An Open Letter To Namak High School

I have reservations about calling this an open letter.  Most open letters address public figures in an effort to roust public support and criticize or condemn one’s actions or inactions.

That is not that kind of letter.  Rather, I use the term open letter as an inclusive term for the gratitude I feel towards the students, teachers, and staff at Namak High School.  Each helped me grow into the teacher I am today.  Therefore, this letter will remain open.

To All Teachers:

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Thank you for your welcoming hospitality these past two years.  Regardless of your English level, I always felt accepted and appreciated.  I will never forget teacher dinners (before the seventh shot of soju).

Your supportiveness makes it both possible, and difficult to move on.  I’m not one to support stereotyping, but you’ve left me with amazing first impressions of Korean people.  Thanks to you, I will move jobs with the base assumption that my co-workers will treat me with dignity and respect.  That’s not to say that all Korean people will treat me so kindly.  However, your kind treatment inspires me to afford others the same charitable regard.

I wish I could say my experience is common to all Native Teachers in Korea, but I cannot.  I’ve heard too many stories.  Such and trust and positive regard are not guaranteed.  So thank you for gifting me the confidence I need to navigate a foreign culture while living alone and abroad.20180517_144334.jpg

To My Co-Teachers:

Thank you for your consistent support.  You each struck a strong balance between affording me the autonomy to learn and grow as a teacher and providing in-class feedback and intervention when necessary.  Thank you for agreeing to role-play activities with me, even if some were a bit ridiculous.  Not only did we give students clear direction in class.  We also exemplified that people can have fun practicing English.

I hope you continue to innovate and share your passion for teaching.  If that wanes, I hope you can rekindle your flame.  Or at the very least, I hope you press forward out of a duty to nurture what may be a defining generation of Koreans.

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To Our Principal:

Thank you for your strong leadership this past year.  I was once afraid of you, concerned that your curt words were a sign of disapproval.  Now I realize that your English skills aren’t the strongest, and you didn’t have much to say to me.  I also realize you want the best for this school and its students.  Therefore, you run a tight ship.  I’m sorry that my vacation scheduling error in NEIS caused you such inconvenience.  I hope you had a great vacation of your own.

To Our Vice-Principal:

I appreciate your smile and kind laugh.  I know we haven’t talked much recently.  You’re busy.  I’m busy.  Life.  But I’ll always remember playing screen golf with you following a teacher dinner last year.  I’m terrible at golf, but you didn’t mind.  You said I was a good golf partner.  I can live with that.  Thank you for your kindness these past 18 months.  Good luck with your dream of advancing to a principal post of your own.

To The Lunch Ladies (a.k.a. Food Teachers):

Thank you for redefining my preconception of what a school lunch could be.  Savory soups, seasoned vegetables, meats, fish, fresh fruit?  What more could I ask for?  You’re doing important work, fueling future generations to greatness one meal at a time.  Also, thank you for letting me take supersize portions of the vegetables.  You never judged me or laughed too hard at my general lunchtime fatassery.  I appreciate your kindness and fire cooking.

To The Janitorial Staff (a.k.a. Cleaning Teachers?)

Every message I translate on Google seems to call everyone “teacher.”  I love it.  We’re all in it together.  Anyway, I know we never exchanged many words aside from “Hello” and “Have a good weekend” (in Korean).  But you showed up rain-or-shine day-after-day to clean the same halls and bathrooms.  Many underestimate the importance of a clean workspace on mental health.  I don’t.  Thank you for making Namak High School such a comfortable place to work and study.

To The Administrators:

The fact that I don’t have much to say testifies to how much thanks you deserve.  You always paid me on-time (except during bureaucratic budget delays that aren’t your fault).  I never had a problem with paperwork, documents, or communications between my co-teacher and the Office of Education.  I feel bad.  People often treat you as sports fans treat referees.  You do a good job, and praise is slow to come.  You make a mistake and everyone loves to complain.  Well, I don’t have much to complain about.   Thank you for your diligence and understanding.

To Students:

Thank you for your enthusiasm, diligence, and patience over these past two years.  I did not arrive as a polished, experienced teacher.  My initial lesson planning, classroom management, and teacher talk left much to be desired.

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You current third-graders bore witness to my roughest lessons.  When I met you, I was shy, jet-lagged, culture-shocked, and intimidated by an educational system I did not understand.  Yet you remained patient through my opaque instructions, wordy PowerPoints, and rough activity designs.  I appreciate your ever-positive attitude toward my class.  Our positivity reinforced each other and made for a welcoming class culture while I found my teaching legs.

Just as you’ve seen me grow and develop as an educator these past two years, so too have I seen you all grow and develop as students.  It blows my mind to see you all on the cusp of adulthood, burying your noses in Suneung study guides.  No matter how you score on November’s test, no matter what university you attend, or what job you find in the coming years, I hope you never lose that spark of joy.  That spark motivated me to teach you to the best of my abilities.

The measure of a great life has nothing to do with test scores, income, or social status.  Great people elevate and empower others to succeed.  I only hope you continue to elevate others the way you have elevated me.

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As for second-graders, you are the first incoming class I met.  March 2018.  I’ll never forget scanning quiet, nervous faces during that first week of school, wishing more than anything that you would shed your shyness and speak up.  After all, I teach a speaking class.  Then I’ll always remember the frustration I felt two months later.  You all exited your shells, grew comfortable, and couldn’t stay quiet for anything.

But by semester’s end, as I learned all of your names, I feel like we reached an understanding.  Looking back, none of this surprises me.  First, you needed time to adjust to high school; to realize that this unfamiliar territory was a safe place.  Then, as you grew comfortable, we had to build trust.  You had to test boundaries and see how I would react under stress.  Could I be trusted?  Could I maintain positive regard?

But through the trials of English games, speaking activities, and creative projects, we found common ground.  I came to learn that your occasional lack of focus was not spiteful, but a product of adolescence.  It was not long ago that I was a chatty high school student who overachieved academically but lagged behaviorally.  On your end, I think you came to understand the firm teeth behind my friendly exterior.  I was your teacher.  I would never be your friend.  Yet I harbor deep, caring feelings nonetheless.

As you cross the halfway point of your high school journey, I hope you continue to shine with the consistent effort and resilience that you’ve shown up to this point.  I hope you find appreciation even in difficult moments.  High school ends sooner than you think, and you just might miss it when it’s over.

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These students were a bunch of squares.

And to you first-graders, I only wish we had more time.  Despite sharing only one semester of classes, you’ve all grown on me.  You showed me how to make scripted dialogues a fun and useful English-learning tool.  Thank you for always bringing unbridled energy and laughs into my life.

Sure, our focus wasn’t perfect all the time.  No one is perfect.  But each and every one of you impressed me with your focus and enthusiasm at one time or another.

This semester was tough.  Unfortunate circumstances sent of our co-teachers on an extended medical leave of absence.  Schedules changed faster than the wheels on a slot machine.  We had to trudge through many lessons without the benefit of a Korean-speaking teacher in class.

But we overcame.

I respect your resilience.  Hold onto it.  Carry it into next semester and beyond.  Flexibility and adaptability are success-defining qualities in today’s world.  Continue to cultivate those traits and watch yourselves bloom.

While the future of Korea remains brightit also flickers with lingering doubts.  The population is in decline.  The economy has fallen onto hard times.  World powers continue to bicker and catch Korea in the crossfire.

And yet I see hope.  I see a hardy spirit, tough resilience, and unfettered optimism in the halls of Namak High School.  I see future government officials, corporate employees, entrepreneurs, mothers, fathers, and warriors who will push toward that light at the end of this tunnel.

I’ve only lived here for two years.  Yet in that time I’ve developed a fondness of Korea that will likely live within me for the rest of my days.  I want the best for this country.  And despite each worrisome itch, my confidence in today’s youth soothes me.  My confidence in today’s teachers summons hope.

The future is now.  May today prepare us for a brighter tomorrow.

Until we meet again…

Cheers,

Ian

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