Sluggishness and guilt trips

We essentially just came back from a 4-day weekend – the kids had Club Day on Friday and Monday was Buddha’s birthday, a national holiday, so there were no classes Friday or Monday. So yesterday and today, they are soooo sluggish and soooo don’t want to be here.

The 90 degree weather isn’t helping anyone perk up, either. (And aren’t we lucky… the forecast for the rest of the week only shows those temps rising – 93, 95, 96… and we haven’t even hit June yet! Holy crap.) Maybe I’ll stay at school till like 7 p.m. just so I can walk home after sunset when it’s cooled down at least a little bit.

Anyway, here is my heart-wringing (no, that is not an accurate English idiom; no, I do not care) guilt trip of the day from my students: Last week one of my teams did really, really well at answering questions but they didn’t earn enough points to get candy. This week, they were so close to winning but they didn’t quite make it.

That was already bad enough because I always feel so sad when the kids who put forth the most effort don’t get the candy, but then one of the girls came up to me and showed me what she wrote on her worksheet earlier in class: “I think the most delicious food is Twix which from teacher.” Aauugh. So. Much. Guilt.

My after-school class this week was about weird animals. I gave them a quiz, showing pictures of real-life strange animals and fake (Photoshopped) strange animals and making them guess which were real and which were fake. They loved it. (And there are some weird looking animals out there… blobfish, anyone? Scorpion fly? Red-lipped batfish? Axolotl? But I digress.)

Then I made them come up with their own weird hybrid animal and fill out info about its habitat, diet, abilities, etc. They had a blast with it (which was pleasantly unexpected; I was a little nervous that they’d think it was dumb or childish).

Here’s my favorite creation from the day:


The Pencorpitopustird, ladies and gentlemen.

P.S. Yesterday my teachers’ office turned on the A/C in our room only… it felt like heaven. Until I stepped out into the hallway and died a thousand deaths from oppressive heat.


The struggle is real

In lieu of K-pop artist of the week (sorry if anyone was looking forward to that – I just don’t have time this weekend!)…

Fellow Korean language learners, I’m sure you can relate to this video – empathizing with Dan’s pronunciation blunders and drooling jealously over Dave’s awesome Korean ability.

And even if you’re not learning Korean, perhaps, like me, you will end up crying with laughter by the time the video is over.

Weekly Wrap-up

Today was Club Day, and my co-teacher invited me to join her club (the English Reading Club) on a walking tour of historical sites in downtown Daegu (no, it has nothing to do with English or reading, but several clubs chose this activity for Club Day and I don’t think any of them are History of Daegu clubs).

It was a hot one here (a sunny 82 degrees), so my day consisted mostly of sweating, listening to (but not understanding) the Korean tour guide, sweating, being hit on by high school boys who were also out with their classes for club day (“Hello! Hi! High-five!” – one even left his class and joined our tour for a couple minutes so he could talk to me, LOL – eventually my co-teacher shooed him back to his group), sweating, helping my CT keep track of the kids, and oh, did I mention sweating? The best part was lunch break, when we released the kids to fend for themselves and find food, and my CT and a couple Korean teachers and I went out for kimbap. The second best part was finishing at 2 p.m. and being allowed to go home instead of back to the office.

*     *     *

I was impressed by the following vocab/responses from my kids this week:

Me: “Why does he think that the girl is Molly?”

Student: “Because she resembles her.”

Me: “What can you say about Jane?” [There’s a picture in the book of Jane laughing with her friends]

Student: “She is humorous.”

Me: “Do you think students should wear school uniforms?”

Student #1: “Yes. We should not have to think about what we will wear in the morning.”

Student #2: “No. We look like prisoners.”

*     *     *

This week something clicked, something changed, something shifted in the atmosphere of my classes. Not just one, but every single class. Every class. For the better. The classes I thought were low level and apathetic are now responding to me. More and more kids are talking to me, both in front of the class while I’m up at the front and one-on-one when I come to check on their groups.

Have I changed? Have they? Or have we changed together, adjusted to each other’s styles, become comfortable with each other? Most likely. Obviously they can’t have suddenly just gotten better at speaking English; they can’t all have gone from low level to high level in 2 months. Clearly, I am at fault here for underestimating them just because they were quiet and reluctant to speak at first.

I am not kidding you when I say that in every single class this week, I watched more and more kids open up to me like flowers blossoming one after the other. They humor me when I attempt to do something cool with the PowerPoint or reference Korean pop culture, applauding my efforts. One class even claps now just because I started the lesson. They pretend English is their favorite subject when I know it’s not, but it’s cute that they do.

They grit their teeth and get through the boring parts like troopers, and when we finish the textbook work, they ask “Game?” hopefully, excitedly. Yes, it’s a routine, but it hasn’t lost its luster. Most weeks I use the same basic game format – they choose a picture, it hyperlinks to a question, they answer and they get a surprise result – points, steal points from another team, lose points, etc. – but because I switch up the pictures, the rewards, and the pitfalls, it stays exciting for them. I’ve also learned not to try to make 25 minutes of the class a game (horrible idea) and just save 10-15 minutes for one at the end.

I’m sure there’s a direct correlation between my improvements in teaching techniques and their response to my classes. I also think we’ve built a rapport and trust, a safe environment in the classroom so that they feel more comfortable speaking up now.

For example, this week the lesson was on opinions and explaining your reasoning for that opinion (hence the school uniforms question mentioned above). In every class I had great participation with answering open-ended, no-right-or-wrong-answer questions like “Which animal is a better pet, a fish or a parrot? What makes you think so?” and “Which movie is better, The Avengers or Frozen? What makes you think so?”

Had I asked those types of questions to my classes even a month ago, I’m quite sure I would’ve been met with stony silence, then maybe get one or two murmured answers after some prompting. This week I had enthusiastic responses and even heated debates about which was better. It’s really amazing, and I was absolutely delighted by it.

One of those mornings

Talk about a rude awakening.

My eyes popped open this morning and I almost simultaneously shot straight up in bed as my heart dropped to my stomach in the despair of realizing that I was not waking up to an alarm and feeling in my bones that it was way, way later than it should be.

A frantic check of my phone – 8:28 a.m.!!! [reminder: my start time is 8:20] – led to even more frantic dashing around my apartment, grabbing clothing items, slapping on powder and mascara, sticking a toothbrush in my mouth, packing my bag, slathering on deodorant and perfume and wishing I had dry shampoo because there was no way I could take a shower. (This headless chicken method of getting ready ended up being far less effective than if I had calmly gathered what I needed.) All the while, I was repeatedly trying to call any of my co-teachers to let them know why I was late and that I’d be there ASAP, but I couldn’t reach any of them because they’re all homeroom teachers and had to be in their classrooms at that time.

10 minutes after my eyes had opened, I was outside my apartment in the blazing heat, desperately looking for a taxi and noticing (in the way one notices completely trivial things in a moment of crisis) how differently the sun illuminates the city at 8:30 a.m. than at 7:30 a.m., the time I usually walk to school.

I found a taxi a couple minutes later and we sped to my main school (thankfully it’s only like an 8 minute drive from my house) and I definitely overpaid the driver but I Did. Not. Care.

Then I had to make the walk of shame past some 2nd graders who were preparing for 1st period P.E. class outside (thankfully they didn’t seem to notice the fact that I had just clambered out of a taxi 1 minute before their first class), dashed up the 4 flights of stairs and into my office, shamefacedly murmured a greeting to my coworkers, whipped my laptop and class materials out of my bag just as the bell rang, ran back downstairs to Classroom 304, and smoothly started class like it was just a normal day.

Lucky for me, no one seems to care that I was late at all. One of my co-teachers said they’d been worried about me, but that was it. Every co-teacher I talked to about it just said “Oh, it’s okay!” or “Oh, you must be tired!” I’m sure if I made a habit of it, that would be different. But hey, I didn’t miss even one minute of my first class, so we’re all good.

But guess who’s going to be setting five different obnoxiously loud alarms for tomorrow morning?

Little Gifts

1) Realizing that I have 14 kids in my after school class who have been candyless for far too long (actually, I haven’t given them any candy at all this year so far), counting the number of Twix I have left in my candy bag at my desk, and finding exactly 14 remaining – no more, no less. Perfect.

2) This conversation:

15-year-old: “Teacher, lens?” (After some gesturing, I realized he was asking if I wear circle lenses – popular among girls here to make their eyes look bigger or a different color.)

Me: “No, no.”

Him: “Wow. Beautiful eyes.”

3) And this one:

14-year-old (as I set up the computer before class started): “Teacher, beautiful.”

Boy #2: “Teacher, really beautiful.”

I’m writing this one down, although I’ve already written about this type of comment multiple times on my blog before, because the way these two kids said it was different. It wasn’t an “I’m a hormonal teenage boy and I think it’s hilarious to flirt with the teacher” type of comment; they said it really sweetly, almost with the tone and expression that my girls would use when they compliment me. Less of an “I’m saying this to be funny and get a reaction” vibe and more of a sincere compliment. I can’t explain it well in words, but it was very sweet.

4) This interjection during class:

Mischief-making 14-year-old boy: *slamming things on the desk, dropping stuff on the ground*

Boy #2: “Teacher, so noisy! Noisy, noisy!” (sticking his fingers in both ears) “Oh my God! Noisy!”

Co-teacher: “Noise pollution!”

I love that she taught them that term. Awesome.

(Also, this boy is seriously always in trouble. He used to be in my B level, and he was constantly in trouble there for talking and being disruptive and had to go to the back of the room and talk with my co-teacher while I taught the rest of the class. Now he’s in my C level because his English grades dropped after the midterm test, and he is still always looking for ways to stir things up.

Today it was creating pretend smoke rings out of tape and puffing them out of his mouth like a smoker, prompting cries of “Teacher! Smoking!” from his classmates. Then he stuck said tape rings to his eyes and made goofy faces. Later, my co-teacher told me he was also caught hanging out of the 2nd floor window this morning. Yes, that’s right, he climbed out the window and was dangling from the ledge two floors up. Heaven help us. He’s impishly cute, though, and I think he knows it and is therefore never properly sorry for his misdeeds.)

(Additionally, I was touched when my co-teacher told me that normally that particular class of low levels is extremely disruptive and won’t make an effort whatsoever, but they were pretty much on their best behavior for me. Even the window climber was pretty mild. It’s sweet that they’re actually still excited to see me.)

5) Feeling rushed during lunch, as usual (I always have class directly after lunch, so I always feel the subconscious urge to hurry up and get back to my desk and prep for class) – and then remembering with an enormous wave of sweet relief that today is emergency/disaster drill day and the students will be otherwise engaged for 2 solid hours after lunch. Meaning I essentially have a 3 hour lunch break.

These are the small things that ground me in the midst of a storm of stress… the things that lift me when I’m in danger of swirling down into discouragement and overwhelm… the things that remind me that life is beautiful.

On language barriers

This article got me thinking about something of which I already try to remind myself on a daily basis:

Speaking a second language with anything less than fluency can automatically create the impression that you are less intelligent than you actually are (to the native speakers whose language you are trying to speak). It also limits you in terms of discussing abstract concepts, making jokes, and using language with finesse and subtlety.

When I interact with my students, I sometimes subconsciously fall into the belief that the students with higher level English are “smarter”… and then I catch myself and remember that obviously that’s not necessarily true. I’m sure some of the students who are the lowest level in English are also some of the highest scoring in other subject areas. Learning a second language just isn’t everyone’s forte (and I ought to know, since learning Korean is no walk in the park for me – and I’m living here!).

The same goes for talking with my co-teachers and Korean friends. I think it’s a natural (if perhaps a bit snobby?) inclination to associate limited vocabulary, incorrect grammar, etc. with lower intelligence among our L1 peers, but that is a terrible approach when you’re communicating with non-native speakers. After all, I pretty much sound like I have the mental capacity of a preschooler when I try to speak Korean, but I’d like to think my mental acuity in general is pretty decent.

As the article notes, unless and until you can become truly fluent in another language, you lose so many of the tiny nuances that make language meaningful and give our communication flavor and personality. It’s a bit of a discouraging thought.

On the other hand, I know from experience that there are always ways to communicate without language, and that personality can and does shine through if you want it to. The sweetness and thoughtfulness of my co-teacher, the mischievousness of my kids, the intelligence in their eyes as they animatedly talk to their friends (or me) are all there regardless of how well they speak English. You just have to put in the effort to understand and work a little harder to discover the human being behind the language barrier.

Maybe, in some ways, the language barrier makes for building stronger bonds with certain people because you both have to be committed to open-minded communication, careful listening, and finding creative ways to express yourself.

Just something I’ve been pondering lately.

P.S. My day was totally made today by the following:

1. Beautifully cold, wet, gray, rainy weather all day. (Yes, I am that person who loves rain and gray skies and fog and gloominess… they make me happier than sunshine. I know I’m weird.)

2. The 1st grade boy who always greets me in this way: “OH MADDY TEACHER! HELLO! I LOVE YOU BABY!” … and then proceeds to add “I love you, baby” to the end of every answer he gives in class (or, if he doesn’t have an opportunity to answer a question, he just throws it in at random times; sometimes he switches it up with “I love you, man.” LOL).

Without fear there can be no courage

There are few things in this world that I dislike more than performing for a crowd.

So, naturally, when my teachers’ office nominated me (a.k.a. commanded me) to take part in the teacher-student relay race as part of Sports Day here at my main school, I was less than thrilled. I’ve seen the competitiveness of Korean kids, and I know that it extends to the teachers as well. I spent the week leading up to today imagining all the ways things could go wrong, from slipping in the sandy courtyard to dropping the baton to handing off the baton to the wrong person… in front of, oh, you know, just the entire school – ALL the students, ALL the teachers, and the principal.

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I love my job

In my 2nd grade class:

Have you heard about PSY?

No, what about him?

He has an ugly face.


And another installment in the Peach Saga…

Have you heard about Peach? … She is a pig.


A: Have you heard about Princess Peach? B: No, what about her? A: She died. B: I’m sorry to hear that.

Poor Peach just can’t catch a break around here.

When I came up to the kid who was writing “She died,” his classmate looked at me, pointed to him and said “Psychopath.” Where does this vocabulary come from? These aren’t even my high levels.

In my 1st grade class:

Boy #1: “Teacher, he touched my butt!” (turning to classmate) “DON’T TOUCH MY BUTT!”

Boy #2: “Teacher, he (pointing to another classmate)… 두근두근 (du-geun du-geun, the Korean onomatopoeia for heartbeat, complete with thumping of fists over the heart area)… you! He like you!”

In my 2nd grade after-school class, while we were talking about giving advice – I told them to come up with a problem, write it down, then switch papers and give advice for their partner’s problem.

First I had this conversation:

Boy: “My friend has a problem.”

Me: “What kind of problem?” (expecting the usual – he’s sick, he has a lot of homework, he’s tired)

Him: “A brain problem.”

Then I read some of their worksheets:


“I don’t have any problem.” “You have problem. Your problem is that you don’t know your problem.”

I laughed so hard.


“I don’t want to go to Academy.” “Why don’t you tell your Academy teacher, ‘I am very sick’ or ‘I’m very genius.'”

If only it worked that way. (Academies, or hagwons, are the private learning centers where many kids spend their entire afternoons and sometimes evenings taking extra classes in English, math, music, etc. Needless to say, most of them loathe it.)


“I want to marry Ji Chang Wook.” “I think you should give up 😦 But don’t worry. At future, you became a big star! (the president of Korea!) This is possable! 🙂 Then you will marry him. Hahahaha! 😀

Ji Chang-wook, a.k.a. Korean heartthrob du jour. Also, please note that this girl is the same one who told me a few weeks ago that Benedict Cumberbatch was The One. Ah, the fickleness of puberty-driven hormones.

I love these kids.

I was a bit frustrated today when I told my 1st graders to open their books to page 72 and heard a chorus of “샘, 했어요!” (Saem, haessoyo! = We already did it). Surprise! My co-teacher had taught my pages of the textbook without telling me, when he knew that was part of my lesson because I had two of the same classes with him on Monday. This left me with about 10 unplanned minutes of classtime. I gave them a quick impromptu extension on the activity they were already working on, and then ended up going from group to group and chatting with them. It wasn’t all about the lesson, but it was in English, so I’m okay with that.

I seem to have hit this sweet spot where the kids are a bit more comfortable with me and we have a good vibe and good rhythm for class. They know my style, I know what they do and don’t like about class. (They still have to do the parts they don’t like, such as textbook work and dialogue practice, but I understand their dread of it… and they sense that I understand, which gives them a little more motivation to push through. Or maybe it’s just the promise of a game after they finish the boring stuff. ^^)

Even though I still don’t know all their names, I know their personalities.

It has always been my absolute favorite thing about working with children – watching them bloom from closed-off, shy little buds into bright and beautiful flowers.

Dance to the Beat of Your Own Drum

I had the opportunity today to sit in on one of my co-teacher’s English classes. (For every one class that they co-teach with me, all my Korean co-teachers have three or four additional classes with that group of students each week. I teach the listening and speaking sections and they teach more of the reading, writing, and grammar.)

Just like I had (and will have more) open classes so other teachers (and the principal) could observe and take notes, all the Korean teachers have to endure this torture as well (albeit with far more pressure and stress to perform well than I have to deal with).

So I joined my Korean co-teachers and the principal to watch. There were things I admired and things that didn’t fit my style, but at any rate she did well under pressure. And of course, the 3rd graders’ decibel levels were at least 90% lower than usual.

As I watched, it occurred to me that there are so many styles and so many approaches, and becoming a good teacher is not about copying one perfect style, but embracing your own individual strengths and personality and using them to your advantage. There are fantastic teachers who are flamboyant and loud and energetic, but there are also fantastic teachers who are laid-back and non-authoritarian. There are teachers who keep the class engaged by making jokes and being a performer, and there are teachers who keep the class engaged with puzzles or games or riddles. And some teachers just have that special something that makes all the students hang on their every word (alas, I am not one of those).

The best thing you can do is be genuine and teach in harmony with your personality rather than against the grain of it. The kids respond to sincerity much better than a put-on persona. So, you do you. Dance to the beat of your own drum.

P.S. I know, I know, it’s supposed to be march to the beat of your own drum. But dancing is much more poetic.

Just a typical Monday

This is why I love working with kids. You can’t really dread Monday when you have these types of conversations to look forward to.

In my 3rd grade class, I gave them a worksheet for opinions, like “I think _____ is the most delicious food” and “I think _____ is the best singer” (which they would then use as a reference to ask their classmates, “Do you agree with me?” since we’re talking about agreeing and disagreeing this week).

One of the boys asked me, “샘, 이름이 뭐예요?” (“Saem, ireumi mwoyeyo?” – “Teach, what’s your name?”) “Maddy.” “Spelling 뭐예요?” “M-a-d-d-y.” And then I found out why as I collected his worksheet… The question was “I think _______ is the prettiest actress.” Guess whose name he put there. ^^ Aww. And I’m not even an actress.

Another girl in that 3rd grade class insisted that I help her cross out “prettiest actress” and replace it with “most handsome actor” so she could write Chris Evans. “Teacher, Captain America!” Haha. I mean, he is pretty handsome, to be fair.

Started teaching the giving directions lesson to my B-level 1st graders this week. I went up to one of the troublemakers during dialogue practice and prompted him, “How can I get to the school?” “Here! Here is school!”

Well, he’s not wrong.

It’s always funny when the students get confused about which teacher they should call for help with something, and what title they should call that teacher. I usually respond to “Saem” as well as “Teacher,” but so do my CTs.

Hence, it often happens that one of them shouts “Saem!” or “Teacher!” and the wrong one of us turns around. Then there’s a cute moment of confusion as they stumble to find the words they want – “No, hanguk saem” (Korean teacher) or “Maddy Teacher!” In one class where I have a male co-teacher, I had the kids say “No, no, man teacher, Mr. Teacher!”

And finally, another narrative about poor Princess Peach in the 2nd graders’ gossip lesson:

Have you heard about Peach?

No, what about her?

Peach have a baby. Peach is love. Peach is pretty. I love Peach.