Pleasant surprises

Not ALL Korean surprises are bad, you know.

For example:

1. Early in the semester, I scheduled my open class for Tuesday, May 24. Today is Tuesday, May 24. Surprise! No cameras showed up. I realized that my big open class  a couple months ago (the one for new NETs) “counted,” cancelling out my regular open class. Yesssss! It was an especially great feeling because this particular group of students are not the ideal “open class” kids – they tend to be quiet and look like they’re not having fun even if they are. I was kind of worried about it, but all that pent-up nervous energy dispersed into happiness when I realized it was class as usual.

2. No air conditioning is allowed until at least next month, even though the temperatures have been climbing into the 80s with a relentless, scorching sun baking the classrooms every day. Today it’s raining, which is great – no sun (and as someone who is legitimately allergic to the sun, I’m loving that) – but it also means it’s crazy humid inside. My hair is literally reaching new heights of frizziness and everything feels sticky and damp.

The Korean surprise part is that during my last class of the day, the air conditioner in my classroom was mysteriously turned on. None of the kids would fess up, and my CT and I certainly didn’t turn it on, but we decided to quietly accept the boon. I mean, it probably takes just as much energy to turn it off right away as it does to run it for 45 minutes, right? Right?!

So we had beautifully dry cool air for 45 glorious minutes.

3. It’s mid-year self-assessment time for the NETs. Does anyone like answering these questions meant to trap you into egotism or low self-esteem? Rate yourself high on too many things and you look like a freaking narcissist. Rate yourself low and you look like a failure with no self-worth or confidence. Where is that balance? How much of a gap is there between “5 (very true)”, “4 (generally true)”, and “3 (true)”? Just how true can a statement get? True isn’t true enough? I’m confused.

The pleasant surprise was that my principal happened to walk into my office as I was balking at the task. He asked how my Korean is coming along, and I sheepishly explained that speaking is difficult but I can understand some.

[long tangent incoming ↓]

(wince… I know that question will only become harder and harder to answer the longer I stay in Korea if I don’t light a fire under my behind and actively study! I’ve been passively learning more and more vocabulary and grammar structure just by paying attention, and I can frequently understand the ‘classroom Korean’ / simple conversations that my co-teachers and students use, especially with contextual evidence. I can understand what is going on in the conversation in the Level 5 listening test from Talk To Me In Korean (the highest listening test level), even though I can’t understand every sentence. And that’s with zero studying!

But my confidence in speaking is so low. I get frustrated with myself – how can I expect students to put themselves out there and try to speak English if I’m too embarrassed or shy to try speaking Korean?

However, it’s kind of confidence-shattering to attempt to speak Korean and the listener has no clue what you’re saying. I think it has to do with the fact that English speakers are accustomed to so many different accents and ability levels, whereas most Koreans have only ever heard native Koreans speaking Korean. They have a very low threshold for pronunciation or intonation mistakes. Plus, some might not expect to hear Korean coming out of a foreigner’s mouth.

But I’m pretty much awesome at saying “Can I have a trash bag, please?” Sseuregi bongtu juseyo. I do this every time I go grocery shopping. Rolls right off the tongue. I’m a total pro now. So, you know, if any tourists out there ever really need a trash bag in Korea, I’m your woman.)


Then he asked, “How long will you stay in Korea?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “But I’m thinking about staying longer.”

He smiled, “I think you should stay longer and longer and longer!”

Knowing that the head of the school values me as a teacher gave me the confidence boost I needed to fill out the “list 3 strengths,” “what aspects of your work attitude can be improved?”, “list 3 goals,” etc. etc. on the self-assessment.

4. My CT informed me that the kids are all out on field trips and extracurriculars tomorrow. All day. No classes. These are the days when I can bring in my morning coffee and yogurt, pop in my earbuds and get a ton of work done in uninterrupted peace and quiet. I’m so looking forward to it.



Over the last few years I’ve come to realize how important this is for anyone’s mental and emotional well-being. A sense of belonging to something – a group of people, a family, a workplace, a community.

Two years ago, my sense of belonging was deeply rooted in my family and my large “taekwondo family” of students and coworkers.

Last year, my sense of belonging was simply established in “Korea” as a whole. I was in the country, everything was new, everyone was kind, and I felt I belonged in this experience more than in a community.

This year, I think my struggle to stay positive has been a result of losing that sense of belonging. I felt unattached from everything as I had to drop my former main school (and hence leave hundreds of lovely students), some very dear coworkers left, and my sister left Korea at the beginning of the year.

But I’ve honestly thrown myself into working at my current school wholeheartedly, and slowly,  painstakingly, it’s started to pay off in little ways. As my relationship with my students becomes stronger and more “real,” a new sense of belonging begins to build up.

When my kids still yell “HELLO MADDY TEACHER!” (or “Hello Miss [Surname]!”, ever since I taught them that that’s what American students would call me), I feel a sense of belonging.

When a couple of the low level 2nd grade boys reach out their hands to shake my hand every single day as I pass them in the hallway at lunch time, I feel a sense of belonging.

When I see two 3rd grade boys at the big intersection that we have to cross to get to school each morning and they give me a sheepish grin and wave, I feel a sense of belonging.

When a small bunch of 1st grade girls stop by my office at the end of the day just to say “Hello” and maybe share some candy with me, I feel a sense of belonging.

When more and more and more students feel comfortable asking me their questions and pushing through the language barrier to communicate instead of relying on using Korean with one of my co-teachers, I feel a sense of belonging.

When I go to my co-teacher’s open class and start walking around with the other teachers to see what the students are working on, and each table that I approach is full of kids who light up and whisper, “Oh, hello Teacher!” and we exchange a secret grin and wave in spite of all the observers and the video camera – I feel a sense of belonging.

P.S. The aforementioned open class was one of those major area-wide classes, so there were quite a few teachers visiting from other schools to observe the class. Two of my former co-teachers showed up, which was nice.

P.P.S. The open class involved students reading and discussing the English newspapers that they had created in a previous class. I went to check one group’s paper (which had been written by another group) and they urgently whispered, “Teacher, look!”

One of the articles, nicely typed and formatted and complete with a photo, was titled “School Computers Sh**” and included the sentence “What the f*** these computers?” (censoring entirely mine) The group that was discussing that newspaper read the latter sentence to me in shocked voices and I hastily quieted them down and discouraged the reading of that particular article out loud.

Figured I’d do my co-teacher a favor by not allowing her students to yell English profanities during her open class.

To be fair, though, the school computers are pretty bad.

not dead but lethargic

In fact, nearly comatose. Intellectually speaking.

I have opened this gosh darn blog post window so many times in the last, what, 2 weeks, and I haven’t been able to produce a single word worth reading.

I’ve just been pushing through, head down, trying to numb myself to the ebb and flow of stress as lesson plans come and go and Korean surprises rear their heads, feeling like a dried-out pitiful little husk at the end of some of the particularly draining days, just pushing, pushing, pushing forward to a vacation that is nowhere in sight. (No mid-semester spring break for Korea, so we’re holding on till mid-July.)

Which is a dramatic way of saying that I’ve simply been tired and working hard. Teaching is one of those professions that hits the trifecta of being mentally, emotionally, and physically draining (albeit emotionally rewarding as well).

As far as updates go:

Mentoring/demo open class:

1. I was really proud of the kids (I chose one of my favorite 3rd grade classes because I knew those kids wouldn’t let me down). They were mega amped up because WHOA FOREIGNERS. A few of the NETs were practically pushed into my classroom by overly-excited 2nd graders acting as escorts and arrived looking bemused and slightly scared. heh. Don’t mind my crazy kids, fellow NETs.

2. The class timing was perfect, and as I said, the kids really did well with being active. They cheered for game time, cheered when they got a correct answer, cheered for no reason at all. Even some of the quiet / slightly sullen kids were trying, and I appreciated that (even if it was only because they were being watched by 6 foreigners, the VP, and a camera).

3. Prior to my class, this message was sent out to all the teachers (sketchy English brought to you by Google Translate):

English drawing room today 6period
excellent native speaker the open class
That’s coming from outside to visit ~ 6 external teachers
You come welcomed HR. If you do, gladly greet sounds good.
You are teaching Mr. Mehdi  / Medicare Teacher
Please fighting ^^

Actual meaning (roughly): The “excellent native speaker” (I guess that means me) has an open class in the English Room at 6th period. Six foreigners will observe. Teachers of [my school], please come to watch and welcome/greet the foreigners. “Mr. Mehdi / Medicare Teacher” would be me. The way my name is spelled in Korean combined with the word for “teacher” (메디 선생님) makes Google very confused. And as I’ve mentioned before, “fighting”/화이팅 is the Korean phrase for “good luck, you can do it, we’ve got your back!”

At any rate, it was comforting (kind of) to feel that everyone was supporting me. We all know what a pain in the butt open classes are.

4. My co-teachers, vice principal, and principal were apparently all satisfied with the class, so I guess my job here is done. *dusts hands*

Kidding, but I did feel pretty much the whole school breathe a sigh of relief when the ordeal was over with.

Korean surprises:

Too many to count, but most recently:

1. Yesterday (Monday) I was teaching my 1st graders as usual during 4th period. Around 11:30 a.m., as we were about to start a new activity, a hoard of gigantic strangers walked into my classroom (and by that I mean about three adults from a Western country, plus some official-looking Koreans) and WELL KIDS, LOOKS LIKE WE’RE DOING AN OPEN CLASS! Suddenly their focus was perfect, and luckily for me, the timing was good and the activity they were about to do was very AREN’T WE EDUCATIONAL AND HAVING AN AMAZINGLY GOOD TIME WHILE WE’RE AT IT? LEARNING IS SO FUN! I shudder to think if they’d walked in during one of those “Maddy Teacher could walk on the ceiling while belting out the Korean anthem and juggling fire and we wouldn’t care” classes.

2. I thought it rather strange that I could hear loud music floating in my windows around 7:30 a.m. as I was getting ready for work. I figured it must be a neighbor (perhaps THE neighbor) who had apparently decided early morning was a good time to rock out to Korean folk songs. As I walked to school 30 minutes later, the music was still blasting. It just so happened to be coming from the direction I needed to go, and a good 100-200 meters* later I found the source: no less than FOUR groups of people, one on each corner of a major intersection, holding signs and blasting this music as a way to politically campaign for their candidate. What?! As my co-teacher (who lives near me) commented when we talked about it, “That makes me not want to vote for him.”

3. …which leads me to the last surprise, which is a double-edged sword: all this political campaigning is because Korea’s Election Day is next Weds, April 13. It means a day off, but it also means throwing my schedule for a loop and a lot of stress and hectic scrambling-to-cram-the-textbook-in-before-midterms for the classes I’ll miss.

Anyway, it’s Tuesday now and I’ve already had the thought “Damn it, it’s still only Tuesday” multiple times. Here’s to a speedy rest of the week.

* Korea has changed me. I now speak in meters and Celsius. Who am I?

building up

*alert alert: long rambly post ahead*

Is it me or the school being a total roller coaster of emotions right now?

Today was exceptionally good. Today was the first time I thought to myself, I’m glad I work at this school every day.

Which is crazy considering that today is Thursday, and if you read my past Thursday posts from this semester so far you’ll see how I’ve been feeling about them. (hint: not good)

I’m really loving having my own classroom. The kids come to me rather than vice versa, and hence I can prep the classroom at my leisure, set up and test things on the computer, unlock and lock the door, tell them where to sit, etc.

But the best thing is that, if I choose to spend my 10-minute break in the classroom instead of in my office, I can chat with the kids who come in before the bell.

Today I spent basically 100% of my between-classes break time in my classroom, solely for that purpose. As I did so with each class, I realized that I’m actually forming bonds with these kids that were impossible for me to form last year at either school. Break time is one of the only ways I can talk with them about silly, fun, or otherwise unrelated-to-the-textbook topics. And doing that really does make a difference in their attitudes during class time.

Some conversations:

2nd grade boy: “When I 25, America go. And marry girl. Blue eyes, gold hair.”

Me: “Okay.”

He tried to tell me something else but didn’t know the words. A few minutes later I heard him asking my co-teacher, and then he came back.

Him: “When I wedding ceremony… you… invite.”

Me: “Oh, you will invite me?”

Him: “Yes. And present give.”

Another boy usually comes in and uses random English that he knows – “What’s your name? Where are you from? Do you like k-pop? Oh, good good!” (Please note that he already knows my name and where I’m from.)

In my last class today, a group of kids came in early and oohed and aahed over the Pikachu GIF on my PPT. (I always make the first slide of my PPT a cute dance GIF or something to have on the TV as they come in.) They asked if I know 짱구 (Jjang-gu, in English known as Shin Chan, apparently an anime character) and requested that I put him on next week’s PPT “hello” slide. I agreed, then asked how to spell Jjang-gu and wrote it in hangeul on the board so I could search for it later. They thought it was hilarious and amazing that I could write in Korean.


짱구 it is

Aside from the bonding going on, I started a new batch of lessons today that went over pretty well. It’s hard to please every class, as sometimes the first class will go crazy over a game and the next one will be so over it before you even start – and that can depend on general class mood, which period it is, co-teacher, etc. etc. But overall I think things went pretty smoothly.

I mean heck, if playing people bingo and “4 corners” (choose a corner, say the dialogue for that corner, and 1 corner is eliminated randomly) is enough to get even the most grumpy kids all out of their seats and using English, what more can I ask for? [There’s this one boy who usually slouches down in his seat and refuses to participate, but he was all “Teacher, teacher, do you know how to play League of Legends?!?” and I was all “HA I fooled you into having fun in English class. TAKE THAT SULLEN TEENAGER!”]

I also discussed the open class lesson (T minus 7 days… ㅠㅠ) with my co-teacher, skimmed through my draft of the lesson plan and PPT with her, and she put my mind at ease about it.

I’ve had this thing ever since I was little where I can’t feel good about my work if there’s some little uncomfortable thought in the back of my mind that it’s not quite right somehow. And I had that little uncomfortable thought nagging at me all week, even after my overhaul of the entire lesson on Monday night. Overthinking? Maybe. But I know once I get the lesson to where I want it, everything will click into place for me, mentally speaking, and I’ll be satisfied with it. And now that my co-teacher approved my ideas, I’m much closer to getting there.

AND tomorrow is Friday. I mean, it can’t get much better than this, right?

P.S. There is however apparently a particularly nasty flu virus going around atm. Seems like almost a third of every class is either absent or sitting there looking like death with the surgical mask on to “protect” their classmates. They’re dropping like flies. My 3rd graders said they’re required to all use hand sanitizer at the start of every class. (Not a bad idea at all. Korea could use more of this honestly.)

Thus far my ironclad immune system is holding out quite well, perhaps because I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life (literally) working with children of all ages and being coughed and sneezed at on the daily. [Hopefully I’m not jinxing myself by writing that.]

So I guess the title of this post remains apropos. building up that immunity. hang in there, everyone. after the weather change, spring will be here and we’ll be okay.

Nothing in particular

I honestly don’t have much to update on today, but it seemed like I should write something.

Today is the last day of the Easter lesson, and thank goodness for that because I’m getting to the point where just looking at an Easter egg gives me a headache and I only have a few more explaining-Easter spiels left in me. Saying almost the exact same things 18 times gets incredibly boring – I have to keep reminding myself that it’s still new for the kids and I have to muster up some excitement about it so they can get excited too.

Last Friday I was given the fantastic(ally horrifying) news that I will be having an open class for other NETs in the area, essentially to show the newcomers what a “more experienced” teacher’s class is like. Um… EPIK? Did you forget that I got here last year? I don’t call 1 year a whole lot of experience to be showing off to new people.

Anyway, I had to choose two date and time preferences on the spot, which I’m not good at doing (I need processing time when people drop these stress bombs on me, not “OKAY NOW MAKE A DECISION QUICK! QUICK QUICK!”) But it’s done now, so the class and date are set and whatever happens, happens.

All weekend and Monday I prepared for this open class lesson, but it was bothering me. An open class (although they say “Don’t change anything, we want the new NETs to see how a typical day would go”) is expected to be smooth, simple, easy for everyone to understand, with fun, engaging activities. I couldn’t get the lesson how I wanted it.

Monday night I had an idea that would be a lot better but that basically required starting from scratch and redoing both this week’s lesson and next week’s open class lesson (since they are both working from chapter 2 in the book).

I have to start this week’s lesson on Thursday morning.

So, yesterday (Tuesday) and today have been me going back to the start and recreating these lessons just in time to teach them (and submit the open class lesson plan well in advance).

Not that this is such an important and entertaining piece of information; I’m sure it’s quite boring. But that’s why I haven’t posted for nearly a week. Busy with the less-fun parts of teaching.

And now, the bell’s going to ring in 4 minutes, and 10 minutes after that my first class will come pouring into my classroom. All the paper eggs are hidden and ready to go. Three more times asking, “Do you know about Easter?” and it’s time to move on.

Musings during an open class

Not mine, actually. I don’t have time to muse when I have open class. Today my evidently well-known co-teacher had an open class for other teachers in the area to attend, as well as the principal, VP, and all the teachers at my school.

Her class was scheduled for a special “7th period” (usually on Fridays we only have 6 periods), and because this was such a big deal for our area, all the teachers in my school had open classes during 5th and 6th period for parents to come and watch… but zero parents showed up to my classes. That’s totally cool with me.

Anyway, at the end of the day I slipped into the English room with a bunch of other teachers to observe the Big Important Open Class. It was with the 1st graders (the 13-year-olds), high level so they’re pretty good.

As I watched and occasionally strolled around to check out what the kids were working on, the following thoughts occurred to me:

— What a strange and unnatural presentation of the learning environment. The kids are working quietly and studiously in their groups, not making a peep; we all know that is just unrealistic. Meanwhile, hordes of teachers swarm around the desks, craning their necks to peer at the group work like watching monkeys in the zoo or some particularly fascinating flea circus performance. At one point it truly resembled birds of prey swooping in on a victim. Poor kids.

— My CT only betrayed her nerves by the twisting of her fingers as she gave directions and monitored the kids. I know she had been somewhat anxious about this class (and who wouldn’t be?), but everything went smoothly.

— Those are some mighty sparkly silver heels that that Important Educator Woman in her 50s-60s is wearing, especially with that matching mighty sparkly silver schoolgirl headband paired with a simple navy-blue-and-white-lace dress. Seriously, she was basically wearing Dorothy’s original silver slippers. Interesting fashion choices to be sure. (I gleaned she was an Important Educator because she hung out with my principal the whole time, but she doesn’t work at my school.)

— One group of kids was trying to make categories for the words that they had brainstormed earlier relating to the textbook lesson. They had come up with categories like “Feelings” and “Actions,” but I was puzzled when I saw one category that they had labeled “Leftings.” What is a lefting?

Then one of my co-teachers murmured in my ear that that category was for the words that they didn’t know how to categorize. Finally it dawned upon me that they were trying to say “Leftovers” (or, in more natural English, Miscellaneous/Uncategorized).

I like “leftings” better, though.

What’s for dinner tonight?

Oh, just leftings.

Hey, where’d you put that customer information?

I didn’t know where it goes, so I filed it under Leftings.

Happy Friday!

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.