teaching updates

We’re in our sixth week of school already. March was mostly too busy to think.

The extra classes this year are both a burden and a blessing – on the one hand, more work and less downtime; on the other, my low level  (‘C’) classes (with only 4 or 5 students per) give me a chance to really work on their skills and help them be more comfortable with me, while high level (‘A’) classes get to go beyond the basics and learn more because they can handle it.

What about the ‘B’ level classes? I’ve found that they become the most difficult (this was true in my first year in Korea as well, when I also taught split level classes). They know just enough to be bored by basics, but not so much that they’re inspired to broaden their horizons with more challenging tasks. Their behavior is invariably the most out-of-hand.* We’re working on it.

*Except for one very delightful ‘B’ class that happens to have most of the sweetest kids in it, who are very enthusiastic and polite. They’re my last class on Tuesdays, and by that point in the day, they save me from despairing.

Here are a few updates from the past several weeks:

The lesson is on jobs, and we’re practicing different sentences based on pictures. The sentence to be elicited is: I want to be a bus driver.

Student: “I want to be a bus stop.”

Interesting choice.

I have a class with some of my low level kids in which the key expression is “I wonder.” A few periods later, two girls run excitedly into my room – “Teacher, I wonder! What is 무?” When I tell them “radish” and spell it on the board for them, they’re amused and delighted for unknown reasons.

(Later I discover they’re making a game out of trying to define Korean words in English by breaking each syllable into parts and translating the parts, like “산적”. 산 = mountain, 적 = enemy. Mountain enemy. Can you guess the real meaning? … Bandit. Not really too far off, I suppose.)

A few days later, I show a picture of my brother and me while teaching comparative adjectives (he’s taller than me) and another girl raises her hand. “Teacher, I wonder! I’m curious! Is that… your… brother?”

I’m always touched when they actually make an effort to use the key words we’ve learned. And to speak in full sentences.

The first graders and I are starting to get better acquainted now, and I expect them to know the class rules by heart. I ask for volunteers to come up and write them on the board at the start of class.

“Spelling mistakes are okay,” I say.

“You’d better not make any spelling mistakes,” says Mr. Y sternly in Korean (but with a twinkle in his eye).

Every afternoon after quitting time, the principal comes by checking the classrooms to make sure all the windows are closed, and he always yells out breezily, “Good morning” as he passes my (closed) office door. So then I have to awkwardly yell “Good morning” back, so as not to be rude. I don’t know how to tell him that 4:30 p.m. is not morning.

The balance of co-teaching (in praise of Mr. Y)

It’s pretty unusual for a Korean English teacher to be either old or male, but lo and behold, one of my co-teachers is both of these things – a rather gruff old man who we’ll call Mr. Y.

Mr. Y doesn’t really speak English all that much. We’ve never had a conversation; in fact, we’ve never said much to each other at all. But somehow, over the past 2+ years of co-teaching together, he has become the IDEAL co-teacher for me.

When we first started co-teaching, he would mostly nod off in the back over his newspaper or stare into oblivion probably hating his life (as chronicled here). He would yell at the kids whenever he felt they were being too loud in my class, scaring the kids and sometimes me.

But over the last year or so, Mr. Y has mellowed out a bit. He’s gotten to know my teaching style and what I expect from the students, and little by little he’s made changes to how he supports me in class.

We have mastered our joint classroom management approach – good cop, bad cop style. (I’m the good cop.) (That was probably obvious.)

I lay out my own classroom rules at the start of the year. I am clearly the one who is leading the class. I reprimand students myself when they’re acting out. But nothing can quiet the whole class faster than a deep, gruff “Sit up straight and listen” from the back of the room.

When Mr. Y, from his sentinel position at the back, notices one or two kids being squirrelly or chatty and disruptive, he approaches their desks and stands there with a look of disapproval until they cut it out.

If they’re being really noisy, he raises his hand to pause me. “Maddy, wait.” He yells at the misbehaving kids for a few seconds. They stare at their desks in shame. Mr. Y looks at me, gives me a nod. “Okay.” “Thank you,” I tell him. The students look at me soberly. I resume teaching. Everyone is listening. We have a wonderful, focused class, backed up by his silent but authoritarian presence.

When I introduce myself to the new 1st grade students for the first time, they are full of questions. They don’t know how to spell their names in English. They need another piece of paper. They want to ask me if I have a boyfriend. They don’t know the English word for their favorite sport.

No matter how many times they shout these questions to Mr. Y in Korean, he unfailingly responds, “If you have a question, ask Maddy Teacher. Not me. Maddy Teacher will help you.”

This imprints on the kids over and over again that when they are in my classroom, they need to make an effort to communicate with me in English. It also encourages respect for me and my lesson, since he never tries to override what I’m saying or translate everything into Korean so the kids don’t have to try to understand my English instructions.

This year I have a few of my lowest level classes with him, 6 kids per class. Mr. Y adapts to the situation. He waits several minutes after I explain the worksheet to see how they’re doing, then reiterates the key points in Korean and repeats my favorite phrase: “Ask Maddy Teacher your questions. This is Maddy Teacher’s class.”

Given the frequent difficulties of balancing a co-teaching relationship, in combination with the fact that he is an older teacher who comes from a completely different era of teaching methodologies, it is near miraculous that we have come to this point.

And all of this has been achieved, need I remind you, despite the fact that we’ve never really… talked.

Well, with two (partial) exceptions:

Once I sent him a message on the school chat system to remind him that I’d be giving him the 1st graders’ speaking test scores later that day, to be entered into the system.

Mr. Y responded: “THANK YOU”

And one day last year, I didn’t get the memo that my class had been moved to a different classroom on a different floor. When the kids didn’t show, I thought it’d just been cancelled. Mr. Y, not being one to storm up to my office to find out why the heck I wasn’t in class, simply taught the class himself on the fly. He never said a word to me about it, but one of my other co-teachers told me afterwards.

Distraught, I sent him an apology on the chat system.

Mr. Y responded: “Never mind.”*

All in all, Mr. Y is simply the best. Most unfortunately (for me, anyway), he’s retiring this summer, to be replaced by an as-yet-unknown new co-teacher. I already know I’ll miss his support in my classes. Three cheers for Mr. Y.

*I think it’s only fair to Mr. Y to explain that the Korean phrase for “Don’t worry about it,” when typed into a translator, comes back as “Never mind.” He really is a dear.

New year, new me. (I’m back?)

After a year of internet silence, I think I might be back.

Or am I? I don’t know. Decisions are hard. (As evidenced by my umpteenth color scheme change and the re-branding of my blog tagline.)

I suppose if there’s any time (for a teacher) to re-brand and make a comeback, it’s at the start of the new school year. Which is today. Also the exact 1-year anniversary since my last post.

A few months ago I made the choice to put my blog on “private” because I was increasingly uncomfortable with the feeling that I was exposing my inner thoughts to the void – especially looking back at some of my older posts in which, in my bold naïveté, I expressed thoughts and observations that were often pretentious, self-congratulatory, cringily saccharine, and/or which no longer reflect my opinions.

However, having received a tiny spark of inspiration to resume writing, I’ve now made my blog public again after culling some particularly obnoxious old posts. Please do not go back and reread the posts that (barely) made the cut, though. For your own sake, not for mine.


via tenor

I was inspired to post by two events:

1. Stumbling upon this blog by a woman who’s been living in Korea with her husband and kids for longer than I have. During my deskwarming hours this winter vacation, I binge-read all her posts chronicling their daily life and, in addition to being thoroughly entertained by her adventures, her posts reminded me of the enjoyable aspects of blogging as both a reader and a writer (not least of which is humorously retelling stressful experiences as a coping mechanism).

2. The humming energy and positivity of the first day of school before all our hopes and dreams are destroyed by soul-crushing reality (just kidding… kind of).

The first day of school (Year 5)

Hard to believe I’m starting a fifth year here. I don’t know why I was still surprised that I walked into school this morning knowing absolutely nothing about my schedule or classes.

Happily, once I meandered down to the gymnasium for the opening ceremony, I got the scoop from my co-teacher: no classes today, just giving the kids their marching orders and making them clean the classrooms, etc. Placement tests all day tomorrow, and “real” school starts on Wednesday. Nice.

On the not-so-nice side of things: the Powers That Be decided that in order to utilize me more (aka get their money’s worth), this year they’re splitting my classes into A, B, and C levels of 5-10 students each, so that I have more classes each week.

More classes + fewer students per class = more lesson and activity planning for me. Yay. Thanks a lot, Powers That Be.


◊ I learned to cut my own hair because it’s more dependable (and affordable) than going to a Korean hair salon. It might not look as nice, but it’s very satisfying.

◊ I now prefer squatter toilets to Western ones, when it comes to public restrooms at least. They can be used without touching anything at all, so they’re technically more hygienic. (Wow, first post in a year and I’m talking about toilets. Not great.)

◊ The air quality in Korea is a growing problem and has been particularly horrible in recent months. If you live in a country with clean air, you’ve probably always taken it for granted. You open the windows to get fresh air, you go outside because it’s good for you. Unfortunately, in this part of the world that’s less and less the case. Not wishing to suffer the potentially serious consequences of breathing heavily polluted air, I am quite frustrated by this.

◊ Last year the 1st graders were a delight (honestly some of the nicest students I’ve had), the 2nd graders were the most apathetic bunch I’ve ever seen, and the 3rd graders were a mixed bag. This year I have reasonably high hopes for 1st and 2nd but am already dreading 3rd.

◊ Didn’t see much of the students today since they were mostly in their homerooms, but I said hi to a few in the halls and their cheerful smiles were encouraging.

◊ I’m nearing the close of my third decade of life and I feel more confused and know less than when I started it. Not that that’s unique. That’s pretty much a necessary aspect of growing older, apparently. All I know is that my life continues to not go according to plan.


via tenor

The first day (for the 4th time)

It’s really odd to think that I’ve had four “first days” of school in Korea now. I’m grateful that I’m no longer shaking with nerves/stomach in knots before heading into the classroom, at least. The stress headache, however, I have not been able to shake.

The air is clean. We had a total downpour (+ a rare little bit of thunder and lightning) all through the night, and the wind is still blowing south/west. When the wind blows east we get a faceful of China’s horrifically dirty air. (Seriously China, clean up your act. You’re literally killing people all over Asia with your pollution.) But for now, and hopefully for the next several days, our air is almost the best it can be.


5 is ridiculously good. The past months have almost always been between 90 (“moderate”) and 160 (“unhealthy”).

It wasn’t a super busy day, but there’s always a bit of running around on the first day of classes. Having quick after-class conversations with my co-teachers about what’s to come, directing lost 1st graders who wander into my classroom, instructing the kids on their cleaning duties at the end of the day, etc. When I finally sat down at my desk I was surprised to see that it was already 4:19 p.m.

It’s nice to be busy. Not every minute, not every day, but sometimes a busy day is a satisfying thing to have accomplished and/or survived.

The new 3rd graders’ already-apathetic behavior is making me miss my 3rd graders from last year. I feel like I didn’t appreciate them enough for being as respectful and engaged as they were.

“So Maddy, do you miss your old 3rd graders?” “No, I’m fine…” (via)

The 1st graders are, as always, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, looking so cute and little fresh out of elementary school, bringing their pencil cases and textbooks and notebooks and backpacks to class just in case they forget something. That will change all too soon, but it’s always fun for the first little while.

I didn’t have any 2nd graders at all today, so we’ll have to see how the rest of the week goes. 1 day down, 4 to go!

yay. (via)

Fresh start

++ The rain came the night before last and brought clean, fresh air to Daegu for the first time in ages.

++ I know that I’m ready for school to start because I looked at the sea of students lined up in the auditorium today and didn’t feel exhausted. I felt excited.

++ Although today is the “first day of school,” no one has classes. It is Friday, after all, so it’s nice to push the actual start to Monday. Today is just about ceremonies, orientation and meetings.

++ I’m finally back in my own office instead of the shared main office with a bunch of other people, so I get to work and/or refuel in absolute peace. (My office-mate is a part-time teacher, so she’ll only be here Tues/Thurs.)

++ The two 2nd graders who’ve been assigned to clean my office and classroom this semester are good kids with cheerful attitudes, and not the kind who will pretend not to understand me if I ask them to sweep the classroom floor and take out the trash. Small things like this can make such a huge difference.

++ A now-3rd-grade girl came to see me, crying “Teacher, long time no see! I love you!” She hugged me, which was a surprise because a lot of students are too shy to do that.

++ I’m ready. Bring on Monday!

Bustling, Hustling

Tuesday 2/13

There is a whole lot of bustling happening around here.

Among the best-known aspects of Korean culture for anyone who lives in it (right up there next to bowing, kimchi, and skincare) is balli balli (빨리빨리), which essentially means “hurry the heck up” / “move your arse.” Even the word itself conveys the imperative of the meaning – the word “hurry” is actually just 빨리, but it is often used in its double form because goodness knows just one 빨리 is not enough.

This concept contributes to, for example, the super-speedy delivery services available in Korea… but also to a lot of needless stress. Actually, a whole post could be devoted to the various benefits of and damage caused by 빨리빨리 culture (and many articles have been written about this), but that is not the point today.

Simply put, the difference between good 빨리빨리 and bad 빨리빨리 is the difference between hustle and bustle. Hustle is motivating and focused; bustle is nerve-wracking and chaotic. Hustle is productive; bustle is inefficient. Hustle is goal-oriented; bustle is aimless.

Today is the teachers’ meeting for the 2018 school year. All the incoming teachers will gather with all the current teachers to, I assume, introduce themselves and talk about curriculum, school events, paperwork, etc. I was not invited. (This is good.) I was, however, brought a leftover donut and Capri Sun. (This is also good.)

In preparation for the 10 a.m. meeting, the first part of the work day involved* phone calls, printing, copying, new lost and confused teachers poking their heads in to ask where the meeting is, and other miscellaneous running around. Hence the 빨리빨리.

*Not for me, of course, but for the Korean teachers.

After the meeting was over, a steady stream of teachers were coming in and out of the main teachers’ office and it felt like a coworker reunion as I greeted old faces returning after a year’s hiatus from work or transferring back from another school. I met the new vice-principal (very briefly) and the teacher who will share my two-person office with me this year.

The whole staff went out to a 감자탕 (pork bone stew – spicy, very tender pork, enoki mushrooms, assorted leafy greens) restaurant for lunch and I sat with my new office-mate, leading to the usual awkward sussing out of English ability and an exchange of questions like “How long have you been in Korea?” “What school did you work at before?” “What grade will you teach this year?” and other pleasantries.

Back from lunch, 3 hours to quitting time and the bustle in here is CRAZY. Probably there’s some hustle too. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Currently: 2 teachers on the phone, 1 feverishly shredding documents, and no fewer than 5 crowded around the head teacher’s computer in frenzied conversation, with occasional chiming in from the new VP. Other random teachers running in and out. There is an insane energy in here. Apparently one of the new teachers has announced an inability to be here for the first few days of the semester, sending those in charge of this sort of thing into a tizzy as they frantically call around to find a substitute, and this is contributing to the chaos.

A very different scene than the usual dull, listless mid-vacation atmosphere.

Wednesday 2/14

Sticking with the theme, here is some bustle and hustle I’ve experienced recently.

Bustle: I’ve had issues with the odor of sewer gas wafting through my apartment the last few days. Doesn’t seem to be a drain issue within my room. Possibly coming from the sewer outside my building. I informed my school just in case it is a drain problem, and a couple of admin people + my landlord promptly bustled right into my apartment, while I was at work, to “check the problem.” Erm, guys? Last time I checked y’all weren’t plumbers. At least tell me next time so I can make my bed first. In an even more bustle-y manner, they told me they “couldn’t find any problem.” Well, yeah. Neither could I, that’s why I want a professional.

Hustle: My favorite coworker, with whom I’ve recently reunited since she just came back to school after a year of studying abroad, heard this story and said, “If you smell that again, call me.” (Implied: “I’ll get this crap taken care of.”) She is the greatest.

Bustle: My school/landlord suggested the following upon my continued insistence that there is a smell: “open the window” and “move to a different room in the same building.” (A direct approach to problem solving is not a thing in this culture, which is very much the opposite of American culture.)


Hustle: My favorite coworker swooped in once again to quickly confirm that no, I do not want to drag all my furniture into another room and leave the smell problem for the next unfortunate soul.

Bustle: Another old coworker who’s coming back to my school this year informed me, beaming, that all the students like me… “because you are young and beautiful.” *sigh* Are my personality, connection with the kids and teaching ability (modest though it may be) worth nothing? Is beauty all that matters to you?

Hustle: I had to do my Korean taxes for the first time (Americans have a 2-year tax exemption in Korea, but this is the 3rd year). I had no idea how to go about this, but one of the English teachers drove me to the tax office to get things set up, then to the bank, then to my house to get my passport, then back to the bank, then back to school – essentially sacrificing her entire morning to help me take care of my own responsibility. For all the idiosyncrasies of culture here, you never know when you’ll have experiences like this that warm your heart (and/or make you feel guilty).

Okay, so this list turned out to be more of a good/bad list than hustle/bustle. Oops. I’m all about misusing lists to make my posts easier to write. Because I am lazy.

The new English textbook for the 1st years has finally arrived. There’s a nationwide mandate this year for all schools to roll out updated textbooks starting in 2018, so Grade 1 is this year, Grade 2 next, and so on.

My school has chosen an appropriately “easier” book (old book totaled almost 300 pgs and the new one is half that, just as an example), and I can see that the key expressions are better suited to our kids’ level and the layout hopefully will be more appealing to them.

However, this also means redoing all my lesson plans around the new book. I’ll be doing quite a lot of frankensteining new lessons together from pieces of my old ones. Why couldn’t the books have arrived last month, when I had hours upon hours of deskwarming with nothing to plan? I have asked myself that many times already, but that’s just the way it goes. Needless to say, I will be hustling.


The perils of staycations (as told by an anxious person)

Let’s see, how to summarize the past 3 months of blog silence?


School life: an easy downhill slide to the end of the year filled with English pop song games and fun trivia quizzes containing such categories as “guess the celebrity from their baby picture” and “which of these countries has the larger population?” Students: generally cooperative and respectful. Personal life: simply put, unexpectedly stressful and emotionally draining.


Two days of half-successful, half-disastrous English camp. Then mind-numbing deskwarming (especially mind-numbing since I’ve already planned a lot of lessons for the coming school year), cleaning and organizing my living space, and a “staycation” in which I avoided the bitter cold and the terrible air pollution by remaining indoors. (In Korean, the pun is “Where did you go on vacation?” – “방꼭”, which sounds very similar to “Bangkok” (방콕) but means “I just stayed in my room”.)

Sounds like an introvert’s paradise, right?

It turns out that this is not a very restful activity. At least, not for the anxiety-prone. Even the anxiety-prone introverts of the world.

Or maybe it’s just this anxiety-prone introvert.

Anyway, with all of my productive activities taken care of and no travel plans, I spent a week ‘staycationing’ with mostly just my own thoughts. Even though I thought I was relaxing – sleeping in, reading, watching Netflix, etc. – it turns out I was also developing a massive internal stress factory, deep within my consciousness. Each morning of sleeping in prompted later and later nights of sleeplessness, racing thoughts, old anxieties resurfacing and new ones cropping up out of nowhere – for no apparent reason other than that I was too well-rested, aimless, and un-busy to relax.

It seems I had way too much free time, and in the vast emptiness of it I unwittingly allowed anxiety to take over my mind and my body (which, thanks to my disposition, it is wont to do anyway, but under normal circumstances I don’t feed it and it remains small, weak, and manageable).

Admittedly, the anxiety might have also been pent up during the previous stressful month, just waiting to burst through the surface when I no longer had to be “on.”

By the end of the week, I started noticing tightness and some pain in my chest. By the end of the following week, it got so bad that I went to the Korean ER fearing a heart issue (which was quite the experience by itself*). (Also, this is the constant conundrum of the hypochondriac: go to the hospital and look like an idiot for being worked up over mild symptoms, or don’t go and die of a serious disease??? In this case I decided I didn’t want to take any risks.)

After 4 hours in the ER, a blood test, a chest x-ray, no less than three ECGs (at first they thought they spotted an indication of angina which needless to say was not very reassuring), and a consultation with the hospital’s heart specialist, the doctor concluded that everything looked normal and the most likely cause was stress. (Story of my life. Literally.)

*In short, the Korean healthcare system = extraordinarily cheap, but also extraordinarily overcrowded and unhygienic, striking extreme distress and disgust into my hypochondriac / microphobic soul.


The first week of February marks the start and end of the “3rd semester” (trimester?) in the Korean school year, culminating in the 3rd graders’ middle school graduation ceremony on the 5th day.

My symptoms improved while I was back to teaching, further indicating stress as the underlying cause and that the distraction of work kept my anxiety at bay – which is both a relief and a concern. Exactly who does my brain think it is, exercising so much un-/subconscious power over my body?!? Obviously my conscious mind did not request a simulated heart attack. My symptoms are real and yet not “real” at the same time.** It’s a frustrating cycle in which anxiety creates symptoms which creates more anxiety in response to the perceived health threat, leading to even more exaggerated physical symptoms and even more crippling anxiety and hypersensitivity to the slightest bodily sensations… and on and on. Self-imposed torture. Very difficult to control and not spiral.

**But I’m still not willing to 100% commit to saying that it’s not a serious health issue, because, my anxious mind whispers with an unsettling little nudge, you just never know. (my superstitious mind knocks on wood) (my rational mind rolls its eyes and attempts to speak logically but is immediately drowned out by the much louder voice of irrational fear) (I am much sounder of mind than I’m making myself out to be, I assure you) (really though, shouldn’t I just hire a personal doctor to follow me around and check my vitals all the time? wouldn’t that be easier? makes total sense, right?)


*laughs nervously* (via)

Time capsules

Last year in March, I asked my 2nd and 3rd graders to make “time capsules” – to write down all of their favorite things, their hobbies, their best friends, and to write a short letter to themselves. For the whole year, I kept their carefully-folded time capsules, labeled by class and student number, in a box on my desk.

This week, almost exactly 1 year later, I asked them to answer the same questions and write briefly about what they did or accomplished last year, and then handed out their time capsules. I was tickled to see that a lot of them were excited to get them back and immensely amused at the comparison of their opinions then and now. Most of them had forgotten all about it too, so it was a fun surprise.

Sometimes simple is best

We also played what I called an “alphabet challenge game” – which I thought they would think lame (especially because NO ONE cares what happens during this week and a lot of the other teachers just show movies and let chaos reign supreme), but they actually loved it. I give them a letter, and their team has 30 seconds to write as many words as possible starting with that letter. Spelling mistakes are allowed, but not abbreviations or Korean words written in English. 1 point per word.

After a few rounds I make them stick to a particular category as well, like food, animals, or countries. Then I tell them to only choose ONE word in that category and starting with that letter, but it has to be different from all the other teams or they don’t get a point (like Scattergories). They loved this. Which, as a teacher, is like…

A happy farewell…

I was particularly thrilled that my 3rd grade students (15-16 years old) were, overall, really wonderfully behaved this year right to the very end. My previous experience with middle school 3rd graders has been at times traumatic, struggling with apathy and disrespect at the end of the year to the point that even my “good” or “favorite” classes left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. But this year my kids were truly SO good, sweet, and cheerful, and I will remember them fondly as the first set of kids I taught for the entirety of their middle school life, from 1st year through graduation.

…and a second attempt at relaxation

The graduation ceremony was yesterday, and today I’m back to deskwarming. Next Thursday is the Lunar New Year holiday, after which I’ll have one final week of staycation before the 2018 school year begins. This time I’ll hopefully give myself enough to do to keep the ever-creeping anxiety at bay and avoid any more ER trips. (But also, hopefully I don’t contract any life-threatening illnesses.)

Perhaps my fellow anxiety-filled humans can relate.

And for those who are most definitely not hypochondriacs, right now you’re probably like:

I know. Trust me, I know.

Disclaimer: As I have mentioned before, my hypochondria is real (although self-diagnosed… is that ironic?) but typically not strong enough to interfere with my daily functioning. My attempts at humor surrounding my anxiety are not intended to trivialize mental or physical illness. If illness anxiety disorder, or any form of anxiety or mental health concern, does interfere with one’s ability to work, interact socially, or generally enjoy life, it is best treated by a professional.



2:28 p.m. Just a normal Wednesday afternoon. I was in the middle of class with my 3rd graders. We were going along like usual; I was handing out worksheets (I always hand them out myself rather than using the “take one pass one” method because my classes are small and my kids tend to take FOREVER AND A HALF to do the passing part) and thinking about how I had to go grab pens for all the kids who “forgot” to bring one.

2:29 p.m. I reached the back row of desks, and just as I handed a worksheet to the boy nearest me, he leapt up and cried “지진인가?” (Is that an earthquake?)

I heard what he said, but it didn’t register until an instant after the words left his mouth. Then we all felt it. The shaking floor, the rumbling earth far below us. It sounded strangely like when the lunch bell rings and all the students thunder down the stairs at once.

My co-teacher and I stared at each other in shock. We were all silent, frozen in place, just feeling the floor vibrate beneath us, looking at each other’s wide-eyed faces.

Thankfully it wasn’t a serious earthquake, because we didn’t even remotely follow proper earthquake protocol. We later learned it was a 5.4 magnitude, which is at the very upper edge of “minor.” The center (center? is that a thing for earthquakes or only for storms?) was on the east coast in Pohang, so Daegu didn’t get hit quite as hard. (Buildings were damaged in Pohang.)

This is only the third earthquake I’ve experienced in my life, and all of them have been in Korea (which, as a country, isn’t particularly experienced with earthquakes either). It wasn’t powerful enough to do more than shake us up a bit (pun intended).

As soon as it ended, the students started yelling and screaming. “쌤, 나가요?” (Teacher, should we go outside?) My co-teacher and I nodded as we heard similar uproar coming from other classrooms. I waited to make sure all the kids left the room, including the ones who had been rudely awakened from their mid-class nap by the drama. As I was waiting, one of my students gestured frantically to me. “Teacher, go, go! Dangerous!”

We hurriedly filed out of the classroom, down the two flights of stairs, across the hallway, and out into the soccer field to wait out the aftershocks and… just be together where we were all accounted for, I guess.

The whole school was gathering there, united not only physically but emotionally as well, with the buzzing energy of fear and adrenaline and racing hearts thick around us. The kids lined up on the basketball court by homeroom. I huddled against the chilling wind with a few of the English teachers.

We stayed out there in the sunny cold for a long time. Two aftershocks were reported, but they were too small to be felt. We shivered and chattered about how scary it was, but in a lighthearted way, laughing a little nervously, comparing stories of our first reactions. The kids were having the time of their lives, I’m sure, given that they just had their last class of the day cut short by 30 minutes. Still, I couldn’t help but think how grimly different the scene and atmosphere would be if the earthquake had been just a couple points higher.

Hopefully this will inspire a bit more earthquake preparedness training nationwide, but given that last year’s two earthquakes (one of which was a 5.8) didn’t prompt such a thing, I don’t hold out much hope.

Anyway, today I’m just thankful that we’re okay.

*Update: the third aftershock (4.6) almost two hours later was definitely strong enough to feel the vibrations.

*Update 2: I realize I’m dramatizing a relatively minor incident, but it’s definitely scarier when none of the people in the country are used to this kind of thing. What would be just another day in California or Japan, for instance, is quite an event here – and certainly more nerve-wracking because the buildings here are not designed to withstand strong earthquakes.

Another week slips by

I know it’s lazy of me to reuse the format I used in my last post, but it’s such an easy way to sum up moments from the week.


First Korean surprise in a long time. Today is supposed to be the first day of the speaking test for 1st & 2nd graders, as my co-teacher and I discussed and confirmed multiple times last week.

3 minutes before class, I happen to message my co-teacher to make sure she has the score sheets printed (because if she didn’t, I would print them).

2 minutes before class, she replies and says she’s moving the speaking test to next week because the students aren’t prepared.

Thankfully I have next week’s lessons pre-planned and ready to go, even at literally a minute’s notice. Proactive-ness to the rescue.


My 2nd graders are unusually cheerful for a Tuesday morning. For fun, I show them some optical illusions before we start the book. This is one of their favorites: Stare at the image below without moving your eyes. Try not to blink. See what happens.

Image result for picture that disappears when you stare at it

(As you stare, the colors should fade and eventually disappear.)

After the first one or two students react, there’s an outcry of “What? What?? I can’t see it! What is it?” and then someone explains and there’s a renewed staring effort. The chorus of “Ooh! 와~~!” as one kid after another experiences the illusion is so fun.


My 1st period class pushes my patience to the limits. I’m helping two kids in front with the textbook dialogue and there’s a crash in the back. One of the boys has just “accidentally” fallen out of his chair, and this was far from his first disturbance. My co-teacher is in the hallway lecturing a handful of kids that she’s pulled out of class.

Seeing the look on my face, another boy raises both fists and says solemnly, “Teacher, fighting*.” More or less like this:

Source: dramafever

*As I’ve written about previously, the expression “fighting/화이팅” equates to “you can do it” / I know it’s hard but don’t give up.” I found it semi hilarious coming from a student in this situation. Like, “Teacher I know we are being little terrors but I believe in you.”

On the way home, I stop at the local mart and the cashier, who is usually pretty solemn and stone-faced, starts chatting with me in Korean. She asks if I’m from Russia. Erm, no. I tell her I’m American. Then she explains it’s my eyes that look Russian. That’s a new one, but her next question (“are you married?”) is definitely not. She gives me a thumbs up when I reply that I am not. Awkward questions aside, the unexpected friendliness brightens my day.


It’s the first day of the last part of middle school for the 3rd graders, since they just finished final exams yesterday. I’m holding my breath in fear as I go into my first class with them, dreading an apathetic tooth-pulling experience, but they’re totally cheerful. We’re doing a belated Halloween lesson. They’re more engaged than they have been all semester. One of the low level kids who rarely speaks in class even remembered the name for candy corn from last year.

Later, a 3rd grader comes repentantly to my office to show me that while playing with his friends in the hallway, he somehow knocked off the “O” from the foam letters on the wall outside the classroom that spell “ENGLISH WORLD.”

“He break the world,” his classmate accused.


One of my 1st grade boys who’s usually pretty active in class has his head down on the desk. “What’s wrong?” I ask. “Are you sick? Headache? Or just tired?” (I always ask them this because if they’re sick I let them sleep – kids take way fewer sick days here than we would in the West and if they’re feeling miserable there’s no point in forcing them to study. They’re usually honest with me.)

The student pops his head an inch or two off the desk and says grimly, “I die.” Then he returns his head to the desk. (Translation: just tired. He perked up mighty quick when we started playing a game.)

I hate the sun & other tales from the week


My voice hurts.

It’s been one of those days.

One of my classes got switched over from tomorrow to today, and for some reason the one extra class left my vocal cords aching. I prescribe myself a ban on speaking for the next 18 hours. Works just fine for me because as far as I know, Netflix doesn’t expect you to talk back.


I have officially declared war on the sun. Actually I feel like it declared war on me a long time ago and now I’m finally accepting that I just hate it.

Not only am I at high risk of sunburn because of my severe lack of melanin, but I’m literally allergic to the sun. I break out in hives on my arms and hands when the sun is the strongest, from about April to August.

I hate heat, as has been well-established on this blog. I hate sweating. Summer is a despicable season to me.

But it goes further than that. I just hate how bright the sun is. I hate when it gets in my eyes and makes me squint. I especially hate when it shines directly into my peripheral vision while I’m trying to work, and bakes my small office whose windows so perfectly face west, catching the full strength of the setting sun from 1 p.m. onward.

It’s Just. So. Annoying.

No, I am not a vampire.


Two of my girl students assure me I’m an “angel” (for not losing my mind at their rowdy classmates, I guess).

One of my third grade classes starts super late due to an earthquake evacuation drill in the afternoon. We barely have 20 minutes to squeeze in the textbook pages we absolutely need to cover (since they have final exams on Monday). After we get through it, there’s only 5 minutes left in class. No time for an activity or game, so I ask them what music video they want to watch. (This is an extremely rare treat because usually I make them do a worksheet or something.)

Our class clown shouts “Teacher, MESS! MESS! You know MESS?” I do know Mess, actually. He’s referring to Lionel Messi, the soccer (err, football) player. His friends chime in. I comply. We watch this compilation, and I justify it in my head because there are title cards in English. The boys start reading them out loud, eyes glued to the screen – “The volley pass! Golazo versus Man City! Ooh, Man City! Overhead kick assist!”

My class clown is standing up, riveted, and after each clip he yells “Oh! MESS! Wow, MESS!” Needless to say, he is very very into soccer and Messi is his idol. My co-teacher laughs and says it’s the most focused she’s ever seen him in English class.

(The girls weren’t quite as into it, but they watched too.)


A few minutes before class starts, I’m in my office and hear one of the kids yelling at the top of his lungs, “MADDY TEACHERS! MADDY TEACHEERRRRRS!” (He’s not the greatest at English and sometimes he likes to pluralize things that shouldn’t be.) I popped my head into the classroom and he said, “Oh teacher! 보고 싶었어요 (I just missed you).”

During lunchtime, one of the first grade boys peers through the crack in my office door and says in an exaggeratedly high-pitched voice: “OH MY CANDY!” He does this almost every day, as if somehow one of these days it’s going to make me actually give him candy.


The third graders get their speaking test scores back (the test was last week). One of the boys in this class is a student who I’ve watched grow from a very shy first grader who could barely look up during his speaking test, let alone say a word in English, to a well-prepared third grader who, stuttering a bit but looking me straight in the eye with confidence, told me he wishes he had the power of invisibility so he could play tricks on his family and impress his friends.

Today, he smiles quietly and fist pumps when his perfect score is announced (one of only three in the class).

After lunch, my second graders and I have a laugh because the question I put on the PPT was “What is 이유 in English?” but ALL of them read it out loud as “What is reason in English?” – “reason” being the answer to the question. They hadn’t even realized they were auto-translating the Korean word into English.

As I walk home, I notice a new banner that’s been hung up on one side of the intersection near my house. It reads simply: U.S.-South Korea Alliance – “Let’s Keep Dancing!” in Korean and English.

Let’s keep dancing.

For the most part I’ve obviously focused on the good parts of each day, things that made me smile or laugh. There were not-so-great moments as well, but these are the things I choose to dwell on. (I mean except Monday and Tuesday, which possibly reflects the improvement of my actual mood as the week proceeded.)