On May 15th, 2003, I arrived for my first Teachers Day ever at Ewha Girls Foreign Language High School in Seoul, South Korea. As I walked toward the front gate, colleagues filing in and around me, I could hear singing on the other side of the wall surrounding the grounds.
At the gate I was greeted by one of my students in her light grey summer uniform. She presented me with a white carnation, took my arm in hers, and escorted me up the winding path through the grounds to the front door to the school. The path itself was lined with the rest of the Ewha’s students: 600 young women singing the pop song “Seonsaengnim Saranghaeyo.” The song’s title translates as “I love you, Teacher,” and it was sung without irony.
After being escorted into the auditorium, the other teachers and I were directed onto the stage and treated to a performance by the school’s orchestra, followed by small skits from the Korean and the English drama clubs. Finally, the class president gave a speech of thanks for our work and led the school in a deep bow toward us. Then, we were dismissed to enjoy the rest of the day off. We returned to our offices to find our desks covered in chocolate, more carnations, and bi-lingual Teachers Day cards.
Through the window of my office, I watched as the Ewha girls filed back out the school entrance, down the winding path, out the front gate, and off toward different bus stops and subway stations to catch rides to the middle schools they had graduated from. They each carried a bouquet of carnations: first for their middle school teachers, and then their elementary ones. They were off to bow, give thanks, and offer a flower to every teacher they ever had.
They do this every year.
In my life, I’ve had the privilege to serve as an international TESOL teacher in South Korea, Thailand and India; as a full-time teacher in national private and public schools in Korea; as a public high school teacher in New York City; and as an international school teacher in Brazil and China. When I look back at the path of my development as a teacher, I am amazed—in awe—of the kismet that stepped in and made this happen (and keep happening).
My winding road also makes the phrase “World Teacher” mean something different to me. As we celebrate World Teachers Day this year (October 5th), to me it’s not only about celebrating teachers around the world—but the notion of being a teacher of the world.
We are all world teachers. Whether we teach in foreign countries, one of NYC’s five boroughs, a suburban district in Illinois, or a distance-learning program in Alaska, we are representing the world to our students and our students and ourselves to the world. We are also members of the world’s most developmental profession. Teachers form the conduit through which our students and communities will achieve quality education for all—through which every person, no matter their gender, will achieve their full potential. Teachers everywhere are members of perhaps the noblest profession in the world, and we need to remind ourselves of this more often.
Teachers often come together to discuss the challenges that face us: public scrutiny and skepticism, bureaucratic mishandling of our schools, purposeless standardized testing, lackluster local leaders, the lack of education for girls in too many regions, and the stark inequalities between educational opportunities and conditions between nations, nationalities, and classes. My idyllic description of my first Korean Teachers Day suffers from this full disclosure: many Korean high schools have chosen to shut down on Teachers Day to avoid the bribes that families stash among the cards, candy, and carnations.
These problems are real and need our attention. But how often do we congregate not just to address our challenges but to recognize our role in the greater scheme of world development? How often do we come together as a profession—international, national, public, private, 30 million strong worldwide—to celebrate our accomplishments, our fellowship, and ourselves? We deserve more than just one day.
Let’s start with this one. World Teachers Day is meant to celebrate the teachers of the world, and as an educator, I know what makes us—whether we’re Korean, American, Brazilian, or Chinese—prouder, happier, and more committed than anything else: our students.
So I would like to thank you this World Teachers Day by asking you to recall a story like mine. The details of a Korean Teachers Day celebration are particularly unique, but I’m sure you have stories of your students—present or past—that stir you. Not only stories of your time together during their schooling years, but what these students have gone on to become:
- The girl whose name sounds like “spring” when spoken fast in Korean, who escorted you into school on that first Teachers Day, went on to have a successful career at Korean Airlines, and got married in a beautiful ceremony just last week.
- The 11th grade dropout from Brazil who was forced out of your school because of his GPA and had to finish in Texas (after getting kicked out of military school) and is now a successful music producer who still sends you his dubstep tracks for review.
- The rebellious Ecuadorian anti-hipster from Ozone Park who wouldn’t talk to you during senior year but who enthusiastically told you over lunch this summer about her experiences interning at a charter school in Brooklyn.
And, especially this— reflect on all of your students, like my rebel above, who have gone on to be teachers themselves. You helped that happen. You passed the torch. You bequeathed the goals of World Teachers Day to the next generation.
This World Teachers Day, cherish the place where you live and teach. World teaching doesn’t mean teaching away from home but realizing that, in the modern world, home is where you join in fellowship with your students, peers and community. It also means remembering that we all have the ability to maintain and expand our communities—online as well as off. Wherever you have formed community and however you maintain it, remind yourself that you are part of the world’s noblest profession. Acknowledge what teachers have accomplished in their profession even in the face of numerous challenges.
Buddhists observe that, “being is always becoming.” Because of your acts as a teacher, what has been, what is, and what will be for your students?
Bill Tolley, a New York Times Teacher Who Makes a Difference, is a history teacher and the MUN director at the International School of Beijing. His blogging interests include modern learning, international education and cosmopolitan citizenship. He is eager to participate in learning communities worldwide. Connect with him at his CTQ blog “Mindsets for Modern Learning” and @wjtolley.