Thursday, May 22, 2014

A School Day in Korea

I am an English teacher in Korea. 
This is different than being an English teacher in Cambodia.
And definitely different than being an English teacher in the States.

Oh, let me count the ways...

I work at an elementary school which means the kids are in grades 3-6 and about 9-13 years-old (Korean age), which makes them about 8-12 in yearly age ("traditional" age? I don't even know how to talk about this...). Don't ask me to explain more about Korean age, because I can't. But I will tell you that I usually just subtract a year from the Korean age and I'm about right. 

My school day begins at 8:40am. Often times, the students are in their seats before the teacher, who is running in from the parking lot while juggling bags and coffee, arrives. But before walking into the building we all change our shoes (reason #13 that bringing more than three pairs of shoes to Korea was a waste of space, but more on that later). So teachers show up in high-heels, nylons, skirts, and suits and then change into "slippers" (a.k.a. sandals). It still surprises me to see the principal shuffling around the school in black sandals, white socks, and a full suit and tie. 

I have a good twenty minutes to settle in before classes officially start at 9am. The bell rings at least 12 times a day around here. And it sounds like this: 

It's a sound that fills my dreams at night and drives all of us a little bit crazy.

There are five, forty-minute periods in the morning before lunch. And usually, I teach five classes in a row with a Korean co-teacher. I usually work with 2-3 different teachers each week, so I get around to about 360 students every week. 

(Note: The hallway looks a bit rough because they are remodeling the bathrooms.)

The Korean government hires people like myself (and Jeremy) who are native-English speakers in order to expose the kiddos to "authentic" English language pronunciation. So a typical class period means that I just talk with them, share a video/song, play a game, or we work from the English text book. We do a lot of repetition. A lot of "repeat after me", but it's about all they can handle, because the skill levels are so vast.

Some kids noticeably shake when I look at them and ask a question. Other kids spend their afternoons and weekends at private cram schools where they receive extra instruction in English. So for some, we could sing the alphabet and call it a day and for others, they may want to crack jokes and have a discussion about their favorite American movies (The Amazing Spiderman is a recent favorite).

Here's little diddy I wrote to teach my 4th grade students, "This is my brother." It kind of ended up sounding like a Coldplay tune, but I went with it anyway:

Lunch involves the kids filing through line in the cafeteria. And the staff butting-in at the front. Because that's what we've earned as adults, folks: the authority to cut in the lunch line. This is my moment! And by the way these kids look at me, I'm sure they can't wait for their moment. We always eat rice and...something. A lot of kimchi. A lot of meat. A lot of red chili paste.

After lunch, we usually have coffee time (which Jeremy and I jokingly refer to as "cachi time" because "cachi" means "together" in Korean and "cachi" is totally the Korean way). Someone--usually the youngest person in the room--politely offers to make coffee or tea for anyone who is interested. The coffee in Korea is most commonly this instant stuff you mix with water. Blech! But it's "cachi" time and so we "cachi."

After this, everyone (and I mean, everybody) brushes their teeth. It's not uncommon to see cups stacked in the bathrooms with toothbrushes and paste.

My afternoons are wide open. Wide open in a way that sometimes makes me feel guilty because I teach in the morning, and then, I can pretty much do whatever I want. And admittedly, it's my favorite part of the day.

Sometimes I lesson plan, but that doesn't take long.
So I read blogs.
Get stuck on Facebook.
Do yoga.
Paint pictures.
Crochet scarves.
Get stuck on YouTube.
Or, as is the case today, write a blog.

Some of my co-workers take naps. Or watch movies. Or order-in food and call it a snack break. The kids go home most days by 2:20pm, but for some reason unbeknownst to me (what a strange word "unbeknownst"), we have to stay at work until 4:40pm.

Admittedly, I don't blog a lot about teaching in Korea because really, there's not much to tell. I enjoy what I do well enough, but it's certainly not something I'd want to do forever. I am limited mostly by language and a bit by culture. I cannot talk to most of the people at school. I feel bad trying to talk with my co-workers because they often look so terrified of making mistakes in English. I feel the same with my students. We interact as much as possible in the classroom learning basic vocabulary and phrases, but we can't have a conversation, much less a relationship.

And still we don't have much to complain about, I suppose, because there are just so many blessings:
-Jeremy and I were both able to get hired to teach English in Korea.
-Teachers are treated well here.
-The jobs are our ticket into Korea and enable us to explore this new place.

Blessings all around.


Nicole Fisher said...

those kids are just so freakin cute!! I want to be there with you!