November 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
It’s been awhile, folks. My apologies for the lack of regular entries. Korea keeps me busy & I like it that way.
But I’ve acquired a nasty cold and have decided to take the day to sit at home and rest, which has afforded me the chance to tell you all about my students, which I have been wanting to do for awhile now. There are still a ton of other things for me to write about, people I’ve met, places I’ve been, things I’ve seen — but I am confident those entries will happen in good time. Winter is coming, afterall, so I imagine I’ll be inside more as the days grow darker and shorter, by my computer and at the ready to fill you in on my life as it continues to unfold here in Korealand.
As I mentioned in my last entry, I teach 2nd to 7th graders Monday through Friday every week. The kids’ ages range from 8 to 13 (or 9 to 14 if you’re using the Korean system). Koreans count the first year of life from the moment of conception, meaning the first 9 months a fetus is developing contribute to that child’s 1st birthday. On the day you are born, in a Korean’s eyes, you are 1 year old. Thus, it becomes necessary to distinguish between Korean ages and Western ages, which generally have to tack on another year in order for Koreans to understand exactly how old you are. For example, I turned 25 in July, but when my kids ask me how old I am, I tell them 26. They know the difference between the two cultures when it comes to age, but I like to put it in their terms so they can fully grasp it and know how to address me properly.
After being an English instructor for going on 9 months now, there are a few things I’ve learned about myself. First is that there really are fewer joys than witnessing one of your students use something that you have specifically taught them. I imagine it is akin to having a child and raising it yourself, watching it grow and learn and develop skills based off of how you reared them. But I have never felt prouder or more happy to be a teacher than when I hear my kids using certain words or phrases I have taught them, especially when they don’t realize I am listening. This is something that is especially rewarding with older students, because it is harder to have a part in shaping who they become as people. The task is somewhat easier with my 2nd and 3rd graders, who look to me to steer their pronunciation and basic sentence formation more than their vocabulary.
Another thing I’ve learned about myself is that 5th graders are my jam. I don’t know what it is, but that age group simply resonates with me. They aren’t like my younger students, who, though unmistakably adorable, are zany and constantly bouncing off the walls with a crazy, uncontrollable energy. And they aren’t like my 6th and 7th graders, who are at the age where they begin to question, criticize, and generally see through the facades of many of the institutions that have raised them — namely their parents and their teachers. The older kids are also starting to feel inner turmoil as well, dealing with more mature issues like body image, relationships, and all the feelings that come with those developments. To me, 5th graders are the perfect blend of maturity and personality. They are old enough to have their own histories, stories, and experiences, but young enough to still think their teacher is “cool” and therefore respectable. I get along better with no other class than my 5th grade students. They bring me the most joy and the most laughter on a daily basis. Which is not to say that my older and younger students don’t bring me happiness as well, just not in the sheer numbers that my 5th graders do.
Though I don’t think teaching is my calling as a career in the long term, I have certainly enjoyed the time I have spent at my school so far, and I can see why people choose this profession and do it year after year after year. There is a certain infectious energy that being around young children all day brings, and it can often be a student who makes or breaks your day. I’ve had entire days turn around, for better or worse, because of a single class or even a single student. I’ve come into work tired, stressed, and generally glum about the prospect of my day only to have a 3rd grader draw my portrait on a post-it and have me grinning ear to ear. I’ve had a gang of 5th graders come skipping to my desk 5 minutes before the bell just to escort me up the stairs and into the classroom, arguing over who gets to walk with me arm in arm. When it comes to my job in Korea, my kids are my world, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have one 3rd grade girl named Lily. She is in a lower level class, so many of our lessons are based on repetition and simple question-and-answer type games. When I first met her, I was convinced she was the devil. She had a horrible attitude, spoke Korean nonstop throughout my class, and made no effort whatsoever to listen to what I had to say as her teacher. She disrespected me constantly by walking into class late, talking over me, and muttering things under her breath when she thought I couldn’t hear her. She made me feel helpless and frustrated, and these feelings were only made worse by the fact that I would often let them show, sometimes throwing my hands up in exasperation or heaving a big sigh when she wasn’t giving me the answer or result that I needed. When I was finally out of ideas on how to deal with her, I realized the problem wasn’t her at all, but in the way I was treating her. Her attitude was being exacerbated by my negativity. At the end of the day, I was getting upset and fighting with a 9 year old child, so who had the bigger problem?
I decided to go into class the next week with a fresh take on how I wanted to spend my time with the students, and since then, Lily has become one of my favorite students. Just last week, right before class, she came running to my desk yelling “Teacha! Teacha!” and motioning for me to follow her. As I got up to walk from behind the desk, she met me at the corner and gave me a huge hug. She then grabbed my hand and, swinging it, walked me to the hallway towards our classroom. Another student from her class, Giselle, took my water bottle and eagerly volunteered to fill it up for me. As I mentioned before, Lily is young and of a pretty low level, so her English is quite limited. While we stood there waiting for Giselle to finish filling up the water bottle, I felt Lily let go of my hand and looked down to find her slowly, wordlessly buttoning up the buttons on my work jacket. It was so cute, so deliberate, the way her tiny hands calmly, patiently, and affectionately buttoned up my coat, the way a mother would button the winter coat of a child just before they’re dash out the door to play in the snow. It was easily one of the happiest moments of my time here in Korea, looking down at this little girl who I used to feel so thwarted and disheartened by, now holding my hand and running to hug me. It made me feel like all of the days I struggled with her were worth it.
There is another student in Lily’s class — a boy whom I named Eddie. He has incredibly light, white skin, a chubby face, thin-rimmed glasses and a bit of a slur when he speaks. In my head, I’ve lovingly nicknamed him my little “piggy.” (This, of course, is not a nickname I have ever used out loud with him.) When I first met him in February, though he was never unkind, he was incredibly slow, perhaps the slowest student in the class. I would often have to make other students wait while we did speaking or writing activities in the book because Eddie would take so much longer than them. I stuck with him though, always giving him a little extra attention to make sure he was on the same page as everybody else and that he understood what was going on in the lesson.
Earlier this year, Eddie’s class completed their work with our “Let’s Talk” curriculum and began a new book. After warming the students up to the layout of the new material, I noticed Eddie was able to keep pace with the other students. By the beginning of October, he was moving faster than his fellow classmates. He is now one of the best students in the class, offering answers and always politely raising his hand to say them. The excitement he displays and the pride and confidence that I have witnessed him nurture within himself are astounding. It makes me so happy as a teacher to see one of my students dramatically improve over the course of my time with them. If one student has improved since meeting me, I’ve got to be doing at least something right, haven’t I?
I have many more stories of my kids, but just wanted to share a couple examples of how much joy they bring me and why being a teacher in Korea has been such a rewarding experience for me so far. For now, I need to drink some oolong and rest up for tomorrow. Please enjoy the photos of some of my students and a collection of some of the awesome memories they have provided me with so far.