Joon Park’s life changed course after his father died nearly three years ago.
When Park returned to Seoul, South Korea, to make arrangements for a small and quiet funeral with family members, word spread about the service and dozens of people from across the city came to pay their respects. Little did he know, but Park would learn about a family legacy.
“Grandfathers in their late 60s and early 70s came to the funeral. They were bawling their eyes out. At the beginning, I was thinking, ‘Why are they crying? My dad taught them 40, 50 years ago,’ ” Park says. “They talked about how great my dad was in the classroom and how he changed their lives. My whole thought process changed after the funeral. Coming back to the U.S., I realized that this was about more than money.”
He had been tutoring students in math and English at his ECC Academy in Diamond Bar for nearly two decades, helping high-achieving students get into premier universities in California and in the Ivy League. Instead of returning to that comfortable setting, he decided to go into uncharted territory: the classroom.
“I could help two students get into Ivy League schools or I can help 20 students get into college. I’m affecting 20 students instead of two,” Park says. “I find that quite rewarding and it makes me have a different meaning and interpretation of life.”
Park, who earned his teaching credential in mathematics in June from Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Education & Integrative Studies, will be one of the new teachers attending the second annual “Better Together: California Teachers Summit 2016,” a statewide day of learning aimed at providing innovative approaches and resources for teachers.
Cal Poly Pomona will be one of 38 host sites for the July 29 event that is expected to draw hundreds of educators from the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys. The summit will feature keynote addresses by education leaders, TED-style EdTalks presented by local teachers, and Edcamp discussions led by teachers on topics such as the California Standards in English/Language Arts and Math and the Next Generation Science Standards. Last year’s event attracted 15,000 teachers to sites across the state.
“People think, ‘It’s not a high-paying job. It’s not serious.’ But it is a very serious matter affecting the future of students because of what I do as a teacher,” Park says. “The artistic part of teaching is how do we convince students or sell the idea of having a better future? It’s quite challenging to me.”
Park, who received a Partners in Education (PIE) fellowship, is a member of the new wave of teachers trying to replenish the depleted ranks of educators in California’s primary schools, due in part to the recession and state budget cuts.
The need for new teachers is dire, according to a report released earlier in the year by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute. The report estimates that in order for California to return to its pre-recession student-teacher ratio, the state would need to hire 60,000 new teachers in addition to fulfilling current staffing needs. The supply of new teachers is at a 12-year low, the report finds.
Another factor in the shortage is the drastic drop in the number of students majoring in education. A 2016 study by UCLA researchers found that 4 percent of college students nationwide majored in education, compared to 10 percent in 2005.
“The current teacher shortage is extremely serious and does not appear to be easing in the near future,” says Nick Salerno, coordinator of educational partnerships in the College of Education & Integrative Studies. “The number of teacher candidates is currently not keeping pace with teacher retirements and retirement projections.”
Salerno has seen firsthand the impact that teachers can make. During a 30-year career, he has been a school district superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, assistant principal, counselor and a teacher.
“Teaching is a valuable, wonderful and gratifying career where one can truly make positive differences in the lives of young people. Events such as the California Teachers Summit provide not only strong and worthwhile professional development, but also place teaching in the spotlight of importance regarding the future of our state and nation,” Salerno says.
Education has been a big part of Park’s life. Besides following in his father’s footsteps, Park also spent a great deal of time as a student, arriving in the U.S. in 1986 to study economics at Cal State Chico. He went on to Stanford University and earned his master’s in engineering before pursuing his doctorate in economics at UC Riverside.
While he was working on his doctorate, he contemplated returning to South Korea before experiencing a life-changing moment. He met his future wife, and the couple settled in Walnut to start a family. Park started tutoring teaching middle- and high-school students at the learning center, giving him a professional and financial foundation. When the owner put the business up for sale, Park bought the center.
Going from a one-to-one teaching setting to a class of sometimes 30 high school students, Park learned an important lesson.
“The main difference is that at a private learning center, most of the students come in with the motivation of learning and improving. But at a public school, that’s not guaranteed,” Park says. “About half the students are motivated. Through my clinical practice, I noticed the biggest challenge was motivating those students.”
Park has applied for teaching positions at more than a dozen school districts in the region, and is waiting on replies. His fallback options are becoming a substitute teacher while applying for a full-time position or working as an adjunct engineering faculty member at a community college. In any case, he sees the classroom as his future.
“I want education to be a means of social mobility for the middle class. That’s been my basic attitude,” Park says. “I can have a bigger impact at a public school. The public education setting is a better medium for me to educate teenagers for social mobility.”