Monday, August 29, 2011

No More Miss Nice Austin Teacher

          I have officially begun working at EOS Wingsly School. The first few days were a bit hectic, to say the least. However, I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it, day by day. A lot of the job is definitely different from what I expected. Here are some of the challenges and highlights of the past couple weeks:
            So, after three days of training, or, “observation,” it was time for me to start teaching. Observation basically consisted of me sitting in on classes, taking notes, and trying to figure out what the heck was going on. I was trying to understand the system, and many things weren’t clear to me initially: How do we know what we are supposed to teach in each class? How do we prep for classes? Can we leave children alone in the classrooms? I was also trying to remember the children’s names, the personality of each class, and what level they were at in terms of English comprehension. It was a lot to try to take in, especially in three days.
This was made more difficult by the fact the Koreans don’t seem to want to give you explicit instructions, perhaps because it is considered rude. There definitely seems to be a significant difference in Korean and American communication styles, and communication is made even more difficult with the language barrier. So, having realized this, the Korean teachers will usually explain something and then have one of the “native teachers” re-explain it.
The translation by the native teachers was definitely helpful, I would have been completely lost without it, but added an additional challenge in that every teacher has their own interpretation of how things should be done, and their own teaching style. In addition, as I have been told by some of the other teachers, “if something makes sense, assume that’s not how they do it here.” I’m not sure if this is particularly true to EOS, or just due to the difference values between South Korean and American culture.
            At the end of my final observation day, on the eve of my first day of teaching, Mr. Kim sat me down is his office for a pep-chat of sorts. Mr. Kim is EOS’s CEO, more commonly known as “King Teacher” (his wife, who I have yet to meet, is “Queen Teacher”). Mr. Kim, like most of the Koreans I have encountered, in mild-mannered, slight, and soft-spoken.
Whenever he talks it seems very deliberate, like he is feeling his way through the words. “I think [pause] you will be good teacher,” he told me, contemplatively, “but [pause] you need have more energy with children. [Pause] they have much energy, [pause] and you must also. [Pause] you also must find right voice tone. [Pause] raise tone, [pause] but with right timing. [Pause] only sometimes.” With those words of wisdom to guide me, I was hurdled into the classroom (at least that’s what it felt like).
The teaching-day is a steady stream of bells, students, and a few breaks. The first day went fine. In general, I usually just felt like I didn’t know what was going on. There is a Korean teacher in charge of each class, and the native teachers usually have a few classes that they teach primarily. I’m teaching several different classes, all at different levels. There is a schedule for what is to be taught in each class, planned by the Korean teacher.
Finding the right class at the right time was a challenge for me in itself. In addition I needed to make sure to have the correct folder for each class, with which to take attendance and look-up what was supposed to be taught. As far as the teaching went I basically just improvised, at least at first. Sometimes it seemed to work and sometimes it didn’t. The hardest part was when the class was at a particularly low level; getting them to speak any English felt like pulling teeth. Sometimes I just felt like I was talking to myself for forty minutes.
On most of the days I spend the majority of the morning with Salmon, my homeroom. I have also taught Tuna, Angelfish, and Blowfish, who are all younger. Kindergarten classes begin at 9:30 am and are done at 12:40 pm. Elementary classes begin at 3:30 pm and end at 6:30 pm. As of now, each day I teach 3-4 kindergarten classes and up to 4 elementary classes. The whole day goes from about 9:10am to 7:00 pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Tuesdays and Thursdays are shorter. This includes about an hour and a half break in the middle and sometimes an additional 45-minute break.
After my first day of teaching, I realized that my pre-conception about what it would be like to teach English in South Korea was, to say the least, off. Back in the US, when I pictured what it would be like to teach English to South Korean children, I imagined instructing these little bundles of cuteness who hung on to my every English word. I thought they would be shy, obedient, studious, and would astound me with their intellectual abilities. Which, in hindsight, is very stereotypical and I feel a little guilty admitting this misconception. A misconception indeed. Don’t get me wrong, there are some children that are like my pre-conceived fantasy children, but they are the minority, to say the least.
Salmon is one of the relatively mellow classes, thank goodness. It’s not too big, with only ten children. They are all 7 in Korean-age, which is 5 or 6 according to how we do ages in America (I’m still figuring this one out). The girls (Lucy, Olivia, Chris, Julia, and Sophia) are well behaved. The boys, on the other hand, are much more boisterous (irritating), especially the “three musketeers”: Eddie, Sonic, and Daniel. The other boys are named Ricky and Christopher. Don’t get me wrong, they are super cute, and I’m sure I would enjoy them all immensely if I were just playing around with them. Instead, our time together mainly consists of me trying to get them learn long and short vowels, do their phonics worksheets, and just sit still for a second and listen (!).
I would also like to mention that my first teaching day at EOS was “opposite day.” This meant that the teachers, and the students if they wanted, dressed up in opposite-outfits (one sock on, one sock off; half of hair up, half of hair down; clothes inside out/backwards). One of the teachers clarified this for me, “they basically want us to look ridiculous so that the kids will think it’s funny.” One of the boy students cross-dressed, which I thought was cute. We were also supposed to play games in class where the kids were to do the exact opposite of what we told them. Um, how is this different from other days? (Haha…).
Anyway, I have decided that the best way to keep one’s sanity in some of the situations I find myself in is to keep a sense of humor about it all. Trust me, there are plenty of things that I find to laugh about, even if sometimes I am just laughing on the inside because I don’t want to offend anyone. For example, the first thing I do when I come to work every day is to change into a pair of slippers. We all do, it’s required; students, staff, everybody. Well, they’re technically our “indoor shoes,” but, to my American eyes, they are bedroom slippers. There are certain places in Korea where this is necessary (ex: people’s homes, locker rooms, schools, some restaurants). At first I thought this was a religious thing, but I was told that they do it for sanitary reasons.
Another thing that I find amusing about my job is that for some reason they are always giving us little bits of food. We are already fed lunch (usually rice, soup, kimchee, a meat dish, and some sort of vegetable dish), but for some reason every day I’ve been at school I always end up being given at least a couple random snacks. They are either handed to me by one of the other teachers or staff while I’m teaching or in the teacher’s room, or I get back to my desk and some food is just sitting there.
I’m usually not sure where this food actually originates from (I’m guessing it’s usually from the Korean staff, some could come from the directors, or perhaps the parents), but I just take it and eat it so as not to be rude. It’s also usually pretty good, albeit random. Sometimes it’s a piece of chocolate, a date, a couple Pringles, or bit of chicken. Often times it’s something that’s “good for your health,” like this drink I was handed that supposedly contained my daily-dose of fiber and tasted like liquid jell-o. I’m guessing this food thing is part of the gift-giving culture. Or maybe it has to do with the collectivist, sharing thing. Or maybe the school just wants to keep us energized so we do our job well, I don’t really know.
            Also slightly amusing are some of the Korean fake names. All of the Korean students at hagwans are given English names, as are the Korean teachers, most of which are pretty normal (they like the names Alex and Allison), but some of which are very unusual. For example, some of my favorite names at EOS are Promise, Sunny, Archer, a particularly unhappy-looking girl named Shiny, and the boy in my homeroom named Sonic, Sony for short. I also find it funny that they literally refer to these names as their “fake names.” It gets a little confusing sometimes when you spend time with the Korean teachers outside of school, because you have to remember to call them by their real name, and then switch back to their fake name while inside the EOS building.
To summarize, this job seems to put much more emphasis on discipline and pleasing the parents, and less of an emphasis on actual teaching, than I initially imagined. Doing a good job, according to the school’s standards, requires a lot of energy, yelling, and a fair amount of theatrics. Although, the well-behaved, upper-level classes are much more similar to the teaching I initially imagined. I’ve been told that it takes about 2 months to get the hang of teaching here, and then it gets easier and more enjoyable. Also, once you bond with the kids I’m sure spending time with them becomes a lot more pleasurable. I’m already starting to get attached to some of them, and it’s only been two weeks.
Overall, in comparison to other hagwans, the main complaint about EOS (based on what I’ve heard) is that they make you work more than the other schools, but don’t pay you more. However, on the positive side, since it is one of the more high-end schools, the building is nicer (it has it’s own 4-story building, which is unusual for Korea). They also seem to provide us with more services than the other schools (we have Patrick, drivers that take us to the hospital if we are sick, etc.).
So, I hope this offers a glimpse of my work-life. I also hope that is doesn’t come across as too negative, as there have been both highs and lows and is a big adjustment. The beginning was a little rough, but it is steadily improving. I will write about some of the other aspects of living in Yeongtong soon, like the food, shopping, what people do for exercise, etc. I will also describe the other areas of Korea that I will soon be visiting, namely Seoul.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, fascinating, Austin! It doesn't sound negative at all. I love your 'go with the flow' California spirit! Keep the stories coming!