Day in, Day out: Daily Teaching Life here in Korea

Recently, it has come to my attention that I haven’t actually posted about my job or day to day life. When I left Seattle one month ago, I knew I was coming to a certain city in South Korea to work with kids, but I didn’t exactly know the details. Now that some of those details have come to light, I can begin to fill everybody else in as well.

First, it might be helpful for you to know that I teach in a hagwon. A hagwon is a for-profit private school in Korea. Here, hagwons are ubiquitous. There’s a hagwon for everything from taekwondo to art lessons to test preparation to swimming to piano to you-name it. Constant and continued education is a value deeply engrained in Korean culture.

The hagwon that I teach at is a Kindergarten in the morning and a elementary ages sort-of cram school in the afternoon. But it’s not a cram school in the way that Westerners might think of one (more on this later).

This is my typical Monday-Friday schedule:
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I generally wake up at around 7:00AM. I take a shower, think about how surreal life is, make some tea or coffee, think about how surreal life is, make some breakfast, maybe read a newspaper online, think about how surreal life is, listen to music, scroll facebook, throw on clothes, and walk to school and while I’m walking, I think a little more about life.

I really don’t technically have to get to school until 9:20 or so, but I try and get there earlier so that I can gather my thoughts and sit at my desk and take deep breaths before the day starts. I find this relaxes me.

This month, my first class of the day is Lime class, but that’s just for September. Next month it will be the Kiwi class, and then back to Lime, and you get the picture. Lime class consists of 10 seven-year old advanced kindergartners. They can say things like, Tasha Teacher, I am happy today because my dad early come home or I’m angry because my mom no read a book to me. This class is actually, really advanced and it’s a joy for me to teach them. There are 2 boys and 8 girls in Lime class. Generally, they’re all pretty well behaved, though we do have the occasional monsoon of tears due to a missing eraser or crossed arms as result of a disrupted friendship but Tasha Teacher usually does her best to dry the tears and bring peace back into our little construction paper universe.

We do have a text book for this class, though it doesn’t take up all our class time and I’m glad for it because it’s one of the Tobi books and they are riddled with errors. Because there really isn’t much curriculum other than the Tobi book, I’ve bought each kid in this class a little brown notebook and we use that for most of my lessons. Often, I give them a template and make them fill it in with their answers. Once they’re done, they bring their book up to me and I have them read it and I correct their errors. Often we have spare time at the end of class, and the kids always fight over who gets to run to the library to pick out a book. These kids really love it when I read to them.

My next class of the day is the Kiwi class, and this is the lowest level Kindergartner class at my school. There is one other class, the Olive class, but I don’t ever teach them because, well, Tasha Teacher only has so many hours in her day, you know? Anyways, there are six kids in the Kiwi class but that’s more than enough. It would not be a stretch to say that much of my time with this class is actually just chaos control. Out of the six kids, four of the them are really rather mischievous. I can turn my back for a second and generally Tyler and Eric have Bob in some sort of death-grip, or Sarah and Sunny are dancing around screaming. The only kid in this class that behaves all of the time is Sophie, who can usually be found drawing hearts on her papers and whispering, I love you, Tasha teacher, and usually I’m like, Thanks… I need that.. I really do…

We do have some books for the Kiwi class but I find that the kids plow through them so fast, so I often make supplemental material. Maybe because they books are too easy? But really what happens is that so much of the book is color in this, or draw-that, and Tyler and Eric are always in a race to finish, so they can’t be bothered with the details and once they are done, all hell breaks loose. Needless to say, this class is a lot of work. I don’t read to the Kiwis yet because, well, they can’t really handle it.

At lunch time, the kids line up and do a little chant that’s supposed to remind them to Not Run and to Not Push but they always do anyways, and then they go to the bathroom to wash their hands and whatnot. Meanwhile, Helper Teacher brings a tray of various metal rectangle and square dishes containing various Korean food items. There is always rice and soup and often kimchi of some sort. Recently we had a mysterious concoction that I named “Candy Noodles” because it was literally like hard crystallized glass noodles that were super sweet. Sometimes we have delicious bean sprouts cooked in sesame oil. Sometimes we have like some sort of fish cakes or tofu in spicy sauce or squid, and then sometimes, mysteriously, there’s no protein at all and just an additional carb or two. Usually Sophie adds her kimchi to her soup and makes a spicy red mess which she always forces herself to finish. Often Tyler whines about the food and I try to make him eat at least one small piece of kimchi. Now and then, the kimchi is surprisingly hot and Bob rushes off to the water jug to get himself a glass of water. Bob has a sensitive palate. Usually Tyler and Eric finish first, and Bob and Sophie finish last. Often, I end up walking from kid to kid, spooning food into their mouths and asking them to talk less and eat more. Sometimes I eat, sometimes I don’t have time to. I often have no idea what I’m eating and when I ask the kids what it is, they’re all like, Teacher, you don’t know?!?

When I first started work, the time slot between 1:20 and 2:30 was my break and lesson planning time. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I’ve been asked to teach another class during that time block. The internet isn’t a place to talk about why or what happened to cause this unfortunate event, but my boss assures me that it’s temporary and I hope he’s right.

Now, all the classes for the rest of the afternoon are hagwon classes. You should note here that this is an informal, private education, and emphasis on the informal. 

At 2:30, I teach a kinder-graduate class of elementary students. This class is sort of a handful but it’s getting better and the kids are sweet. There are five kids in this class and we work with one of the Tobi books, which often gives us trouble because even I don’t always understand what the Tobi book wants us to do. One of the kids, John, is a little behind in this class but we’re friends and I’m helping him.

At 3:10 is Peace class. Now, Peace class is wild. There are seven 9-year old giggling, screaming girls in Peace class and one adorable, often-also-screaming boy named Arnold. Peace class is sweet, and to put it a little bluntly, they adore me, and they know that I adore them, and sometimes maybe they walk all over me but if you were there, man, you wouldn’t blame me.  There are twins in Peace class. Twin girls. And two girls with glasses named, respectively, Emma and Esther. It took me weeks to be able to tell the E-girls with glasses apart. And the twins? The identical twins? Well, I often either look at their shoes (their names are written on their shoes) or I just watch their mannerisms. Ann is the one who is generally always touching me, she loves to touch. Wendy is assertive and a little more bossy. Both are adorable. Everyone in this class is adorable. We work with the Tobi book. They always whine about the Tobi book and say they want to go outside. I keep telling them they’re going to get me fired if they don’t settle down….

At 4:00 on MWF is Diligence class, which has about 12 kids and it’s possible that I’ve been heard, just once, as referring to these kids as those little bastards. This class is mostly boys who are about, ah, 9 or 10 years old I would say. Joe has a voice that sounds like it’s changing, but Alex and Abraham are both the size of seven-year olds so, it’s really hard to say. This class doesn’t have the best English, and really, they could not care less. They’re crazy and loud and I don’t know if they ever study the material. Abraham routinely leaves his book in class. And the book!  We have this crazy book that wants these kids to memorize words like rot and humus (not to be confused with hummus).

Actual quote from Diligence class this week:
Tasha Teacher (reading from the book vocabulary questions): Okay, now, what holds the roof up?

Brian (screaming): OVEN! OVEN! It is OVEN!

Tasha Teacher: No, Brian. That’s actually not even close…

Andy (screaming): Bake! BAKE! It’s BAKE!

Tasha Teacher: I feel like… you guys aren’t trying….

At 5:00PM on MWF I teach Lemon class. The Lemons are my most advanced students, they’re also my most tired and depressed students. The intense Korean school schedule has finally become a reality to my Lemon class. Mostly, I try to console them as we work together through a grueling book. Sometimes the schedule says that we need to finish 5 pages in the hour, but it’s obvious that we’re only going to get through 3 pages before Lily starts crying, and Steve looks downright depressed. We’re starting a new book in the Lemon class soon, and I’m voting for the easier one just to give these kids a break.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I don’t teach Diligence or Lemon. Instead, I just teach Effort class at 4:00PM. Now, the Effort students are beginner phonics students and this is a truly challenging class to for me. I mean, all of the classes are challenging but this one is challenging in a different way because the curriculum is really, kinda nothing and my job is to try and get them to speak and use their English. But, it’s going okay and there are some really adorable and sweet kids in this class and I’ve invented some games to get them excited enough to shout and raise their hands; a feat that I didn’t think was possible on my first day of teaching Effort.

Typically, my work day is full of improvisation. I am always making worksheets on my ten-minute breaks between classes, or running to the office to get blank paper, or implementing news from one of the Korean co-teachers. I teach all of my classes alone, but for each of my classes I have a Korean co-teacher who teaches the students at a different hour of the day and in the office we exchange notes or bits of information or exhausted sighs or angry exclamations about how so-and-so never does their work or always misbehaves. The kids go from class to class just like I go to class to class, it’s like a big game of frantic musical chairs.

There are three other Western teachers in my school and six Korean teachers. However, all of the Western teachers have been fired or let-go and we are in the process of bringing in new teachers and at the end of the month or in the next few weeks, there will be a big switch around. This is hagwon life, and this is the main reason why I tried really hard to get a public school job before I came to Korea. English education here is a little like the diet industry in America; it’s a business and there is all this pressure for everyone to do it, but sometimes the results are hard to find and when people don’t get the results, sometimes they just switch teachers. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but I’m just trying to give those of you on the outside an idea of what is going on here. I do think it’s sufficient to say that I’m doing the best I can to do a good job and help the kids learn English. Things might be crazy, but it’s possible that the biggest surprise of all for me has been how much I’ve really grown to love my kids. Even the naughty ones.

Usually I get home at about 7:00PM. I often make dinner. Sometimes, a friend or a co-worker messages me and I end up going out to dinner with them. Sometimes I skype with M. Often, I’m asleep before 10:30PM.

*One last note. I have this sneaking suspicion that a reader or two is going to point out the obvious but, I already know that I’m working overtime and at this point, it’s not a big deal. I like my job, I like my kids, I plan on sticking this out and making it work.

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