Sunday, April 19, 2009

Checking up on the Pig

Got back from my first real Korean hike today, and it was glorious. It capped-off a pretty fine weekend and will, I'm sure, give me just to right level of physical incentive to sleep well tonight. I'll write about that this week, but first, a few words about a Pig.

As you may remember from a few posts ago, one of my former students, 이명범 (Lee Myung Bum) gave me a call a few weeks ago. He was happy to hear from Jenn, a former colleague who is his current teacher, that I was back in Korea. With my permission, Jenn gave him my phone number and we've had a few chats already.

Well, this past Friday I made good on a promise to head out to Suwon on a day when I could make it there on time to visit the little guy, whose English name is Pig - he chose it himself - a story too long to relate it again here. It was also a good chance to catch-up with some other students and some of the staff that remains.

I use the word "remains" because it seems the best one to describe my feelings going back to that school for the first time. While many who worked there have less than flattering things to say about the majority of their experiences there, I can honestly look back at my time there in mostly fond remembrance. It wasn't the perfect place to work, but then again I had had a great deal of training in imperfection before coming to Korea, so the shock didn't register with me as it might have with other people.

In the end, my time with that hagwon was mostly positive. I can honestly say that I did my best to make my own little world there a pleasant and productive one. The rewards were in the form of my own satisfaction and a perhaps a few more kids who remember me fondly - to me, that's the only payment needed.

Well, one of those kids was Pig. Another was Charlie - the marble-mouthed little guy who I had assist me with the Calgary theatre awards last summer. I miss both of them a lot, and my visit meant as much to me as it sure did to them. They were both kind of beside themselves in their own ways: Pig being extra excited to tell me about the story he's currently reading with Jenn's class, and Charlie doing little Charlie dances in his chair when I came to say hello. Pig went so far as to buy me a loaf of bread from Tous Les Jours bakery. I gave him a small bottle of maple syrup in return and I told him to put it on his ice cream. To Charlie, I gave a small package of maple syrup candies and when he held them in his hand, he jumped up and did a big Charlie dance, saying "Oh, thank you, teacher! Thank you so much!" in an exuberant way that only Charlie can.

After that, it was off for some quick food and then to Pavox (our favourite lounge last year) where I spent some more time with some of the new teachers who seem like very good people. We had some serious dart action, a few drinks, and then I got called behind the bar to dance for a welcome back drink. Jin helped me out. All in all, a good visit, then it was back to Roger's who graciously let me crash at his place and made me breakfast the next day - a favour to be returned.

All in all, it was a great start to the weekend. But it was harder going back than I thought it would be. The hagwon is suffering from the slowed economy and as a result, the student (and teacher) population has declined in a big way. When Steph and I began our contracts in August of 2007, there were 13 teachers on staff. Today, there are 8 and I'm pretty sure that not all teachers are working a full set of classes every day. The class size too seemed smaller than what I remember it being. Half of the classrooms are closed with the lights off.

The good news is that the teachers who remain there are caring ones. If it counts for anything, and I like to think that it does, a student's relationship with his or her teacher has greater influence on a child's staying at any given hagwon than any other factor that might drive parents to look elsewhere. I think that this is at least true in most cases. Last year, parents threatened to pull their children out of our hagwon unless their demands of keeping their child in a favourite teacher's class were met. I like to see that as a positive thing.

Of course, and excuse the cliche, but with change being the only constant in the world of teaching English in Korea, I'm not really surprised to see such change at my old school. But places affect me - it's the remnants of people I suppose. There's something left there in those rooms even though they are occupied by fewer, different, or no people these days. I have hope for the students' and teachers' sake that things turn-around quickly - enough to at least allow this current batch of teachers to finish out their contracts with a sense of satisfaction and something for their students to build on.

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