Each meeting with my students, either online or face-to-face, is important. But it’s the first day that I consider very special – the most strategically important. It’s the day that I would attempt to accomplish one of the hardest things to do in education – to shatter the students’ image of the classroom as a prison cell, with them as prisoners and the teachers as nasty prison guards. It’s the day when I begin to lay the foundations of what every teacher should endeavor to forge between them and their students – a good rapport. The entire semester is a long haul and I know that winning their hearts – making them comfortable – would make our journey together as enjoyable and productive as it could be. If I succeed in making them trust me, especially since I am not the native speaker of English they were expecting as an ESL teacher, half of the battle is already won.
There’s nothing very special about the way I conduct my first meeting with my new students. It’s just a bit unconventional.
My introduction would always include telling my students the nickname which I adopted with the intention of eliciting laughter whenever I deliver a talk – Tonitonipoponibananananapoponinomimayfofoni. (That’s inspired by the song “Name Game.”) Amazingly, when I tell my students that and jokingly threaten them to memorize it if not they would fail in my subject, they would try very hard to repeat it after me and laugh at themselves if they wouldn’t be able to say it.
Then I would add, “Whoever could say my nickname correctly will get an A+.” I was just kidding of course. Luckily, up until this time, no one among those who tried succeeded. It was me who would always succeed – in getting their attention.
From there, I would give them the necessary information about me as their teacher. The most significant of those information (as far as I am concerned) is the number of years I have been teaching. I won’t say it directly. Just do the math and… a little bit of research. I sarted teaching the year the summer olympics was held here in South Korea. The point I wish to drive home for highlighting to my students how long I have been teaching is – I wouldn’t stay this long in the academe if I don’t love my job.
The next part of my first-day-of-class script would touch the boundaries of philosophy.
I would be delivering something like an “eve-of-battle” speech. The way they do it in movies.
I would ask my first question: “Why am I teacher?”
Puzzled, the students would grope for an answer.
I would give follow-up questions after that – Would you call a woman a mother without a son or a daughter? Are your mothers and fathers mothers and fathers without you as their children?
Amid their “aahs” and nods I would then say, “I am a teacher because of the students. My reason for being a teacher is each of you. Without you I am not a teacher.” In the same manner that a woman wouldn’t be called a mother if she has no son or daughter, biological or adopted.
That’s my way of telling my students that the most important stakeholder in a school are them. Schools exist because of them. School administrators and teachers have work because of them.
That’s my way of telling them that I exist (as a teacher) to serve their interest.
I would end that part with the following statement: “Thank you for having me as your teacher.”
After that I would show them a videoclip from the movie “Collateral Beauty” – that part where Howard Inlet, a character played by Will Smith, delivered a speech in a gathering of his employees at the beginning of the movie.
He said “What is your why? Why did you even get out of the bed this morning? Why did you eat what you ate? Why did you wear what you wore? Why did you come here?”
I would pause the video clip after each question and would ask them to give an answer.
Then I would ask them follow-up questions. (These were the only questions I asked when I was not yet using that movie clip.)
Why are you here in school?
Why do you want to finish your studies?
The last question I would ask – Why did you enroll in this class?
I never failed to ask the said questions because I want my students to understand that for them to succeed not only in their studies but in all their present and future endeavors, they need to set goals. They ought to know their whys. They must know the reasons why they do what they do, say what they say, and think what they think.
I would tell them also that the worst “why” to have for studying is to get A+ – that grades are not the be-all and end-all of schooling.
All of the foregoing would be finished in twenty to thirty minutes.
I would then ask the student to introduce themselves.
After all of the foregoing , that’s the only time that I would present the course syllabus – explain the course objectives, give the topics to be discussed weekly, and tell them what activities will be done in the class and how they are going to be graded.
It’s not surprising to see the students frown when they see the course requirements on the last page of the syllabus. That’s the time that I would deliver the last part of my “eve-of-battle” speech.
I would ask – “Is learning fun?”
As expected, majority would say “no.”
My next question would be – “Is work fun?”
Of course the students would say “no” again. And every time I would ask that, one or two would say “My father always complains about his job.”
Then I would go on and tell them the following:
“Nothing is to be given to you in a silver platter. You need to work hard to achieve your dreams. Studying and working would require effort – you have to exert mentally, emotionally and physically. But something could make studying and working fun – your attitude. Your attitude towards studying will be dictated by your whys. Your whys put together is your philosophy.”
I would spend another minute or two to explain something about “personal philosophy.” At the end I would tell them that each teacher has a personal teaching philosophy and mine is as follows:
“The classroom is my playground. The students are my playmates. The subject is our toy.”
How surprised they would be whenever I say that when I come to class I don’t work, I play. Work is hard. Play is fun.
And that’s how I found joy in teaching – to not consider it as just another job. It works for me.
After all the aforementioned, when I know that I communicated already what I wanted to, that’s the only time that I would present the course syllabus.
As we end the first meeting I would tell them, “Come back next week and let’s play.”
Just imagine – I play and get paid handsomely for doing so. The remuneration is just the icing on the cake. Which one is the cake? It’s the happiness; the happiness that I derive from doing what I love doing – teaching.
On to my 10th year here in South Korea. This country has been a huge… huge blessing to me, personally and professionally.
Thank you Lord. To You be the glory!
This video shows a few glimpses of my 10 years in this country.
(Last of 3 parts)
I really tried hard to figure out what happened. What went wrong for my country and conversely, what did the South Koreans do correctly? To think that in the 1950s, while my country was soaking in the glory of being Asia’s second strongest economy, the Korean peninsula plunged into a devastating war.
I tried to probe deeper into this nation’s history to find the answer to the following questions: 1. How were the South Koreans able to slay the ghosts of a bitter colonial past?; 2. How did they survive the devastation wrought by the Korean war?; and 3. How did they triumph over internal political turmoil while at the same trying to ward off a belligerent neighbor in North Korea?
How were the South Koreans able to accomplish all of the aforementioned then eventually catapult themselves to their current lofty position in the global community?
Then I found out what the South Koreans did in 1998 at the height of the Asian financial crisis. They willingly donated their gold – jewelry (including their personal wedding rings), medals and trophies, good luck keys, and what have you. This they did to save their economy during that crisis. The collective weight of the gold they donated may not be that much. But more significant than the corresponding monetary value of their donation was the willingness of the South Koreans to make a personal sacrifice for their country. I call that nationalism. If it’s not then I don’t know what is. It is the same sense of nationalism that emboldened them to resist one military junta after another… to sacrifice their lives and limbs to lay the democratic foundations of this country which eventually became a fertile ground that nurtured the economic prosperity they are currently enjoying.
I also learned about the collectivist culture of these people. They think first of the general welfare over and above their personal interests. This I witnessed first-hand when I saw how the South Koreans willingly obeyed the restrictions set by their government during the early onslaught of Covid-19. There was no need for their leaders to implement a “hard lockdown,” the way other countries did, including mine. The citizens just strictly wore their masks, observe social distancing, and avoided leaving their homes unless it was necessary. They are willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
I think I found the answer to what enabled the South Koreans to attain prosperity and stability – the combination of their nationalism and collectivist culture. I may be wrong but I could not really see any other possible reasons for their success as a nation. There is nothing more potent of a mix for nation-building than the combination of the two. And if they keep using this formula, the future of this nation is secured.
Other expatriates living in this country may not see things here the way I am seeing them. To them the observations I made may not be a big deal. To me, given the situation in my country now, they are.
If only my countrymen would consider including the South Korean model of nationalism and collectivism among the things from this country that we allow ourselves to be influenced by. We should try to find out if we could also propel our own native land to greatness if we would try to emulate the way South Koreans profess their love for their country. We need to see if we could also make our country better if like them we would put the greater good over and above our personal interests.
We copied hook line and sinker (Or was it forced down our throats?) the socio-political and economic models of our colonizers and we are not getting desirable results. Obviously, our needle of success as a nation is barely moving. We have been trying to fit our colonizers’ square peg into our round hole. It’s not working. It’s time for us to rethink our strategies for nation building. Why don’t we try the South Korean model? Let’s see what will happen if we embrace, not only K-dramas, K-pop, and kimchi but also the values that brought the South Koreans to where they are now.