Like most educators, Raissa Lee had to put in a lot of work to be able to work with children, but her path to becoming a teacher started when she was a child herself.
Growing up in a small Missouri town, she knew early on she wanted to be a teacher; she worked hard in school, often staying with neighbors or friends because her parents worked long hours. Lee’s parents, who came to the U.S. from China, made it very clear that despite her desire to become a teacher, her future career options should be limited to the lucrative titles of doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer. Her peers and even teachers resisted the idea too, with a dash of racism to boot. As the only Asian in her class, she remembers comments on her appearance and being called racial slurs.
“This was in the eighties when there weren’t a lot of Asians living in Missouri,” Lee says.
Lee tried to make it work and explored her parents’ dream careers. She decided she could not be a doctor because the sight of blood made her squeamish. When she went to study to become a lawyer, she says she was told that she needed to learn to be a liar, but that didn’t sit well with her either. Finally, she settled for a career in finance because she knew she could be good at it, and she was right. Eventually, she came to excel in the financial sector, but no matter how much money she made, she felt empty inside and remembered that little girl who wanted to teach.
After rejecting an opportunity to continue working in finance, Lee decided to follow her dream and went back to school (keeping her parents’ concerns about her financial security in education in the back of her mind). She earned a degree in international relations and got her Multiple Subject Teaching Credential with a BCLAD (Bilingual Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development) Mandarin Emphasis from California State University, Fullerton in 2002. Then, she got a master’s degree in Elementary Curriculum & Instruction with an early education emphasis. Finally, with her degrees in hand, she started her teaching career in the Irvine Unified and Newport Mesa Unified school districts, but even then, she faced resistance.
Earning the trust and love of a child is such a gift. This job is not just babysitting. …We are [shaping] the brains of our future.
As a teacher in Irvine, Lee learned how challenging it was to work with kids in advanced placement, or the Alternative Program for Academically Advanced Students. She says parents were often aggressive to her because they didn’t deem her qualified to teach their children. There was even an instance when parents tried to set up a camera in her classroom, but she never gave up.
“One mom told me ‘I don’t think you can teach my child math. He only got a B.’” Lee says. “So she pulled him from my class.”
Now, almost 20 years later, she continues to teach. “My heart was always in education. You have to do what you feel called to, so here I am!” she says.
As the owner, operator — and sometimes sole employee — of ABC Mom, which stands for American-Born Chinese Mom, Lee spends her days bringing culturally aware learning experiences to families with paths similar to her own.
She says she started ABC Mom because she “really wanted to create a place where children are safe and loved, just like they would be at home.”
1/7 Recently, Raissa Lee and her students made homemade tortillas for lunch. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
2/7 Raissa Lee teaches kids about sorting sweet and salty food during a Thanksgiving pijama day activity. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
3/7 When students were focusing on symphonies, Raissa Lee organized a field trip to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
4/7 Raissa Lee’s students learn about students about human body systems and X-rays. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
5/7 A few of Raissa Lee’s students pose dressed as snowflakes. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
6/7 Raissa Lee visits Irvine’s City Hall with her students. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
7/7 Raissa Lee visits local police officers with her students to thank them for their work.
Most of her students come from Chinese and other Asian backgrounds, but some are from Latin America and even Europe; and for Lee, they’re all practically family.
Lee says ABC Mom’s goal goes beyond just educating children. It involves parents too, which is why she’s created a multitude of resources to help immigrant families prepare their kids for the American school system; she says there’s a huge disparity in early education that stems from kids’ backgrounds.
She offers a STEM-based curriculum and a Dual Language Mandarin English immersion learning experience, but to combat that disparity for all her kids, she created an entire infrastructure guiding families and kids to success. Her system includes weekly check-ins, virtual parent book clubs and even a podcast she made herself.
“A lot of these families that come from culturally different backgrounds don’t have the coaching, the strategies or the resources to understand how to help a child grow socially and emotionally,” Lee says.
It’s an involved job to say the least. At the onset of the pandemic, Lee didn’t want her husband and sons to help her because she feared exposing them to illness, and soon, like many other caregivers, she became the only staff member at ABC Mom. She says she insisted on doing everything herself. From cleaning and sanitizing the rooms and equipment the children would use throughout the day, to preparing meals and the daily activities, she realized quickly that she was pushing her limits.
The stress caught up to her and she says she started feeling discomfort and pain. After visiting the doctor, she found out there was a blood clot in her lungs. She knew it was time to figure out an alternative plan to make ABC Mom run smoothly, for the sake of her health and her business. So, she relented and allowed her family to help her. With her husband waking up early each morning to prepare healthy meals for the children and her sons helping her keep the house clean and sanitized, she was able to get back on track and focus on the children and their education.
That lesson of taking care of oneself has definitely stuck with her and she’s been learning to do less. When she first started her program, she says, “I said I was going to do these monthly events, potlucks etc. and the licensing person I talked to said ‘Don’t do that, you’re just going to burn yourself out.””
She says other early educators like her need to take better care of themselves, especially during precarious times like the pandemic, and that support from the community is the key to success.
“You have to have that understanding that education is important [and] continued investment as an educator and care provider is essential,” Lee says “And then you also have to have the help to get you there.”
It hasn’t been easy, but she is passionate about her work and sees her job as a privilege, as well as a welcome responsibility. “Earning the trust and love of a child is such a gift,” she says. “This job is not just babysitting. …We are [shaping] the brains of our future.”
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