Na­tional hon­oree was des­tined to teach

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By XIAO LIXIN in New York xi­aolixin@chi­

Stephanie Sun traces her des­tiny to be­come a teacher to her child­hood days of make-be­lieve.

“When I was a child around age 10, I would ask my mom to buy fake chalk­board and faketeach my stuffed an­i­mals into a class for hours at my sub­ur­ban New Jersey home, un­til din­ner time,” Sun told China Daily. “It just feels like some­thing I was born with, that I want to be in front of stu­dents and like the idea of be­ing a teacher.”

Sun, 26, a fifth-grade English teacher at Achieve­ment First Brownsville Mid­dle School in Brook­lyn, New York, was re­cently awarded the 2015 Fish­man Prize for Su­perla­tive Class­room Prac­tice, a na­tional honor that rec­og­nizes teach­ers work­ing in high-poverty schools.

She beat out nearly 800 other ap­pli­cants from around the coun­try to be­come one of only four hon­orees this year, and also the first Chi­nese-Amer­i­can hon­oree since the prize was launched in 2012.

“For my­self, I am just happy that I am rec­og­nized for my work in one way, and I could have the op­por­tu­nity to keep learn­ing and grow­ing be­cause I want to be a teacher as long as I can,” she said. “And I know that be­ing a great teacher needs decades and decades of work.”

Sun worked sev­eral non­pay­ing jobs, mostly as a vol­un­teer and in­tern work­ing with home­less teens and im­mi­grant young­sters through­out her col­lege life at New York Univer­sity. One of them was with an or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Door, which fo­cuses on home­less youths.

“Back then, I worked al­most like an in­take coun­selor, to meet teenagers on the streets who needed this type of ser­vice, for ex­am­ple, hous­ing, health or le­gal ser­vice,” she said. “That was pretty much vol­un­tary work and re­ally in­tense for me as a sopho­more, but it did ex­pose me to a lot of is­sues like poverty in New York City.”

Her last part-time job while at NYU was a turn­ing point in her re­al­iza­tion that a dis­par­ity ex­isted in New York be­tween stu­dents who did not have op­por­tu­nity and stu­dents with ev­ery op­por­tu­nity.

At the pri­vate school where she taught Man­darin twice a week, the chil­dren were from wealthy fam­i­lies and pay­ing $30,000 for preschool tu­ition and got to learn a sec­ond lan­guage at an early age.

“From there, I de­cided I want to not only teach but also work with stu­dents who were born in a ZIP code they did not choose,” she said. “And that’s why I joined Teach For Amer­ica, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that placed me in New Haven, and where I taught for two years af­ter grad­u­at­ing from NYU in 2010.”

The time in New Haven, Con­necti­cut, was dif­fi­cult, Sun re­called. She taught at an al­ter­na­tive school, where all the stu­dents were ex­pelled or sus­pended from other New Haven public schools. Teach For Amer­ica de­cided to cre­ate a school for them and give them a sec­ond chance.

“At that time, I did not know how to teach them, how to han­dle the so­cial, emo­tional, and ed­u­ca­tional needs they had, and it was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for me since I just grad­u­ated with ba­si­cally zero teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Sun said. “But I learned a lot in those two years. I re­ally re­al­ized my own lim­i­ta­tions, and knew that I was not a great teacher yet and had so much to learn.”

Af­ter New Haven, Sun de­cided to learn and de­velop some­where else, so she re­turned to New York and joined the Brownsville school two years ago.

“When I had the in­ter­view at the Brownsville, I saw how won­der­ful the stu­dents were and how re­ally they have fo­cused on ed­u­ca­tion,” she re­called. “And I told my­self: This is the right school for me and where I want to work if I can con­trib­ute to that type of suc­cess.”

In the be­gin­ning, since Sun was a new face, there was a sense of wari­ness around her, like “Who is this per­son?” she said. Although 98 per­cent of her stu­dents are African Amer­i­can and the oth­ers His­panic, many stu­dents did not see Sun as Asian or Chi­nese un­til her par­ents went to her school for the award.

“With a lack of un­der­stand­ing around dif­fer­ent cul­tures and cul­tural di­ver­sity, they might feel con­fused about my iden­tity a lit­tle bit,” she said. “I might be the very first Chi­nese that my stu­dents have ever in­ter­acted with or spo­ken to. I try to share my cul­ture with them, what I do with my fam­ily and our food.

“I think even­tu­ally, though, once we de­vel­oped a close re­la­tion­ship, and they saw how I cared, it was quite spon­ta­neous that they knew I was the kind of nur­tur­ing teacher and later gave each other nick­names, like Miss Sun­shine for me,” she gig­gled. “De­vel­op­ing a close fam­ily re­la­tion­ship and men­tor­ing stu­dents could help them build trust in you, and open up to you and ac­cept what you were try­ing to teach them.”

With ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers as men­tors who gave feed­back each week af­ter ob­serv­ing how the new teacher worked, Sun and her stu­dents made sig­nif­i­cant progress and grew to­gether. Her stu­dents out­per­formed their peers in their dis­trict and achieved nearly four times the pro­fi­ciency rate of other fifth-grade English stu­dents from the same neigh­bor­hoods in Brook­lyn.

When asked about the se­crets to mak­ing it hap­pen, Sun said the first thing is high ex­pec­ta­tions, be­liev­ing that fifth graders could write es­says on com­plex top­ics.

“Even though we pre­pare col­lege-ready ma­te­ri­als for our stu­dents, I know that if my stu­dents feel sup­ported and cared for, they can ac­com­plish any task in front of them,” she said. “I am im­pressed by what my stu­dents could pro­duce, es­pe­cially in the writ­ing as­pect, and how much they are able to grow and how thirsty they are for knowl­edge.”

Another se­cret to Sun’s suc­cess is her per­son­al­ity: al­ways happy, pos­i­tive and rig­or­ous, which is why her col­leagues and stu­dents af­fec­tion­ately call her “Miss Sun­shine” or “Miss Sunny”.

“I am a very pos­i­tive and happy per­son, which is also why I love work­ing with kids,” she said. “The more ex­po­sure I have to dif­fer­ent types of kids and dif­fer­ent pro­grams, the more I know I am the hap­pi­est with chil­dren.”

Sun be­lieves that if you cre­ate a pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment in which stu­dents have nick­names and know you, they will feel you sup­port them. “I think that makes a huge dif­fer­ence in the class­room,” she said. “It pro­vides kids an en­vi­ron­ment where they want to learn, they (my stu­dents) are jump­ing out of their seat to learn be­cause it is fun and chal­leng­ing.”

De­spite the fact that a lot of teach­ers, her­self in­cluded, may feel burned out some­times — like the two years she was with Teach For Amer­ica when she saw many teach­ers come and go — Sun re­fuses to give in to fa­tigue and frus­tra­tion, driven by what she calls “the com­bi­na­tion of pas­sion and in­dig­na­tion”.

“The more I learn about gap and dif­fer­ence in op­por­tu­ni­ties in Amer­ica, I got so up­set that stu­dents were given dif­fer­ent life op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause of their race or ZIP code,” said Sun. “This (be­ing a teacher) is the work I want to do to make a dif­fer­ence, be­cause sit­ting back and do­ing noth­ing was not an op­tion.

“I think at the end of the day ed­u­ca­tion will be the an­swer to solv­ing poverty,” she said. “I be­lieve the more energy and fo­cus we put on clos­ing the ed­u­ca­tion gap, the more likely we are go­ing to change the world and make a dif­fer­ence.”


Stephanie Sun, a fifth-grade English teacher in Brownsville, Brook­lyn, New York, works with one of her pupils. Sun won a na­tional award this year for “su­perla­tive class­room prac­tice.”

Stephanie Sun

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