Wednesday, September 5, 2007

School So Far...

Today – Thursday, September 6th marks our second week in Korea and our 6th full day of teaching at our school. Said school shall remain nameless (though it is likely to slip into this blog from time to time) for the purpose of preventing internet detectives from “researching” it as a potential school should they consider teaching in Korea one day. This is a personal blog, and not a professional critique of a school, so feel free to read my opinion of things as they unfold, but understand that if something bothers me, I may write about it and if something amazes me in a positive way, I will write about that too. But things in life are never really that consistently amazing, and hopefully, the same holds true for the down times. In the words of our good sports radio friend, Rob Kerr, from The Fan 960 in Calgary, “somewhere in the middle lies the truth”…

Our school, as I mentioned in previous entries is what is known as a “Hagwon”, or “Private English Academy”. But get those visions of Hogwarts out of your head and don’t let the big name fool you – the school is actually quite small, but like most everything else here in Korea – it’s also just the right size for what it is. The office at our location is a large room where prospective parents and children can come to speak with the Korean counseling staff about signing up for classes etc. There is a number of Korean staff that work at our campus and they have all been amazing so far. Their role, from what I understand it to be, is to recruit students, help to create the curriculum, and deal with parent/child/teacher issues as they come along. I’m sure they are busy with much more than that as well because they are in at the school from at least 10:00 am until 10:00 pm when classes are over for the day – and I can assure you that they are not perusing facebook during that time.

Tanya is the counselor assigned to Stephanie and I so she will be the one to assist us with issues regarding our students and the curriculum. She is very nice and supportive and she has been very encouraging to me so far. Mr. Kim is one of the other counselors who is not assigned to us, but since he speaks English is so well, he has been responsible for the majority of our training and he seems to be acting as some sort of “head-counselor” at this point as well. I really am not entirely sure of the hierarchy, but the point is, all of them are very approachable and very dedicated to their jobs – if you want something, they take care of it for you now. It’s reassuring to know that someone is on top of things for us, because the learning curve has been huge and as it is with many large organizations (cough… CPL…cough) the dedication of the staff isn’t always represented by the amount of times little things go awry.

Things like new additions of books that don’t get passed-on to teachers, changes in the syllabus that go un-noticed and specific duties of staff are not always related as soon as you wish they would be, but that is also a big part of the learning process here and it serves as a reminder that as teachers, we are going to have to take initiative and fend for ourselves from time to time. I do have the feeling though that the staff won’t let us fall too far, and that is a good thing.
Our campus also has 14 teachers on staff. 6 of us are brand new to the school and of us six, only one has a teaching degree; Shannon also taught in Africa for a time so she was a little bit more prepared to deal with “challenging classroom situations” than most of us were. The other staff members consist of Canadians and Americans and our one Australian, Amy, who joined the staff, along with Steph and I, a couple of weeks ago. They have all been a very supportive group so far and they have been able to help us out when possible. It’s nice to know that there are people here who months ago went through what we’re going through now. If we need someone to tell us the quickest bus route to Seoul, a teacher will help us. When we want to set-up our bank accounts, a teacher will help us. I’m pretty sure we can handle flushing the toilet ourselves, but you get the idea. What looks extremely difficult on the surface is often very easy and it takes someone who’s lived it before to remind us of that.

The teachers have also been very friendly and though they have been an established social group for some time, they do take the time to make us feel at home, to invite us out to the bar, and even to help celebrate Stephanie’s birthday on her first day of teaching last week. Being part of many groups back home, theatre and otherwise, it’s easy to forget how challenging it can be to crack into a new group that’s been tight and established for some time. There is one teacher that has been at our campus for nearly three years and I wonder what her approach must be like to the people who arrive, stay for a year, and then leave. It must be difficult to embrace people only to watch them all go after a short time. Kind of like owning a hamster – maybe not.

So far, it’s been great though. Steph and I are very lucky to have each other – we always have someone to do something with. Should we want to venture into Seoul, we always have a partner. I also know that the day will come when we venture to places on our own, but that will also only come with time and comfort.

We are also the only couple at our school and it does feel a bit odd sometimes to be often referred to as “the couple”. It is odd to come from home where people knew us as a couple, yes, but also as individuals before and during our relationship. Here, at least so far, we are “the couple”, and I know it will take a while before people get to know us as not solely “Dave and Stephanie” but also as Dave, and as Stephanie. It’s a little humbling sometimes to feel like the only smaller social grouping in the middle of a larger one that assumes that we’re more, as a pair, independent than we are simply because we arrived as a “package deal”. We hope to head into Seoul or maybe out to a movie soon with more people from our school. “Coupling” is an odd idea sometimes, and it’s funny how a couple can sometimes feel like the third wheel. I say bring on the 5th, 6th and 7th wheels – the more the merrier – but I also know that there will be lots of time when we want or need to be just the two of us, and it’s good to know that option is almost always there.

But back to school. Outside of the main office doors, there are two hallways that house 18-20 classrooms. The classrooms are small, but large enough to house the maximum the school allows per class (14). I must admit that I was a little bit bummed-out when I was assigned to my room because I did not get to be placed in a room with a window. After a few years of windowless, fluorescent-lit offices, I thought my day had come when I got to teach, but it wasn’t to be. Of the 14 teachers, I think only two of us teach in windowless classrooms, but we’re going to tough it out and I think we’ll be just fine. The thing is, since we teach from 4-10 PM every day, there won’t be a ton of daylight to warm me up anyway, and there will be less blinking neon to distract my students… that’s what I’ll tell myself anyway ;)

The truth is, I truly am okay with my classroom for now, and somebody has to be there, so it may as well be me. I have taken some time to re-arrange my wall decorations to suit me and I did add a couple of touches from home: 1. A Superman poster that Diana gave me (see, kids – even Superman likes to read!), 2. My Shatner Show postcards (to show the other teachers that I have a well-developed sense of irony and to show the kids that I like weird stuff that they don’t get), 3. My little cloud man (given to me by Michael Boyce), 4. My “Vote for Ralph Nader” 2000 bumper sticker (again with the irony thing), and 5. the one, the only… Gatto Squalo!

Yes, I have convinced some of the younger children that Gatto Squalo does indeed inhabit the greater and lesser Slave Lakes in northern Canada. I even have a couple of kids writing essays about it – we’ll see what develops next Monday.
It’s difficult to comment with any sense of authority on what teaching has been like so far. I do know for sure that it’s been very tiring. Steph and I so far are waking up every school day at 8 or 9 am – we look over the day’s lesson at home over breakfast before going into work at least three hours early (around 11ish). Work officially starts for us at 2:00 PM. 2-4 is prep time which we use to photo-copy quizzes, enter marks into the attendance sheet, look-up activities etc.

Our first class begins at 4:00 PM. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, we have three classes that last for just under two hours each. Classes finish for the night at 9:55 so in that time, we have one 10 minute break at the end of our first class, and then a 15 minute “dinner break” at the end of our second class. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have two classes that last for just under three hours each. The kids do get a 10 minute break in there so that they’re not dead by the time the bell rings. Us teachers get two ten minute breaks as well as a 15 minute dinner between classes. It’s enough time to rush and clean-up after one class, race to the teachers room, grab a bite to eat, sit and look at each other in stunned silence, and then race back to class to start the next one. Of course, it’s really only us new teachers who sit in stunned silence. We are the only ones still trying to get our bearings. It is comforting to know, through observing the other teachers, that things will get easier.

Part of what’s making being new such a challenge so far are all of the little things that are just inherent to the teachers who have been there for some time and, to us, tend to sound oddly like a foreign language: “We have to give our senior classes a grammar quiz AND a vocabulary quiz? But the teacher’s guide says we don’t.”
“Where do we get the quizzes from? Oh, the Junior quizzes are in the students’ book, but the Senior and H level ones we have to photo-copy… from the teacher’s edition, not the regular one. How do I mark online essays again? Which levels can I assign them to? I didn’t know this story had a workbook too!” $#&!*&%#@!!!!!

And that’s a bit of regular day for us new teachers here. It’s really a matter of survival and prioritizing. I know that every night I have nearly 6 solid hours of classes with little prep time between each and like most people here, I have a fairly high standard for myself. I also know that the school, students, and parents have a high standard so I am doing my best to be as “on” as possible and as organized as possible. Organized, so far, means getting up and working a near 12 hour day to feel like I am on top of things. Being “on” sometimes means standing in front of my class and rubbing my hair until it stands straight out in an attempt to demonstrate the meaning of the word “bushy” and having young Paul tell me, “teacher… I think you have a probrem.” That is not meant as a derogatory phonetic relation, just a little something I like to hear everyday so that I know I’m on the right track.

Though I started-off like a bit of an uncharacteristic hard-ass, I have lightened-up this week – so far, it’s worked. Even my 8-10 or 7-10 PM classes that were extremely sleepy late last week… well, they are still sleepy now… only they now have a sleepy smile on their faces I can sometimes scare them into attention just by being, well… weird and unpredictable, and if rubbing my hair to look like a madman gets them to be a little bit more awake, I’ll keep doing it until it loses its potency and I need to find some new trick – like cracking my elbow, or maybe just a favourite story to tell.
The different levels we teach are Basic, Junior, Senior and H-Level – each having levels within (from 1-6 or 1-12). Kids who attend our campus are anywhere from grade 2 to grade 12, though my youngest so far has been grade 3 and my oldest has been grade 8. We teach mainly story-based units that involve reading aloud, discussing new vocabulary and then branching out into related ideas and themes. Older groups however begin to move towards essay writing, proper paragraph structure and more elaborate presentations, debates and other projects. It is interesting to note that for the H level classes (the oldest kids) we need to turn to the reading and study of English language science, geography and history texts in order to keep them engaged through the subject matter – clearly, the story of pookie the penguin will not jungle their bells anymore. I honestly never thought I would be standing in Korean classroom teaching a group of grade 7 & 8 students about Pepin and Charlemagne, the crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but – here I am. It makes sense to be teaching this stuff as an English tool- they are learning it in Korean school during the day, so why not apply that knowledge through another language at night? I think I’m learning a lot about Science and History too.
Anyway, it’s been incredibly fun, challenging, scary, frustrating and rewarding so far. I will be writing about my classes and my individual students as the weeks pass. I know that I will have some great stories to tell – I already do, but I will save them for another time. I can’t wait to read the essays about Gatto Squalo, but I’m even more excited to see what my H level students do with the topic “What would happen if South Korea tried to form a modern day empire?” Bring it on. I will write again soon. One more thing - kids here dig Superman. This is a Superman project from a previous class. I like what this kid thinks...

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