Saturday, May 23, 2009

Get on the bus

My situation has changed here in Korea for reasons that are known to those I'm closest to and that don't need to be elaborated on through the world wide web. This week has been full of lows, but last night, sipping ginseng tea on a cobblestone street with near strangers, current co-workers, and people who are rapidly becoming friends, I am pretty sure that one of my best Korean moments-turned memory was being formed.

In times when English is being learned, Korean must also be spoken, and sometimes it will wash-over the table, or the room as a very quiet, almost apologetic shift. For me, I love it. Though I'm far from the skill level of where I want to and certainly should be by now, I'm beginning to understand more about the language. I feel less in the dark in such situations, and even if I do slip into the dark, last night, sitting where I was, and with who I was, I decided to just let my particular thoughts and emotions take me over. It was almost like a silent Sanford Meisner instant of truth - an exercise in emotion - knowing it's there, reveling in it, allowing it to happen, and feeding it just enough - an extra splash of red to give the moment its deserved substance. It didn't need much else. Stuff like that could be put into pill form and make vicodin, percocet, and S.A.D. lamps redundant. It's nice to know that things that strong can come from within.

This weekend marks some major change, and Monday will mark the beginning of my three day field trip with the grade 9 students and teachers at my school. We - all 370 of us - will be heading onto buses and trucking around the southern end of South Korea, visiting some pretty amazing places. A pretty amazing person thought to take the time to prepare some information to help me out as the various tour portions will obviously be conducted in Korean. The students seem pretty excited about me riding along with them, so I may have to play musical buses in an attempt to visit them all.

I am going to see some cool stuff - photos of which are scattered through this post. I'll blog details when I get back, but for now I just feel fortunate to go - this trip could not have come at a more appropriate time. Here's to the promise of new possibilities.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Well... that was a different kind of weekend.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Teacher's Day

... is actually quite a big deal here. Working at a hogwon last year, there wasn't really a great deal to the holiday for me. I can't put my finger exactly on who said this to me, but someone of some significance mentioned to me in the recent past that in Korea, hogwon teacher's are referred to and thought of as "instructors" as opposed to teachers. Personally, having taught now at a hogwon and a public school, I can tell you that it's a load of hooey. Hogwon teachers work just as hard if not harder - regardless of what title they might end-up with.

But, last year, I don't remember much of a deal being made at all about it being Teacher's Day. My students last year remembered my birthday and brought cards and small gifts, but on Teacher's Day, I distinctly remember one student telling me that he couldn't give me anything because he spent all of his money on his "real teacher." Ouch.

Of course a lot is lost in the translation, I know. But it may be worth noting that within the public school system, there also exists a kind of 3-tiered hierarchy describing various levels of importance among "teachers." Forgive me, but I cannot remember the latter two, but as it is, myself and most of my colleagues (many of whom have been teaching for more than 10 years) are referred to by the common name: 선생님 (sun sang nyim). The level up from that, the word for which I cannot remember, refers to a teacher who imparts life knowledge to students. Again, definitions being fairly loose at this point, I'm not entirely sure what that means. The highest level would be roughly the English equivalent of "master" - for Kill Bill fans, I'm pretty sure we're talking Pai Mei territory. Over lunch, the desire to one day attain such a lofty goal was a topic among some of the teachers. For the first time in my life, teaching feels like a profession that I'm a part of.

Of course, teaching happens everywhere, but yesterday's experience of "Teacher's Day" at my Korean public school seemed like a world unto itself.

There were no classes for the day. Students arrived at the usual time but they filtered themselves onto the field in front of the school and in front of the raised stage area.

After Mr. Choi - one of the PE teachers - got the students arranged in their rows, the ceremony began. Teachers lined the foot of the stage, speeches were made, awards were given, and the most charming part for me was having selected students rush forward present carnations to the teachers.

The field activity felt like a big love-in, then the students were let into their homerooms while the teachers gathered for coffee in their offices. It was an operation for the students, both secret and planned, to decorate each classroom for their teachers. The teachers came into their classrooms about 30 minutes later to have their own little parties with their students - balloons, letters, cookies, small gifts - and then students would patrol the school looking for other teachers to give gifts to. It felt a little like Christmas, but more like Halloween with the door-to-door action.

As I'm not a homeroom teacher with my "own" students, I didn't get a whole whack of stuff as others teachers did, but some students went out of their way to come visit me in my room and office through the day. I got a few sweet letters, some cookies, and a big balloon hat from some students.

One student even felt the need to give me a very carefully-worded compliment that went beyond the usual "very-tall, very handsome!" talk. She is a grade 2 student I haven't taught yet, but she had clearly been preparing for a while to say to me: "Teacher Dave, you are like Harry Potter - not just your looking, but also, you are very kind, you have inner strength and good leadership!" It was among the funniest things I've heard from a student's mouth in a good while. I thanked her, she bowed and smiled and gave me some candy. How can that not put a smile on your face?

The thing is, and I realize I haven't blogged in some time, yesterday, Teacher's Day, was a good reminder of what I'm supposed to be doing. I have actually had a pretty tough couple of weeks - at school and otherwise - and I was getting prepared to unleash a fury of negativity online. I've been struggling at work with certain expectations of me: at times, too much, other times, too little - but always added difficulty through lack of communication - things my co-workers assume I already know or don't need to know. Working here can be fraught with such difficulties.

Yet, as much as I love the majority of my students (even the painful ones I have a soft spot for), I can sometimes feel like exploding at work. It's too easy for my students to tune me out. They have a ready-made excuse afterall - though I do my best to not confuse, my language is still a foreign one to them. It's too tempting to screw around when you can't even really tell if your teacher is getting frustrated.

But yeah, I had been feeling like a bit of a foreign teacher failure for the past couple of weeks. Truth is, my co-teachers can have the highest expectations of me in the world and they are not going to even come close to the expectations I have for myself. Conditions here make such goals pretty near impossible to reach, but I can see the bar from where I stand on any given day.

Teacher's Day helped to put things in perspective. Though I struggle with my own hopes of what I can be as a teacher, I sometimes forget that with all the limitations I have in this scenario, I'm actually doing what I'm supposed to be doing - that is connecting with these kids. Those who want to will pick-up more English, those who don't will struggle, and in classes of up to 36 ESL teenagers, I can aim for the middle and reach maybe 20 percent at the level I want to be reaching them.

I'm liking being a part of my school, and coming to love it. Yesterday, interacting with students who were genuinely happy to have me there, spending time with colleagues I've become closer with, and just being a teacher on Teacher's Day, really revealed how simple my purpose here is. If I complicate it too much with specifics in my own expectations, I'm going to miss the flowers - both literally and otherwise.