Thursday, September 30, 2010


I’ve been teaching for four weeks now at Jeungan Elementary School, and while I’m starting to get the hang of things, this is an entirely new environment.  Over 1,500 students attend my elementary school, making it the second largest one in Cheongju. That’s comparable to a liberal arts college’s entire student population.  For the first time in my life, I’m not a student at the school I go to every morning.  It’s a bit daunting to think that I’m responsible for a child’s education.   I underestimated how much energy it takes to teach children and to do that effectively while capturing their attention and motivating them to try their best. I have so much more respect for public schoolteachers, especially those who teach middle school boys.

My 3rd graders are watching "You Can Fly!" from Peter Pan right now. You see the di? They are the reason my lesson rocked.

  I teach over 1,000 students in grades 3-6 alongside three different English teachers, each of whom are assigned one entire grade (4,5,6).  They split up the seven sections of 3rd grade classes amongst themselves. Though my co-teachers see their classes twice a week, but I rotate classrooms so I see individual classes once every three weeks.  While this system guarantees that every 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grader gets some exposure to the native English speaker (that’s me), it makes it very difficult for me to build a strong rapport with all of my students.  I will meet each class less than fifteen times by the time the school  year ends. (In Korea, the school year begins in March and ends in December).  I can barely remember their faces let alone their names.  

Let me introduce my co-teachers Mimi, Mrs. Na, and Min.  Mimi teaches the 4th grade, and she just returned to Korea after teaching English in China for two years.  Her daughter Lina is one of my students, and her English is phenomenal because she attended international English school while abroad.  Mimi is my primary co-teacher and helps me adjust to life in Korea, i.e. creating a bank account, paying my phone bills, and reserving plane tickets.  

Mrs. Na is the 6th grade English teacher, and I’m getting to know her very well.  She’s been married for seven years already, but she looks and sounds no older than twenty-five.  During the weeks that I teach with Mrs. Na, she always makes coffee for the two of us before our classes start.  We’re allies when it comes to handling the misbehaving students who are curse at and hit other students, purposely don’t bring their textbooks and/or disinterested in English class.  Surprisingly, they’re either very high level students who find class boring or have such low English proficiency that they don’t understand a word that I say.  Mrs. Na is so gentle to the students and never raises her voice, which is why I was surprised to hear her play Ke$ha, Snoop Dog, and Ludacris in her classroom  this afternoon.  She was genuinely appalled when I told her what the lyrics of Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” meant today.

My final English co-teacher is Min, one of the very few male teachers at my elementary school.  Min also looks very young, especially on the days he wears his hoodie and T.  (One of the perks of being an elementary school teacher is the casual dress code, though I am envious of the many days secondary ETAs have off because of midterm and final exams.) My desk is in his classroom, which is the largest English classroom equipped with a smart board, computer corner, and two stages for skits.  

I was really impressed with Min’s setting skills this week when our entire school faculty played volleyball per our principal’s request. My principal is a particular man, who loves to sing karaoke, play volleyball, and drink 막걸리 (Korean rice wine) almost as much as he loves his eight grandchildren. What a jolly man he is! I love the crystal-studded ties he wears.

3rd grade boys

My students treat me like a celebrity every day, and I dare say it feels good.  I’m also wondering how long it will last.  Whenever I enter the school cafeteria or walk down the hallways during cleaning period, I hear “Clara! TEACHER!!!” from all around me.  One 4th grader even hit me on the back today because she was so excited to see me. I’ve been held captive in two 4th grade classrooms by swarms of 4th graders trying to hold a conversation with me by screaming over the voices of their other classmates.  During the staff volleyball game earlier this week, students brought me 떡복기 (Dduk-bok-gi) and chocolate.  At the same time, there are some students who are so shy that they just greet me and run away. 

These sweatshirts zip all the way up!

I’ve been pretending NOT to understand Korean, and it’s so HARD.  Some of the younger students fall for my act when I feign ignorance and confusion when they address me in Korean.   I must admit that many of them just assumed I was a non-Korean American simply from watching me write in English at lightning speed on the chalkboard.  The older students can see right through my act and they’re just waiting for me to crack.  It’s already starting to crack, too.  It’s impossible not to say “Thank you” to the lunch ladies who serve me so much food everyday that I’m putting on rice pounds daily.

It’s not that my school has asked me not to speak Korean in front of the students, but rather that I want to establish myself as the English-speaking American teacher.  I don’t want my students to find an excuse to speak only Korean in their English classes. My Korean and German improved the most when I lived in places where I had to speak the host languages in order to do simple things, like buying groceries.  While in Korea, my students won’t have that element of necessity in their classes if they know that I can understand Korean.   Chances are that they will be less motivated to try to communicate with me in English. 

At the same time, I could have such richer conversations with my students.  I’m going to Seoul on a field trip with my host mom and twenty girls in several weeks.  I’m going to be so tempted to talk in Korean with them, especially when we go to Lotte World.  I don’t know what I’ll do.  If one girl finds out, news will spread like wildfire the following Monday.  

That's it for now, folks.  You should pat yourself on the back for making it to the end.

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