Kicked by God: A Journey into Public Schoolteaching

The late Korean Quaker Ham Sok Han once said that on his life journey he was "kicked by God" onto paths that he would never have taken without divine guidance. I sometimes think of my own professional life as an educator in this way. I began my career teaching in Friends schools, first in Japan and later in the United States, but I believe that God kicked me out of this comfort zone by calling me to teach at a public school in Camden, New Jersey. Through the experiences of working with a diversity of people in Japan and in the inner city in this country, I have been led toward focusing my energies on working with others different from myself toward creating greater equality and justice for people of all backgrounds.

Something that Quaker counselor and trainer Arlene Kelly said about diversity when she came to lead a retreat at my meeting in Haddonfield, New Jersey, has remained in my heart. In response to my question about how Quakers might achieve true diversity, she shared the following statement made by American Friends Service Committee when it was working to diversify its staff: "We are not a homogeneous organization seeking to become more diverse; we are an incomplete organization seeking to become whole." The goal of achieving diversity in an institution is not for well-intentioned white people to make the social climate there more welcoming to people different from themselves. Rather it is to make an incomplete organization more whole by incorporating people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives who can work together to transform the institution into something completely new.

Vanessa Julye states it this way in her Epilogue, entitled "Toward an Inclusive Community," from Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice:

Let us begin to identify and separate the aspects of Quakerism that are not related to the core of our beliefs, the nonessential Eurocentric practices that have become attached to the way we practice our faith. Once they are removed we, people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds working together, can rebuild Quakerism and the world into an equal and peaceful home.

The following Bible passage provides an image of true diversity that has been meaningful to me ever since Watanabe Akio shared it at a time of conflict at Japan Yearly Meeting sessions:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews, or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit . . . .

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (I Corinthians 12-13, 26)

By choosing to engage with people different from myself in places like Japan and Camden, I have been able to place myself on a growing edge that has challenged my previous assumptions and beliefs. As I look at my life, I see how God has been leading me toward educating myself about how to live in a diverse world, as well as how to teach in it.

My Journey as an Educator

Rereading Friends Journal‘s January 2001 special issue on Friends and Education, I’ve been struck by the words of Ayesha Imani as she bears witness to what she learned as a Quaker teacher in public schools in "the heart of North Philadelphia": "Quaker education [is] not education that happen[s] in a Quaker school, but education that grows out of the principles and practices of those who are driven to bear witness to the sacredness of each child . . . . It is education that happens anywhere, among any population of students, any time some educator turns over a class to the Holy Spirit in an attempt to live out one’s Quaker faith."

She describes herself as having once been a "tough and fearless" teacher— the kind that I have observed with awe in the public elementary school where I have taught English as a Second Language (ESL) for the past 16 years. I have sometimes been envious of the way such teachers seem to keep complete order in their classrooms. Yet I know that I don’t have it in me to teach in that authoritarian way. The white privilege and entitlement in the extended Quaker community in which I grew up and continue to live have not conditioned me to act with this kind of overbearing authority. What I now realize is that throughout my career I have felt increasingly called to witness through my teaching to the Quaker testimonies that are important to me: equality, peace, social justice, simplicity, stewardship, integrity, and community.

Surely my Quaker background has had a profound influence on me. I was born into a large extended Quaker family. I was educated mostly in Philadelphia- area Quaker schools. I have been active in Quaker meetings throughout my life. I have been guided, encouraged, and supported by my Quaker family, teachers, and countless other Friends.

But my life has also been profoundly influenced by experiences beyond this Quaker world. I was six years old when two of my siblings and I left Westfield Friends School for public school after my father stopped teaching there in order to pursue a career in public education. As an adult I learned that the public school I attended had been Cinnaminson, New Jersey’s segregated black school until very shortly before. I was blessed to have been taught there by four outstanding black teachers, who I assume had been teaching in the segregated school, and continued there after the school was integrated. Their caring teaching and their very presence taught me lifelong lessons about the innate equality of human beings of different races. My subsequent educational experience in the United States was almost completely Eurocentric until more than 35 years later when I began to teach in Camden.

God gave me a big kick outside of my familiar world when I went, fresh out of college at the age of 22, to Japan to teach English. I ended up living and teaching there, first at the Friends Girls School in Tokyo, and later at Tsuda College for women, for 20 years. In Japan I took being treated with respect as a white American teacher for granted, just as I had always taken for granted having doors open for me as a white person in the United States. I was also welcomed and nurtured by the Japanese Quakers among whom I lived. But the cultural differences between the United States and Japan are huge, so my experience living there greatly changed the way I saw myself and the country of my birth. Meeting and marrying my Japanese husband, Takashi, and raising our two children deepened this intercultural experience. By the time our family moved to the United States I had changed profoundly in many ways.

After we moved to the United States, I looked for a Friends school teaching job. One department head at a job ininterview expressed the belief that some Quaker schools had gone too far in admitting students of color, causing their enrollments to go down. That comment weighed so heavily on me that I wrote that teacher a letter afterward. The following is taken from a rough draft that I have of that letter:

I think that any school, especially a Friends school, which really wants to be on the cutting edge of social change must put its convictions on the line and remain committed to them. Thus, if it believes it should work for creating a society that allows for ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity and equality, it must stick to that conviction. If it does not dare go above a "safe level" of minority enrollment, does that not mean it is depending for its existence on a privileged majority population that is unwilling to make the changes in its lifestyle and assumptions that would allow for the envisioned social change?

Perhaps God kicked me to write that letter to ensure that I would not teach at that school.

One of my subsequent jobs was as a Japanese bilingual teacher in a brandnew bilingual program in one of the wealthiest public school districts in New Jersey. I was thrilled to be able to teach Japanese children. I soon learned, though, that some teachers and administrators resented the bilingual program. On one occasion the vice-principal told me not to be too forthright with other teachers in advocating for the program, saying that it existed only because it was state mandated, and that she didn’t believe it was necessary "for the smart children that this district gets." On another occasion this vice-principal looked at me strangely when I suggested the European American children do a performance at a school cultural festival too, rather than just putting the bilingual children on display. Perhaps God led me to speak my mind like this so that I wouldn’t last long in that school district either. I didn’t.

My final professional leap to my present job in Camden may have been as big a culture shock to me as going to live in Japan had been, but I reveled in the city’s ethnic and racial diversity.

My first few months there were especially challenging. My years of teaching at Quaker and other private schools in Japan and the United States did not prepare me to be the take-charge authority figure that was the norm for teachers in the city. I had serious problems with discipline and class management and little idea about how to address them. Liz, my unofficial ESL teacher mentor at the school, helped me with this, as did my supervisor. She had come from Puerto Rico to the Camden schools as an ESL student, and later taught there for many years. When three Puerto Rican brothers with a reputation for having serious discipline problems were transferred to our school she said, "If all three of them are put in Ms. Mizuno’s class, she’s going right back to China!" All three were put in my classes, and I managed, somehow! I remember hitting rock bottom in early December when I burst into tears after my supervisor had come to do an observation of my classes. I had been looking forward to the visit as a source of encouragement and support, but was shocked that she had almost nothing good to say about my teaching.

Another big contributor to my culture shock was our no-nonsense African American principal. Most of the staff seemed to be afraid of her. One day she asked me which of my classes I would like her to observe, and when, "so you can put your best foot forward." I told her which class and when and then prepared that lesson for that particular group to the hilt in hopes that it would go more smoothly than usual. She showed up that day to observe a different class, and saw me at my worst, because I had focused all my energy on planning the class she had promised to come and see. Did she do it to intimidate me? It certainly seemed so. I have to confess, though, that I learned more from her during her tenure about good teaching and classroom management than I have learned from any principal since. One day I was afraid that I was going to be asked to be a chaperone on a class trip with a 4th and 5th grade bilingual class that was known to be particularly unruly. I made a point of making myself busy that morning, hoping that I wouldn’t be noticed and asked to go with them. I was noticed, and the principal did ask me to go. The instructional assistant in the 4th and 5th grade bilingual class told me later how the principal had weeded out the trouble makers so she could let only the deserving children go on the trip. Apparently she strode into the room and told all the kids who believed they were not trouble makers to stand up. Then she told the ones who were sitting down to point out the "bad" kids among those who were standing up. She made them sit down too. Then she told the kids who were sitting down that they would stay at school for the rest of the day. I went on a wonderful trip with other teachers and the kids who had been left standing unchallenged by their classmates.

To become more interculturally competent in Camden I read multicultural books, especially those by Hispanic and African American writers. I was thrilled when one of these, Luis Rodriguez, was interviewed on National Public Radio about his book, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. I called in and asked him if he had any advice for a teacher like me who works with Hispanic students, one of whom had recently disdainfully called me "the lady from White Town." He told me, "Don’t take the poetry out of them." I have tried not to.

To help build my students’ self-esteem by legitimizing their backgrounds and familiarizing them with cultures different from their own, I read multicultural books with them. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Public Education Working Group gave me a grant to help build my collection, particularly of Hispanic and African American literature. I was surprised to learn that my focus in teaching black history through reading stories about the Underground Railroad was different from that of the majority of African American teachers, who seemed to tend to teach about African Americans who have made significant contributions to the world in which they live. I recently heard an African American professor of Black History describe the approach I found black teachers in my school taking as "victory consciousness, rather than victim consciousness." I think that my "victim consciousness" approach in choosing to teach about enslaved people escaping to freedom comes from my growing up with stories about how Quaker abolitionists assisted them.

My students and I also enjoy doing Japan-related activities. Sometimes I have older children present Japanese picture card stories to younger children using a special portable kamishibai stage made for the purpose. Students have also responded well when Japanese visitors to our home have kindly come to visit the school to interact with the kids. One year a young Japanese college student came and spent three months helping me with my classes. I don’t believe that those students will ever forget their experiences with "Miss Chiharu," and they will never again lump together all Asians as "chinos" who are "other" and completely separate from themselves.

I have come a long way since I first came to teach in Camden. I am still not a strict disciplinarian, though, and usually do not control my classes the way the majority of the teachers in my school seem to do. I am blessed to be able to work primarily with small groups of less than ten children at a time. The kids seem to see me as a kind of surrogate mother figure. They know that I am a softy. But I am gratified to know that they seem to respect me too. I am often deeply moved when former students come back to me years later and tell me in great detail the things they liked doing in my ESL class. I have tried to teach with this sentiment in mind: "People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel." (Maya Angelou). I think I succeed in making my students feel good about themselves in a way that I hope may influence them throughout their lives.

I have found my calling teaching elementary ESL in Camden. It is just enough outside my comfort zone to keep me on my toes and keep me learning. But I feel at home there. I like the cadence of the mixture of Spanish and English as co-workers interact.

"Wassup, babe? It’s Friday. Que pasa?"

I can respond, "No mucho. I’m hangin’, but I can’t complain. And you?"


Kitty Taylor Mizuno is a member of Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting, where she serves on the Religious Education Committee and chairs the Ad Hoc Group on Racial Justice and Equality. She is also on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Ministry for Racial Justice and Equality in the Religious Society of Friends.