It all started with a move. A move that would take me 6,000 miles away from family, friends or any sense of normalcy that I was accustom to. I was done with the rat race of working for corporate America. It was time for me to do something different. Time for me to live outside my comfort zone and live a more adventurous lifestyle. In 2013 I moved from my home of Minneapolis, Minnesota to Daegu, South Korea to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) to Korean elementary school students.
Living in a foreign land – where even my job was a foreign concept – was the ultimate crash course in pedagogy. In the 2 years I taught at Waryong Elementary I increased the overall attendance of our English camps by continually creating lessons that sparked students’ curiosity and challenged their English proficiency. I inspired advanced English learners to explore their creativity in writing and acting in weekly school broadcasts. I also started up an extracurricular club for students with an advanced comprehension of English with my co-teacher, Moon-Sook. In this club, we exposed students to different English speaking cultures and conducted projects to challenge their understanding of the English language. We did play productions, poetry projects, and studied different genres of music with a focus on lyrical analysis. I succeeded in creating an atmosphere where students could freely express themselves and enjoy learning English in a non-conventional way.
My first summer teaching lower level ESL students was when I realized I was designed for this field. My Principal demanded drastic improvements from the way the 2-week course was run by the previous ESL teachers. There was little to no instruction on how to teach or what to cover in those 2 weeks; let alone how to show my non-English speaking Principal the progress they would make. However, if I could ignite a fire in them to enjoy learning the language and feeling confident in participating in class then, over time, they could potentially become that above average student my Principal called for.
My first goal was to deflate their fears by rewarding them for basic participation in class. I wanted them to be risk-takers in the classroom. This concept of being comfortable to make mistakes in a learning atmosphere is not encouraged in the Korean education system, however, I feel it is a necessity for learning any subject. In doing so they could become more confident if they were right, and if they were wrong we were able to learn from it as a class and correct it on the spot. I also reminded them that if they were wrong that it is okay because they probably weren’t the only one.
To engage the students to participate more I incorporated a reward system called “Happy Money”. One boy who benefitted the most from this concept was ChonDae. This young boy was the other piece of my enthusiasm to pursue teaching. He was a pupil in my lower level camp, a 5th grader, who had received a 40% on his English final for the spring semester. Like many children struggling in school, he was smart, he just lacked the confidence and needed the basics broken down at a slower pace.
My next goal, given the time constraints, was to establish a firm foundation of ‘back to the basics’. This would help the children work through any misunderstandings of the fundamentals of reading and writing. These two goals are what I believe lead to ChonDae’s academic transformation. To see ChonDae move from never raising his hand, or answering questions so quietly I could barely understand him, to being one of the first students to participate any chance possible gave me so much pride as his teacher during the summer camp. At the end of the 2-week course, he was volunteering to perform role-plays, and challenging his understanding of the concepts we learned in creative ways.
By the end of winter break, ChonDae had improved just enough to test out of my lower level course. I saw great improvements in his attitude in class as well. I continued to challenge him in class and helped him grow into his new confidence as a bright young ESL student. He was my inspiration and one of my favorite successes in my time spent teaching at Waryong. In fact, before I left Korea I had the privilege of grading his final exam. He scored a 92%! It took him almost a year to exceed the hasty goal my Principal had on him and other lower level students. However, success in education is not necessarily something you can put a deadline on. For ChonDae, success occurred in tiny amounts every day. It was a slow and steady progression, that signified a true understanding of the concepts he was taught.
After I left South Korea in August 2015 I traveled around Asia for 3 months. While traveling I made a point to switch my role from teacher to student once again. I wanted my experience to be about, in one form or another, learning from each countries educational style. Whether it was long talks with local educators in Myanmar or living/studying in an ashram in India. I took the time to expose myself and become a student of different pedagogy methods before traveling home.
When I arrived back in the US I became a licensed substitute teacher for Independent School District 196 here in Minnesota. While substituting I worked with all different age levels and disabilities. I was even invited to sit in on some administration meetings at a renowned elementary school to observe as they discussed successful ways to implement a new pedagogy reading method called, the Literacy Collaborative. To further immerse myself in American school life I have also been working at a private high school as a Track and Field Coach.
My desire to become a certified educator in the United States was put on hold this past September when I was offered a teaching opportunity I could not pass up. The 2nd Yuying Foreign Language school in Nanjing, China had an opening for a primary ESL teacher, with possible job placement in their sister schools in the United Kingdom, Australia and various cities in China. This well respected private school hired me in hopes of not only fulfilling the ESL teaching position but also using my marketing background to produce a promotional video that would increase student enrollment. So, once again my passion for education and a sense of adventure has taken me thousands of miles away. I am Yuying’s ESL teacher for grades 3 and 4, however, I also work with the head of the English department to install new English based extracurricular activities. Teaching in this new school has taken my skill set as an ESL educator to the next level. The school is in a transition period between two ESL programs, meaning there is no book or subject matter for me to reference throughout the year. I was advised the week before I would start teaching that I would need to create the entire curriculum for grades 3 and 4, along with their English exams. Interestingly enough, situations like this last minute surprise are very common in Asia. One thing that teaching/traveling abroad has taught me is that circumstances don’t define your attitude, you do, and to be honest, I am loving the challenge. Learning the English language is very important in the Asian education system, and my passion for these children’s future is what keeps driving me to implement a structured curriculum that will stand as a strong base in writing, reading and speaking the English language.
My goal as U of M M.Ed graduate in Elementary Education is to continue my personal education on how different cultures and academic ideologies choose to educate their youth. I want to continue observing different education systems before working in the United States. As an educator, I feel it is a never-ending job to maintain a student-like mentality to learn and fine-tune my own skills. The US is a global melting pot and in this field, it is my duty to continually challenge young minds to the world in and outside their borders.