brought on by the coronavirus.
“In the midst of the ‘Stop Asian Hate’ movement, we needed a space together, to find our shared oppression, collaborate, and create psychological safety,” says DelaRosa.
Even though he lives and works in Florida as Teach For America’s Miami director of teacher leadership development, DelaRosa teamed up with Richard Haynes from NYC Men Teach, a New York City nonprofit, to help launch the Asian American Male Teacher Retention, Support, and Development Initiative — AATEND for short. Supported by both the Mayor’s Office and the NYC Department of Education, AATEND is part of an ambitious mission to recruit 1,000 male teachers of color to the city.
The initiative launched remotely last February with its first cohort of 20 participants. Structured around bi-weekly meetings, part of AATEND’s goal was to build community and share anti-racist curriculum — two things, says DelaRosa, AAPI male teachers might not be getting from their schools. AATEND also featured a mentorship element, with a coach hired and trained by Delarosa to support male teachers in the project.
“Hiring a coach, that was one example of me being able to break the ‘bamboo ceiling,’” he says, referencing the way AAPI folks are often excluded from leadership positions.
At the meetings, participants talked through challenges specific to their AAPI male identities. DelaRosa gave the example of toxic masculinity, which “is an issue for males in general” but “looks different for Asian American men in particular.” AAPI men, he says, “are often effeminized, yet at the same time, Asian American culture is very patriarchal. The nuance of balancing that takes a very unique lens.”
Resource-sharing was another key piece of the programming. Given that AAPI teachers have a particular “identity lens” — one that overlaps with that of the Black and Latinx communities to some extent, but is also “very unique” — AAPI teachers approach anti-racist teaching from a different perspective than other identity groups. The AATEND community allowed the participants to discuss this dynamic in a space of mutual understanding, and to share resources related to identity-specific challenges and opportunities.
Though small (attendance hovered around 12 participants per session), AATEND saw early impacts, DelaRosa says. For example, one teacher designed and led a “Stop Asian Hate” community town hall at his school that became a model. “That strategy was used at every member’s school. It was powerful to see that ripple effect, the way an idea can be scaled across communities.”
The ripple effects of the program’s first year reached far beyond New York City. Before AATEND concluded its first year in June 2021, DelaRosa had already heard from education leaders in Washington, D.C. and Hawaii who learned about the initiative via LinkedIn. “It’s so needed,” he stresses. Year two of the program will start this fall with a new group of teachers.
Filling a Gap
Part of the reason AATEND received such a quick response, DelaRosa theorizes, is because few programs for AAPI teachers exist. While he knows of some projects at TFA and on the West Coast dedicated to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, many Asian American educators he has spoken with say they feel isolated in their schools or in the field. At an AAPI educator conference he attended in Oakland pre-pandemic, participants told him it was the first time they had felt seen or heard in education — or even the first time they had met another Asian American teacher. “Sometimes you are the only person,” he says.
While there is research showing that teachers of color have a positive impact on all students (and specifically students of color), most of the available research looks at the impact of Black teachers. Almost no studies focus on the importance of Asian-American teachers specifically.
“I’m looking, and the studies are far and few between. I know a few researchers, at CUNY and Berkeley, who are doing this work, but they are the only two I know of,” says DelaRosa. “We are too stuck in the Black/White binary in education in the United States.”
DelaRosa hopes that AATEND, and NYC Men Teach more broadly, will help address this gap by beginning to collect data on AAPI teachers in New York City. He also hopes that doing so provides a model for other people who have been marginalized and are interested in forming their own identity-based teaching initiatives. In the long run, he is hopeful that programming like AATEND will spread across the country, allowing more data to be collected and, crucially, more teachers of color to be recruited, supported, and retained.
“I want this to be everywhere,” says DelaRosa. “I hope it sparks conversations, not just for AAPI groups, but for all POC groups. Why do we have to reckon with our trauma? Why can these spaces help? Our outcomes have been strong. I’m hopeful that we will stay, grow, and serve as a model for other groups in the future.”
— Gianna Cacciatore is a frequent contributor to Ed. and Usable Knowledge.
Follow DelaRosa on Twitter and on his website.
Read about his recent NAAAP (National Association of Asian American Professionals) Inspire Award