What Your Asian American Colleagues Want You to Know
In May, schools across the nation celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month: an occasion widely used as an opportunity to expose students to a different culture. While we support this practice, there’s more work to be done.
AAPI students are the fastest-growing demographic in K-12 schools, with 5 percent—or 2.6 million students—identifying as AAPI. Asian Americans are a widely diverse group, representing over 30 unique ethnicities, each contributing different perspectives. Despite this diversity, the experiences of Asian Americans are often assumed to be interchangeable.
To honor the AAPI community, we're exploring the most common stereotypes perpetuated in schools and how you can disrupt them.
Positive stereotypes don't exist
Stereotypes are oversimplifications about groups of people that overlook individual differences and cultural perspectives. Breaking down negative stereotypes is an essential step to improving equity in schools. But becoming aware of the dangers of so-called "positive" stereotypes is arguably more important. Positive stereotypes may seem harmless or even flattering at first glance, but they can be just as limiting and harmful.
Take, for instance, the “model minority” stereotype. This stereotype suggests that all Asian Americans are intelligent and perform well academically, specifically in mathematics and science. While it sounds positive, the model minority myth can be quite damaging for Asian American students. It not only creates unrealistic expectations to succeed academically, but it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure when students struggle in school. Assumptions tied to the model minority myth can cloud teachers' judgment, making it challenging to recognize when Asian American students need extra support or accommodations. These factors disrupt learning and negatively impact academic outcomes.
On the outside looking in
Asian Americans have been in the United States for centuries, and their contributions to our society are vast and varied. Yet many Asian Americans report feeling like outsiders or even invisible. The perpetual foreigner stereotype is a damaging one that has been levied against the Asian American community for generations. It casts them as inherently "other," no matter how long they or their families have been in the United States.
Recent shifts in mainstream literature and entertainment are challenging the perpetual outsider stereotype. Traci Chee’s award-winning and widely-read young adult novel We Are Not Free (2020) features an Asian American protagonist and sheds light on some of the injustices faced by Asian Americans. Incorporating books like Chee’s into reading assignments allows Asian American students to see themselves reflected in literature, and this type of representation increases self-esteem and encourages critical thinking. As an added bonus, other students become exposed to some of the lived realities of their Asian American peers.
As an education leader, how can you equip your school or district to recognize and disrupt common stereotypes that limit AAPI staff members and students? Our top three recommended actions below are supported both by research and practice.
1. Provide and participate in professional learning. Professional learning plays an essential role in shaping how we think and act as education professionals. The first steps to an inclusive learning environment? Understanding and combating stereotypes—both conscious and unconscious—that exist within ourselves and our school communities.
Members of your school community may be unaware of how assumptions about a student's intelligence or abilities based on their race or appearance can negatively impact performance in the classroom. Equity-focused leaders prioritize training where educators grow to understand how common biases and microaggressions manifest in schools. While knowledge is the first step to dispelling stereotypes, it's not enough. A well-rounded, equity-focused professional learning program includes practical techniques for recognizing biases in ourselves and intervening when we notice someone else acting on unfounded assumptions.
2. Teach multicultural studies all year long. Similar to Black History Month and Arab American History Month, one month is not enough time to adequately explore the rich and diverse histories of the AAPI community. Students get a superficial look into Asian culture, at best. New Leaders alum Kitae Fernando Kim calls this the "tourist" approach to AAPI heritage: "[Students] learn to see multiculturalism as a "detour" where they get sidetracked for a little bit, and then they come back to the main road where they do not normally value different cultures or have difficult conversations about race and equity.”
Encourage staff members to integrate Asian American history and perspectives into the curricula throughout the year—and support them in doing so. Provide educators resources, strategies for lesson planning, and opportunities to be exposed to authentic Asian American voices that they can integrate into their classrooms. Learning about the experiences and contributions of AAPI individuals empower AAPI students to feel connected to their culture and engaged in their educational pursuits. The act of embedding multicultural teaching into lessons throughout the year supports AAPI students and educators, affirming their place in the school community and our society.
3. Listen, learn, and commit to action. The Asian American individuals in your school community may feel marginalized and overlooked, struggling to get their voices heard and their needs understood. Make an effort to recognize the unique challenges your AAPI colleagues and students may be facing. To create a supportive and inclusive school community, it’s essential to actively listen to different perspectives on an ongoing basis. Ask AAPI members in your school community what they need to feel supported. Offer them the space to share their experiences. And if your AAPI colleagues and students confide in you about microaggressions they’re experiencing, don’t dismiss them—address it.
Acknowledging our own biases and shortcomings is uncomfortable. It's a part of the process. Despite the discomfort that comes with these conversations, being open to feedback from AAPI students and educators and listening—truly listening—is something we must all strive for. And when you witness microaggressions, it’s your—and everyone in your school community’s—responsibility to intervene.
Although we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month in May, the challenges AAPI students and staff face are real and present every day. Our work begins with becoming aware of harmful stereotypes and consistently taking actions to counter them. This work needs to be ongoing and intentional, and not limited to May. By combining our experiences and insights, we broaden our perspectives and create more equitable schools where all voices are heard and celebrated.
For more information on understanding and teaching Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage, visit
Teaching Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage, National Education Association, 2021.
Asian Pacific Heritage Month - For Teachers, Asian Pacific Heritage Month, n.d.
Resources: Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, National History Education Clearinghouse, 2009.