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A Bilingual Teacher's Unconventional Journey from Finance to a Dream Career in Education

Educator Raissa Lee of ABC Mom poses for the camera with some of her students.
Educator Raissa Lee of ABC Mom smiles with some of her students. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
Raissa Lee had an unlikely path to becoming a teacher, but she never stopped listening to her inner child. Now, her work guides her as she honors her heritage and follows her passion as the founder of ABC Mom Learning Center & Childcare.
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Editor's Note: Additional details were added to this piece after its original publish date of Dec. 23 for clarification purposes.

​​As the owner, operator — and sometimes sole employee — of ABC Mom Learning Center & Childcare, which stands for American-Born Chinese Mom, Raissa Lee spends her days creating and sharing early learning experiences with children and families.

​​Like most educators, she 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.

As a preschooler in Missouri, she already knew she wanted to be a teacher. She encountered racism from classmates and a few teachers from other classrooms, but her teachers always provided security and comfort. She dreamed of becoming a teacher who would provide engaging learning environments for all children, regardless of their culture.

"This was in the '80s when there weren't a lot of Asians living in Missouri," Lee said.

When her family moved to Northern California, she worked hard in school, often staying in after-school care or with neighbors because her parents worked full time. Lee's parents, who came to the U.S. from Taiwan, knew that she wanted to be a teacher. However, concerned about her financial security, they strongly encouraged her to pursue professions with higher incomes, such as doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer.

Lee tried to honor her parents' wishes and explored their recommended careers. She participated in a mock trial in high school, and it was such a positive experience for her that she decided to pursue law. As a college student, she interned with a law firm in Sacramento. When the lawyers informed her that she needed to be able to lie to be a good lawyer, she decided to explore the field of finance because her integrity was more important to her than a profession. During her sophomore year at the University of California, Davis, she took a leave of absence from school due to her family's financial challenges. Still, at 19, she obtained her Series 7 and Series 63 broker licenses and began trading securities full-time during the day while attending De Anza College in the evening. At the community college, she found that the smaller class sizes and more personal relationships with her professors and peers created a more personalized and supportive learning environment for her, which sparked another dream in Lee: to become a community college professor someday.

Educator Raissa Lee of ABC Mom teaches kids about the five senses in Mandarin and English with a Mr. Potato Head picture.
Raissa Lee teaches kids about the five senses in Mandarin and English with a Mr. Potato Head picture. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee

Eventually, she returned to UC Davis, and after graduating with a degree in international relations, she continued to work in the financial sector. Because of her grandmother's health issues, she left her job in the United States and moved to Taiwan to be close to her. As she struggled to find meaning and fulfillment while working in finance, she explored her options as she helped plan and host Taiwan's first international legislator's conference and taught English at a local language school. She debated whether to work in political economy or education, but her experiences during that period confirmed that her passion was in education, so she returned to the United States to pursue the path her preschool-aged self had wanted all along.

Once in California, she returned to school and earned her Multiple Subject Teaching Credential with a BCLAD (Bilingual Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development) Mandarin Emphasis from California State University, Fullerton, in 2002. Although she said she was thrilled to be hired as a fifth grade teacher after graduation, to her dismay, she was laid off the following year.

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.
Raissa Lee

In 2003, she returned to finance as a pricing analyst. A few years later, she welcomed two sons. To optimize her time with her sons and minimize the high cost of child care, she cared for her sons during the day and worked from late afternoon through the evenings, sleeping an average of four to five hours each day. After eight years at the position, her job was outsourced overseas in 2011, and she became a mother for the third time in 2013.

Lee began to care for children in her home, and in 2015, she launched ABC Mom Learning Center & Childcare. She said 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."

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1/7 Recently, Raissa Lee and her students made homemade tortillas for lunch. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
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2/7 Raissa Lee teaches kids about sorting sweet and salty food during a Thanksgiving pajama day activity. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
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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
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4/7 Raissa Lee's students learn about students about human body systems and X-rays. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
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5/7 A few of Raissa Lee's students pose dressed as snowflakes. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
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6/7 Raissa Lee visits Irvine's City Hall with her students. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee
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7/7 Raissa Lee visits local police officers with her students to thank them for their work.

Lee said all those years of working in finance and business helped her get the experience to be a successful small business owner. She built the program up from just a few part-time students to serving 12 students while leading a diverse teaching team of six teachers. She also took part in the QualityStart OC Quality Rating & Improvement System (QRIS), a program led by the Orange County Department of Education that supports early childhood educators to provide high-quality early learning experiences to all Orange County children and families. With support from her teaching coach, mentors and community, ABC Mom Learning Center & Childcare consistently got ratings of "highest quality" through the QRIS program.

Even as she was teaching, running a business and raising three children of her own, Lee returned to California State University, Fullerton, to pursue her master's degree in education with an early education emphasis and graduated with honors in January 2020. She said she believes it's vital that working parents who have dreams of pursuing higher education persevere because, she said, it's never too late to go back to school.

In September 2020, Lee also got a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Legislature because of her early learning program. In 2021, Lee was also recognized as an "Outstanding Professional" by the Orange County Association for the Education of Young Children.

Many of Lee's students come from Chinese backgrounds, but she has served children and families from cultures different from her own, and for Lee, they're all practically family.

She said ABC Mom's goals go beyond just educating children; she wants to involve and engage the children's families in a way that honors the role they play in their kids' lives. Her program offers resources that encourage families to work with their children in customized home learning opportunities, provides free "parent nights out" to strengthen parental relationships, and builds community with the children's families through virtual parent book clubs. She also helps them juggle work and parenting while aiding the transition to the elementary school system. Lee is even venturing into the world of podcasting.

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. Soon, she became the only staff member at ABC Mom. She insisted on doing everything herself, from cleaning and sanitizing the materials, activities and classroom to preparing meals, teaching and caring for her young students. She said she quickly realized that she was pushing her limits and learned to accept help from her family as she transitioned into a new phase of ABC Mom. With her husband waking up early each morning to prepare healthy meals for the children and her three sons helping her keep the house clean and sanitized, the family keeps things up despite the pandemic's challenges.

2021 Raissa Lee Family Pic ABC Mom
Raissa Lee smiles with her family. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee

She said other early educators like her need to take better care of themselves, especially during stressful times, 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 said. "And then you also have to have the help to get you there."

ABC Mom Educator Raissa Lee takes her kids on a nature walk
Raissa Lee's students go on nature walks as often as Lee can take them. | Courtesy of Raissa Lee

In 2021, Lee fulfilled a dream that was 25 years in the making. She was hired as an adjunct human development professor at Irvine Valley College and said she is delighted to keep serving children and families while teaching future educators and fellow teachers.

She said 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 said. "This job is not just babysitting. …We are [shaping] the brains of our future."

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