It has been a long time—too long—since I wrote The Perks of Being a Teacher / Part 1: Students. It was always in the back of my mind that one day I should and would sit down to write about the co-workers I had the privilege of working with as a teacher, which made teaching so much more meaningful and fun.
I believe there is a special kinship that forms between teachers as we go through similar issues: students who are acting up, parents who complain or blame, administrative officers who are not cooperative, classroom management, government requirements, the list is pretty much unending.
There’s something special about suffering together that bonds people faster and closer than a life of no worries. And trust me, the life of an average teacher is rife with reasons to worry or stress. But because there is such a rich mix of experiences, personalities, and methods of teaching by different teachers that we support and learn from each other in unique ways. So, yes, suffering brings us together. 😉
But trust me, we also know how to have fun! I loved having co-workers who were humble enough to share in suffering yet also knew how to cheer each other up. Even a short meeting at the photocopy machine or the blessed lunch break would be enough to refuel us. We would sometimes share crazy stuff that happened in our classes, a sweet comment by a student, or go on about our own inside jokes that might have started as we co-led some school event.
At the two schools I worked at, going out or hanging out in someone’s house was a regular way of letting off steam. At one particular school, I especially bonded with this friend with whom we would have impromptu meal dates, short trip dates, and music jamming dates.
I guess what I am trying to say is that as a teacher, I felt that my co-workers were not just co-workers. They were like brothers and sisters; friends; empathy-givers. Our relationship was strengthened all the more because we all had the mentality of serving to the best of our ability. No one was just trying to “put in hours.” We all had the common goal of providing the best sort of education we could to the best of our ability.
We all had our own share of weaknesses and lazy sides, but the engine of love for students was one and the same, and there was always something to learn from each other.
So, here is to all my fellow teachers, who laughed and cried with me, listened and shared with me, learned with me and taught me: thank you and I love you!
I realize I wrote mostly about the grieving or hard aspects about being a teacher. Thus, to communicate how meaningful and grateful I am for the last three years I spent as a teacher, I want to share some of the small and big joys of teaching. Because there are too many good things to talk about, I divided my experiences into several categories. This post will focus on the joy a teacher can have in her precious students.
My Angel Student
She was very shy. She was in my Spanish 1 class when I was on my first year of teaching. I know that as a first time teacher, I was bound to make mistakes, and in this particular class, I seemed to have no control over my students and I always felt frustrated. But whenever I looked at her, she would flash this angelic smile and it always strengthened me. Not only this, but when I met her in the hallways, I could tell she was genuinely glad to see me, and so was I.
One time, she was absent for many of my classes. Thus, I offered to help her catch up after school on a weekend on campus (she lived in the school dormitory). We met after lunch, and in the cafeteria, I taught her colors in Spanish. It took her a lot of time to understand because she wasn’t fluent in English or Korean. As I sat with her, explaining different concepts again and again, I was amazed that I wasn’t frustrated at her lack of understanding. It was because she was so genuinely willing to learn and trying her best; it gave me the strength and will to do my best to explain it again and again in a better way. In a sense, she made me want to become a better teacher. And when our session ended, she was all smiles.
As the semester went on, I ended up offering to buy her lunch on campus. We ate, talked, and as I was taking her back to her dormitory, she smilingly held my hand and put our hands in my coat’s pocket. It was such a sweet and innocent act of love that I just melted inside. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, how come I get to have such a sweet student?”
If you thought this was enough sweetness, it was not. In her music class, they had to compose a song about someone they knew. And yes, she chose me. The song was simple and very touching, and she asked me to play the guitar as she sang this song. I gladly said yes, and we recorded it in the classroom. The lyrics still touch my heart and sometimes I feel undeserving of the lyrics she wrote.
Thanks to her, when times got tough, I had a fond memory to give me reasons to keep trying to be a better person and teacher.
Everyday Joy-Giving Students
There are many students that come and go through a teacher’s teaching career. And I realized that there’s this group of unnamed students who boost up your energy in small ways here and there. Here are some instances:
The student who gave me a precious piece of candy or shared some kind of snack with me to see me brighten up at their sharing.
The student who greeted me with a smile or a big wave even when not taking my classes (I was sad to see that many students stopped greeting me cheerfully once they stopped taking my classes, but the ones who did acknowledge my existence afterwards made up for all the heartaches)
The student who came to just tell me how their day was, asked me how my day was going, or noticed I was feeling sick or bad and made a caring comment about it.
The student whose eyes and body language told me they were thankful for the activities I prepared and were busy enjoying themselves in the lovely world of learning.
The student who encouraged and helped his/her peers with a genuine concern for that friend’s welfare.
The student who helped me sort papers and grade them at a time I was crazy busy.
The student who gave me hugs.
The student who wrote me unasked for and heart-felt apology notes.
The student who complimented me on days I wasn’t feeling pretty at all.
My Trouble Students
I have a few trouble kids (sweet and crazy students) who are all boys. These kids usually don’t have much interest in grades, enjoy having great fun, and have a certain depth in them. They are the students that brought great laughter and great drama into my day-to-day life as a teacher. Without them, my days would have been rather bland. All of these students started out pretty defensively against me. Their body language, their stare, everything about them said “I am planning on doing nothing in your classroom except for causing trouble.” However, time and genuineness brought what I’d like to think of as genuine friendship.
[Thoughts in parentheses about the trouble kids]
(In a sense, I wanted to influence these students in a big way, but I can’t say I have. Most of them kept getting detentions and would still get in trouble after they got close with me. And no matter what atrocities they committed, for some reason, I couldn’t not like them.
I felt like these kids had a lot of unanswered questions in their hearts and minds; which was why they were acting out. What I saw in their fierce eyes was a lot of untold hurt. Thus, I wanted enough wisdom and discernment to be able to provide an environment for them where they could speak out their fears, the things they felt were unfair, to express the desire for hope, or whatever else was in their hearts. However, I don’t think I did this well enough.
I wished there was a way that I could freely speak truth in love into their lives; I wished all of us as teachers got together to pray for them instead of labeling them as impossible kids. I wished their questioning wouldn’t be seen as defying but would be guided into positive curiosity. I wished I could have done more for them than I did because of how busy I was with the curriculum I taught, the activities I had to lead, and the legalities of being a ‘teacher’.)
Even though I feel like I haven’t impacted their lives as positively as I would have liked to, they definitely affected my life positively. Below are some instances where they made my life just a tad bit sweeter:
On my first year of teaching, there was this student who wouldn’t stop talking in my class. He had a very loud voice and was constantly distracted. I thought he hated all the activities I prepared for class and found them so boring that he was constantly distracted. Then, after the midterm exams, he came to me with a 미안한 표정 (an I-am-sorry-facial-expression) and said, “Profe Eli! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! Next time I will do much better in the exam! I will be really good in class!” and hugged me as he said that. I was surprised at this because I genuinely thought this student was apathetic to my class and its results. I laughed and told him that he’d better behave better in class. From then on, our relationship got better and better.
There was a one-sentence note that melted my heart; written by a student who was particularly evasive of any positive talk. He wrote ‘3년동안 감사했습니다 (Thank you these past three years)’. And I was thankful he thought and wrote that to me because I was thankful to have met him as well.
Our school had an annual water balloon fight at the end of Sports Day, and when all the kids were busy throwing water balloons at each other, these two students made it a point to find me and throw these water balloons at me. It was more significant because I knew they were kids who preferred to be ‘cool’ and not mix with school activities.
Another student, whom I taught for one year only but got to know deeply, called himself my first disciple. I was taken aback by the word ‘disciple’ because I had never thought of being wise enough to be in the position of discipling someone. Even though he said it half-jokingly, it gave me great joy to know that the conversations, corrections, and activities we did together as teacher and student affected him to the degree of wanting to call himself my disciple.
*(I want to write a few more instances, or make them more detailed, but I think it might invade on someone else’s privacy so I will keep it short.)
As much as these students made some days really hard to teach, I felt like once we established a relationship, it was much moregenuine and respectfulthan many of the generic teacher-student relationship I had with many kids who were trying to be good to not get in trouble in my class. In other words, these students eventually saw me past the rule-giving teacher, and saw me as a teacher who loved them and therefore put certain rules and disciplines, and only then were willing to obey or try in a humane way. I guess in a way I prefer the questioning as long as it’s done in a respectful way that is seeking for truth. Isn’t this what God desires of us? That we ask, trust, and obey Him in this manner?
I believe students affect a teacher as much as the teacher affects the students. And I am so grateful to have met such precious students in my short teaching experience. They helped me know my strengths and weaknesses, and I know my life is now richer thanks to their input into my life. I hope and pray that from their interaction with me, what will remain embedded in them is Christ’s love, because I know I have learned much of God’s love through them.
If you know me, you know I love to make things clear.
If you know me, you know I don’t like repeating myself.
So, if you know me, you will know this is a blog post to clarify that my plan to leave Handong International School (HIS) after this year should NOT be a shock and that it’s something I’ve been thinking of since the first year I taught here.
In fact, it would be a shock (especially to me!) if I stayed here longer.
Two years ago, I had no idea I was going to stay at HIS for three years.
Here’s how I came to teach at HIS:
I quit my job in Seoul. Didn’t have anything concrete to do next.
Watched a documentary called Father of Lights: was convinced that the Holy Spirit was going to lead the next step.
Literally minutes after that meditation, I got a phonecall from Prof. J asking me whether I was interested in being a part-time teacher at HIS.
The next day, I said yes.
Here’s how I decided to teach for 3 years at HIS:
During year 1 of teaching, I realized two things:
If I want to know what teaching is really about, I need to stay longer.
I really like the people I work with. All of them.
For some unknown reason, 3 years appeared to be a good number. Everyone I knew agreed with this number.
Now here I am, on my third year of teaching. I have learned and am learning so much! I love my kids! I love my co-workers!
I’m straining a bit too much having to keep so many relationships (teaching ~150 kids is no small business for a mega introvert like me. My introvert-meter is about to burn.)
It’s getting too comfortable. (TCKs might understand this symptom.)
And I remember I said 3 years.
Now, if God tells me directly: “STAY!”, I will stay.
However, I highly doubt this will happen.
So, until further ado, I am planning on leaving HIS after this year. (Who knows, I might still be in Pohang, or be anywhere else in the world. It’s not up to my planning. It’s up to my God.)
So please, PLEASE don’t be shocked to hear I am most likely not going to teach at HIS next year. Be shocked if I say I changed my mind and am staying here for a longer period of time.
Many times, when people hear me explaining something, they say, “Wow, Eli. You are really teacher-material. You explained that so clearly and so well!”
While I am flattered and thankful for those kind words, I know every day as I walk into my classes that this is not true. Explaining something thoroughly to someone who wants something to be explained is one thing. Going into a classroom full of 10th to 12th graders, some of whom have no interest in Spanish at all, others who are studying this in a purely academic (a.k.a. like a zombie) way, others who are actually excited about the material but are slowed down by the rest of the class, some of whom just come to receive some sort of attention, is a whole different story. It requires a whole lot more of me than just having the “gift” of explaining things clearly.
To be what I would consider ‘teacher-material’, I need to be filled with God’s love every day in order to serve them. Patience to answer the same question a million times, perseverance in explaining to my students that I want us to make a positive learning environment together by asking questions, wisdom to make valuable and meaningful lesson plans, discernment in classroom management, etc.
Not only do I need God’s love to serve them, but I need it for myself every day. You see, my most persistent struggle is self-esteem. Too many times I want to put focus on how much of an inexperienced teacher I am, on not having prepared the best curriculum ever, on not having prepared meaningful learning, the list goes on. Because I am particularly insecure about myself and fearful about making mistakes, I am glad God has called me here and now. He has been revealing Himself to me in too many ways to count.
For example, when I think of how inadequate I am, I tend to go to my pity-party, where everything starts with “Woe, me…” But God firmly convicts me that this is no longer a thought pattern I am to go to. No more excuses! Instead, more of “I can’t, but it is no longer I but Christ. Have it Your way.” And the more this happens, the more freedom I experience: freedom in making mistakes, freedom in being vulnerable (and not getting scarred because even if I get hurt, I take my burdens to Abba), freedom in enjoying Abba’s delight in me. Yes, for some reason, I forget that key point: God delights in me. His joy is my strength. When I feel His pleasure, I can be most creative, bold, and loving.
Our 2nd semester of school is coming up soon. I will meet my lovely students again. Because He has proven Himself so faithful and loving each step of the way, my only prayer is this: Abba, may Your will be done ❤
Yesterday my Spanish 2 (from now on to be called ‘pumpkins’ because that’s what I call them every now and then ^^) had their finals. And I think we all had fun!
I mean, so far, the chemistry I’ve had with my pumpkins has been great. All of them (except for one student, but he has quickly adapted to our class dynamics) have been with me since Spanish 1 (last year), so they all understand how I want our class to roll: fun + learning + good attitude and integrity. And thank God, they are all on board. I must admit, they receive a stern rebuke every now and then, but overall they are absolute angels. They are enthusiastic learners with great attitudes. What more could a teacher ask for?
Now, for their final exam, I asked them to memorize any of the Spanish conversations we did during the semester, and told them they were free to change the conversations up a bit. I was ready to grade it, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see my sweet pumpkins not only excel in their conversations, but put their own flair and creativity into them. Even my most shy students did such a great job that I forgot I was a ‘teacher’ and that I was supposed to ‘grade’ them. Why? Because they went beyond grading by preparing not only the necessary Spanish to pass, but putting their own color into it. And better yet! They were enjoying it! We were all smiles and laughs as they said their crazy lines and some of them even acted things out!
Then, believe it or not, things got better.
You see, along with their written exam, I gave them a survey. In it they had to rate from 1 to 5 how I, as a teacher, performed in different areas. Amazingly, some students put a 3 or a 2 on ‘Right amount of homework’ because it was “too…less” or “we need more <3” (Indicating they were thirsty to learn more!!!). Some students asked if they could add a 6 to the rating system. Some students got even more creative and wrote numbers like 25,736,278,695 for ‘Overall satisfaction with the class’. (TOO ADORABLE!!)
And lastly, after they were done with the written exams, someone mentioned the possibility of doing Spanish 3 altogether next year and we all cheered at the thought of it. My heart still flutters thinking about the positive vibes we had during our final exam (I mean, normally, finals are supposed to provide a ‘stressful/strained environment’, right? Not in our class!).
I am not saying this to boast my teaching skills, because I know I have none of that (I am barely on my second year of teaching!). I am the least of teachers. Instead, I am sharing this gem of an experience because I believe it is getting me closer to the heart of education (my quest since graduating college!), which is not about grades, or getting into a great college, but learning something meaningful together with the students. Both teacher and students are learners in the classroom.
I am so grateful to be experiencing this kind of class environment because I know it is something that is jointly made by the students and the teacher. And every time my students understand my heart and I understand theirs, I feel like there is more mutual trust and respect going and coming from each other. And that, inevitably makes subject learning more fun and interesting.
Yesterday, in the privacy of my one-room apartment, I cried like a baby. One of my classes had consistently started out something like this:
I come into the classroom and set things up. (I don’t have a classroom of my own so I hover from class to class).
Students start coming in one by one.
“쌤, 저 오늘은 공부 할 기분이 아니에요.” (Teacher, I’m not feeling like studying today.)
“쌤, 저 오늘은 그냥 잘래요.” (Teacher, I just want to sleep today.)
I tell them, “I’m sorry you are feeling that way. Could you please get your folder?”
“쌤, 오늘 그냥 매점에 가요. 누구한테서 간다고 들었는데.” (Teacher, let’s just go set some snacks at the convenience store. I heard from someone that we are going today.)
By this time it’s quite clear to me that most of them don’t want to be in class. And class hasn’t even started.
Still, I sucked it up and gave them our Social Contract test (a test on classroom behavior expectations).
All of them were surprised about it.
I had told them last week about it.
So I told them I was going to make it open book. Everyone sounded relieved and they started at it.
One student wasn’t doing it; didn’t have his folder with him; didn’t have a pen. A gave him his folder and pen. Should I stop doing that? Anyways, he still seemed kind of zoned out but then started doing it. Then I told them that even if they didn’t finish, we would go over it together. And if you hadn’t finished, you could just write down the right answers. Suddenly the student who wasn’t prepared complained that he had started doing it but now he could finish it and went to sleep.
After the test, were doing Soccer verbs motions in Spanish (called TPR) and I asked him whether he was going to do it or not. He didn’t want to do it. I gave him the option of staying and doing it or of going to the principal’s office. He chose the latter. I wrote him a note and sent him away. (He came back after a few minutes saying that the principal wasn’t in his office.)
But this is just the beginning.
Doing verbs TPR with the rest of them was like doing TPR with zombies. Two of them were drifting off to sleep so I asked them to stand up so that they could wake up. I felt like I had to beg them to do the TPR motions. It got to the point that I couldn’t think straight because I was getting emotional. What I remember is that my head was all muddled up because I just wanted to cry because of frustration.
After I barely got done with all the verbs, I asked them if they wanted to play a game that would earn them all candy if they simply participated.
Zombies staring at me.
So instead of doing the game, I told them we were going to fill out a verb chart that I had prepared. (These zombies were good at doing mindless stuff.)
I quickly wrote everything on the board and tried avoiding eye contact with them because I knew that if I looked at them, I would burst out crying. Then I went to the teacher’s seat, which is somewhat protected by a barrier, and tried to compose myself. From my fortress, I asked again if they really didn’t want to play that game. Reluctantly, they said they wanted to play.
So I went back out of my refuge and played the game as I tried hard not to cry. As soon as the zombies finished the game, I congratulated them and asked them to come and get their candy. It was like telling zombies I was giving them zombie food. They were suddenly alive and quick with their motions.
As the zombies were eating their brains out, I left the room.
My tears were too strong. I went to the bathroom and composed myself. A few minutes later, I went back to the classroom and told them they were free to go.
I came home and cried maybe two or three rivers. It was good. To just cry. They totally don’t get how much their words and attitude get to me. My students’ attitudes broke my heart because I really enjoy being with them and teaching them, but it seemed like it wasn’t like that with them.
And to think I have been doing this to God in a much greater degree! That is why I cannot be resentful of my students’ attitudes… because I did much more than that to God many more times. And God forgave me each time and embraced me each time. Those who have been forgiven much, can forgive much. I have been forgiven and loved beyond what I deserve. And if I have received this kind of forgiveness and love, who am I to not pass on the baton?
(Edited journal entry from October 28, 2014– my first year of teaching at HIS)