Steve Schertzer

My tears and your legacy

A letter to President-Elect Lee Myung-bak.

Dear Mr. President-Elect:

Congratulations on becoming president of South Korea in the general election last December. I am an English teacher in a public middle school in Busan. As I enter my third year in the English Program In Korea (EPIK), it is both an honor and a privilege for me to work with the next generation of Koreans. Besides teaching English, I also teach my students honesty, respect (for self and others), hard word, sacrifice, discipline, responsibility, and cooperation all within a non-competitive atmosphere. It is a wonderful opportunity that I take seriously, an opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of so many young people.

Recently the laws of South Korea were modified to improve the vetting process in the hiring of foreign English teachers. Medical examinations to check for HIV and drug abuse along with criminal background checks for E 2 visa applicants is certainly a good start. After all, it is not in the best interest of anyone to have unsavory characters in the classrooms of your nation. But these new laws, as positive a first step as they are, are incomplete. Analyzing my blood and urine for specific diseases and pre-existing conditions is one thing.

But your government, Mr. President, also needs to analyze me tears. Your government needs to look inside my heart. Then you'll know who the real teachers are. Then you'll know which teachers to keep and which ones to discard.

From January 7th to the 25th, I teach a three-week winter English Camp here in Busan. Most of the elementary school children are adorable, and it is an honor to teach them. Yesterday I was in a classroom of 10 year olds. I was teaching them to speak in complete sentences. They were teaching me to dance. One beautiful little girl nicknamed "Sophia", with eyes that danced as she spoke, took both my hands in hers and attempted to teach me the moves to "Tell Me" by the Wonder Girls. I wish you could have been there, Mr. President. I wish you could have seen this. The trust that she put in me as a teacher was truly humbling and brought tears to my eyes. As I remember this magical teaching moment today, I can't help but miss Sophia.

Then there was "Brian", a shy little boy who, when I attempted to team him up with a girl to practice speaking, panicked and almost started to cry. He reminded me of myself when I was 22! I hugged Brian, then teamed him up with another boy. By the end of class, most of the students were speaking in the complete sentences I had taught them. As for my dancing skills, let's just say that Sophia has her work cut out for her.

Mr. President, I realize that there is a lot on your plate. The economy, North Korea, various social problems in an ever changing society, and, of course, education reform. You are just beginning your presidency. No doubt that by the end of your presidency you will be thinking of a legacy. Something to leave the Korean people. As for education reform, may I suggest this? Since you and your government seem committed to hiring foreigners from English speaking countries to teach Korea's children, your legacy may be found in these very important seven words:

Hire foreign teachers who love your children.

Hire foreign teachers who are committed to seeing their students succeed. Hire foreign teachers who yearn to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Hire foreign teachers who love what they do. Hire foreign teachers who go to bed at night and dream about what they can do to improve the lives of their students. Hire foreign teachers who can't wait to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work in the classroom. Hire foreign teachers who miss their students when they are not with them. Hire foreign teachers who want to be here. Hire foreign teachers who can't imagine doing anything else but sharing their time and energy with their students. In other words, Mr. President, hire foreign teachers who love your children.

You need teachers with love, hope, faith, passion, and compassion. You need teachers who are dedicated, responsible, reliable, and committed to the best possible education for young people. And Mr. President, there is no blood and urine test for that.

When it comes to education reform, this will be your lasting legacy. The hiring of teachers who love your children and are dedicated to their success, will do more to improve the educational system than anything else humanly imaginable.

To be blunt, Mr. President, my tears and your legacy are inexorably linked. The medical exam that I took recently will show that I have high blood pressure and am colored blind. When the doctors analyze my blood and urine they will find my father's high cholesterol and gout. They may also find my mother's faulty gene which led to her contacting multiple-sclerosis over 20 years ago.

But one thing your doctors won't find, Mr. President. Regardless of how good and thorough your scientists are, one thing that won't show up in the test results is my passion for teaching. There is no blood and urine test for that. You're going to need my tears to test for love and passion. You're going to need to see the tears in my eyes when we all succeed. You're going to need to hear the quiver in my voice when I talk about how much I miss many of my students. And you're going to have to come to any one of my classes and watch my students in action as we all learn and teach together. In fact, you are most welcomed to do this anytime.

In the meantime, I look forward to tomorrow. I look forward to teaching my students to speak in full sentences. I look forward to encouraging my students to reach for the stars. I look forward to pushing my students to their full potential. And I look forward to Sophia taking my hands in hers once again, and teaching me to dance. After all, Mr. President, you're not the only one with a legacy to leave.


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