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2020-04-26 "May I choose more teachers?" TNKR Matching session #102

2020-04-26, TNKR Matching session #102

The Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR) humbly began in March 2013 with 5 tutors and 5 NK refugees being matched together. We held that first session at a TOZ business center in Gangnam.

Seven years later, TNKR has now matched 455 North Korean refugees with 1,027 tutors, coaches, and mentors. Today we held our 102nd Language Matching session at our slightly expanded office near the Sangsu Subway Station. Instead of just being something that Casey and Eunkoo did short-term, TNKR is now an official organization in both South Korea and the USA, we have been featured in media and by other organizations (just yesterday, we were featured by KOTESOL), and we have fans and donors from around the world.

At that first session seven years ago, Eunkoo Lee and I matched the students and tutors based on the resumes of tutors and what the refugees had told us. Eunkoo called it the "North Korean Teachers' Project," because the refugees at that first session had been teachers in North Korea who wanted to get jobs in South Korea, but their English levels weren't good enough. I wasn't even thinking about a name, I was dabbling in several different projects and activities, and this was just one of them.

At the session today, as they have for most of our history, the students chose. And did they ever choose! Instead of being matched with one tutor each, to study with once a week as we tried back in 2013, the refugees on average today chose 3.8 tutors with the expectation they will study a minimum of twice a month with each tutor.

One student had told us during both her initial interview and orientation session that she planned on selecting two tutors. Instead, she chose five. She is returning to TNKR. She chose a couple of tutors the first time around, and she is now down to just one tutor. Now she has her own faculty.

Another student made it clear that she planned to study all day every Sunday. And by all day every Sunday, it sounds like ALL DAY EVERY SUNDAY.

The other students made it clear that English will be a priority for them over the next couple of months, and their lives. They are students and employees who have lost opportunities or struggled because of English.

Some people still expect us to organize camps and workshops for the students, but the students make it clear: They want to study and learn English. They have already learned about social opportunities, other organizations chase them to join social integration and socializing opportunities; they have come to TNKR to focus on improving their English in a focused way.

A few months ago we had one student ask us point-blank if there were any workshops or seminars. We explained that wasn't our approach, that we treat the students as individuals and build a community of support around each student.

The refugee's response: "GOOD! I have been hearing that about TNKR, but I didn't really believe it. When I join with an organization, they keep trying to pull me to seminars, workshops, camps, BBQ picnics. I need to focus on studying English in a serious way."

* * *

A key pillar of TNKR is refugee choice. Unlike seven years ago when Eunkoo and Casey chose, the refugees have been choosing for themselves ever since.


Two refugees chose five tutors each.
One refugee chose four tutors each.
Three refugees chose three tutors each.

Our process goes against the cult of expert-ism in education. Professional educators are amazed to learn we don't have a mandated curriculum (we have offered one to TNKR students, but the refugees pass it up, and they have many options outside of TNKR to study with a set curriculum). Others are dismayed that we don't put tutors through numerous orientation sessions, teacher training, or require professional certification.

We do occasionally reject some applicants, but we are willing to allow most applicants to stand before refugees to present themselves. A key component is that refugees can choose tutors, but they can also un-choose them later. Many students have later evaded tutors who have tried to use them as vehicles for learning about North Korea, weren't serious, or had other issues (usually determined by the refugees but we demand transparency from tutors and we don't allow separate conversations between tutors and students). In that way, TNKR is like a self-cleaning oven, with refugees determining which tutors they want to continue studying with.

By allowing people to choose, it is true that they can make bad decisions. Bad decisions are made by people all of the time, but it is better for the costs to be on the shoulders of those making the bad decisions, not third-party people who bear no direct cost.

Allowing refugees to choose makes it clear and gives the first signal to the students that they have responsibility for their own education. I still vividly recall the refugee who said that TNKR was "American freedom." They could choose based on superficial characteristics, but they would also bear the consequences if they chose poorly. Was she okay with choosing? "Yes! For the first time in my life, it is truly up to me!"

It has been said that a man can put on his own coat better than someone else can put it on for him. The refugees again put on their own coats. It is truly up to them.

* * *

That was only possible because the tutors agreed to accept two students each. Some tutors joining TNKR for the first time naturally want to focus on one student, but the choice dynamic would be lost. At a standard session, we have seven refugees choosing among 11 tutors agreeing to tutor two students each. That means 22 learning opportunities. We picked that number because we had observed that refugees on average chose three tutors each (but we may need to up that number a bit, because lately they have been trending to almost four tutors each).

It is also valuable because some tutors who have worked with only one student have come away seeing that one student as being representative of all of North Korean refugees, if not all of North Korea. There's an old saying, "Beware of the man who has read only one book." The same is true of a volunteer tutor who has helped one North Korean refugee, everything is based on that one person.

When they have two or three students, they can see a variety of interests, motivation levels, desire and preparation. For the students, they can experience a variety of learning styles which can help them also become better self-learners. Some tutors want refugees to explain in advance their exact learning styles, rather than recognize that many of the students are now developing those learning styles with English. Some students want us to tell them initially how they should study English, but after a few months of studying with tutors, they start to develop their own styles. Many of them will even develop multiple styles based on studying with multiple tutors, and being able to compare and experiment.

We make it clear to the tutors that they could be chosen twice, and that after every tutor has been selected that we will allow them to be chosen for a third time. That happened six times today! We have to be very careful not to make the tutors feel pressured to be selected a third time, but the tutors were all in on this.

Understandably, most of the attention is focused on the refugees, but of course we need enough volunteers willing to give their time to focus on the particular learning needs of the students. And to do so in a serious study atmosphere. It is easy to get people to join a picnic or camping trip, or even to show up for a few hours of language exchange or chit-chatting, but it is not as easy to get people to commit to three months of tutoring in a serious and focused way at least twice a month with each student who chooses them.

* * *

This particular group of volunteers also did something special: they paid TNKR's rent this month! That's right, collectively, they raised and donated more than 1 million won (about $900) for TNKR. One tutor, John, donated about half of that.

Doing this during a pandemic is even more incredible.

Because they are all Members or have made initial donations on the road to becoming members, I can speak to them about how they can help build TNKR without them feeling that I am threatening their eligibility to remain in TNKR. Without Members supporting TNKR, then we could not continue with our current operations, have a place to meet, expand operations, or even have dreamed of moving to this office.

We may set a one million won ($900) goal collectively for volunteers who join TNKR each month. That means every bit raised can help cover the rent and make the session possible.

Four of the nine tutors in the room today have set up fundraisers to support TNKR.

Two are returnees:

Two others are first-timers:

TNKR is about active participation from volunteers. We are not UNICEF or some other huge organization that can just plug volunteers in as needed. It isn't enough for observers coming up with to-do lists for others or saying what others should do. 

We need people who come to us to help us build the organization.

On his way back home, Jeffrey visited a study center to record the step-by-step directions for tutors and students. We were then able to share that with the tutors who joined last month and will be able to share it with the tutors who were at today's Matching session.

The members of our Academic Team started as volunteer tutors, but have now taken up leadership roles.

Janice Kim, Academic Coordinator
Daniel Cashmar, Volunteer Advisor
India Meyers, Assistant Academic Advisor

* * *

Our next Matching session for TNKR Members will be May 23rd.

To get prepared, we will have Orientation Weekend May 9-10 (applicants can attend either session).

We are also willing to consider an additional session for non-Members, upon request by refugees. But looking at the number of choices the refugees made today, it is highly unlikely they would have wanted another session. (TNKR is like a teacher buffet for many of the students, but like any buffet, you can't overdo it.)

In February and March, we were open to an additional session for non-Members, but refugees let TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee know they had selected enough tutors.

As they were leaving, Eunkoo asked the refugees how they felt. They made it clear: "I am so satisfied." They enjoyed the process. Some had already chosen which tutors they wanted even before they arrived at the session. Some decided on the spot, and of course some chose more than they had anticipated. They said they were ready to get started with the tutors they had selected today, and that they didn't need any more tutors for a while.

A few months ago, I thought I had found a way for Members to get preference (by having them at the first Matching session) while also giving some non-Members a chance to join (by having a follow-up session a few days later if requested by refugees). The students made it clear to Eunkoo: They prefer Members, that they sound more committed than non-Members. Also, because TNKR has limited grant money to cover costs at study sessions, Members are eligible for TNKR to cover costs at study sessions, meaning refugees (and TNKR Members) can avoid hidden costs of tutoring.

For this session, I dropped the possibility of having a follow-up session for non-Members, and it turned out to be the right choice. Tutors agreed to accept more students, the refugees expressed satisfaction about how many tutors they had selected. A few tutors were still available to be chosen a third time, but the refugees said they were done choosing, they were ready to start studying!

It was a special Matching session, our first in-person session of 2020. One session (for Track 3) was already scheduled in advance to be online, so the global pandemic was not related to that. However, for our last two Track 1 Matching sessions, we decided to hold them online because of health concerns. Refugees were saying they were okay with meeting in person, and the group today really made it clear they were okay. Students from the last two months didn't get the wide range of choice because we lost the interactive component to Matching sessions.

We are now gearing up for our next Matching session. I do wish we could be like a big well-funded international organization holding one or two sessions per year, and spending the rest of the year writing proposals and fundraising. However, Eunkoo is already getting pressure from refugees to hold the next session. I was the first to arrive at the TNKR office, at 8:05 AM. Before 9 AM, we got our first telephone call of the day--from a North Korean refugee who wants to study English with TNKR. Yes, Sunday morning, 9 AM, calling our office.

Instead, we will be recruiting tutors the next few weeks, interviewing students, helping this group from today with getting settled into tutoring, and still keeping up with other groups to make sure they continue taking this entire education exercise seriously so the choices refugees made and the time we all (volunteers, donors, staff) put into this won't be futile.

* * * (check out TNKR's donation options) (become a TNKR member) (set up a fundraiser for TNKR)

* * *

Refugee selections from TNKR's 102nd Language Matching session

For the drive-by commentators who comment without knowing the context, we leave it up to students to decide if they want to show their faces. It doesn't matter to us one way or the other if they choose to do so. We only allow photos at our office to avoid misunderstandings and to make sure refugees never feel pressured or obligated to take photos with volunteers.

* * * (check out TNKR's donation options) (become a TNKR member) (set up a fundraiser for TNKR)

* * *

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