Teaching in Korea has monumentally shifted who I am as a teacher, educator, role model, and, frankly, human. Now, wait, before you roll your eyes and gag a little bit (or after, let’s be honest), just, just hear me out.
I came to Korea after teaching in the Wisconsin public school system a little tainted by the politics of education, but still ready to change the hearts of all the students I met. I had Howard Gardner in my pocket and Nancy Barbiaux* in my ear; I was ready for anything.
I walked into my classroom on the first day ready for anything. By day five, I realised how woefully underprepared I was to teach English as a language. As the days, months...ahem...years went on, I've fallen into a rhythm. I know different tricks to help kids remember superlatives and participles. I also know when to throw up my hands and say, "I have no idea why though and crow rhyme and through and blue rhyme, but not though and through. English is a crazy language." I know that.
Let's get one thing straight before I flip everything on its head, teachers are important. We need teachers to supplement parental education. We need teachers to talk to when we're too scared to talk to our parents. We need teachers to... We need teachers to... I could write a litany of why we need teachers.
Sometimes, adult tendencies cloud teachers' perceptions. For the past two days, I've walked into my fifth grade classroom with a rock solid plan. I had detailed directions written on the board, on a powerpoint, on the paper itself. I still had kids asking, "What are we doing?" This is fine, normal, and all too real for my fellow educators. However, I also have several kids who, regardless of what I can do in my limited Korean and/or all of my teacher tricks, do their own thing despite my meticulous planning. And, that’s fine, too.
What I have loved most about these two days has been the ingenuity of my students—of what they do despite my guidance. My students have found better ways to play a game I designed. They have sorted out who goes first, second, third, and fourth with little tattling. They challenge each other to play the game efficiently. They think critically.
As much as teachers bluster about critical thinking modules and objectives, we really can’t teach it. We can’t teach someone how to think. We can show them, give them everything we have, use all the tricks written in all the books, but we cannot open someone’s brain and link the neurons together to turn on that light bulb. So, when that light bulb pops and crackles, starting dim, we can encourage, praise, and watch the wonder that happens when the watts grow and a student “gets it.”
These past two days have been incredibly humbling for me as a teacher. As a human, I thrive on helping and teaching…and knowing that I do it well. So, when this realisation snowballed from, “Wow, that is a really intriguing way to approach that obstacle” to “Oh, man, my students just schooled me in learning,” I was flustered and questioned the way in which I’ve approached education for the past five years.
But then, I sat back and recognised that when my students can work independently as they view, attack, and puzzle out problems, that’s when I’ve made it. Obviously, a teacher should never stop learning; you never “make it.” But, it means that my students feel comfortable enough in the environment to try new things, stumble, and succeed with the support of their friends and teacher surrounding them. And, isn’t that what teaching is all about? I lost myself in “school” and “education” for a moment. But, now I am back elbow deep in experience and learning. Teaching must be a relationship in which all parties work together to better each other. There really should be no other way.
*Nancy Barbiaux was my 10th grade AP World History teacher, Forensic Speech coach, and, later, friend. She is one of the most influential women in my life. She taught me more about teaching, patience, and loving your students more than any other person. Ever. Basically, on a scale of one to an entire Starburst pack of "red ones," she is pretty high up there.