Today I host a guest blog, generously donated by my colleague Michael Alison Chandler.

The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a privately funded school in communist North Korea, is hiring.

 The Korean-American leaders of the school are looking for promising scientists or English teachers willing to overlook official travel advisories and go to work in the world’s most isolated state.

 Salary? None. Benefits? World peace.  

The school relies on donations from Christian evangelists in South Korea and the United States to stay afloat. Faculty have to find sponsors or pay their own way if they want to support the school’s mission of developing the North Korean economy to promote peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

Here’s an account of what it’s like to work beyond one of the final frontiers of the Cold War from Karen Best, an English as a second language instructor at the University of Wisconsin who spent her summer teaching technical English skills to some of the country’s elite college students.

— Michael Alison Chandler

Chancellor Chan-Mo Park is eating lunch with North Korean students at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Students are selected by the North Korean government to attend the tuition-free school. They get three meals a day and a chance to get to know their international professors during meal time. (Courtesy of Chan-Mo Park)

 The conversations and interactions that occurred in the classroom, during meals, and while playing and observing sports games, influenced not only my understanding of North Korea but also about the art of teaching.

 I’ll start first with what I learned about the students and their understanding of the world.

1) The students believe that their country is a great country. They repeatedly cited the evidence that North Korea had accomplished great things: acquiring nuclear capabilities, testing missiles, winning the Korean War (yes, this is what I was told). They also noted the monuments sprinkled throughout Pyongyang and other parts of the country — the largest arch of triumph in the world, the Grand People’s Study House, a beautiful, marbled library, and the International Friendship Exhibition that houses over two million gifts from global dignitaries to Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung — as monuments to their success and prosperity past, present, and future.

 2) Along with this rhetoric of greatness was an appeal for affirmation. The students would constantly seek my approval of the above-mentioned monuments and sites, only to be crestfallen when, upon returning from a tourist outing, I would provide a glib assessment such as, “It was nice”. My glib answer came from my ambiguous feelings about each monument built in honor of their leaders. After the immediate let down of my insufficient answer, I would soon be given a lesson about why I should be impressed.

 3) The students also know that their country and their culture are different. I was not infrequently asked if I found anything strange about the country. I would reply: “What do you mean? What might I find strange?” One reply noted the way the students marched in formation from building to building while singing loudly and enthusiastically. The students often justified that the differences were due to North Korea being a socialist country with different values, values of group unity and social cohesion.

 4) Despite the students frequently referring to American Imperialists and bringing up the ways my country had wronged their country, they insisted that they do not hate American people. I was told repeatedly North Koreans welcome all peaceful people but, they must continually work to defend themselves from those that want to destroy their country.

 5) The students believe that the United States is the biggest obstacle for reunification between North and South Korea. They explained the issue was between their country and South Korea and that we (the U.S. military) should leave South Korea so they can work out their issues.

 Not only did the students teach me about their country and about how they view the world, but they also taught me about my profession. I believe that all teachers hope their work has a larger impact. However, in North Korea, I had to be politically neutral at all times and I wondered if the students were learning anything apart from academic English skills.

However, I can definitely say that they taught me two important aspects of teaching — lessons I should have already known — but it was in North Korea that these facets of teaching became a part of me.

1) It is relationships that matter.

Traditionally when I teach in the United States, I am very guarded in my relationships with my students. I feel it is important to maintain some distance. For example, I never give out my cell phone number; I never become Facebook friends until after the class has finished; I hardly introduce myself in class and feel uncomfortable revealing personal information.

Students playing basketball on campus of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (Courtesy of Chan-Mo Park)

In addition, we ate all meals with the students and often joined them for sports in the evenings or on weekends. During these activities the students would ask us countless questions, and we would answer. They learned my whole relationship story (e.g., that I had liked my husband the first time I saw him, how long we had dated); how much money I made; and how much I paid in taxes. Rather than viewing all of this as awkward, I embraced it and felt that the students embraced it as well. At meal times they eagerly “claimed” a teacher to sit with them and when a photo was taken of some students and me one of the students said “I want to show this to my parents”. I do not think he wanted to show his parents the photo of the writing teacher, but rather of the person they had shared meals with and had taken elbows from on the soccer field.

Since returning to my teaching job in the United States, these students and my relationship with them have been on my mind each day that I step into the classroom. I remind myself “it is about relationships.” I try to share more of myself with the students, create opportunities to learn more about them, and interact with them outside the classroom.

2) Stay open minded.

Many things my students told me were factually wrong or at least, to me, very odd interpretations of events and situations. Of course, this also happens in the United States; it is not uncommon to have students with worldviews vastly different from my own.

Teachers had been asked not to engage in contentious political discussion, and the students were pretty sensitive about instructors contradicting any of their beliefs, so it was tempting to mentally tune out or just nod my head in agreement when students expressed unbelievable or preposterous ideas. If I hoped the students would stay engaged when I presented new ideas that seemed completely preposterous, I knew I had to listen, ask questions, and stay open to their viewpoint no matter what I thought or felt.

As I was writing this blog a friend who teaches high school called to tell me about a student in her English class who is not allowed to participate in further discussions of a classical work because in a previous discussion the topic of magic had tangentially come up. My advice to her: Stay open-minded and support that student even though you cannot understand that perspective.

My North Korean students taught me that it is ok to get to know my students outside of the classroom, while still being their teacher. They reminded me that there are many views of the world — very different from my own — in every classroom I enter. It is part of my job to listen and to learn and to hope that the students will follow that example.