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James Clark prepares his sixth grade class for a morning posting of the colors at Osan American Elementary School.
James Clark prepares his sixth grade class for a morning posting of the colors at Osan American Elementary School. (Stars and Stripes)

SEOUL — A sixth-grade teacher at Osan Air Base was named the Pacific region’s Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Elementary School Teacher of the Year and will be entered in a national competition, officials confirmed.

James Clark, 48, joined the Department of Defense Dependents Schools system nine years ago. The retired Marine also has taught at Pusan American School and at Butzbach, Germany.

“I was pretty surprised,” he said of learning he won the Pacific award. “I haven’t been on a winning team of anything since Little League.”

While he joked that he’s more a “second-place guy,” he faced stiff competition in the Pacific in the VFW’s National Citizenship Education Teachers’ Award. Teachers from Japan, South Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, Thailand, Guam, Cambodia, Saipan and the Philippines compete each year. Both DODDS and private school teachers vie for the recognition.

School psychologist Mike Welsh nominated Clark for the award, given to those “who teach citizenship education topics regularly and promote America’s history and traditions,” according to the VFW.

“Mr. Clark fosters a highly energized ‘fun and friendly’ approach to learning for his students,” Welsh wrote in the nomination letter. “Not a day goes by that I don’t see his students wide-eyed and hungry for more instruction.”

After medically retiring from the Marine Corps, he said he decided to teach. Within a few years, he said he realized how much he missed the military community and looked into teaching at DODDS.

It presented him a chance to “serve in another way,” he said.

He thinks his time as a Marine officer gives him a unique perspective when dealing with military parents.

“My job is to serve those who are going to the front lines,” he said.

Giving his home phone number and e-mail to parents is automatic, he said. He’s experimented with hosting Web sites parents can visit during their often hectic work schedules and has held parent-teacher conferences as early as 6 a.m.

“Having deployed myself, I understand,” he said.

He believes the parents appreciate his effort and he wants them as involved as possible in their kids’ education. They have the power to point the kids in the right direction, he said.

“I am not the focus of education,” he said. “I’m just a facilitator.”

Clark said he tries to make learning fun. Since he hated grammar when he was in school, he now challenges his students to ensure they stay interested.

Work as a group and find all the mistakes in prepared sentences, Clark tells them, and he hits the floor and cranks out 60 push-ups.

“Last year, I got really good at it,” Clark said. “I taught it twice a day and I had some pretty sharp kids.”

He also brings his students outside each Friday to “post the colors” in a military-like ceremony. His kids sing the national anthem and each of the service songs. He’ll play his trumpet while the kids bang on bongos and other instruments.

Clark brags that the goal is to bring a “joyful noise to the world … emphasis on noise.”

But he also uses the time to talk about more serious things.

“I’ll stop and talk about what’s happening in the world,” he said. During a recent ceremony, they paused for a moment of silence to honor those who had recently died in Iraq.

Osan Elementary principal Linda J. Kidd called Clark’s patriotism impressive.

“He ensures that students are not only taught the historical background of our great nation but also to recognize that the cost of our “‘freedom is not free,’” she stated in an e-mail.

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