Coach Kim, the Professor of the Pool, in swim class at Seoul International School. (Photo source: Jim Gerhard)
The title of this article alludes to a popular method of teaching children to swim; the incremental steps of learning that build the necessary skills to master the elementary backstroke. Floating on their back in the pool, a beginning swimmer puts their hands up under their arms, this is chicken; as they push off, they stretch their arms straight out to their sides like an airplane; the final step is sweeping the arms down and holding them tightly against their body like a soldier. When done in the correct order, the child can now successfully perform the beginner backstroke. Practicing this skill set is significant for a young child understanding the steps to becoming a strong swimmer. Chicken, Airplane, Soldier is the foundational block ensuring long-term success in swimming skills, i.e., it lays the groundwork for mastering swimming. Similarly, host country teachers and employees are the foundational blocks that sustain, support, and nurture international schools through their decades of difficulties, pandemics, economic change, wars, and natural disasters. Unlike expatriate teachers who live outside of their home country, or move from school to school in different countries, host country teachers are stable elements at international schools. They sustain the school in both the worst and the best of times. This can be different than the revolving door of international school teachers who can be said to be, “always coming or going.”
At Seoul International School (SIS) our resident host country faculty expert on swimming is our long-time coach, Ji Min Kim. Coach Kim, as he is known to the thousands of current students and graduates of SIS, has been our resident physical education swimming-stroke teacher and swim team coach for over 15 years. As a United States certified teacher, he is a unique member of our faculty as one of the few, true, Korean citizens. Coach Kim graduated from university in Korea, but he also studied at McGill University in Montreal. Otherwise, he has lived in Korea his whole life. The father of two young children, with a wife who has worked at SIS, Coach Kim is one of the long-serving host country faculty at SIS. He is also a person who personifies the true nature of the Korean identity of the SIS school and community. Perhaps there are not many students who write about him on their college essay but all of them, if they have been here long enough, have learned great life lessons from this “Professor of the Pool.”
At our school, everyone swims. Everyone. And everyone learns to swim from Coach Kim. As a teacher, he is the true performance-outcome specialist. And perform they do. Swimming is one of the only sports that students from our school pursue competitively at the university level (tennis is the other). Not surprisingly, swimming is something that our students do very well. Coach Kim is responsible for every student’s performance. This life skill is imbued in each of our SIS students, beginning in pre-K and kinder classes. It all starts with Chicken, Airplane, Soldier, and Coach Kim.
The pool at SIS is two floors underground. At the end of our Athletic Hall of Fame walkway, you find a staircase which winds four short flights down to Coach Kim’s classroom. These stairs are lined with plaques listing the school swim records and the accomplishments of his students. Like Coach Kim, the pool is also unique. Nine centimeters short of regulation, five lanes, and narrow decks, as if we needed more of a challenge with one of the most challenging things we do. This is Coach Kim's classroom and a place he calls home. If you arrive to SIS in pre-K, you have 13 years of mandatory swimming classes ahead of you. That’s enough to cause trepidation in most students but with Coach Kim in the pool, SIS students literally and metaphorically Chicken, Airplane, Soldier their way through important life lessons. These steps and this teacher create proficiency in swimming, one of the most valuable life skills students can learn. At the same time, he champions lessons in perseverance, agility, adaption, and finding success; and these are just as important for making sure young adults don’t drown in life, even when they are out of the water.
Host country teachers are a crucial and stable part of international schools for several reasons. First, teachers like Coach Kim bring international schools a unique perspective and a knowledge of the local culture, language, and educational system. These attributes prove invaluable for creating our truly international and diverse learning environments. Secondly, host country teachers help to bridge the gap between the school and the community, facilitating meaningful interactions between the teachers, students, and parents. Coach Kim is the talking bridge between swim parents and expat coaches. Oftentimes, during swim meets and varsity practices, most parents conveniently rely on him for information related to swimming issues. He is an expert on safety measures, swim meet preparation, schedules, and regulations. He not only mends the obvious language barrier, but he also proficiently navigates and connects the distinct cultural disparities among the parents, students, and coaches. His existing knowledge of the local perspective of our (majority) Korean parents, and his accumulated wisdom of the general values and mindsets of the international community, provide for a highly fluid but trusting atmosphere throughout the swim season. Coach Kim’s ability to make interactions easier, learning more productive, and cultural gaps narrower give him the mark of excellence as a veteran swim coach at SIS.
In almost all schools, and especially at SIS, host country teachers provide a sense of continuity and stability when we experience a turnover of expatriate staff. Stability in programs or personnel is always a sound investment for an international school. With longer-term ties to the school and the local community, they serve as mentors and role models for new expatriate teachers, helping them navigate the cultural and educational landscape of the host country. We have seen Coach Kim navigate three completely different aquatics instructors at SIS, all equally good, but different in their home cultures: Canadian, American, and South African. Their differences made for ever-changing approaches to swimming instruction as a result of their varying cultural backgrounds while at SIS. Host country teachers like Coach Kim have a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing students in their country and know their instructional needs. Their cultural savvy makes it possible for them to overcome expat-teacher differences and find compatibility and consistency with approaches that work for all students. This is why Chicken, Airplane, Soldier works so well with younger students.
Coach Kim leads all of our swim teams. His presence to younger students is as the provider of a safe haven from the intimidating pool. His earnestness as a coach has propelled many students to school records, league titles, and for some, longer careers as successful college swimmers. Visiting the pool during a meet you can hear the piercingly loud and constant, “huh, huh, huh” during a race as Coach counts strokes for students, allowing them to maintain their winning form as he spurs them on in a pool language that works in any culture. The knowledge, experience, and perspectives that Coach Kim brings to SIS help to create a more diverse and inclusive learning environment for students. We have many more host country teachers and staff, all of whom provide support, organizational development, belonging, and identity in our school. They are the most important people in our school, the people who will still see the same students every day, the same hallways, the same music performances, and the same graduations as the internationally mobile teachers. But, in most cases, they are the ones who will see the kindergarteners graduate and eventually head to university; an event that will happen long after the expat kindergarten teacher may have moved on to another international school, in another country, with more host country teachers.
As holders of the vision and mission of your school, who stay to see the successes, failures, and cycles of your organization, you may think, “What are some things I can advocate for in my international school?” Hire more host country teachers for one. Celebrate their work and years of service. Make sure that you have induction sessions with new teachers to learn from host country teachers. Be sure that you have representation of host country teachers on your school committees, in strategic planning and accreditation, and with hiring committees. Make sure they are included, that they feel like they belong, and that they are recognized as the bedrock of the school. And feel good about helping them to be a celebrated part of your school.
But back to Coach, the Professor of the Pool. Similar to other host country teachers in their own positions, Coach Kim provides continuity and stability to our successful swimming program and informs instructional strategies that our international, multi-school, ever-changing aquatics directors greatly benefit from as “not-local” teachers. Coach Kim does not just teach those important steps of Chicken, Airplane, Soldier, to our school community, he is all three. He provides the building blocks that we use to envision excellence, an outcome that he then ensures will happen. Coach Kim's work is a great lesson for teachers: we should not forget, on our sojourns through the myriad international schools and communities, that our expat presence is temporary. For it is the strong-willed, capable, and competent host country teachers who have made our schools successful for 50 long years, and who knows, maybe even 50 more.
Jane Park is a senior in the class of ‘24 and a member of the varsity swim team.
Jim Gerhard is the Head of School at SIS.