8 lessons from 8 years of teaching in the inner city

in no particular order:

1.  love isn’t just being nice, its being firm  

i’m not one to rock the boat or make people uncomfortable because I don’t like it much myself…but it took being a teacher in the inner city to teach me that love that is deep must discipline.  to love must move beyond wanting the others temporary comfort towards genuinely wanting their long term best.  students i’ve talked to have shared with me that they may have fun with a person that doesn’t discipline but, students actually respect a person who brings order and holds them accountable to a higher standard.

2.  don’t raise your voice…it only makes others raise theirs

it was so shocking for me to see how a class / a student would mirror my own attitude…no matter how much i tried to mask it.  its uncanny, more often than not, if i was happy they’d be happy, if i was frustrated they’d be frustrated, if i yelled they would yell. i learned not to teach “over” my class…if they weren’t listening, becoming silent was much more effective in getting their attention then me fretting for it.  likewise, it was hard not to take things personally when my students came at me with an angry attitude…there was often something unrelated to me that had happened to them in their lives or even earlier in the same day.  i needed to give them the same benefit of the doubt that i would want them to give to me on an off day/period.

3. respect can’t be assumed by position, it must be earned by relationship

I was raised to respect people in positions of authority regardless of whether I liked them or not.  This is not the case with everyone.  Some may have been raised with that value too but have changed by having been burned in life, especially by those in positions of authority that have abused their trust.  With this in mind, I have learned that an important part of my work, if not more important than the work itself, is to work on building up relationships…to keep my eye out for opportunities to acknowledge, encourage, and praise no matter how small the step.  Otherwise they will continue to think I am against them…and so would I.  A single kind word or gesture went so much further than my multiple commands.

4.  sharing a little about your private life can have surprisingly good results

so one day in this crazy period of mine the topic of sex came up.  Naturally, (haha) the kids asked about my sex life.  I told them I was a virgin and was planning on remaining so until I married my wife.  The class erupted in screaming like I had dropped my pants or a bomb in class.  After that my students gave me the most focused and diligent amount of independent work I had ever had from them.  I was so puzzled and still haven’t quite figured this out.  Ok, aside from the fact that my position was so unbelievable (and hilarious) to them, I think they, oddly enough, felt closer to me for some reason…through this awkward revelation.  I’m not saying that people should go telling everyone their “bizness” but I really saw this paradoxical principle that being vulnerable, even for a moment, can disarm others.

5.  its not about the money, its about how the money is managed

I observed quickly that lack of money wasn’t the main problem in the inner city school…in fact i was surprised by how much there actually was (well before the u.s. budget crisis anyway).  i was appalled with how that money was used.  there were a lot of back dealings with senior faculty and staff, HUGE amounts of money laid down for whole sets of books and supplies that we didn’t need nor were discussed with staff.   for example, one weekend the admin decided to buy new student tables and chairs for the WHOLE school (several tens of thousands of dollars), without so much as a consultation or warning to staff.  we just arrived on monday and all the student desks were changed…with desks that were worse than the ones we had before!  they were so awkwardly shaped they couldn’t be used for group work or hold student materials.  as co-department chair we would order the books we needed….months would pass until our students needed their books and we still had nothing.  we’d go to the billings person and they would be like “what order?”  then they would fish through all their papers and find our order form at the bottom of some random stack…while everything for her drill team was ordered right on time.  this was typical before the charter conversion.  good stewardship is so rare.

6.  neglect breeds more neglect

when you work so hard for such a long time at something it is so discouraging to see no change…the same chaos repeated over and over again.  everyday the painters would come to clean up the graffiti…and everyday more graffiti would go up.   new teachers would come in full of passion and leave worn out.   some students would come to class, hundreds of students would ditch class.  it often made us feel like just giving up…like “no matter what we try it doesn’t seem to change anything…so whats the use?”   but one must not give in to the despair they see around them…it makes mediocrity the standard and inhumanity the norm.  the broken window theory really does happen, even amongst professionals…its contagious.   fortunately, the reverse is also true…if you are rooted in a hope deeper than your circumstances, then your faithfulness with the little things now will be unshaken leading to greater fruit in the future.

7.  it takes a village to raise a child

sure one might make an impact as an individual teacher, but what I may have instilled in them might all be undone in the next period that they go to.  or outside the class.  or on the streets.  or at home.  however, through the privilege of experiencing a school conversion with an amazing charter school team, I have learned that when a whole staff (and whatever family members we can get involved) can be on the same page and have a united front, it begins to actually change a sub-culture.   Thanks to Animo Locke II Charter High School for showing me a glimpse of the possibilities when caring and committed people come together.

8. God is the only one who can be with you always in the classroom (and beyond)

that first year of teaching, was truly like walking though “the valley of the shadow of death”.  not only was the pace of work like nothing i had experienced in my life up to that point, the students would fight me to my face – cursing, pushing, standing on top of desks.  the guy who would oversleep for his 11am classes was now up at 5am in the morning with no alarm in a cold sweat and overwhelmed with fear…i would have to face those students…again.  I got my first grey hair, i was losing weight. my friends and family would listen to me kindly, but I’d have to return to my classroom…alone…to a class full of volatile students.  this made me so desperate for God.  who else, would not only know completely what was happening, but be with me any time?  who else could give me the inspiration and motivation to keep on?  Who else could give me peace?  Even after several years of teaching, when a student blatantly disrespects me and bites the hand that is feeding them, God is the only one who could enable me to respond with kindness.  it is only natural to respond to negativity with negativity, it is supernatural to respond with love.  I have only found the source of such crazy love with God.


where my wife and i will be for the next two years (or more)…

So, I have been working in the inner city of LA for 8 years now, as a high school teacher. What has brought me here and kept me here for this long is the conviction to serve the under-served in life – that there are unjust things in this world and as far as I am given the grace to do so, it is my duty as a human being to do something about that. It has been quite a journey…it has not been easy. In fact it has been consuming.

Nevertheless, especially this year, I have felt the limits of my work. There are still too many students who are fighting me and cursing me out as I try to help them in the classroom. I have talked with my co-workers about it too. We are pouring out so much of our time and lives, but are we really making a difference…an impact in the inner city? Of course people can say we are doing something (my school has undergone major transformation and has made great gains in test scores) and that the fruit of a teacher’s work is not seen until years later. But we are still so far behind. We are still losing students to the cycle of despair, drugs, violence, and the life of the streets.  Our young dads are still making children and leaving them unfathered. Our young students are still getting in trouble with the law. Our students’ families are still experiencing such brokenness and instabilty. I feel like we’re just putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. Our young students need so much more. I want to do more. Yet, I still live in a different community and I still go to church in yet another community. About two years ago I also got married.  I want to start a family…which will have its own set of needs.

With all this brewing in my mind and heart I was seeking out something different, I just didn’t know what. Then a friend of ours studying educational leadership laid out a crazy idea: for inner-city schools to be changed, the middle class needs to move back into the inner city (not to gentrify but to share resources).  Sounded good…but insane. Would we send our own children to an inner-city school?  What is most important?  We started sharing this idea to our other friends.  It got us thinking.

Before we knew it, we were actually considering it, and praying about it. But we felt alone…and totally unprepared. Around February a friend of ours, who knew we were interested in urban service, invited us out to spot in LA’s Eastside where some one would be sharing about the work that he was a part of in that community.

We went. We saw. We heard. There was a team of people living, working, and serving…all in the same neighborhood. People in the community were being empowered and stepping up to make a difference…in ways that were not someone else’s agenda but were their very own convictions. Everything we were talking about was coming together right in front of us.

Now several months later, we have already found a new place to live in this community, we have let our church know that we are moving to a different church in this community, I have already put in my notice that I will not be returning next year to my school, and must now look for a new job near this community.

Here’s where we’re headed and why:

WHAT: I will begin a two-year unpaid internship which will basically be like a 2 year mission trip where my wife and I will have jobs in the community. The internship starts with a 3 week trip to an urban slum in the Philippines.

WHO: Servant Partners – a mission ministry with a focus on the urban poor of the world

WHERE: Lincoln Heights, in LA’s Eastside

– near where the 10 and 5 freeways meet, right behind the LA County / USC hospital

– it is among the lowest in median household incomes in LA city and county ($31,000)

– it is among the lowest in % of residents with a 4 yr degree in LA city and county (6%)


1) we will be living in Lincoln Heights, with a team of at least 3 other interns

2) we will be attending a church in Lincoln Heights (a church plant of Servant Partners and Epicentre Pasadena called Epicentre Community Church *New Life Community Church as of fall of 2014)

3) we will be working in LA’s Eastside  (my wife will continue to work at Cal State LA as a professor / I need to find a job, one with a little less hours <would appreciate prayers, in this regard especially>, as I will also be taking classes twice a week to learn about urban poor ministry)

WHEN: Starting August 19th, 2011 (Philippines from 8/24-9/12) to Summer 2013

WHY (for the 2 years): We are hoping through this process, amongst many things, to

a) see if urban poor ministry is something for us

b) see if full time ministry is something for me

WHY (what God has been laying on our hearts through His Word):

1) Christ has led us to love the city: Loving Los Angeles (Jer 29:4-7)

2) Christ has led us to care for those in need: Social Justice (Isaiah 58, James 2:5-8)

3) Christ has led us to share our lives: Incarnation for understanding and discipleship (Heb 13:11-14)


– my wife and I need to raise about $5600 (for the 3 week mission trip to the Philippines for my wife and I, as well as for my ministry education for the next 2 years)

if you’re led to give financially please make checks payable to “Servant Partners” with “Intern: Kitani” written in the memo line and send the check to: Servant Partners P.O. Box 3144, Pomona, CA 91769

– We need your prayers!! Also let us know how to pray for you!!

– Let’s keep in touch (updates, encouragements, and prayer requests)!

Email: dkitani at gmail dot com

Blog: (subscribe to this one!)

*updated 16.12.07

Grace is for people who don’t deserve it = that’s us

These past couple weeks ive been struck by and also discouraged by what I see around me…in the church.  that’s right…the people that are supposed to be children of God…not really living like it.  all this with a general theme that I’ve been hearing/reading/seeing repeatedly that just because someone says (and even believes) they are Christian doesn’t necessarily mean that it is so (Isaiah 58, Matthew 25, John 15, James 2).  Then I find myself being super critical and judgmental.   Gosh, im really not any better.

So needless to say I’ve been feeling really drained and emotionally tired.

Then this morning God opens my eyes again to this thing called his grace.

On my drive to work I was listening to a message by Rankin Wilborne.  It was basically about the idea that one of things that makes Christianity so offensive to people, to us, is actually this idea of grace: that God would love us, regardless of where we are at in our lives.  It sounds nice but he challenged me to really think about that.  When you think you’re pretty good and someone treats you lovingly that’s pretty rad…duh, that’s obvious.  But when you know you’re pretty rotten inside and someone lavishes real love on you, that’s jarring…humiliating, and “traumatic” (in Wilborne’s words).

He drew out this point from the episode in Jesus’ life, the night that he knew he was going to be betrayed, when he washed his disciples’ feet.   So Jesus comes around to Peter to wash his feet (a disgusting job reserved only for the lowest person) and basically Peter says “No way, Jesus!  You’re my master…I can’t let you do that!”  Jesus then lets him know that unless Peter allows Jesus to do this, he can’t be part of a real relationship with Jesus (alluding to the fact that Jesus would, in fact, die for Peter’s sins).  Peter’s response seems like a respectful thing, but the idea that underlies what he said is that he can’t accept Jesus loving him this way…in his unloveliness.  But you see, that is what grace is: letting Jesus love us in our crappiness.  We can’t tell Jesus to love us when we have our act together…first off, that day will never come and second, if that day did come then that’s the day we are saying God should wash our feet.  WHY WOULD GOD, THE SOURCE OF ALL LIFE, BE OBLIGATED TO WASH OUR FEET?!?!

Just in case I wasn’t getting all this, Jesus shows me even more grace this morning.  So, I was completely lazy last night and this morning, even though I have sooo much work to do.   I was late to our professional development meeting this morning at work…but I still got “staff cash” (its like a little raffle ticket that people get for being on time).  Then Grace (Yun) sat down right next to me (haha).   Then at the end of the meeting, that I was slightly dozing through (I know terrible huh…after like 9 hours in bed!), I win the raffle.  Man, I really didn’t deserve anything like that.  I know that’s not even comparable to how Jesus died for ALL of my sins, even the ones i committed and will commit today.   Now, this is no license to keep living in sin, in fact, if I really taste his “traumatic” grace regularly, I shouldn’t be able to help but change…out of  love for him.  the moment I take his grace for granted is the moment it is no longer grace to me.


so im on spring break which means im just lounging about, you know just chillin…and lots of random web surfing.  these days in general, thanks to that random ucla girls rant about asians in the library, it seems the theme is asian americans in media (which means mostly unknown-by-the-masses web stuff).

so one of the things that i rant about is the lack of as well as the stereotypical portrayal of asian americans (especially males) in popular media.  well, part of that may be our fault as a race because pursuing a career in the entertainment/biz/arts is not exactly encouraged in most asian homes (okay im going to be writing a lot of generalizations, i know).  but that issue aside, the lack of exposure and well-rounded portrayals of asian americans in popular media has bothered me for some time.  unless someone actually spends significant time with an asian, popular media and stereotypes are the default ideas of asians.  so here’s a little outline of where im going with this (for the lazy readers and for the list-making thinker in me):

i. the stereotypes

ii. the asian american man

iii.  some steps forward

iv. random stuff ive found


all asians are chinese (yeah the new “karate kid” about KUNG-FU in CHINA, not KARATE in JAPAN, didnt help with that)

all asians can’t drive (okay this may be partly true.   but think about it, what kind of car do you drive?  just wondering.  has anyone been in a car in japan?  man, they drive in both directions down a street that is the size of one of our lanes in america, with bikes, pedestrians, and sometimes with a rice paddy on the side!)

all asians are good at math (im not.  im an english teacher.  my wife would say its not so much that we are naturally good at it but that we had to work a lot at it.  you know brain research says that you can actually grow your intelligence with lots of practice.  actually the reason why many asians are good at math is because our parents would beat us if we have mediocre grades.)

all asians know martial arts (i mean it would be awesome if we all did, but seriously?  asians aren’t necessarily known for their athleticism.  its not like that dreyers ice cream commerical with the old man, where we can suddenly bust out into flips and stuff.  but go jeremy lin!)

asian women are submissive exotic sexual creatures (you know that lucy liu dominatrix dragon lady stuff.  in terms of submissive, doode, have you watched any asian dramas lately?  they are boss!  they are definitely not all submissive…if anything more sassy and abusive.  asian americans girls are even less submissive because…they live in AMERICA!  yeah, asian girls dont know any special tricks anymore than the next person.  they are definitely beautiful but they still have snot, fart, and get messed up hair and all that other very human stuff.  although its a stereotype, i guess in the general sense asian females are seen as attractive.  not so their counter-parts, which leads to the next major point.)


unfortunately, asian american men are still cast in stereotypical roles and are largely portrayed as:

inarticulate (still unable to speak to english, or if they do they are unable to speak powerfully)

asexual (or not sexually attractive to the opposite sex)

– or just fricken weird

now i actually like some of the hard work these actors have done, but really america?  is that the only way we can see asian american men?

as an asian american boy growing up and even as a man now it was challenging not to see any more well rounded portrayals of asian american men.  especially, in those awkward teen years not to see anyone that looked like you in anything you watched on television and movies…not anything cool and desirable anyway.  in media in asia there are asian men that are seen as SEXY!  gasp!  so how come when they live in a different country, especially a country that boasts of a melting pot, they are not only seen as aliens in the figurative sense but actually portrayed as looking and acting like physical aliens…as in from another planet and as something to run from rather than run toward?

but there has been some progress…


– i dunno if you remember this short lived tv mini-series called “vanishing son.”   even though he was only half asian, he was an asian american that was actually protrayed as speaking english and was desirable to women.   that was a big step.

“better luck tomorrow.”  this movie was big for asian american males and asian americans in general.  it actually protrayed asian americans in america and didnt even focus on the race/ethnicity thing.  it just told a story that cast asian american actors.   it showed the good and the bad side of asian americans.  it was even loosely based on true events.  many people just couldnt accept this type of portrayal of asian americans doing deviant things.  even roger ebert had to stand up for us!  now i know it wasnt a totally positive portrayal…but it was human.   i remember even some of my asian american friends didnt want to see this movie.  they felt it too weird to see asians americans on screen.  i was like wtheck!?!  it was like this internalized racism.   if asian americans arent ready and willing to see asian americans on screen how could we expect the rest of america to be willing?

john cho.  i like this guy.  he’s one of the few asian american men that i feel have really made it to the mainstream.  he’s funny, down to earth, good-looking, speaks english clearly, and is an asian american.  he started off on side roles but then he was actually cast as a romantic lead (granted it was beta-guy-comedy) in a film that many people in america actually watched.


sung kang.  from fast and furious fame.  he is the “cool” asian guy.  thats cool.


daniel dae kim.  he is an example of the man in transition as a metaphor for the asian american man in transition of portrayals.  in “lost” (i miss that show so much!) he went from the korean wife suppressor that didnt speak english to learning english and showing his tenderness.  he still hasnt moved off the island of hawaii in his roles (well he did do work before in tv, who knows that stuff right?) but now in “hawaii-five-0” (with grace park!) he is shown as a pretty competent english speaking, supporting lead law enforcer.  he can solve crimes and he rides a pretty bad motorcycle.  to me he’s not really good looking (but im a guy so what does my opinion matter in that area…some people love him!) but america is getting more used to him.  thats good.



lastly, i’d like to share with you some asian american media stuff i’ve found, which is still relatively niche in terms of general pop knowledge that has grown outside of the asian american bubble.  but heres a step to circulate it more broadly and get some word out.


– kevjumba.  he’s a youtube star, that even jessica alba knows.  haha.  he’s not amazing hilarious but he seems like a pretty entertaining guy who doesnt take himself too seriously.

– nigahiga.  he’s also big on youtube but what makes him a little different is he’s apparently a little more photogenic and came out in a short film. 

ON TV (ok, i know most of this stuff is no longer on air and is pretty mainstream but i just had to write about them):

– “lost”  seriously, this show was so amazing, especially as a literature major.  the characters were so well developed and examined, it was like you grew to know them intimately to the point where one could anticipate their responses to events.  for example the kwons looked like a typical korean couple but so many layers were unearthed it turned the stereotypes inside out and revealed such a great story.  the show also played with every conceivable way to tell a story in time (limited perspective with flashback – season 1, alternate perspective of the same time – season 2, past leading to present perspective – season 3, future leading to present perspectives – season 4, time travel perspectives – season 5, and parallel universe perspectives – final season).

– “battlestar galactica.”  ok, hold back from your mind clips from “the office”, the campy original series, and geeky sci-fi stuff.  this re-envisioning of the show was a great human drama that explored often taboo subjects such as religion, identity, death, ethics, and politics with such engaging complexity, style, and depth…the story just happened to be in outer space.  the asian american on the show, grace park, is not only a hottie but plays two pretty important roles (dont want to give away too much).

– “outsourced”  whats amazing about this show is that its set in another country and the majority of the cast is south asian…and its on a major american network!  its a funny and endearing show to me.  some people say it engenders stereotypes but it actually pokes fun at both worlds and gives you characters that you can care about.

ON “REALITY” TV (hopefully soon):

– “k-town.” theres been a lot of buzz about this show (which is like a “jersey shore” with asians) but i heard its been picked up.  many asian americans are wincing about this show.  i know it doesn’t portray asians in a positive light but it does what most shows don’t…it actually portrays them…in america.   the model minority and fobby minority myths need to be broken down.  any portrayal of a people group needs to be 3 dimensional, not just flat notions…that means the good, the bad, and the ugly.

– to learn a little about the k-town (korea town in los angeles) culture i found this web series to be educational and entertaining.


– angry asian man by a guy.

– disgrasian by two girls. 


“american born chinese” by gene luen yang.  great story / fable / commentary / comic.

– no this isnt new by any means but it really rocked my world when i read it in college.  no-no boy by john okada


priscilla ahn.  her sound is smooth with just enough quirky ness

susie suh.  soulful and deep.  you seriously have to check her out.

ken oak band.  im not super into male vocalists so i havent really listened to him that much.  but he seems well liked.  he actually discipled my brother for a bit.  sad thing i heard…some music industry people liked his sound but when they found out he was asian they were like nevermind.  : (


unfortunately a lot of stuff that i’ve seen is just kind of so-so, apart from “better luck tomorrow.”  but here is one that stands out in my mind.

– “charlotte sometimes.”  its understated but pretty deep.

– “white on rice.”  (<- thats the whole movie on hulu) i just had to throw this one in.  not super amazing but entertaining.  the main character is a little difficult to watch…think michael scott but more akward.

IN COMEDY (profanity warning):

– russell peters.  this guy is hilarious…at least to the asians i know.  he does so many great ethnic impersonations.

– joe wong.  he is fobby and his delivery is so deadpan and akward…but super witty…you actually have to think a second to understand the punchlines.

– aiko tanaka.  she is also fobby and random, but so charming and funny.

– david so.  i found him through his web response to that UCLA girls racist rant about asians.  his delivery is so hilarious, especially his facial expressions.


speaking of that racist ucla girls rant, this was one of the most endearing and loving responses…and a really catchy song.

and speaking of asians in the library.  this site is interesting.

hope you had fun!  and thanks for reading.   please share any comments!

what is saving faith?

the question was posed at the begining of this week: can christians go to hell?

here are some of my thoughts thus far in no particular order:

– when Jesus says that if we believe in him we are saved, belief is not just mental acceptance of his existence and what he has done.  basically it is not simply knowledge of who he is.  demons have this as james says.

– it is a lifestyle of holding onto him, like we actually trust him, even more than ourselves.  John 15, remaining in him and that apart from him we can do nothing.  we trust in him more than what we can see in our own circumstances.

to be continued…

suffering and the revelation of God

the redemptive nature of suffering has recently been on my mind a lot.  suffering – as a means to know God more, have  deeper fellowship with Him (Philippians 3:10) and its redemptive nature as the  Son of God was perfected through suffering (Hebrews 2:10).

in rev 5:9-10 it states:

9 And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

by the suffering and death of Christ he was able to save many.   he paid the price for our sins by his own suffering and death.  without that suffering and death we would be doomed to eternal suffering and death.  he took it on so we wouldnt have to…to save us and also to understand us.

maybe this explains the purpose of godly suffering for us as christians…we can help others and bear some of their suffering, we can connect with those who are also suffering, but most of all it can point us to how much God loves us that He was willing to suffer to be with us…to make a way so that He could be with us forever.

mercy triumphs over judgement…

aahh…sigh.   my students, a certain period in particular, are really pushing me to the limits of frustration, with their blatant disrespect.  i am so tempted to mete out justice and vengeance.   however, God has reminded me (twice this week) about Joseph (Genesis ch. 37 to the end of the book).  it is His kindness that leads us to repentance.  we deserve justice and judgment for our wickedness…however He doesn’t give us what we deserve…rather He gives us kindness – expressed in all its fullness through the life of Christ.  while humanity was heaping sins and abuse upon him, even then he willingly went to the cross for us, praying for us even as he hung upon the cross.

Joseph is a type of this kindness:

Joseph Reassures His Brothers

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

Genesis 50:15-19

may mercy triumph over judgment in my heart and to my students.