Written by Andrea Sohn, ETA ’11-13 and Jin Hyuk Yoon
To My Students
To my students, past and present:
Once you asked me what I wanted from you: 선생님, 우리한테 뭘 바래요? The language barrier made the question particularly hard to understand. What did I, an adult, want from you, a teenager? What did I, an American, want from you, a Korean? With enough body language and mixtures of words, I finally got it: What did I, your teacher, want from you, my students?
When I first entered your classroom, I was instantly paralyzed. It was something about the sea of forty-or-so tired faces, topped off with indistinguishable plastic frames and military buzz cuts. You laughed because I was shorter than you and because my voice was more high-pitched than anything you had heard before. You made a racket over my “native English” pronunciation and proceeded to imitate my style of speaking. You asked me where I was from, how old I was and if I had a boyfriend.
The longer I was with you, the more I realized how precious your spare time was. Before meeting you, I had decided that I could finally put my expensive American post-secondary education to good use and teach you both English grammar and vocabulary in nontraditional ways you had never seen before. But, especially without graded assessments, those of you with no desire to go to Seoul for college and those of you who had already declared your math and science majors began to nod off and lose interest. I recognized that you were tired because you had stayed at school until 10 p.m. the night before; I understood that your energy had to be directed toward gaining admission into the colleges of your choice.
If I felt frustrated by the rules of your education, how frustrated must you have been? You told me you were tired of memorizing and repeating seemingly useless facts. I didn’t want you to merely say that things “could be better;” I wanted you to explain what, exactly, could improve.You told me that you wanted everything from school hours to college admissions requirements to change. But I wanted you to fight your own skepticism, and I wanted you to envision yourselves at the forefront of any necessary change. You told me, as if I were the luckiest person you had ever met, that any American education must be superior to its Korean counterpart. But I wanted you to understand that different doesn’t always mean better.
But recently, I just want to talk to you. I want to tell you about myself, about where I came from, about what I hope for the future. I want to tell you about the things I studied and the places I traveled and the collection of people I met along the way. I can either stubbornly resolve to revolutionize the way you think about English—or I can try to offer you another outlet. I want to remind you that it isn’t the end of high school that you should be looking toward. Instead, it’s the beginning of the rest of your life—and the rest of the world—that you should always keep in mind.
Students, this is what I want from you. I want you to think big. Think big thoughts.
To My Teachers
To my teachers, past and present:
When you came to Korea and started to teach Korean students, how did you feel? I really wonder about that because I had no chance to get out of the Korean education system. When you see Korean students, what do you think about them? Do they look like they’re trying their best in a system different from America’s, or do they look like they’re just doing the same thing repeatedly, like a machine?
In Korea, studying has a really special meaning. This country only has 1 percent of the land of America but there are 50 million people and there are no special resources. Maybe all we can have is manpower. As a result, most Korean students started to study quite early. Or, maybe, they are forced to study quite early. As Korean students go to high school, they are forced to stay almost 14 hours per day except during weekends (but students are deprived of even that weekend when they begin third grade. They should study in almost the same pattern as weekdays.) Students take classes from seven to ten hours and self study two to three hours per day. In the case of my school, we have only two hours of P.E. class and learn art only when we are in first grade. Under this kind of tight schedule, students even hate each other to get better grades. But what if all these things that we’ve learned are useless when we become adults? If students hate their friends because they must compete for better grades, can this be considered a right education?
I don’t want to learn or study in this way. There are so many obstacles and restrictions at school. For example, we have to learn English not for communication, but for tests. So we spend lots of time learning grammar in our English class and it’s really boring because we have learned it from elementary school repeatedly (and I’m pretty sure that it isn’t practical usage of English.) In addition, most teachers don’t encourage learning things that are more difficult than curriculum level or things not quite related to the curriculum just because they think it hardly helps with entering university. So even though I want to learn more about English, teachers sometimes don’t want me to learn these things. But more than anything, endless competition with my friends is the hardest part to endure. I became exhausted. And as I became exhausted, the time that I didn’t read or take notes increased and I couldn’t concentrate like before. I couldn’t find any reason why I should learn in this kind of system.
But one day, I changed my mind after my mother’s phone call. She was just cheering me on but also she told me that all of my family members were undergoing hardship. She said my grandfather had sold his own house to help my father’s business.
Maybe the only thing that my father could do for my grandfather, who had sold his own memories with my grandmother for his son and grandson, was just shedding his tears. I felt guilty and sorry that I didn’t do my best while my family was undergoing really hard times.
I thought again. Why do I have to study? What is my dream? Even though I wanted to make a difference, I didn’t do anything. I just complained and let time pass. And I realized that maybe my dream was too small and that all I wanted to achieve in high school was entering a good university, just like others. I realized how immature I was. From that time, my dream changed. I wanted to be a great person so I could change this system in a better way.
As my goal changed, I started to change, too. I changed my attitude and started to concentrate on my own school schedule again. But at the same time, I started to find other ways to study English by myself. When I found words that I didn’t know while studying, I searched for more meanings that could be applied to other contexts. And since I liked to write in English, I also started to write an English diary.
Even now, others keep saying that it’s useless. But I don’t care about them too much because I have wanted to learn this way and this is something that I can learn happily. But the most important part of the change would be my attitude towards my friends. I tried to accept my friends as friends, not competitors. If there are friends who study much better than me, I tried to understand them and learn good parts from them, trying not to be overwhelmed or discouraged by their abilities. And even if there are others who are not good at studying, I tried to be their friend because I realized that all of them are really special and precious parts of my life. As I had changed my view in this way, I could start to study and enjoy my school life much more than before.
Now, I want to ask you a question. Why did you come to Korea, and why are you teaching Korean students? Maybe there are many reasons. But no matter what those reasons are, I hope you can change my friends’ dreams to much higher and greater things. Because even though many students already know that studying can be a tool to achieve their dreams, those dreams are too small. They just dream about entering good universities because their schedules are not flexible right now and because they can’t experience anything special. Maybe I can’t change my friends since my own experiences are not the same as theirs. But I’m sure you can because you’re a teacher who experienced a different education and dreamed much bigger things. And I believe if you make these efforts for us, they could change one student’s life, and, further, could change Korea’s future.
Jin Hyuk Yoon
Andrea Sohn is a 2011 – 2013 ETA at Cheongju High School in Cheongju.
Jin Hyuk Yoon is a student at Cheongju High School.