July 22, 2021

Kabby Hong, Wisconsin Teacher of the Year

Kabby Hong, Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Featured Image
Kabby Hong, 2022 WI Teacher of the Year

Wisconsin’s representative to the 2022 National Teacher of the Year Program is WEAC member Kabby Hong, an English teacher at Verona Area High School.

Mr. Hong, with over 20 years teaching experience, is a National Board Certified Teacher and has given several presentations for The New York Times on argumentative writing. He has received awards from Stanford University and the University of Chicago for his effectiveness as a teacher.

Helping Students Claim Their Identity

“Teenagers are in a formative part of their lives,” he said. “I do my best to help my students find their literal and figurative voices.”

Mr. Hong said when teens write essays, they become more aware of themselves and their self-perceptions. “As an English teacher, you really get to know your students on a personal level,” he said.

He said he is privileged to guide students in claiming their identities through writing, remembering one teen who first wrote about being transgender in a class essay. “I felt honored that my student felt safe and comfortable enough with me to claim his identity,” Mr. Hong said.

Giving: The Heart and Soul of Teaching

“Every teacher will tell you this is not a lone profession. Teachers thrive and excel because of a strong community of fellow teachers,” Mr. Hong said. “I am blessed to be in a community of amazing, talented, world-class educators in Verona. My practice has grown enormously from my work with my colleagues, who I learn from every day.”

Mr. Hong described teaching as the most-giving profession. “It’s built on collaboration with your colleagues, who give everything. Giving is the heart and soul of teaching. Teachers give to students, to each other, without asking for anything in return.”

Raising Visibility of Asian Americans

“Growing up, I never liked being Asian American,” said Mr. Hong, a Korean-American who was born in Los Angeles and worked to learn and understand English as a child. “For the longest time, I wanted to be [baseball player] Steve Garvey. He looked like Superman. I did not like being Korean American. I had a funny name that was not easy to pronounce, not a first name like Steve. Nobody looked like me on television, in movies or in books. I was invisible in many ways.”

“Finally, at the ripe old age of 49, I really love being Korean, and I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he said. “I think teenagers can relate. Talking about that with my students has been very powerful. It shows the kids that it’s OK to talk about your struggles.”

Mr. Hong said he will use his platform as Wisconsin Teacher of the Year to promote visibility for all students, especially Asian American students. “Nationally, there were more than 7,000 hate crimes against Asian Americans reported in the past year and a half,” he said. “For many Asian American parents, the decision whether to send their children to school in-person or virtually during the pandemic rested on safety. That made me really reflect on how invisible Asian Americans are in our curriculum.”

A spring 2021 study by Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH) on American sentiments regarding Asian Americans reported 42 percent of respondents couldn’t name a prominent Asian American. Eighty percent of Asian Americans said they faced discrimination or felt disrespected.

“The two Asian Americans respondents could come up with were Jackie Chan, from Hong Kong, and Bruce Lee, who died decades ago,” Mr. Hong said. “There’s a connection between being invisible and the rise in hate crimes. There is a horrible price Asian Americans are paying for being invisible in this country.”

Mr. Hong said he sees the impact this invisibility has on his students, such as a female student in the school’s Asian American club who described the time a grown man approached her in a store and told her to “go back to where you came from!”

“My student was scared. I felt terrible for her,” he said. “Then I thought about this man and why he would say something like this. I wondered if he learned about Asian American contributions to American history in school. I wondered if he saw Asian Americans in books or tv shows or movies as fully developed human beings. I wondered if a lack of representation is the reason why he felt justified saying this to my student.”

The Human Aspect of Teaching

“I have changed a lot as a teacher,” Mr. Hong said. “When I first started, I focused on the technical aspects of teaching – rubrics , organization – I thought that was the most important part. I was so mistaken. What I lost in focusing on the technical was the human aspect of teaching. I found the more I opened up about my own life, my own struggles, my students’ writing improved.”

“When you model emotional vulnerability, it allows your students to do the same,” he said. “Their writing after I opened up to them was so much more impactful.”

Advice for New Teachers

“Develop ways to take care of yourself first,” Mr. Hong recommended to early career educators. “Teachers are not very good at that. We’re good at taking care of ourselves last. There are terrible consequences to that, especially with burnout.”

Mr. Hong pointed to the huge number of new teachers who leave the profession after a few years. “It’s a very emotionally draining job,” he said. “If you don’t develop ways to manage the stress of the job, you’ll burn out and end up leaving the profession.”

“This profession will take 24 hours of your day if you let it,” he continued. “There has to be some sort of balance.”

Union Instrumental in Success

“Our union has been instrumental to my success,” Mr. Hong said. “My local union, the Verona Area Education Association, has paved the way for me to see a long-term future in this profession through livable wages, strong benefits and a teaching environment that is conducive to excellence.”

“Teaching is such a difficult job and the power of a local union to help create an environment that is conducive to people staying and people thriving is absolutely critical,” he said. “The union really does provide an avenue for teachers to have a voice and seat at the table.”

“Wisconsin educators are thrilled to celebrate Mr. Hong’s achievement,” said WEAC President Ron Martin. “He has dedicated his career to inspiring students and advancing the education profession. He exemplifies how union membership contributes to student, school and professional excellence.”

One of Five 2022 Teachers of the Year

Hong was selected to represent Wisconsin at the national level from a group of five Teachers of the Year, including WEAC member Patricia Zemke, a sixth-grade health teacher at John Muir Middle School and Horace Mann Middle School in the Wausau School District. Zemke, with 26 years of experience in education, is a National Board Certified Teacher and serves on the district’s Mental Health and Wellness Parent Advisory team.

The other 2022 Teachers of the Year are Tarah Fedenia of Poplar Creek Elementary School, School District of New Berlin; Anna Miller of Harmony Elementary School, School District of Milton; and Eric Mumm of Lancaster High School, Lancaster Community School District.