Written by David Libardoni ETA’09-11

“So, who is the man in the mirror?” I asked thirty middle school boys in my best pseudo-mysterious voice. Spotting several quizzical looks, I asked the class again a little less dramatically. More puzzled faces populated the classroom. Even though a teacher should always know the answer to his own question, I was struggling with this one. The confused — but curious — looks on my students’ faces were familiar enough, as I had often worn the same expression during my first months living in South Korea. As I strived to learn a new language, adapt to a new home, and build a new perspective that included both, my focus remained on how I could contribute to my students’ education. The man I saw in the mirror that day was me, but looking deeper into the reflection, however, I recognized a man that could be much more than just a Korean middle school English teacher.

This was the question that I posed to my all-boys class following a viewing of the music video “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. I had spent the music-centric lesson honing pronunciation skills and analyzing song lyrics with my students, and therefore thought a viewing of the music video was a fitting way to end the day. The video for “Man in the Mirror” is a compilation of actual film clips depicting war, hunger, discrimination and rioting. In the middle of the song, a gospel choir erupts into the chorus with a joyous “Change!” while the footage switches to diplomacy, humanitarianism and community action. I wanted my students to identify as many of the historical events and figures as they could and discuss the images that interested them the most.

As I watched the video and brainstormed questions to ask for review, I kept trying to picture the class from my students’ perspective. On paper, I am simply the native English instructor they visit once a week, but in their eyes I represent something much more: the first American many of them had ever seen face to face.  When they think of America, beyond the pop culture references and current events of the day, they will remember their teacher.  This newfound responsibility — to embody something greater than myself — initially placed a tremendous burden on my shoulders. At the same time, however, it empowered me to act. With the song’s transition just passing, here was a perfect moment to teach my students something other than English. I could not resist the opportunity to share my own cultural values, my perspective, and maybe, just maybe, to inspire them. The day’s music lesson was quickly transforming into a chance to teach my students something about social outreach and community service. Instead of a series of questions, I would ask only one.

“Stand up. Look back there. What do you see?” I challenged while pointing to the back of the classroom. A mahogany cabinet with glass doors big enough to produce a reflection stood prominently in the far right corner. The students rose out of their seats cautiously, not sure where I was going with the question.  Looking at my impromptu mirror, I stood behind them, gazing into the door and their puzzled faces. Finally, I heard the answer coming from a hesitant, unsure voice.

“Is it me, teacher?” the boy asked.

“Yes, you!” I said. “If you want to make the world a better place, then you must make a change.”

As I saw their confused looks slowly turn into smiles and nods, I knew they understood, on a basic level, how to approach real-life problems with a sense of personal responsibility and pragmatism. They may not all go on to lead groundbreaking shifts in policy or broker peace accords, but I wanted them to feel like they could.

Just then the bell rang, signaling the end of the day. As I returned to my homestay, a daily forty-five minute journey on foot, bus and bike, I had time to reflect — figuratively — on the man I saw in the mirror that day. Part of me was thinking realistically; one song’s message was probably not going to transform these Naju middle school boys into active volunteers or shape their social ethics. But the other part of me — the idealistic side — understood the potential within my English conversation classroom. I was not limited to sharpening my own ability to interact with another culture; rather, I could also increase my students’ understanding of another belief system. During the commute, my mind kept jumping back to the first time I discovered the world map in my Korean classroom. Instead of the Americas positioned on the left side and the Eurasian land mass on the right, the map flip-flops the continents. East Asia dominates the center and the United States lingers near the right edge. A simple change in configuration provided a fundamental difference in worldview. Maybe a change in my lessons could do the same.

The map serves as a powerful reminder of the opportunity I have to exchange perspectives with my students. While I continue crafting my own perspective of Korea and the impact it will have on my future, my teaching mission crystallized that day as I completed my trek home. The man I saw in the mirror that day was going to challenge these middle school boys, and himself, to see past a mere reflection and represent something much more.