5 Month Update

Today, I’ve officially been in Korea for five months. Only seven more to go!

Despite the bitter cold and my recent string of complaints, things are going pretty well. Right now, I am looking forward to my trip to Tokyo, which is only nine days away. I think a change of scenery will be good and I can’t wait to see my friend Eri and explore her city.

I honestly don’t have too much else to report. Although my office situation pretty much sucks, I love my classes and my students. I have a new elementary phonics class which I really, really enjoy. The kids are all very low level, so I get to have fun and be silly with them. I do a lot of pronunciation exercises and we play games like Pictionary.

In one of my higher level classes, I have four students who I had last semester. They love doing tongue twisters and I’ve even rapped for them before. Yesterday, they shared chestnuts with me and didn’t want me to leave when the bell rang. So two of them kind of attached themselves to me and followed me back to the office. I also recently taught them to stop starting sentences with “and” and “because,” and they’ve kept it up! It’s little things like that that make me feel like I’m making some kind of difference. Even if it’s a tiny one.

That’s it for now!

Monday

On Monday evenings, I teach a middle school class with four boys and one girl. They are very shy and rarely speak. However, I can tell that the girl’s English skills are very good based on her written work.

Tonight, I got to my classroom and she was the only student there. I decided to postpone my original lesson and have a conversational class with her instead.

Within the first ten minutes of class, I was so impressed by how much she was talking. She speaks very well with some simple grammatical errors, but we were really having a conversation. I asked her why she never participates. She told me that the boys make her too nervous.

We talked about school in Korea. She said that middle school and high school students are required to wear uniforms and are not allowed to individualize them at all. She told me that one time, she wore a ring to class and her teacher took it off her finger and threw it in the trash. I was in shock.

She went on to say how she wishes she was American-born because there is so much more freedom in America. It broke my heart to hear this from a 14 year old.

We also talked about music and books. She loves fantasy books like Harry Potter. I asked her if she liked unicorns. (Because I love unicorns and I have to share my love for them. Obviously.) She did, so I told her about The Last Unicorn and wrote it down for her. We also talked about traveling and cooking.

At the end of class, she told me she had fun! Fun. How awesome is that?

I really hope she stays positive and at least tries to participate more in class. Her speaking skills are among the best out of all my students, and I can’t believe it’s taken nearly four months for her to use them!

Highs and Lows

I know that living abroad is not without challenges. However, sometimes I feel like I can go from being extremely happy to extremely sad in an instant. I don’t know if I’m homesick, or sad about missing Thanksgiving, but today was just horrible.

First of all, I’ve been kind of sick for the past week. It didn’t help that when I was feeling particularly yucky last week, I wasn’t allowed to go home. To top it off, two days later I came in to find out that a Korean teacher was home sick and it was my responsibility to cover her classes in addition to mine. Like, what? Here comes the cynicism and feelings of exploitation…

Anyway, back to today.

I woke up in a bad mood. Steve and I went out for brunch. It was just so cold and windy, though, and I was not having it. I pretty much complained through the entire meal. Finish up, go home, whatever. I Skyped with my girlfriend Alysa which was really nice. Bitched some more.

I got to work and the office was freezing, windows open. Why? Whyyy? I had to keep my coat on! I also discovered that there was some kind of testing going on so I didn’t even have most of my classes. I tried to read some Huffington Post, but I was starting to feel stuffy and dizzy and terrible.

Naturally, I went to the bathroom to cry. What exactly was I even crying about? I don’t know, but it helps sometimes.

When I finally emerged, the head teacher came and asked if I was sick. I just told her yes (in the hopes of going home early) and we went to the hospital. What a mistake. Long story short, they gave me a shot in the butt and prescribed me a series of horse pills that I absolutely refuse to take because I have no idea what the fuck they are.

I had to pay for them, too.

I got to go home at 7, instead of 10. Which I felt was still ridiculous because we went to hospital at 4 and I had nothing to do for another three hours. So I sat at my desk, in my coat, and read about Thanksgiving leftover recipes online.

When I got home, I made myself a pot of macaroni and cheese and ate the whole damn thing, about which I certainly have no regrets.

I still feel like shit and I’m seriously fighting to urge to pack up everything I have here and get on the first flight out of this country.

 

Conflicted

Today, I was required to teach a lesson on abortion to one of my classes of 6th graders. Not only was it uncomfortable trying to explain what abortion was to a group of children who don’t speak your native tongue, but it only got worse and worse the more we discussed it. I had to go over words like “pregnancy,” “termination,” “fetus,” “miscarriage,” and others. I did not want any part of it.

For one of the activities, the students had to make a web of reasons a woman might want to have an abortion. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt that this was much too advanced for the group I was teaching. Most of them were confused and said things like “not enough money” or “woman can’t grow baby.”

Then, we moved on to talking about alternatives for abortion. The answer I was looking for was adoption. I had one kid raise his hand and say “mother kill herself.” I just started saying “no” over and over and over again. It was unbearable. However, my school is very strict about making sure all the work is completed in the textbooks. The Korean teachers check. The students’ parents also check and complain if they see that things have been skipped over.

I’m just concerned that these students are not learning what they should be. Many of them have pretty low literacy from what I’ve seen. They need more instruction on grammar, writing, and speaking. Not discussing concepts like abortion.

While most days are good, it’s days like this that get me upset. I know that private English academies are a huge business in Korea, but I feel like students aren’t truly learning English. Parents are shelling out cash for what seems to be something of a status symbol. “Oh yes, my child goes to a private English school!” Unfortunately, very few of my students can actually have a conversation with me or write a coherent essay.

It’s frustrating.

Culture Shock: Education Edition

I would like to begin this post by saying that I am very grateful for my job as well as the opportunity to gain experience working abroad. I love it, but like any job, it is not without difficulties.

With that said, there are some issues with the education system here that are very hard for me to wrap my head around and I feel compelled to write about them.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, there are generally two ways for a native English speaker to become an EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher here in Korea. One is by finding work at a public school, which is run by the government. The big programs are EPIK and GEPIK. The other way is by finding work at a hagwon, or a private school. These schools are businesses (“academies”) that parents pay to send their children to after they finish public school.

I work at a hagwon. It happens to be a chain; the closest comparison I can make is something like Huntington Learning Center in the States. I found my job through contacting a Korean recruiter who was based in Seoul.

Anyway, my first class begins at 3:20 in the afternoon. I have to be in the office 30 minutes prior to start planning my lessons and activities. My first part of the day is spent with my elementary students who are, for the most part, absolutely lovely. They are adorable and energetic. They love reading and speaking. I have students who hug me, hold my hand, and give me stickers. It fills me with complete and utter joy to be in class with these kids and watch as they learn new ideas and concepts about the English language. I genuinely believe they enjoy being there.

After dinner, though, around 7:30, the entire dynamic of my classes changes. The evening is when most of the middle schoolers come in for lessons. The majority of them are terrified to even look me in the eye, let alone speak or participate. They literally sit in their chairs with their hands in their laps and their heads resting on their desks. It is like pulling teeth to get them to answer questions. Others are defiant. I’ve had some call me a bad teacher and tell me how horrible their days are because they are in class with me. It’s not fun.

The other day, I had one class where only two students showed up. Since it was so small, I let them play games on the board and practice answering questions with each other. At one point, I asked them how long their regular school day is. Eight and a half hours was the answer. Then, I asked how long they come to “academy” for. Four hours was the answer. These are 12, 13, and 14 year olds who have a 12+ hour day. I don’t know adults who work that long! It was so sad to hear this because you can really see the exhaustion on their faces. For most classes, I start off by asking how they spent the night before or what they did over the weekend. The answer is almost always study or sleep.

I know that there’s nothing I can do about this. I know that this is part of Korean culture. I just wish that my older students had the energy and enthusiasm of my elementary kids. Many of them are so bright, but they don’t make any effort because they are tired and don’t want to be sitting in a classroom at 9 o’clock at night. On the other side, though, it also makes me sad to know that in a few short years my lively youngsters will be in the same position as my middle schoolers. There is no winning.

That was my rant.

Snips, and Snails, and Puppy Dog Tails

And back talking. And disobedience. And general rudeness.

This is what little boys are made of!

Yesterday was, needless to say, a rough one.

I have two troublemakers in two of my elementary classes: a Mikey* and a Vinny*. Now, I don’t know about you, but those are generally some pretty shit-head names in my book. Everyone knows a Vinny who’s gotten thrown out of the bar. And I can just hear Mikey’s mother screaming his name, loud and shrill, out the window as he races on his bike down the street after leaving a frog in the bathtub.

Mikey and Vinny in South Korea are no different.

Here, Mikey is the clown. He takes my pens. He wants to play games. And shoot rubber bands. And point lasers at his classmates. Nothing horrible, just mildly annoying and expected from an eight year old boy.

Vinny is willfully disobedient. In class, he refuses to participate. When giving directions, there are a lot of “why’s” followed by “because I said so’s.” He will talk to anyone in class, especially when someone else is reading aloud. I usually end up shouting his name and asking if he’s listening. It works for approximately .06 seconds. However, on Monday I promised the class we would play Bingo if they did all their work on Wednesday. After slowly getting through our fill-in-the-blanks and successfully explaining subjects and verbs, the kids were excited to play. Especially knowing that they would be rewarded with a Minion sticker for getting BINGO! Vinny was good. He didn’t fight with me. He listened. It was magical. When he got a sticker, he even said “thank you, teacher” and looked genuinely happy. Progress.

In one of my other classes, we read about Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who helped Jews escape Lithuania during World War II. After we finished the story, I asked my students if they had any questions. “What is Jewish,” they asked. I couldn’t believe it. I literally had to explain Judaism to these kids because it was a foreign concept. To make it worse, the next question was “What is Holocaust?” This one really stunned me. They knew nothing of Hitler, or concentration camps, or genocide, or anything. I stood at the board, speechless, for a while. First I thought, “How is this possible?” Then, I gave them a condensed history lesson because I wasn’t sure what else to do. They looked at me like I was trying to explain astrophysics. It was a very difficult lesson.

Finally, I had another class of four middle schoolers. When I walked into class, everyone was attentive except one kid who always has his head on the desk. I honestly don’t even know his name yet. “Are you tired,” I asked. “Yes,” he replied without picking his head up. “Well, how is everyone doing today,” I asked the rest of the class. The same student said “bad.” I asked him why. “Because you’re here,” he said.

Ouch.

I told him to get up and open his book. Everyone else began reading out loud. When it came time to answer questions, the same student said “teacher, game.” I told him no. He sighed. He rolled his eyes. I told him to stand. Reluctantly, he did. I told him to push in his chair. He listened. Then, I told him to stand in the center of the room and read the passage to the rest of the class. Such struggle. When he finished, I said if he didn’t want to sit in class, he could sit in the director’s office downstairs and he could deal with him.

Do no harm, but take no shit. That was my motto of the day.

Has anyone else had some difficult personalities? How have you dealt with them?

*names of students changed for privacy

Got my itinerary!

I just got my itinerary from my recruiter!

On August 27, I’ll be leaving Newark at 6 AM (ugh) and flying to San Francisco. Only about an hour and a half layover, so no time to explore The Golden Gate City. From there, I’ll fly into Seoul and arrive at 2:45 on August 28. Then, I’m planning to take a KTX train to Ulsan and avoid the 5+ hour bus ride.

Oh my god. Oh my god.