An Interview of Mary Connor

June 2020

When did you start teaching and where did you teach?

I started teaching in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was teaching Language Arts at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, California. After teaching 400 students (200 each semester), I decided that I wanted to try a different experience and teach history as my college education provided me with a strong background in United States and European history. In 1963, I accepted a position to teach ancient history and United States history at Westlake School in Beverly Hills. The following year, my husband was hired to work in the San Gabriel Valley, so we moved to Pasadena where I was offered a position to teach U.S. history to seniors at Polytechnic School. I thoroughly enjoyed my three years at Poly. I had the most academically challenging students of my career and small classes. I particularly appreciated the freedom to design a college-level course, select my own texts, and supplementary resources that I thought would engage my students. From 1967 to 1975, I was a stay-at-home mother. In 1975, I was hired to teach at Westridge School and over the course of 30 years taught United States History plus a variety of senior electives (AP Art History, Asian Studies, and European History). My school provided the funds to get a Master’s Degree in U.S. History and Modern European History at Cal State Los Angeles and later provided funding to attend local and national social studies conferences. As a result of these opportunities, I met outstanding teachers from all over the United States, obtained knowledge and resources for the classroom, and learned about fellowship opportunities in the U.S. and abroad. In 1983, I attended a program at Stanford on women’s history in the United States. This experience provided me with engaging resource materials that were very useful throughout the rest of my teaching career. These materials became part of my thematic approach to U.S. history. After publishing an essay on teaching U.S. history thematically in Social Education, the journal of the National Council for Social Studies, McDougal Littell included my essay about teaching history thematically in the teacher’s edition of The Americans. A few years later, the Social Studies School Service, the largest distributor of social studies materials in the United States, included the essay and my thematic materials on its website where they have remained for at least 20 years.

Why did you get interested in teaching East Asia and pursuing fellowship experiences?

At the end of my first year of teaching at Westridge, I was asked to teach a course on Asian Studies as an elective for high school seniors. Teaching Asian Studies at Westridge changed my life. A whole new fascinating world opened up to me. As a result of my interest in East Asia, I applied for a fellowship to study and travel in Japan and was accepted in 1997. After my remarkable experience in Japan, I thought I should explore what other opportunities might be available to increase my knowledge of East Asia and United States history. I then applied for a fellowship to the Robert E. Lee Stanford Hall and Monticello seminar. I lived at Robert E. Lee’s ancestral estate for several weeks, heard outstanding lectures on the American Revolutionary War period, and travelled to historical sites all over the state of Virginia. Two highlights of this experience involved an after hour tour of Monticello by the curator and staying in a room at the University of Virginia that was designed by Thomas Jefferson. We were required to do research on some topic of interest related to the American Revolutionary War period. I wrote an article about remarkable women and created a document-based essay lesson that was published in the National Council for Social Studies journal.

What happened that really motivated you to create a professional life outside of your classroom teaching?

In the 1990’s, I realized that the atmosphere had really changed at my school. A school that I had thoroughly enjoyed, no longer was a friendly place. There was constant turmoil, good teachers were fired, students marched in protest, and the faculty became divided between those who supported the administration and those that did not. A friend advised me to create a life outside of my school as a way of coping with the day-to-day stresses and negativity that consumed the campus. I began to seek more opportunities for personal growth, obtained funding to attended state and national conferences, and participated in fellowship programs. Overcoming the difficulties of my workplace led to the most rewarding experiences of my professional life. The majority of the fellowship recipients that I met participated in summer programs that enriched their lives. I also found that many excellent programs were not that competitive as most teachers do not take advantages of what is available.

How did you get so involved with learning about Korea, creating teacher seminars, and publishing books?

In 2000, I was accepted on a fellowship funded by the New York Korea Society to study and travel in South Korea. For this opportunity, I was required to write an article about Korea. I was surprised that my article on famous Koreans became the cover story of Education About Asia, the leading journal for educators who teach about Asia. In the spring of 2004, I was accepted on another Korea Society fellowship. This time my obligation was to create a workshop for teachers on Korean history and culture. I did not have the funds to create a program for teachers, but I had spent weeks researching and writing The Koreas: A Global Studies Handbook at the Korean Cultural Center Los Angeles (KCC). The librarian helped me obtain the funding from the KCC; consequently, the Korean history and culture seminars began in 2004. Two years later, a non-profit called the Korean Academy for Educators (KAFE) was created.

Between 2004 and 2013, the Korea Academy for Educators offered a five-day annual seminar for educators for teachers. The Korean Cultural Center provided the funding for the seminar and the Korea Foundation supported a fellowship program in order for teachers outside the Los Angeles area to participate. Approximately, thirty professors and cultural performers participated in our programs. For a period of time, the Korean Cultural Center and the Academy of Korean Studies provided the funding for Saturday workshops. Because of the financial support from the Academy of Korean Studies, I was also able to carry out Korea workshops in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I either organized or participated in Korea workshops in Cupertino, San Jose, Los Vegas, New Haven, New York, San Diego, Tucson, and universities (University of California Los Angeles, University of Colorado, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, and the University of Washington). In addition to these workshops, I participated in sessions sponsored by the Korea Society at the annual conferences for the National Council for Social Studies and locally for the California Council for Social Studies. In 2009, I published my second resource book, Asia in Focus: The Koreas. I also lobbied for greater inclusion of Korean history and culture during the California History Social Science Framework meetings in Sacramento over a period of approximately six months. This ultimately led to greater inclusion of Korean history and culture in the California Framework and history textbooks.

In 2014, Sung Kim, who had helped with the seminar for ten years, and I created a new non-profit organization, the National Korean Studies Seminar (NKS). Since then, we continued to offer the annual five-day seminar at the Korean Cultural Center. As a result of our outstanding lecturers, engaging hands on activities, and  memorable field trips (Buddhist temple visit, Korean Friendship Bell in San Pedro, Korean United Presbyterian Church, and the Korean National Memorial Hall), teachers reported that our seminar was the best professional development program that they ever attended. In 2017, the KCC and NKS published my resource book, Teaching East Asia: Korea that is also an e-book on the National Korean Studies website.

What were the challenges in organizing seminars?

The biggest challenge in the early years was recruiting. This is how I spent hours and hours of my time. As our reputation grew and there were more ways to publicize our offerings, it was much easier to recruit teachers. There were definitely personality challenges along the way and stress. As I continued to work with Sung Kim on KCC seminars, I was invited to create a program similar to ours at Stanford. I was thrilled at the prospect of sharing my experience and helping Stanford. I thought what an honor this would be. However, a woman who was helping us raise funds decided that I was going to leave KAFE and work for Stanford. I had no intention to leave KAFE or move from Southern California. She called all the Korean Consulates throughout the United States and said I was trying to trash our non-profit. This ruined the plans to work with Stanford and I had to work to reestablish my credibility with the Korean government. Another very difficult situation developed when we were still working with KAFE. Our organization was taken away from us and taken to USC. There was nothing we could do about it, so we created NKS with the full support of the Korean Cultural Center.

As you look back on your experiences, what thoughts come to your mind?

If someone told me early on that I would have these rewarding experiences, I would not have believed it. Even though I have gotten numerous awards for my efforts, the best part has been my friendships with members of the Korean community. Creating a program that has been viable for sixteen years and by being honored by the government of South Korea and the Korean Consulate General Los Angeles has been incredibly gratifying. I thank everyone who supported me in this remarkable journey. Needless-to-say, I am very grateful and fortunate.

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