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 COMMENTARY

I walked a mile, and more, in my students' shoes

Korean language humbles teacher
By Tatiana with, Globe Staff, 9/29/2002

SEOUL - My sansengnim grabbed me on the way out the door.

''You're doing well,'' she said reassuringly in some of the first English words she had used all day. ''You'll be OK.''

But I'm a teacher, too, and I knew ''well'' did not describe my performance. Two days into my five-week Korean language class, I felt like a failure. I ducked into the bathroom, and the already welling tears began to spill over.

''Whose idea was this?'' I asked rhetorically, stifling sobs. ''Why was I half a world away from home learning Korean? Already fluent in Spanish and English, why had I wanted to learn a third language?''

Seven pairs of dark eyes looked up at me in my mind's eye: Jae-Young, Young-Jae, Yong-Min, Seho, Yunjung, Kyung Wan, Ki-Hyun. They were why.

When I welcomed these Korean children into my fourth-grade classroom last September, they didn't know much English. They could not complete the work I had prepared to assign or understand most of my directions. Unable to speak any Korean, I couldn't help them much, or even reassure them. They were scared, and so was I - how would I teach them?

With the help of my school's Korean bilingual teachers, we devised a plan to support my Korean students. We gathered Korean and lower-level English books, set up a listening center, and increased the amount of time my students worked with our Korean teachers. But then it struck me: Wouldn't I be a better teacher to these and all my students if I spoke a little Korean and knew more about Korean culture?

So began my journey to Seoul, where I now found myself crying in the basement of the Korean Language Institute at Yonsei University. Scolding myself, I thought about the Korean students in my last class. How must they have felt when I went on and on about Native Americans or writing good lead sentences in a language they didn't understand?

Here I was at 32, a successful woman with lots of gumption and two careers under her belt boo-hooing in the bathroom? I dabbed my tears and headed back to my dorm. I was walking in their shoes.

The trek would not be easy and I procured plenty of blisters, but what I learned as a student of a foreign language in a faraway land was invaluable and is greatly influencing the way I view education and teach all my students.

Lesson one: It is difficult to learn anything when everything is new - at least at first.

I had forgotten how trying to learn something truly unfamiliar felt: scary and frustrating. When I arrived in Korea, I didn't know any of the Korean characters or even if they were right side up. Simple tasks, such as looking up words in the dictionary, seemed like brain surgery those first few nights that I struggled with my homework and stayed up until the wee hours to complete it. It didn't help that my sansengnim insisted in explaining everything - and it was a lot - in Korean.

Notes to self: Slow down when I teach - to a crawl if needed - and break tasks down into digestible nibbles. Make no assumptions about what my students know or don't know.

Lesson two: Different cultures teach differently.

I advocated to get placed in a different class, one with a more empathetic sansengnim who would explain how to conjugate all these verbs in English. Within days, my desk was moved to an adjacent classroom and I suddenly didn't feel stupid anymore. Kamsamnida! Thank you! By the end of week two, I was definitely learning Korean, but I was also noticing something about how I was being taught.

Almost no matter what I asked, I was told ''learn later'' or ''memorize.'' I felt frustrated again and talked to others in my program, which caters to Korean-American college students and included some Korean linguists for the US Air Force. They explained that, in Korean culture, not much emphasis is placed on the process of learning, just the end result. Get used to it, they said, that's just the way it is.

I conferred with the parents of some of my former students, who had moved back to Korea, and they confirmed it, expressing displeasure with the system.

Notes to self: Teach all students to question, question, question, to enhance their understanding. Remember to explain information in many different ways and numerous times. Be clear about expectations.

Lesson three: Smart is not something we are, it is something we get.

I had inculcated my students with that maxim last year. It is all about effort, I told them over and over. If you work hard, you will succeed. I believed it; they believed it.

And yet, my effort seemed to add up to little after four weeks in this program. I had managed to memorize some 250 words. I could conjugate verbs for different levels of formality, as well as past, present, and future tenses. And I could engage in simple conversations.

Sansengnim: ''Tatiana, how is your Korean life?''

Tatiana: ''My Korean life is fun, but Korean language is difficult.''

Sansengnim: ''Is Korean food too hot?''

Tatiana: ''No, I like all Korean food. I like kimchi very much.''

The reality, however, was that my knowledge and effort would be tested at the end of the program during a two-day test. And this exam, looming in the horizon, was worth 80 percent of my grade. I was going to fail. Me - the valedictorian, the dean's list member, the honors graduate.

I e-mailed a long list of US friends I had been keeping in touch with since arriving in Korea. ''What should I do?'', I asked. Spend all my remaining time in Korea studying or soak up the culture and forget the test? Everyone voted for the experience so I got smart: I enjoyed myself and relaxed enough to study a reasonable amount. I passed the test.

Notes to self: It is all about effort. Inculcate again. Remind students that we learn a lot outside of our classrooms and from each other. Tests are not the end all, be all. Communicate that to students - especially during MCAS.When school started a few weeks ago, I welcomed one Korean-speaking student to my class. It figures that Dan is fluent in English and doesn't need my broken, elementary Korean to help him feel comfortable in our school.

But my trip was not for naught. My fourth-graders have learned a lot about Korea, their Korean schoolmates, and me through stories I share and an album I compiled of my trip.

And my little Korean finally came in handy while visiting a first-grade classroom a few days ago. One student sat idly during a lesson, disengaged. I recognized the look on his face instantly - he didn't understand what was being said.

''Annyong haseyo,'' I whispered quietly. ''Hello.''

He turned toward me quickly. ''American?'' he questioned, staring at me in disbelief.

''Ne, miguk saram imnida,'' I said. ''Yes, I am American.''

He smiled. I smiled. Now this is doing ''well.''

Tatiana With just began her third year as a fourth-grade teacher at the Heath School in Brookline. She spent several weeks in Korea, thanks to a grant from The Brookline Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money to help public schools. With is a former Boston Globe Staff writer.

This story ran on page A33 of the Boston Globe on 9/29/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.