The Sage of South High: A Vivid History


Photo courtesy of Sarah Sun

贤明: A Name, Meaning “Wise and Capable; Sagacious” Mr. Ko, a social studies teacher at South High, has experienced many events in life and made decisions that influence his teaching philosophy and attitude toward education today. Fueled by wisdom and dedication, he strives to mentor and support all the students who pass through his class at Room 414. His Chinese name, which he understood after being influenced by his father to take Chinese college courses, testifies to the admirable qualities he possesses.

Sarah Sun

The year is 1997. Fresh out of college, 22-year-old Mr. Joseph Ko, born in Lagos, Nigeria and now a naturalized citizen of the US, stands at the crossroads at Grinnell College, IA, deliberating the future direction of his career. His dilemma, however, was not a question of “what?” but rather of “where?”; he already knew he wanted to be a K-12 teacher. With an understanding that his older brother had put down roots thousands of miles away, his younger brother in the Marine Corps could be deployed to distant locations, and his sister would constantly change locations given her job in the US State Department, Mr. Ko ultimately moved back to New York for grad school at Columbia University in order to stay geographically close to his parents, who he knew would not leave the Chinese immigrant community of NY they had grown accustomed to. In doing so, he made a sacrifice for his family, as he was not a New Yorker at heart. What has kept Mr. Ko “sane” is the fact that he sees being a teacher as not just a job, but rather as a secular priesthood; religious figures, aside from perpetrating the religion, also play supporting roles in their communities. “When I approach teaching,” says Mr. Ko, “I know that my job is to impart knowledge… but also supporting [my] students in ways above and beyond just having them learn knowledge.”

Much of Mr. Ko’s philosophy when it comes to teaching and life is influenced by his childhood and identity as an Asian American. For economic reasons, his father worked in Nigeria throughout Mr. Ko’s youth and time in high school, separated from his family, and visited only twice a year. It was a great sacrifice, Mr. Ko believes, for his father to miss out on their upbringing in order to support them and give them opportunities. Both Mr. Ko and his siblings were aware of and respected the sacrifices their father made for them; now, he makes sure to provide constant companionship for his parents.

In addition, there were not many role models for most Asian students in New York City’s high schools. However, Mr. Ko’s social studies teacher of three years while at Hunter College High School was a Chinese American woman by the name of Sue Eichler. He describes her as someone who was short and petite, with a strong personality and a strict demeanor, but beneath her “Asian” exterior was someone who was very caring and willing to nurture her students. “It became incumbent for some of the people that were inspired by her example to carry on that task for the next generation,” Mr. Ko believes. “I wanted to be a role model for first generation immigrant children, so that they would understand that they don’t have to be locked into this singular path that many first-generation American children find themselves pushed into.”

There is also a stereotype that Asians were supposed to be good at math; for Mr. Ko, social studies came much easier to him than math did, despite the effort he put into the subject. But a singular math teacher he had, Mr. Mark Nadel, helped him make sense of the subject. From this experience, Mr. Ko learned that a good teacher is able to support struggling students, not merely add to the potential of students who already excel.

In 2014, Mr. Ko’s heart condition manifested for the first time, leading to the discovery of an aneurysm growing on his aorta. Following the original surgery in March 2014, Mr. Ko was told that the aneurysm had kept growing, which necessitated immediate surgery in March of 2021. As Mr. Ko put it, “so what I thought was like hey kids, don’t worry, I’ll be back in a week was like, sorry, kids I’m out for the rest of the year, because the first surgery did not succeed, and I now need additional, more invasive surgeries.”

 This experience has brought a sense of understanding to the school community of the important, supporting role Mr. Ko plays as a teacher and colleague, and for Mr. Ko, really crystallized what matters when he teaches. “Yes, I want [my students] to understand history and the world they live in,” Mr. Ko explains. “Okay, for the ones that go off to college to become history majors, and for the ones that genuinely have interest, the content I provide may matter. But for everybody else, who’s never going to take another world history class, what really matters is how well I prepare them both to be successful students, and more importantly, successful people. Ever since that first surgery of March 2014, I’ve been very conscious of not watering down what I teach but focusing on what matters. That’s been the big pivot in my teaching.”

Mr. Ko’s dedication and impact is also evident in the eyes of his colleagues and students. “I do not think I have met a teacher more dedicated to giving his time to the students he teaches,” says Mrs. Griggs, another social studies teacher at South High. “Mr. Ko is generous and will do anything he can to make sure a student who needs help gets that help. He is inspirational.”

Mr. Ko walks into school each day knowing that it is unrealistic to make a meaningful day for every student, but still strives to make his lessons relatable and meaningful to his students. “I’ve called him dedicated, but he is also a person with a strong moral compass,” says social studies teacher Mrs. Dana Macrigiane. “If you need help and he can help you, he will… we both see history as a story, and he is tireless in his efforts to make sure that all of his students seeking a greater understanding of that story will find it when they talk with him.”

As a student at South High explains, “he is the kind of person that can make you feel comfortable when learning. He’s also an incredibly hard worker. For the days that I come in for extra help, I always see him working at his computer—even when I come in after 4:50!” In this manner, Mr. Ko dedicates time and effort to support students in any way possible.

Mr. Ko would, however, tell his younger self in his 20s and 30s to be more mindful of a balance in his life.  “I did not have work-life balance,” Mr. Ko remarks. “While that made me a good teacher, I don’t have a big social network, meaning no spouse, no biological children, and no friendship circle beyond work colleagues, and that’s probably not healthy.” Mr. Ko believes it’s the reason why he relates so much to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, who sacrificed human relationships in the single-minded pursuit of what he thought was important, which for him was just making money, and for Mr. Ko was excelling at his work. However, Mr. Ko is conscious of the importance of his job and accepts the trade-offs.

Despite his cool exterior, Mr. Ko’s colleagues testify to his vibrant personality. “Because he is so mild-mannered and even soft-spoken at times,” Mrs. Griggs reveals, “I think many people fail to recognize the wicked sense of humor Mr. Ko has.”

Mrs. Macrigiane adds, “​​I’m not sure that everyone notices his sense of humor. He’s quite hilarious in how he delivers anecdotes and how he relays experiences he has had.”

Mr. Ko, in his 24 years of teaching, has inspired respect and motivation within the school community. As a mentor in students’ critical years of high school, he has strong initiative to create something meaningful out of his influential role. “As a teacher, even before my medical crises,” Mr. Ko expresses, “one of the mentors that shaped me reminded me, you are teaching students, you’re not teaching social studies; you are teaching a person, you’re not teaching content; any meaningful thing they get out of your class will be what they feel first, and what they remember factually second.”