Biggest Language School Seeks Adventist Teachers as It Renews Mission Focus
Sahmyook Language Institute is looking for dedicated Adventists to move to South Korea for a year or more.
South Korea’s Sahmyook Language Institute, the largest Seventh-day Adventist Church-owned English-language school in the world, is seeking dedicated Adventist teachers as it looks to renew its focus on mission.
The Seoul-based institute, with 9,000 students studying at 30 branches, is a powerhouse of English learning in South Korea. But the present enrollment is a far cry from its peak of 56,400 students at 62 branches in 2009.
The institute’s new president, Gil Ho Choi, believes a reason for the decline is the school has “drifted away from the Lord’s original plan when He allowed us to start this organization.”
“We started our school with the sole purpose of evangelism,” Choi said in an interview in his office at Sahmyook Language Institute’s headquarters.
“But somehow as it grew, we lost our focus on the mission part,” said Choi, who took the helm about a year ago. “So our internal power, our dynamics, have been weakened.”
Part of the problem, he said, stems from managerial decisions made during the institute’s period of rapid growth, including to hire non-Adventists to make up for a shortfall in Adventist teachers. The non-Adventists, who now account for 39 of the school’s 107 native English teachers, are well-qualified to teach but have no concern for mission, Choi said.
“We need really dedicated Adventist teachers,” he said.
The Sahmyook Language Institute is not alone in its struggle to refocus on its original mission. Over the years, a number of Adventist educational enterprises have found that the larger they grow, the more difficult it has been to keep their focus on evangelism, church leaders said.
The institute is also facing external challenges that are hurting enrollment. It enjoyed the status of being the sole school with native English teachers for years, but competing schools have now entered the market. In addition, the number of students across South Korea has halved in recent years as parents have fewer children. The South Korean government, meanwhile, is boosting funding for free public schools in an attempt to curb private schools, which it blames for fueling societal problems by creating an unnecessary financial burden on parents.
But Sahmyook leaders believe the challenges can be resolved by firmly focusing on evangelism. At its peak, the institute was baptizing 1,000 students a year, compared to about 100 students today. Each of its branches is located in an Adventist church, making it simple for teachers to invite students to Bible studies and worship services.
About half of the institute’s students are in elementary and middle schools, while the rest are a mix of college students, professionals, and housewives. Some 5 million Koreans have passed through its doors since it opened in 1969, or the equivalent of 10 percent of the country’s current population.
“The English language is a powerful way to spread the gospel,” said Sang Jai Choi, the school’s academic dean.
A bus leaving the headquarters of the Sahmyook Language Institute in Seoul. (Andrew McChesney / AR)
Sahmyook institute president Gil Ho Choi speaking in his office to Adventist Review editor Bill Knott. (Hyo Jun Kim)
How Teachers Share Jesus
Former teachers said they have found that to be true.
Ulunma Nwokeafor, a U.S. citizen who taught at the school’s Gwangju Institute in 2008 and 2009, said she recalled teaching a late evening religion class to a single female student.
“I was usually tired, and I wondered why the class was still going with just one student, but at the end of the term she told me that she came to realize how much God loved her through the class,” said Nwokeafor, who now lives in New Orleans. “It made the tiredness worth it.”
She added: “I didn't have to preach a lot about the Bible or be extremely well versed in the Bible. I think it was through the study and sharing of my experiences with her and getting to know her — that was how she learned more about God.”
V. Michelle Bernard, who taught from 2007 to 2009, said the school provided many students with their first interaction with Adventists.
“I'm glad they were able to see that we are Christians and people they'd like to be around,” said Bernard, who now works in Maryland as assistant editor of the church’s Columbia Union Visitor magazine.
Native English speakers can be much more than teachers, often becoming counselors and friends to their students, said André Brink, a South African national who taught with his wife, Penny, in South Korea from 1995 to 1998. He told of a female student who asked him to correct her essays.
“As I read through the essays that explained her relationship with her husband and how so often she would sit sobbing on the sidewalk near their house, I realized that she was reaching out for help,” Brink said. “I felt that this was the time to also involve my wife, so we met on several occasions with this woman and counseled her and prayed with her.”
The woman kept handing over new essays every week as the months passed, but Brink noticed a remarkable difference in her writing.
“Jesus had come into her life, and her relationship with her husband had also improved,” he said.
Brink said that working as a teacher may have helped the students in many ways, but the experience was also positive for the teachers.
“It made us realize that whatever we did with our lives in the future, it had to be connected with mission,” said Brink, now an associate editor overseeing digital media at the Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. Penny Brink is the assistant director of Stewardship Ministries for the Adventist world church.
Institute Considers Its Mission Ahead
The Sahmyook Language Institute has had difficulty attracting Adventist teachers in recent years, in part because many former teachers were North American students who took a year off college to teach English. The South Korean government now requires that teachers hold at least an undergraduate degree. Teachers also are required to be native speakers from one of six countries: United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and South Africa.
Teachers, who are aged 21 to 35, typically sign a one-year contract that can later be extended by a year or two. All undergo a two-week orientation before being dispatched to a local branch.
Non-Adventist teachers, meanwhile, are lining up to work at the school, attracted by a benefits package of free housing, a $2,000 monthly stipend, $700 toward airfare for every six months of work, and severance pay equal to one month’s stipend after a year of work.
“Non-Adventist teachers do not care about the mission, but they come,” said Choi, the institute’s president. “Why? Because we provide quite good benefits that allow you to save a lot monthly. But why shouldn’t we give this good job opportunity to our Adventist members?”
The institute, which also runs a language center in the Philippines, is already taking steps to strengthen mission as its base even as it ponders where to find more Adventist teachers. Among other things, the school is taking a look at the Adventist world church’s One Year in Mission initiative, which works with college campuses to encourage every Adventist young person to spend a year in mission while in college or immediately after graduation.
“It is important to get more Adventist teachers who are filled with the mission spirit,” said Choi, the academic dean. “Our schools remain a strong mission field. This is a great field for God’s mission.”