George Van Bruggen has been teaching at Handong Global University since 2009. He shares his journey from Canada to Korea in the following interview.
How did you become involved in Christian English language teaching?
This rather long story is definitely a testimony to God’s amazing grace, guidance and perseverance. It all started around 2001. My wife (Judy) and I were raising our family (3 children) on a 4 acre property in a country home we’d built north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. We were living very comfortably and life was good but, as we were reading and reflecting on God’s Word, Judy and I felt God was calling us to do something more with our lives, although we didn’t know what that was. As we prayed and reflected, Judy and I felt that God was somehow calling us to go to Asia.
At that point, we had no idea what we were to do or where we were to go, other than to anticipate that changes were coming in our lives. Shortly afterwards, we decided to put our property up for sale, which sold fairly quickly. We purchased a smaller home in a small city further north of Winnipeg and proceeded to ‘downsize’ our belongings. In the summer of 2001, our son moved out to attend university, and the remainder of our family (Judy and I, our 2 high-school aged daughters, and one large dog) moved house and home and prepared for an even further commute into Winnipeg, where both Judy and I had jobs. I was the Executive Director of a small Non-Government Organization, and my wife worked in the office of a farm-implement manufacturer. Due to the long commute (40 minutes in good weather conditions – much longer in the winter), Judy and I decided to commute together, which generally worked out well.
We had previously developed a habit of reading books to each other, something we enjoy to this day, in which Judy and I would each read a chapter of a chosen book and then we’d discuss the contents. During the winter months, Judy did all the reading during our long commutes into Winnipeg while I concentrated on the driving. This worked out well for both of us, as I didn’t mind the ‘white-knuckle’ winter driving conditions that often afflict that region, as long as my poor wife was distracted enough by reading not to become too alarmed by the poor driving conditions.
To make a long story short, we read books on money, missions and missionaries on those commutes, and learned that God has much more in mind for his people than just to live comfortable lives! We also read about English as a Second Language teaching opportunities, which intrigued us – I’d previously had a high-school teaching background in another part of Canada, and both my wife and I really enjoyed teaching Sunday School in various churches we’d attended throughout our married lives. I don’t remember exactly when or how we made the decision, but we decided to extend our commuting time (in winter, no less!) to attend a 120 hour TESOL certificate program (evening classes) at the University of Manitoba, located in the southern part of the city. As much as we enjoyed and learned from those classes, the 1 hour drive home late at night was sure not easy! However, we all (including our 2 daughters, who were used to their independence) adjusted.
In 2004, we sold the house and purchased an even smaller condominium close to the University of Manitoba, which our oldest daughter was going to attend, and proceeded to ‘downsize’ even further. By that time (summer, 2004) Judy and I had both given notice to our respective employers that we were going to teach in Asia, although at that time neither of us still had any clue about where we were going. During that autumn, we heard about and decided to apply to an mission organization that recruits teachers to go to China and other Asian countries. We were accepted and left Canada in January 2005 for training before being assigned to a city in China to teach at a university, where we stayed for 1 ½ years.
How long have you been here?
My wife and I have been in South Korea since July 2006. After our term ended in China, we hoped to remain in Asia, so looked into coming to South Korea. We decided to teach at a hagwon in Daegu. We remained for 3 years in Daegu, two of which were spent teaching at Kyungpook National University (KNUC).
While at KNU, the small English-language church congregation we were part of traveled to Handong Global University on Mother’s Day, 2007, to attend an English worship service. My wife and I both fell in love with Handong, especially after reading “The Papyrus Basket Conspiracy”, an auto-biography penned by the wife of the 1st president of the university. At much as we enjoyed Daegu, we felt called to come to Handong. We were still working on our respective Master of Education degrees, yet applied when positions in the ESL department there became available. Although we didn’t get interviews, we didn’t let that deter us and applied again 2 years later when we’d completed our master degrees. Praise the Lord, we were hired and began teaching at Handong in September 2009.
I have taught full-time continuously since then, and Judy has come back to teach part-time in the Department of Language Education after leaving to support her aging mother in Canada for 1 ½ years.
What is the most challenging aspect of Korean culture for you?
Just when I think I have an adequate understanding of Korean culture, something always happens that makes me realize how much more I have yet to learn! I hate the thought of offending or annoying my Korean hosts, either deliberately or inadvertently. The more I’ve learned about Korean culture, I truly hope I’ve minimized the former, yet I don’t like the thought that the latter still exists due to ignorance on my part. Fortunately, I have good Korean friends who I’ve asked to be honest with me when I make mistakes – I wish they would be more frank (brutally honest), but their advice and counsel has been extremely helpful nonetheless!
What aspects of Korean culture do you particularly enjoy?
The hospitality and graciousness of the Korean people has been particularly a wonderful blessing! I’m reminded over and over again that, even though my Korean language skills are not what they should be, Koreans are kind and patient and have generally helped my wife and I to navigate the various challenges of living in a foreign country. I have counted on that fact in regards to using the (excellent!) medical system, traveling (my wife and I enjoy camping, so have traveled to most parts of South Korea) and even shopping. Koreans have given us much more than we have even felt comfortable accepting – I recall one time when I had a slow leak in a tire of our vehicle – when I pulled in to get the tire checked out, the gentleman spent about a ½ hour to find and identify the problem, yet refused all my attempts to pay him for his efforts, since nothing needed to be purchased (‘service’ he kept saying over and over again!). My wife and I have also been often invited over to the homes of Koreans and, even though we try to reciprocate, feel that there is always more we should do.
What other ministries are you a part of?
As previously mentioned, my wife and I were part of a small English church in Daegu when we lived there. Since 2011, I have gone back once a month to preach at that congregation. For several years, there was declining attendance but, since last year, each Sunday service averages about 20~30 people, most of whom are foreign exchange or transfer students who are studying at Kyungpook National University.
My wife and I also lead a life-group in our apartment through Handong International Church (H.I.C.) – this life-group, called “Christianity Explored”, is designed to reach out to non-believers, and is a video/booklet study series about the incarnation and mission of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to those who take up His cross and follow Him. We have also led similar H.I.C. life-groups in the past.
For about 3 years, my wife and I were also part of a Pohang inner-city ministry that focuses on reaching out to international people in the city of Pohang – ESL teachers, migrant workers, ship ministry, etc. We were part of the leadership team, led small (cell) groups and I also preached one per month on average.
How do you connect your faith to your teaching?
First off, I know I regularly need to read, reflect and meditate on God’s Word as well as be in regular communication with my Lord and Savior through prayer. I’m not nearly as thorough and consistent in these areas as I need to be but, thank God, He is patiently and lovingly showing me the errors of my ways so that I’m more consistent. My prayers include thinking of and praying for my students – both generally and also specifically regarding particular needs and requests. Second, I’ve come to rely on reading and studying the gospels to learn about the principles and techniques of the greatest (and only perfect) teacher, Jesus Christ. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about my own deficiencies and where I need to improve. As stated below, I believe it’s my obligation to be the best educator I can possibly be, which is a daunting but attainable challenge.
Do you think there is a Christian way to teach English?
As a Christian, my focus is on relying on my faith in Jesus Christ to develop and maintain a world-view that is in accordance with Biblical principles. At Handong Global University, professors are encouraged to pray and lead short devotionals in the classroom, which I’m happy to be part of. Even if I weren’t part of a Christian-based university, I would still prepare my lesson plans and conduct classes in accordance with Christian principles – love for others, respect for differing student opinions, desire to openly engage about our differences, diligence in lesson preparations designed for effective teaching, and keeping abreast of new and exciting pedagogical developments. I believe it’s important that I be a life-long learner in order to enthusiastically and effectively teach what I have both learned and am learning. My teaching philosophy is based on what someone else wisely stated: “I’d rather have my students drink from a running stream than a stagnant pool”. I need to continuously give my best so as to invest effectively in the lives of others, just as Christ Jesus modeled throughout His earthly ministry and explicitly stated in Matthew 10:24-25. To my way of thinking, this is the Christian way to teach English.
George and Judy Van Bruggen and Judy sold or gave away most of their property and possessions between 2001~2004 after being called by God to minister in Asia in 2005. They served with English Language Institute China (E.L.I.C.) for 1.5 years before going to live and minister in South Korea. While teaching at Kyungpook National University in Daegu (2007-09), George obtained a Master of Education (TESOL) Degree. Since 2009, he has taught various English-mediated subjects at the Department of Language Education of Handong Global University in Pohang.