Great Neck’s beloved social studies teacher Joseph Ko puts students first

Great Neck’s beloved social studies teacher Joseph Ko puts students first

This article is one of the winning submissions from the New York Post Scholars Contest, presented by Command Education.

The year is 1997. Fresh out of college, 22-year-old Joseph Ko, now a social studies teacher at Great Neck South High School, stands at the crossroads at Grinnell College, IA.

He is deliberating the future direction of his career. His dilemma, however, was not a question of “what” but rather of “where”; his heart was set on becoming a K-12 teacher.

Mr. Ko, born in Lagos, Nigeria and now a naturalized citizen of the United States, recognized 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 U.S. State Department.

Ultimately, this led to his decision to move back to New York for grad school at Columbia University to stay geographically close to his parents, whom he knew would not leave the Chinese immigrant community 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 their 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 to support [my] students in ways above and beyond just having them learn knowledge.”

Identity and Early Influences

Much of Mr. Ko’s life philosophy 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 visited only twice a year. Both Mr. Ko and his siblings were aware of and respected the sacrifices their father made for them.

It was an extraordinary action, Mr. Ko believes, for his father to miss out on their upbringing in order to support them and provide them with opportunities. Now, he is driven 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. However, beneath her “Asian” exterior was someone who was exceptionally 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 are supposed to be good at math; for Mr. Ko, social studies came much more easily, despite the effort he put into his math classes. But a singular math teacher he had, Mr. Mark Nadel, helped him make sense of the subject. “I did well in social studies, but there were other students who got higher grades,” Mr. Ko recalls. “What was galling to me was that they didn’t love the subject, but they were better at it than me.

It then forced me to reevaluate—why am I doing this, taking a class or trying so hard? I realized that if I’m doing it, it better be because I enjoy it, and not just because I’m getting a good grade.”

From this experience, Mr. Ko learned that a good teacher can also support struggling students, not merely add to the potential of students who already excel. 

“I remembered all the times when I felt I really could have used some help, and did not get the help that I was looking for,” Mr. Ko says. “One of the reasons why I stay late after school to help my students and answer questions is because once upon a time, that was me.

I hope to learn from the mistakes that other teachers made when I was a student, to try to avoid visiting those sins or ills on the next generation.”

Heart Condition and Changing Outlook 

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 puts it, “What I thought was like ‘hey kids, don’t worry, I’ll be back in a week’ became ‘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 brought a sense of understanding to the school community of the important, supporting role Mr. Ko plays as a teacher and colleague. For Mr. Ko, it crystallized what matters when it comes to teaching. 

“Yes, I want [my students] to understand history and the world they live in,” Mr. Ko explains. “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 would also 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. For Scrooge, it was just making money. For Mr. Ko, it was excelling at his work. However, Mr. Ko is conscious of the importance of his job and accepts the trade-offs.

A South High Icon

Mr. Ko’s dedication and impact are 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 completely change the day for every student, but still strives to make his lessons relatable and meaningful. 

“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, though school ends at 2:30!” In this manner, Mr. Ko dedicates time and effort to supporting students in any way possible.

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, I think many people fail to recognize the wicked sense of humor Mr. Ko has,” Mrs. Griggs reveals.

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.”

A Beloved Inspiration

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 a strong initiative to create something meaningful out of his influential role.

“As a teacher, even before my medical crises,” Mr. Ko says, “one of my mentors 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.”

Great Neck High School teacher Joseph Ko approaches his career like a calling, dedicating himself to the community well beyond school hours.

An 11th-grader at Great Neck South High School, Sun dreams of becoming an author and running a publishing company one day.

Read More