A Whirlwind of Activity

I’ve missed a few days of posting lately.

Things have been getting a little crazy here for me, and I’ve been burning the midnight candle oil at both ends (yes, I mixed my metaphors, because that’s just how extreme it is!).

Last week I had to navigate my way to two different schools in Daegu for lesson observations of other NETs (native English teachers). This took away from both class time and lesson planning time. (On Wednesday I literally grabbed a taxi back to my school, ran up the stairs and pretty much straight into the classroom just in time to start class. Whew!)

Additionally, I started a teachers’ class yesterday at my smaller school. It’s supposed to be a conversation class so some of the teachers can practice their English in a less formal setting. However, only two teachers showed up to the first session – a low level Korean language teacher and my basically-fluent co-teacher. We ended up sitting around a table and talking, but it was more like the co-teacher acting as a translator between the other teacher and me. Not ideal.

Not only that, but although I only teach 22 hours’ worth of classes per week, I have to create 7 new lessons every week because of juggling two different schools, two after school classes, and a teachers’ class. Combine that with worrying about my mixed level classes and low level classes and how to modify for them, and I’ve been more than a little stressed lately.

I’m hoping that once I become a little more experienced with lesson planning and teaching, I’ll be able to cut down on the time it takes me to plan.

So, this is just a boring update post to explain why I’ve been posting a little less frequently. I do have some topics I want to talk about, though, so those posts should be up soon.


Weekly Update

Is it Friday already? Wow.

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What’s been going on in the halls between classes lately (besides the usual screaming and shouting and stampeding and general chaos)? Well, exuberant singing of the Korean national anthem and the Korean version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as impassioned chanting. We have class elections this week. They’re all super pumped.

This also meant that a ton of the kids lined up along the school driveway/entrance with signs to encourage their fellow classmates to vote for their candidate… which also meant that when I arrived at school the last couple days, I was greeted by a row of happily cheering students. I just can’t tell you how much I love these kids. I enjoy them so much more than I ever thought I would when I learned I’d be teaching middle school.

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The 3rd years at my main school are doing idioms this week, plus the phrases “What does ______ mean?” and “How can I say _______ in English?” Which has been an interesting challenge for me, because the textbook includes the English and Korean translations of various idioms like “Long time no see,” “Help yourself,” and “I’m full” – so when I’m teaching, I have to say the Korean phrases in front of the class as part of the lesson.

My pronunciation has at times elicited giggles and mimicking from them (not malicious), but I do it anyway, because I think it’s important for them to know that they’re not the only ones expected to make an effort with the other language. I’m trying too, because I want to communicate with them and help them learn. I’m willing to make mistakes and it’s okay for them to make mistakes too. That’s not something I can really give them a pep talk about in class, but I can at least try to show them.

The bonus outcome of this is that I get to work on my Korean pronunciation a bit. The first time I taught this idioms lesson, it was kind of daunting to force the Korean phrases out in front of all the kids and my co-teacher, but by the 10th class, it’s not such a big deal anymore. A few times I even got a chorus of impressed “우와” (uwa, Korean for “wow”) instead of snickers.

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The English textbooks here, as I’ve mentioned, are not ideal. The phrases tend to be unnatural and cliche, but unfortunately, for my main school, my lesson has to stick to the book to make sure the kids are prepared for the exam. Additionally, the CD materials (dialogues, videos) are so poorly acted, so stilted, so cheesy. “HEY BRIAN WHAT’S WRONG?” “OH HEY SUJIN. I HAVE A MATH TEST TOMORROW, BUT I DON’T THINK I’M READY.” “DON’T GIVE UP! YOU CAN DO IT!”

What I’ve found, though, is that the kids and I have been able to share a good laugh over the videos. I wish I could post them here because some of them are pretty (unintentionally) hilarious. We’ve had a dog abruptly shout at a turtle “Don’t give up!” and an alien literally saying “Bee dee ba da boo dee ba doo bee” (so the other character in the video could ask “What does that mean?”), which the kids of course imitated for a good 5 minutes afterwards.

But rather than try to make them take it seriously, I just laugh with them. Nothing like a little humor to brighten up some seriously boring textbook stuff.

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I love my last class of the day on Friday an inordinate amount. It’s one of those classes where the kids will not only respond and participate, but go above and beyond that in terms of asking me extra questions, talking with me about something other than the key expression, and self-policing the other kids. Today I was trying to start an explanation of a game and one of the kids shouted “BE QUIET PLEASE!” which instantly silenced the class somehow. It was quite funny.

This class has unofficially added a rule to our list. We always review the class rules in the beginning, and I always elicit them from the students rather than just saying them myself. So I asked what the rules were a week or two ago and someone said “Be cool.” That was not one of my rules, but the kids in this particular class keep listing it as one, so I guess now it is. Why not?

We were also playing a guessing game to review and I let one team answer the final question even though another team had their hands up as well. When I went over to the losing team and said “Sorry, maybe next time,” one of the kids looked at me and said, “It’s okay. Be cool.”

Be cool.

How can your day be bad…

… when it starts with kids leaning halfway out the third story windows to greet you as you walk up to the school in the morning – “Hi Teacher! You are beautiful! Very pretty! Hello!” (to which I responded “Be careful!”) – and ends with running into students on the way home from work and, when you ask how they’re doing, they respond with “Oh, very good! Because Teacher meet.” Aww. Even a rough day doesn’t seem so bad when it’s sandwiched between those two encounters.


The difference a month makes

This is my fourth week as an English teacher at my two middle schools.

That first day feels incredibly far away.

So many changes.

I can feel myself growing stronger in many ways – stronger than I could possibly have grown at home, no matter how much I pushed myself within that bubble of my own community, my own culture, my own country. There really is no way to describe it. I never thought of myself as the type of person to do something like this – it was always for other people to do and me to read about, hear about, experience vicariously.

But (on the basis of my 1 month’s experience, which clearly makes me an expert)* I highly, highly recommend doing this type of thing. Maybe not Korea, maybe not teaching ESL, but in some way throwing yourself into the deep end, purposely and in the face of fear, just to force yourself to start swimming.

And I am seriously the last person that would normally advocate this – because, as I’ve sort of mentioned before, I’ve always lived a very safe life.

You don’t have to be outgoing. You don’t even have to be adventurous. You can be like me – a cautious, quiet, introverted person who hates thrill rides and the unknown – and you can still do this. So just in case someone stumbles upon this post and is saying to him/herself, “That’s all fine for her, but I could never do it” – yes, you can! If you have the interest or desire, even if it’s a battle between interest and fear, you can do it! I hate uncertainty and I came to live in a country where uncertainty is the only thing you can be certain of.

So if I can do it, you can do it. Trust me.

And it will change your life.

On a practical note, here are some of the things that have crept up on me in the last 4 weeks that are now completely normal (which would be completely abnormal for my past self back home):

  • Kimchi is freaking delicious. It’s refreshing and not that spicy. It’s the perfect accompaniment to every Korean meal. Never for a minute did I think I would ever say these words. Also, pretty much everything my school cafeteria serves is amazing.
  • My endurance for walking has increased immensely. I don’t like taking the bus because A) it’s intimidating (the buses here are a bit like the Knight Bus from Harry Potter… you’d better get on that thing quick, and once you’re on, it’s a wild ride) and B) I feel like it’s a waste when I can walk to my farther-away school in 20-25 minutes. Still, it’s a long way to walk on a cold morning or after a long day – but it’s gotten easier.
  • My on-and-off, lukewarm-to-cold shower has become less of a dreaded event and more of an accepted inevitability. Best to just suck it up and get it over with! It’s just part of daily life now.

I guess all this just shows our ability as humans to adapt to almost any circumstance, provided there is some willingness to do so. Not that my situation here is a hardship by any means; I’m living quite comfortably as a whole, but it’s a pretty big contrast with what my life was like back in the States, nevertheless.

*Please understand my sarcasm here. I’m still a Korea noob. I have a lot to learn and I’m sure some of my thoughts on this experience will change over time, but this is how I feel for right now, and I really wanted to express that.


Tales from the Classroom

This week I tasked my 2nd years (13/14 year olds) with creating their own step-by-step instructions for a simple task. They were allowed to choose anything as long as they followed the step-by-step format (first, second, third, etc.).

I got a lot of the usual stuff like “How to make ramyun,” “How to make coffee,” “How to draw a tree.” One group came up with “How to draw the Korean flag,” which was pretty cool.

But today I had a particularly creative/funny class, and here are some of the instructions they came up with:

How to breathe

1. Breathe in

2. Breathe out

Fair enough.

How to poop

1. Find a restroom

2. Sit on the toilet

3. You need power!

4. Wash your hips

I’m sure you can imagine the giggling that ensued when this group read their list. I think we need to work on body part vocabulary, though, since hips is not quite the area that needs to be washed.

And here is my favorite:

How to make the teacher angry

1. Stand up

2. Sing and dance

3. ‘Cut the cheese’

4. Run up to the teacher and shout “peekaboo!”

5. Run away

This led to a very serious discussion of “cut the cheese,” “fart,” and “break wind.” As in, my co-teacher wrote these expressions on the board and explained them in Korean. It was very entertaining for everyone involved. Especially me.


Day brighteners

As an example of using the phrase “I’m thinking of [doing something],” I told the kids “I’m thinking of going shopping this weekend.” One of the boys then said, “Teacher, 같이 가요!” (katchi kaiyo), which made me laugh because it means “let’s go together.”

Side note: how many people actually say “I’m thinking of doing X / I’m thinking of going to Y” when they’re considering a future activity? No one, that’s who. It’s frustrating sometimes that the textbooks often have such unnatural expressions as the target language, but that’s what we have to teach because that’s what’s going to be on the test. /rant

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After a particularly intense Jeopardy game with one of my classes last week, the 2nd place team (which had been tied with the 1st place team but lost the tie-breaker) called me over to their group and wailed mournfully about not getting candy: “Teacher, sad Friday.” “Teacher, I cry.” They are so goofy.

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My 3rd years at my small school are studying “What would you like to do in the future?” / “I want to be/do…” So I had them writing down some things they would like to do in 10 years. A cluster of boys in the back started laughing and snickering, so I went back there to find one of them writing something on his friend’s paper. Said friend hastily erased it as I approached and said solemnly, “Teacher, this is un-appropriate.”


Works like a charm

Just as I reach a point of feeling down, discouraged, and doubtful (whoa, I didn’t even mean for all that alliteration to happen), Monday comes around and makes everything better. Which sounds like a strange thing to say – who likes Monday? – but for me, the only way to feel confident about my lessons or what I’m teaching is by actually doing it.

Not that every lesson becomes magically perfect when I start teaching it, but I get immediate unintentional feedback from the kids as to whether something is working or not and then I can change it and feel more sure of it. No matter how much I try to play out how a class will go in my head, it’s never quite the same as experiencing it in the moment.

Plus, the kids today were just so enthusiastic about everything – about me, about English, about speaking, about every activity I wanted them to do. That always helps. (I have the “A” classes this week at my small school, which means the highest level classes. Hence their enthusiasm, I’m sure, since it’s hard to be enthusiastic about something when you can only understand every 5th or 10th word the teacher is saying.)

Since today was the start of Week 4, I also finally got to see my first class again – the one I had on my very first day of teaching. The kids paraded into the room with shouts of “Teacher, I missed you! Teacher, 3 weeks so long!” That made me happy too.

Also, there is nothing quite as joyfully chaotic as Korean students playing People Bingo. “DO YOU LIKE COFFEE? DO YOU LIKE SWIMMING? DO YOU LIKE SOCCER?” The classroom sounded like a zoo with all the animals out of their cages, but hey, it was an English-speaking zoo. So I’m okay with that.


Korean food and foreigners

To lighten the mood after my dreary previous post, here is something that makes me laugh:

This guy is an American who’s fluent in Korean and lives in Korea (although in this video, when he speaks Korean, he definitely purposely makes it sound stilted, like a “typical foreigner” clumsily trying to speak Korean). I can totally relate to this video though. It makes me giggle. (Language warning: he does swear multiple times, although it’s kind of bleeped out.)


Doubts and Insecurities

We all have them, right?

Lately, perhaps brought on by stress, I’ve been questioning everything I’ve done in the classroom since getting here and fearing that any mistakes I’ve made so far will come back to haunt me later on, when the kids are less enamored with me and English is just another boring subject.

There are so many conflicting opinions about the best strategies for teaching ESL in Korea, and reading all of them has caused a downward spiral of doubt in my mind.

Use PowerPoint games and pictures to make it fun… stop relying on PowerPoint for everything… the co-teacher is there to help you… you’re a worthless teacher if you have to rely on the co-teacher for translating… your class is an opportunity to let the kids have fun while learning in an otherwise rigorous academic environment… your class should teach them grammar… your class should skip grammar and teach them practical usage and pronunciation… these are the rules you should have in your classroom – no, these are the rules you should have… you should use a point system… you should use a stamp system… you should reward them… you should punish them… you should… you shouldn’t… should… shouldn’t…

I’ve been torturing myself with fears that I’m not doing a good enough job of teaching these kids. Comparing myself to what their previous teacher must have been like. Doubting that I’ll be able to actually make progress with them. Kicking myself for hardly knowing any of their names yet. Worrying that my lessons will be too dull (and lose the kids’ interest) or “too” fun (and not actually teach them anything)… too easy or too hard… that the day will come when they’ll simply stop listening to me.

There are so many facets to consider. Personally, I’m leaning towards the side of make it easy yet engaging, make it accessible, make it fun. These kids have really stressful lives, and many of them aren’t from the best home environment. They’re in school for 8 hours and then they may spend another 1-6 hours taking classes at hagwons (private after-school academies). Many of them don’t get enough sleep or enough fun for a 14 year old. So why not make this one class a week something they can enjoy?

The problem is balancing that with discipline so that things don’t get out of hand, and avoiding overusing the games and fun activities so they don’t get bored, and making sure to teach the content that my co-teachers want me to, and trying to make it understandable for the low level kids and still engaging for the higher level ones…

Hence the never-ending, torturous circle of doubt.


When is an encounter with foreign cops a good thing?

…When one of them is your former rescuer. I was walking home from school today and noticed a cop car parked nearby. I thought nothing of it until I saw the car rolling up alongside me out of the corner of my eye, and then heard a voice call out, “Madeleine!”

I turned and lo and behold, there was my officer friend from my eventful Night 1 in Daegu. I haven’t seen him since that night, but I recognized him at once. He was waving and grinning at me from the passenger’s side window, and then extended his hand, so I hurried up to shake it and greet him, “안녕하세요!” (annyeonghaseyo, the polite way to say hello). I was shocked that he remembered my name (but then again, how often does a foreigner get lost and end up in the police station here?).

He had clearly told his coworker, the driver, about my story – he said something to the effect of “She’s the one from that night” I think. The other officer asked about my nationality, and I told him (in Korean) that I’m American. They complimented my Korean pronunciation. Then I thanked them and said goodbye and they drove off. I wish I had the vocabulary to tell him specifically “thank you for helping me that night,” but I’m hoping my gratitude came through anyway.

So, I guess I have an ally in the local police force now. That’s pretty cool.