I never thought of teaching as a physical job, but then I spent last month teaching summer school. I became very aware of my body in the classroom, the way it informs my teaching practice and shapes my interaction with students.
My reflection was sparked by my CT (cooperating teacher). He uses his body to teach and encouraged me to use mine, standing in proximity to off-task students, walking laps around the room to keep kids focused no matter where they sat.
He is also a big, tall dude; his body is as different from mine as they come. The way he used his body to teach was very different too. He was calm, speaking soft and slow, in a voice that invited students to listen. In contrast, I was animated and emotive.
At the start of summer school, I considered adopting some of my CT’s mannerisms. After all, teaching is performative. Watching somebody else teach is like watching another actor say your lines. You get to see another possibility for your character, and incorporating their interpretation can make your performance richer. But I came to the conclusion that my CT’s performance was not an option for me; on my female body, his mannerisms would read as cold instead of calm. Though I wished for it to be otherwise, my body was undeniable.
Then the second week of summer school I got my period. It was again impossible for me to ignore my body, especially during the five hour stretch before lunch, when I was finally free to duck into the bathroom.
So I was feeling very frustrated by my body and it’s refusal to be ignored, when I sat down at a lunch table and one of my kids asked “Miss Radish, what culture are you?”
(Told you, I always get this question. It’s like clockwork.)
I told the student that I am Chinese and white, then asked what culture she is. The question might have been rude in another context, but I realized that it wouldn’t be, coming from my particular body at that particular moment.
She shared that she’s from a Polynesian Island, and then the boys across the table were engaged.
“What culture are you, Luis?” I asked.
“Mexican!” He said with pride that I smiled to hear.
“Do you speak Chinese, Miss Radish?” His friend wanted to know.
“Barely. My grandparents don’t speak English, so it makes them sad. But actually I do know a few phrases.”
I taught the kids to say Happy New Year, the only Chinese I know. “Gung hay fa choi!” They repeated it back to me as a chorus.
“Now you owe me a phrase from your culture,” I said. “Do you speak Spanish?”
The boys wanted to teach me to say “como estas?” But I took Spanish in high school. After responding “Bien, gracias. Y tu?” I asked for a new phrase. Luis patiently helped me say “if you’re not smiling, you’re doing it wrong.” Si no estas sonriendo, lo estas haciendo mal.
Upon reflection, I wonder how this interaction would have played if I was a different person. What if I was white, or even just more clearly Asian? I don’t think the first student would have inquired about my culture without the invitation of my racial ambiguity, and I wouldn’t ask the kids about their culture without being asked first.
Often, being not-white and a woman feels like a disadvantage, but in this instance my body was a tool I was lucky to possess. Because of my physical self, my students and I had an important conversation. I had the opportunity to frame identity as something to smile about. I believe teaching for equity has to involve celebrating differences, and because of my body, my students and I had a chance to do this. Undeniably, that’s rad.