Finding meaning in teaching in South Korea

The more I teach, the more meaning it brings to my life. It is an unbelievable feeling to go to work and discover that you actually get paid to do something that you believe in. My husband Josh and I teach in a little city called Yeosu on the tip of South Korea. While I can’t say I really believe in the Korean education system per se (definitely not in its entirety anyway), I surely believe in instilling confidence and a sense of self in children on the way to becoming whoever it is they are going to be. And for some reason I’ve yet to put my finger on, these particular children are well on their way to stealing my heart, making this preoccupation I have with educating them even more delightful and fulfilling.

It was several weeks ago that the teachers at my school were asked to make calls for one hour a day during a temporary period of five classes a day rather than the normal six. We were actually calling the kids without warning to help them gain more confidence in their English ability. Very unheard-of in the hagwan world, but not that surprising given the many unusual things we’ve done since we first arrived. Furthermore, we were a little nervous, given that our ability to say hello and “I am teacher” pretty much encapsulated our Korean vocabulary in its entirety at that time. It didn’t help that our pitiful attempts to communicate with parents were at times received with the simple clicking sound of the phone being promptly dropped back into the receiver.

south-korea-with-large-toys

But the kids were another story. Word got around that “teacher called” someone or another’s house, and pretty soon tiny little voices were answering the phone with baited breath. Sometimes, we’d hear squeals of joy, and other times, voices barely above a whisper. But every time after, there was a little cluster of wide-eyed students at my desk at the beginning of the following work day, “Teacher, you — on phone — my house!!”

One day, Josh called sweet little Kitty, a rather fluent little nine-year old who we both adore in every way, and it ended up not only making quite an impression on her, but as is often the case — her parents as well. In fact, her father was so proud that he called the school and invited us to have dinner with them. It was only a few days later that we all piled into the back of their SUV for a night out on the town. The girls were so excited that they could barely catch their breath. We sang, we told stories and jokes, and laughed the whole way until we arrived at what turned out to be an extremely lavish restaurant, serving the most expensive food I’ve had in South Korea so far. It dawned on us — this was a reward. Not for us, but for them. They had made their parents proud of the their progress, and this was how they got to celebrate.

We sat around the table to enjoy our meal, admiring the fountains and the enormous buffet of food spread before us. The kids beamed at us with polite little smiles. Sally, Kitty’s sister said to me, “Teacher, it ama-jing! Everyone here is looking at us, because we are here with you. I’m so sooo happy!” It was so humbling; I didn’t really know how to take it in. They were so sweet, so polite, and so unnecessarily grateful. These tiny little kids who study more than many college students on our side of the world were pouring our drinks, getting our soup, and asking us intentional questions. Far from giddy or overbearing, they were models of restraint whose attentiveness and voice tone ooozed delight and celebration. The significance of what is happening in a teacher-student relationship is scarcely obvious on the surface, yet it was truly our privilege to experience this rare gift of being acutely aware of just how meaningful this relationship is. It wasn’t til after we got home that we found out that Kitty and Sally’s mom has cancer, which is probably why she was unable to attend last minute. She has lost her ability to work as a nurse, and now travels all the way across the country to Seoul each week for chemo.

south-korea-pier-and-boats

When I arrived at work the next day, even better than the mad dash of “Teacher-did-you-call-me” was Kitty’s run across the room to throw her tiny arms around my neck. It’s the first time one of my students hugged me — Korean kids don’t hug like American kids do. Back was the feeling from our dinner out; this feeling that breaks my heart and yet makes it feel so whole at the same time. Being a teacher is quite a gift; a gift to give and receive all at once. The responsibility is frightful but yet the response is so pure, it keeps you honest. It’s a great feeling to have a day that makes you think that, by the grace of God, maybe you’re getting it right at least part of the time.

You can read more South Korean teaching experiences on the excellent blog at www.everythingbutkimchi.wordpress.com

Written by Stephanie Klein, international teacher at Park Jeong Young Academy, South Korea