An Elder Millennial’s Journey to Ethnic Studies and Visual Arts, Part 2.5

By Alex Ng

This multipart journal is where I am documenting my thoughts as I embark on the journey of revising all of my classes from decent Visual Arts curriculum with some Ethnic Studies themes and content integrated throughout, to true Ethnic Studies Visual Arts at all levels: curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom culture.

Part 2.5 is an interlude, focused on teacher preparation and my own journey into the teaching profession.

 “We Have to Go Back!”

Before I can move forward writing about my journey into ethnic studies, we have to go back and unpack a few things. In part 1 of this journal I wrote about my time teaching English as a Foreign Language in South Korea for 2 years through a government funded program that brought native English speakers to the country as guest teachers. This deserves a closer look. 

In the summer of 2019, despite only being a handful of years removed from my time in Korea, I felt the pangs of nostalgia for the country and the life I once lived there. And so I found myself going back to my old stomping grounds for a two week vacation. I revisited my favorite spots in Seoul and spent time catching up with friends in my adopted hometown of Gongju. It was a fine time.

At this point I had completed my master’s in teaching program and had been teaching for Seattle Public Schools for 3 years. While sitting in Bean, my favorite cafe in Gongju, I reflected on my own teacher preparation journey and musings on teacher preparation in general. 

Image description: Bean Cafe in Gongju, South Korea. Interior of a cafe with seats and tables.

How does one prepare to become a teacher? 

There are many different paths to teaching available today. Most districts have a program to guide non-teaching staff through certification and into teaching high needs content areas in their district. Many would-be teachers take the grad school route if they can afford it because it is thought to be more thorough and comes with a higher pay floor once hired. The phrase “master’s in teaching” conjures up academic notions of mastery, competence, and preparation that I think most MiT holders would contest once they’re actually working as a teacher. I certainly did not feel like a master in teaching after graduating from my master’s in teaching program.

So, how does one prepare to become a teacher? 

I think the short answer is: you go teach. 

I think the long answer is: you do whatever makes sense for you, go teach somewhere, reflect on that experience, work in proximity to teaching, take classes, work in schools, read a ton, talk to teachers, reflect some more, and pick the route to certification that makes the most sense for you.

My answer was something like this: work as a tutor at both the University of Washington and Seattle Central Community College while studying at the UW, take courses in education, talk to a handful of my former teachers, spend time observing and volunteering in their classrooms, and think about what I felt I needed to experience and reflect on before deciding on a route to certification. 

Being a rather academic type, I knew that if I decided to become a teacher I would go for a master’s in teaching. I generally did well in school, I loved reading, writing, sitting around coffee shops being pretentious: there is a part of me that was born for higher ed. So, that part I had already figured out. But what I was not, and am not, is made of money. Grad school would be costly, and I wanted to be damn sure teaching was my future before I threw myself into debt in pursuit of it. 

Believing experience would be the best teacher, I researched different programs that would get me into the classroom as soon as possible. There are many programs and employment opportunities in the US that get you into the classroom and in proximity to teaching, but what I saw was that most programs that put you into the role of teacher without actually having a teaching certificate were overseas. 

EPIK (English Program in Korea) would put me into the role of a classroom teacher in public schools, possibly at the grade level of my choice, almost immediately post completion of my bachelor’s degree. The only qualifications were a BA, a TOEFL (Teacher of English as a Foreign Language) certificate, and a clean background check. In theory, the idea of pairing English Language Acquisition with a native English speaker who will teach about English speaking cultures makes sense. Languages should be taught in conjunction with culture, not divorced from it. I graduated with a BA in Interdisciplinary Visual Arts and English Literature, completed an online TOEFL program that purportedly included 80 hours of preparation (which in truth was more like 20 hours of online readings, videos, and quizzes), and managed to keep my record clean. A few short months post-graduation, I landed at Seoul-Incheon International Airport all geared up to teach for the first time.

My approach to teaching as a novice was, frankly, awful. Believing that classroom structure was important (and it totally is!) and carrying with me unexamined notions of what it means to be a teacher (that was a problem!), I too often tried to police my students. Believing it was important to make learning fun and engaging, I tried to “gamify” learning without real intention. Struggling with how to get reluctant students to take the risk of practicing speaking English, I incentivized participation with rewards. So, to repeat the obvious, my approach to teaching was AWFUL

Image description: a standard English classroom in a Korean public middle school: many small, wooden desks in rows with 3 computers in the back and bookshelves with English language books.

The important thing is, I grew. I learned. I got better. I got beat down by the job, by all my bad days, by all my failures. I distinctly remember many bus rides home after school, sitting in the back of the bus, physically exhausted and wondering if this was the right profession for me. For a long time, the answer was: “I don’t know.” But that answer was alright, because that’s why I went to Korea in the first place. 

It took half a year for any semblance of growth to rear its head. One afternoon during lunch I was walking with one of my co-teachers at an all-girls middle school, lamenting to him about how awful a teacher I was. I was going on and on about how things just weren’t working, blah, blah. He stopped me and asked me to think about the start of the year and how bad my teaching was then…his point being, as awful as I felt at that moment, I was even worse at the start of the year, so clearly I’m getting better! And he was right. I was awful at the start of the year, I was still awful at that moment, but I was getting better at the job. 

With great effort, constant reflection, and more failures, things started to turn around. The bus rides home became a little less painful. My lessons, a little less disastrous. By the end of my first year of teaching I knew I was getting better at the job. By the end of my second year, I knew I wanted to keep doing the job. In short, I loved my time in Korea. I loved how it beat me down, challenged me, forced me to grow, and prepared me in most of the ways I was hoping it would, to pursue certification. So I returned to the US to get my master’s in teaching, which I have already written about in past entries in this journal series.

In many ways, I would not have had the teacher preparation journey I reflect so fondly on now had it not been for South Korea’s history and relationship to predominantly English speaking countries like the United States and United Kingdom, the South Korean government’s view of English as a language of economic opportunity and cultural prestige, and the design of the EPIK program to put non-certificated teachers with no experience in front of students with the vague direction to “teach students conversational English.” Without much reflection on it at the time, I benefited from the US’ global militarism and exported cultural dominance. Not only that, but my students in South Korea, all 2000 of them across 2 years and 6 public middle schools, deserved a better teacher. They deserved a more qualified teacher. And I say this knowing I wasn’t the worst among guest English teachers. At minimum, I was there to take teaching seriously. Others used the EPIK program as an all expenses paid opportunity to travel to and throughout Asia. Still, I find myself uneasy with how easy it was for me to put myself in the position of teaching students in a foreign country. I have to sit with this discomfort and own my tiny part in the global exporting of American culture and English as a “prestige” language. There is more to unpack here, but I am no expert on the matter, I just know that it bothers me to this day…

image description: A tiny espresso coffee in a black cup and saucer on a wooden table in Bean Cafe

So, back to my vacation in South Korea as I sat around coffee shops trying to be less pretentious, I realized then and reaffirm now that it doesn’t matter what your journey to teaching is. My journey to teaching was no better or worse than anyone else’s; it was certainly fraught with problematic undertones, and It was what I needed at the time. 

Everyone has their own unique journey to teaching. Would-be-teachers have different questions to weigh, challenges to overcome, things to learn. What truly matters isn’t how you arrived at teaching, it’s what you do in teaching once you’re here.

image description: a bridge spanning over the Geum River in Gongju in the evening just after sunset.

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