From K-pop to Common Core: A Conversation with Christina

Everyone remembers their first year. I remember the lunch periods trying to figure out what you are going to teach next period, staying late after everyone has left the building including the custodians, the unruly kids testing your patience, and feeling like quitting is the only option.  Well despite the challenges, there is so much that you learn about yourself, teaching, and students that makes it all worth it. I had the privilege of interviewing a first year NYC teacher last summer while in NY.

I met Christina a few years ago at my church in Korea. After her time in Korea as a Fulbright scholar, teaching English, she went to graduate school at Columbia University Teachers College. Now she is teaching at a charter school in NYC. I was intrigued by her experience because she teaches Korean language and culture to high school students in Harlem. Her school requires students to learn Korean as their foreign language. We sat down and caught up over delicious frozen s’mores and coffee as she honestly shared about her experiences as a first year teacher. Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed!

What made you decide to take this teaching job?  I actually studied Internal Education Development in grad school. I always thought I would go into administration. When I was offered this position, a part of me thought, ‘okay, this is not curriculum or policy development, but gaining field experience would eventually lead me to where I would like to be in education.’ 

After the first year was done, I was really glad and humbled I went into teaching first. Now to come to think of it, I don’t know how I thought I would have gone into policy work and administration without having stepped inside a classroom and really interact with students on a day to day basis for better or worse.

What was the toughest part about being a first year teacher? I was used to being responsible for my own learning curve. To have the tables turned and being responsible for someone else’s future was tough.

What was the most memorable moment of your first year teaching? A lot of my students question why they have to learn Korean. They think that Korean is not relevant to their lives, which quite frankly is very true. However, our Korean department and school as a whole stress that learning additional languages builds character towards understanding people from various walks of life (which of course begins with language and culture). Learning a completely non-Western related language, additionally, builds grit and a tenacity towards learning as a skill set–not just something to be evaluated upon. Yet, our students will still frequently push back out of frustration. For example, I had one student acting out in class, saying, “I don’t need to know this. Why are we forced to learn something I cannot use outside of school?” We had a pretty long conversation about the matter that included everything from globalization to living in NYC, but to put it short three months later, I randomly got an e-mail from the student saying that in hindsight, struggling with the subject and expressing his frustration with me allowed him to think twice about people and how their backgrounds can shape their interactions with others.  

What words of advice would you give to another first year teacher? Take a deep breath and approach everything with a sense of humor.

What are some essential things you carry in your teacher bag? A tumbler, wet wipes, cough drops, a pen and laptop.

What is your typical work day at school like?  I used to wake up at 4:30am so I can catch the LIRR train–I did this for a year and half and it nearly zapped the life out of me. Now that I moved into Harlem, it’s a bit easier to get to work by 7:00 am. From 7:30-8:00 I have homeroom and the kids eat breakfast. I teach four classes then a class for tutoring, then a period for lunch. Then, we have enrichment period after school. At the end of the day, tidying the classroom, grading, and printing materials for the next day, I roughly leave school around5:30 to 6:00 pm

As a Korean language teacher, how do you integrate history and culture? In the tenth grade, students prepare for the Korean LOTE (Languages Other than English–language version of NY standardized high school exams), so I try to incorporate culture and history during days after finals and midterms. As a result, grammar and reading comprehension is often emphasized more than history and culture, which is a bit unfortunate. I do try to squeeze culture and history in when I explain different honorific forms of speech and writing patterns. Also, during free writing periods, I occasionally turn on K-pop songs. 2ne1 and Big Bang are usually popular with the students. 

I know Ban Ki Moon, the UN secretary, came to speak at your school’s commencement. How does your school interact with the Korean community? The local Korean newspaper supports us by raising awareness for us and highlighting our students’ achievements in Korean. Also the Korean government supports all schools in the U.S. that officially integrate Korean language programs within their curriculum. We also annually have Korean cultural performances/festival and get support from Korean associations and groups. Most recently, our school network also created a outreach extension to the Korean American community in which I believe we have a board member, who advocates for our Korean language program and connects us with various Korean related programs for our school. Honestly, I don’t know the full extent, but our school definitely proactive about integrating Korean culture in not only the high school, but also the Harlem community at large.

What are your hopes for NYC public education in the next 10 years? If I were a student, I would want more time for lessons on empathy and awareness in general. Right now everything is based on the the common core and standardized testing.  I think that students are forgetting that there’s a purpose behind this value and achievement we place on education. 

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