Wednesday, 21 October 2009

So, you're a teacher now?

It's something everyone's been saying to me in recent days, from friends to family. I guess I am. Not that I'm trained as one, save for the 10-day orientation that I had to undergo upon entering Korea.

My background is in humanities and literature. In recent years I've studied journalism and have worked in the field too. But my longing to get away from the mundane drag that my life had become, made me look towards the east. In this case, I applied for a job to be a native English language teacher in South Korea.

And the main requirements for me to get a job with the Seoul public school board was that I have a degree (in anything, really), and some experience teaching, in any capacity.

Fortunately, I had both.

That application process took about three months... and my life in Korea began two months ago. It's difficult for me to grasp that concept... that I've been in this country for two months. It truly seems like days. But when I sit down and think of all that's happened, and all that I've seen and experienced, I realize it truly has been months.

I've yet to spend a Saturday at home since I've moved here. Every weekend, I end up meeting with one or a few other foreign teachers, and we venture out on day trips. Sometimes, it's a simple trip to the fashion pockets in the city, where we search for 'kun' sizes... bigger sizes for our bigger, western bodies. And sometimes, we find ourselves having truly Korean cultural experiences, thanks to some of the locals who find amusement in making us try different foods, music and customs.

It can be exhausting at times, though. It's so tempting to keep on keeping on because I know I'm on borrowed time. For the moment, I know I'm here on a one-year contract. There's an expiry date to my adventure, so I try to make the best of every single day. But a recent conversation with S got me thinking... This is a year of my life. I'm not going to get it back. So I figure the best way to keep moving forward in a productive sense, is to find the balance I seek in the everyday. This means only doing what I can, without exhausting or draining my energy.

Teaching does tire me, I won't lie. It's quite the task, being a circus act at the front of a class full of girls, who only seem to grasp every 5th or 6th word out of my mouth. But, at the end of the day, no matter how tiring it all is, it does feel worth it. It puts the biggest smile on my face when even one or two students come up to me during the day and try to speak in English. This is when I know they're moving in the right direction.

The main issue with English in Korea is this: They study it from childhood, in both, the regular school system, and in private classes as well. By the time they get to high school, they pretty much know how to read and write. The only thing is that most times, it's not always perfect.

This is where the problem is.

Koreans (and don't hate me for generalizing, but this is through my experience only) are perfectionists. This is from the mouths of my co-teachers and also from Korean friends. They would rather keep their mouths shut, even though they know the correct thing to say, than actually speak, and perhaps say one or two words wrong. The idea of speaking less than perfection is simply not an option.

My co-teachers would not speak to me for the first few weeks at my school. These are people who've been teaching the English language to students for 10-20 years. I had to convince them that I wasn't the enemy and that despite our moments of miscommunication, speaking to me rather than ignoring me would work to both our benefits. They're only finally starting to come around.

Overall, it's a pretty good experience. I'm being tested in ways unimaginable, and I'm learning to be patient and open-minded. It's not easy, but it's worth the challenge. Every bad experience is overshadowed by about a dozen good ones.

For instance, my week has been pretty rough because of some lesson planning chaos. Today, I was dreading teaching my 8th grade afternoon class because I was pretty burnt out. As I sat in class and waited for the bell to ring while the students mingled among themselves, I noticed a few girls pointing to something by the computer and staring, wide-eyed. I quickly looked to see what it was... it turned out that the ceiling was dripping water all over the printer, floor, windows, computer desk and so on. One or two of my students got to work quickly, dabbing the water with tissues, rags and a mop. One girl ran to bring my head co-teacher into the room. The result was absolute chaos.

But the saving grace was this: the chaos forced me to abort my class and lesson plan. The girls were allowed to spend the 45 minutes in class, watching music videos by their favourite Korean bands... and trust me, there's a LOT of those.

So, a hectic week has made a U-turn on hump day, thanks to a flooded men's washroom on the 6th floor, a dripping ceiling in the 5th floor English Zone, and a group of 8th grade girls with a zest for music and a love for all things English... well, when I'm talking about pop-culture anyway. It's funny how they understood everything I said then.

This, my friends, is Seoul, Korea. Never a dull moment. And I couldn't have asked for a better adventure at this time in my life.


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