Thursday, February 18, 2010

Book Review

About this time last week I was having an existential crisis. I think it started sometime last Tuesday, when I encountered a few students of mine at a Family mart. One male student was purchasing something and I was next in line. I wanted to get my bus card charged. Usually when it comes to lines I like to give the person in front of me a lot of space. That space was filled by a third year female student of mine.

I uttered a "hey." The girl's friend was with her who reminded the girl of her manners, to which the girl simpered something in Korean about being a student. The other girl read the hurt and rage in my face and told her friend to get behind me, which she did, after doing some whimpering and eye rolling. All the way home my thoughts turned slightly racist, remembering all of the times that I had been cut in line in Korea by older people who pretended that they didn't see me. I also thought about how Koreans don't really have any manners that would be acceptable anywhere in America. I like to think of the door to the teachers office, how other teachers at the school open and close the door without looking to see if anyone is behind them, and how they take no offense to getting the door slammed in their faces. Sometimes I also find it uncanny how a coworker can see me following them and still manage to slam the door in my face seemingly without any intent of malice.

That week I was battling jet lag, and bad feelings towards having to teach four days of classes to students who were between vacations and middle-school third graders about to graduate to high-school. On one of my bus rides to school I encountered an acquaintance who also teaches at a middle-school in Jinju and has had remarkable success in his career. Naturally It got me to thinking about how ineffective a teacher I can be and that maybe if had done my job better, I could have been greeted with a little more respect when I was in line in the convenience store. I was also reminded of an old boss that I had back in college.

I may have mentioned this before in an earlier post, but I was the assistant manager of the Michigan News Agency for a time. The Michigan News Agency is the finest news stand in all of the mid-west. The store carries over five thousand titles of magazine, and over fifteen thousand different titles of paperback books. The woman who owns the place took over store from her father many years ago and to this day is a pillar of the Kalamazoo community working seventy to eighty-hour work weeks, making sure that Kalamazoo is a well read city.

In my mind I compared and contrasted my current whines, complaints, and exasperations that go along with teaching or co-teaching English in Korea, with the model that my old boss put before me when I was still in college. This made me want to change somehow. This made me want to find that something inside of myself that will keep me from fading into the background.

I was also inspired by New York. How the performers on Broadway put themselves into a character and let both themselves and the character shine on stage. On the David Letterman show, the stage hand, Biff Henderson made an appearance wearing a silly Minnesota Vikings costume.

Later after the show I saw Biff Henderson on the street leaving the Ed Sullivan theater. I was somewhat starstruck. I looked at him saying to my wife, "Hey that's Biff Henderson." He looked back at me unimpressed, crossed the street and got on the subway. I was reminded instantly that Biff Henderson is just an ordinary guy who gets to be on T.V. every once and a while.

The fact is though, that many English teachers in Korea complain about the fact that they want to be taken seriously. They don't want to be clowns in front of an audience. Many times I feel the same way, but the people who perform on Broadway have to perform in order to entertain, the same way that an English teacher in Korea in many cases has to perform in order to teach. Some people might say that Biff Henderson has to swallow his dignity to dress up in a costume for a small skit performed on a comedy show, but the comedy skit makes people happy.

My existential crisis somewhat stripped me down and fed me some humble pie. I spent a lot of time envying people like my old boss, and like the other Middle School English teacher that I met on the bus who is a kind of superman in the eyes of his students and the Jinju city board of education. I envy these people because of the loyalty and respect that they command from the people that they work with. I envy the people on Broadway who aren't shy about showing their talents.

And that is when I remembered a documentary on Warren Buffet that I watched on the airplane from New York. Warren Buffet spoke very highly of Dale Carnegie and the book, "How to Win Friends, and Influence People." This is a book that I remember seeing in my mom's library, and something that my sister an I probably made fun of her for having. But last Sunday, I figured that if it was good enough for Warren Buffet it is most defiantly good enough for me, because I have no where near the thirty plus something billion dollars that Buffet has. Buffet made a point of saying that he doesn't even have is college degree on his wall, but he does have his diploma from the Carnegie course.

What I found inside that book wasn't some cheesy advice about being nice to people, but rather a blue print for conducting business for getting the best out of people. Let me repeat that, it is a book about getting the best out of other people. I have long held that any book about cross cultural communication in Korea should be thrown out, and I stick to that belief. After reading that book I feel that my past three years of teaching has been a waste of time because I failed to get the students to want to learn. I failed to make them feel important. I failed to make my coworkers feel important. I feared being myself and teaching with sincerity. Shyness has killed a lot of passion towards work that I had when I was younger.

Let me remind readers that I came to Korea with an eye on teaching English to support my Taekwondo training. I declared many times that I am a Taekwondo master, but I rejected suggestions that I teach Taekwondo classes at the school. I rejected these suggestions because I witnessed the sneer of teenager in the early days of my tenure, and I wished to protect my pride from any foolishness that I could foresee. My shyness caused me to put a bushel basket over my light and caused me to take myself too seriously, and the students pick up on that and sometimes they reject me because I too often lack sincerity, and this leads to mutual frustration.

These insights into my own psyche were caused by this book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People." I find it to be an excellent study on leadership, and I see its advice practiced by people I admire professionally like my old boss, or the fellow Middle School teacher on the bus. This book is an excellent study on leadership that should be read by anyone in any kind of business. I feel that it will help tremendously in my attitude as a teacher since it has rephrased my teaching goal from "teaching English," to getting the best out of my students by making them feel important in a sincere way.

No comments: