Cultural Autobiography

One of our assignments in our graduate course “Cultural Foundations” was to describe how your culture and experiences have influenced you as a teacher. This is my response.

My identity as a teacher is so deeply woven into my character that to trace its roots in my past is to outline a cultural autobiography. Unlike most people, I don’t have many vivid memories of my time during elementary school, but suffice it to say that I come from a good family, that I had a relatively comfortable childhood, and that I had very little exposure to people of significantly different ethnic backgrounds than my own. All but one of my classmates during elementary school were middle-class white kids like myself. Fast forward to high school. There was a slightly more diverse student population there: a few black faces among hundreds of white ones.

A professor’s comment about his tendency to internally evaluate his teachers triggered my own memories of high school. Some of my teachers were excellent, but too many were terrible. Mrs. Bradd, my 11th grade science teacher was one of the good ones. I remember how she connected with all of us. She would notice my frown in the back as I constructed my own understanding of the concepts she demonstrated on the board. She would imitate me, comically feigning skepticism, not quite sure whether I doubted her words. Questions whirled around in my head and though I’m sure I verbalized some of them, I exercised restraint, acutely aware that it wasn’t cool to be too curious about school. I’m not sure exactly when that feeling wore off, but I do know that we spend too much of our adolescent years thinking that. I feel fortunate to have been a teacher of Asian students for whom no parallel insult to “nerd” exists.

And then there were the bad teachers, many of whom were older and embittered by politics. I had a computer teacher who would ‘teach’ exclusively with handouts. He would get annoyed if we asked him a question, frowning at us for being too stupid to follow the straight-forward directions. Then, he would peel out of the school parking lot before the bell had even rung. But what did we care as long as we got an easy ‘A?’

My senior math teacher had a similar approach, teaching from his desk with handouts. In calculus and algebra & geometry, I simply memorized the derivatives, aced the tests, was never asked or expected to learn the concepts deeply, and never gave it a second thought – until university. But I’ll come back to that.

First, I think it’s worth mentioning that even though I had no idea what career I wanted to pursue, I was encouraged to take “practical” courses by my family and counselors. History, social science, and tech fell by the wayside in favor of math, science, and computers. My post-secondary utter lack of knowledge outside math and science has made me a fervent advocate of well-rounded education, and I think the current cross-curricular trend is a big step in the right direction. Not surprisingly, towards the end of high school, I was pushed toward engineering even though I really didn’t have any more interest in math and science than any other subjects. And while I did succumb to the social pressure, it pales in comparison to what my students are exposed to.

Many people from my hometown failed to see the benefit of going away to school, and I was swayed by both their influence and the knowledge that I would be paying my own way and regrettably decided to attend to my hometown university. I later realized that going away to university is a life experience that should not be squandered. I suppose I made the most of it, though. I moved away from home after first year, and got the best of both worlds, in a way. I kept in touch with all of my high school friends and made lots of new ones.

When I entered the engineering program at the University of Windsor, I found myself surrounded by Arabic and Asian students and realized that for the first time in my life, I was the ethnic minority. Not surprisingly, engineering turned out to be impossibly difficult, especially while balancing a part-time job to offset education and living expenses. The almost-cliche line, “Look to your left, look to your right – only one of you will graduate” eventually proved true, quite literally in my case. Right away, I felt at a disadvantage in my math classes and lamented those meaningless, easy A’s I had so gladly accepted back in high school. I spent a lot of time at my friend’s house studying. Her dad was a high school math teacher who had taught many of my classmates in university. Mr. Dimaio lived up to his reputation as a patient, knowledgeable teacher who asked all the right questions and entertained every last one of mine with seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. And all the while, he encouraged my thoroughness and attention to detail. All too aware of my shaky foundation of mathematical knowledge, I started from the pre-calculus appendices and proceeded painstakingly forward. I wasn’t going to glaze over difficult concepts the second time around. It was a tremendous amount of work making up for several years of going through the motions to figure out what all those formulas and equations actually meant.

Though I did well in my classes, my jaw dropped when I heard my classmates tell me that they had learned nothing new in their first year math courses; Mr. Dimaio had prepared them well. Engineering professors may be brilliant researchers, but great teachers they are not. Of 48 professors, I could count the number of good teachers I had on one hand. 95% of what I learned in university was self-taught. When the textbooks were accessible, I was able to do so with relative ease; when they weren’t, the subject matter remained opaque and I struggled throughout. And so I had learned, albeit mostly indirectly, how instrumental a role teachers can play in learning and discovery and how much more difficult things can be in their absence. Oh how different university would be if professors had to prove themselves in the classrooms and not just in the labs!

Learning for me was a lonely, boring experience, despite the large number of group projects and study sessions we engaged in. In contrast to some of my classmates, who could learn the theory by working backwards through the word problems, I had to read the chapter before I could even begin to make sense of the problems. For example, to some people, the concept of moment of inertia was intuitive. To me, it was just something I mindlessly calculated. That is, until I read the words verbalizing its purpose: “Moment of inertia is the resistance of a body to angular motion, just as mass is the resistance of a body to linear motion.” Suddenly, each element of the formula I’d applied hundreds of times made perfect sense. This was my first conscious exercise in metacognition and it taught me an important lesson: things ‘click’ for everyone differently. And so I would hunker down in isolated cubicles in the library, and gradually make sense of one concept and then another.

Though the material was indeed interesting, I felt inundated with math and science. My life was out of balance, my other interests untapped. Of 48 courses, we had one non-technical elective through which to “round out” our education, and when I wasn’t studying, I was working to pay for it. I felt robbed of the fun, exciting experience university was supposed to be. Somehow I had gone from the teenager’s dream job of lifeguarding and teaching swimming straight to grown-up life and spent my summers instead working 60+ hour weeks at Ford Motor Company as a co-op engineer. My lesson in financial independence started when I was 12 years old and got my first paper route. Character-building it was, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way, but it does put some distance between me and any Korean student I’ve ever taught, considering that the vast majority of them remain entirely dependent upon their parents until they finish university.

Though I found myself surrounded by many unhappy, overworked, and unappreciated people at Ford, my boss, Emidio, an upbeat, 28-year-old, hard-working Italian, was inspiring, and I really looked up to him. Like me, he didn’t have much recreational interest in cars or mechanics, as opposed to most mechanical engineers who would disassemble and then reassemble cars in their spare time. But he worked hard, and quickly gained expert knowledge of the machining process. He praised me highly when I did a good job, and he confronted me bluntly when I didn’t. I admired him for his rapid advancement through the ranks, for the respect he had gained despite his lack of prior knowledge, and for the rapport he had, both with his colleagues and his subordinates. I learned a lot from him, but the most important was the difference a positive role model can make in a young person’s life. He was confident, yet humble, never too proud to admit the limits of his knowledge base or to ask questions to expand it. I respected his genuine confidence and hope to emulate it as a teacher. To a certain extent, I followed in Emidio’s footsteps. But as time went on, stress mounted, interest waned, and I longed to be done with university. The problem was that I felt I had nothing to look forward to. Only a career in a field for which I felt no passion lay ahead. Or so it seemed.

Towards the end of my undergrad, I started to entertain the idea of joining the Canadian Forces as an engineer – a combat engineer, to be specific. I had a strong interest in the military, and they offered a competitive salary and a hefty signing bonus for a five-year contract, one year of which would be spent becoming fluent in French, and two years of which were dedicated to technical training. And Canada hadn’t been involved in anything but peace-keeping missions since the Korean War, so why the heck not? After completing all the mental and physical testing, I was accepted, only to learn that the hiring of the next group of engineers would be delayed for 8 months after my graduation.

It was then that my life took a sharp turn for the better. A friend suggested teaching in Asia. A friend of a friend in Korea said she would refer me to a reputable school to teach ESL. The only catch was I’d have to be there in 5 days. Thirsty for a change, tired of following the rules, and lured by the mysteriousness of Asia, I sold my car, packed up my things, and hopped on a plane. I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I remember my uncle saying something about the DMZ (demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea) at my farewell party and having no idea what it stood for. My embarrassingly limited world knowledge is something I’d like for my students to avoid, and I do my best to inspire curiosity beyond Korea’s borders, both in math class and after-school ESL classes.

After a long journey, all the while wondering what adventures lay ahead, I arrived in the country that would become my home (for the most part, anyway) for the next decade. I taught enthusiastic and respectful – not to mention incredibly cute – kindergarten and elementary students English, met people from all over the world, and traveled all over Korea and Asia. And every day without fail, those kids brought a smile to my face time and time again – and even better, I to theirs. It was exactly what I needed after spending my entire life in my hometown. Having grown up with three younger siblings, working with young children was a welcome change from working with grumpy old men in factories. I sought increasingly challenging positions in the Seoul area until deciding Korea had become a bit too comfortable and that it was time to switch things up with a move to Taiwan.

Taiwan was – and remains – incredible. Everything about it seemed so much more foreign and exotic than Korea. My breathtaking scooter ride from my house up in the mountains of Danshui through the tropical foliage and terraced farmland of rural Taiwan into Taipei was something I looked forward to daily. My friend and roommate referred me to his cram school, and after a crash course in test prep, I was teaching high school kids how to beat the SAT. At first, I found the test, the articles, the esoteric vocabulary, and the tricks incredibly annoying. But when I got into class and managed to put a funny spin on even the driest of grammar lessons, I realized that I had found my calling in teaching. My students’ test scores were improving steadily, I was having a blast, and so were they. What better way to spend your time than to help people pursue their dreams, and to help them to enjoy themselves along the way? At this point, I think I have to give some credit to my father and grandfather. They both have a fantastic sense of humour, and I learned from them that a obvious and ridiculously comical mispronunciation, silly sound, or funny name for something can make all the difference in the world as far as holding kids’ attention is concerned. For example, my students know the Unit-Factor-Label-Method (unit conversion process) as the “badink-badunk” method because those are the sounds I make – and have them make – while cancelling out units. Of course, no one ‘likes’ learning that process, but a little bit of silly humour goes a long way to make it entertaining.

I continued for six months teaching test-prep to prospective university students and ESL to college students. Then, though I hadn’t even come close to getting my fill of Taiwan, my company offered me a more lucrative position in Bangkok, and, eager to rid myself of student loans, I accepted. I enjoyed the teaching every bit as much as in Taiwan, but I wasn’t crazy about life in Bangkok. With my hunger for new home bases temporarily sated, I opted for a return to Korea to continue working for the same company and reunite with my friends in Seoul. I taught SAT, classic novels, math, physics, and business English that amounted to more than 200 hours a month. It was challenging, it was rewarding, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I loved the diversity of material I had to learn and re-learn in order to teach. I would try to make it meaningful and prove to my classes that yes, we were preparing them for a test, but the knowledge and skills gained would benefit them beyond the SAT.

Then came another turning point. A good friend of mine got me an interview at a new Korean International Middle School, a position that, as I well knew, should have required a teaching degree but that I somehow landed without. Despite the chaotic start, the school has come a long way, and so have I. There was no established math program, and I was tasked with designing a curriculum to complement the Korean math program. I’d gotten really attached to teaching high school students, and I was nervous about the switch to those troublesome, awkward middle-schoolers, but I was happily surprised to discover that I am equally happy teaching students of all ages.

Teachers can have a tremendous impact anywhere, but I feel like I can make even more of a difference in Korea. The students are over-worked and stressed. Robbed of their childhoods, they spend just about every waking minute studying, from elementary school onwards. I feel like I am making the greatest positive difference when I foster an environment in which students forget they are learning because they are enjoying themselves so much, and that’s what I strive to do every class. I don’t always succeed, but I do a fair bit – and I’m getting better all the time.

In the classroom, I always feel the pressure that comes naturally with any attempt to accommodate the diverse needs of a group of students, but I also feel in my element – more so than in any other situation. People who observe me teach for the first time are often surprised at how strong a presence I have in the classroom. I suppose that’s because I’m not an especially strong presenter, and in normal conversation, I’m more introverted, particularly around new people, despise small talk, and I don’t participate in conversations that don’t interest me (I use my decade-long absence from North America as an excuse to avoid any conversations about sports, for example). This is not to say that I assume a completely different identity as a teacher. If anything, I’m never more genuine than when I’m teaching. In fact, nothing has come as naturally to me as teaching has. I have to work at most subjects; they don’t just ‘click’ for me in an instant. I have to follow a procedural approach to gain an understanding of new concepts, and it is perhaps this approach that makes it easier for me to break it down for students.

One thing I’m proud of as a teacher is my ability to challenge the class while at the same time setting the tone for a safe, comfortable environment, a state of “relaxed alertness,” to steal a term from my Secondary Content Methods class. I remember how insecure I was in high school and accordingly, I’m sensitive to the struggles teenagers endure. I remember what it’s like to feel over-worked and to have my choices in life constrained. I have re-discovered repeatedly how awkward it can be to adapt to new social environments. I invite my students to forget their stress, if only temporarily, to laugh at me, and then at themselves to show them that not everything needs to be taken so seriously.

My life as an expat has been a transformative experience. My friends in Korea may come from all walks of life all over the globe, but we’re also all teachers, all travelers, all foreigners in Korea. Such extensive common ground has provided the foundation for deeper friendships than would be possible elsewhere. I’ve made similar connections with my classmates during my intermittent return to student life, a life-changing experience that has incited a reflection on and refining of my teaching practices.

My impulsive move to Asia and all the good things that have spawned from that decision have fundamentally changed who I am. I have become a risk-taker, much to my mother’s disappointment. I have a thirst for adventure, both recreationally and professionally. I climb mountains even though I’m terrified of heights, I experiment with new teaching methods even though they might not work for my particular set of students, I take yoga classes even though I can’t sit cross-legged. I scuba dive, I do Muay Thai, I study in Spain. I have become willing to force myself out of my comfort zone because I know that if I’m not willing to scare myself, I might rob myself of an opportunity to surprise myself.

Because of these choices, I’ve gained an interest in the world, and an openness to other perspectives that I didn’t always have. While constructing a more worldly perspective, I have paradoxically acquired a clearer and stronger identity as a Canadian and consider myself an ambassador to my country. Perhaps most importantly, I have developed and continuously fed my appetite for diverse knowledge and experiences, an appetite for discovery that I strive to demonstrate to my students.

I know how it feels to make a genuine difference in someone’s life and for someone to make one in yours. I know I’ve met some incredible people with whom I’ve shared equally incredible experiences, and I’m certain I’ll have more. I know I’ve found my passion, and that my future is bright, and I plan to help others have a similar outlook on life.