There are times in life that make you truly wonder, “How the hell did I get here?” Circumstance or odd occurrences mount, and suddenly you question the very nature of your existence. Lots of things in Korean schools bring me to the precipice of this feeling, but I am often able to subjugate the emotion. However, there are some things which I am expected to teach–things which I must pass on to my charges as though it is not actually bizarre, inarticulate gibberish, with a smile and a flourish and the projected confidence of a native speaker. It is in these times that I move over the edge. In that vein, I bring you, “My Mom’s Story.”
Those who know me in the real world probably know how I feel about being condescended to — namely, how I really, viscerally hate it more than anything. Being talked down to, especially in a realm where I consider myself moderately competent, makes me mad. It makes me mad in a vicious, do-nothing, petty sort of way, and my mind goes only to sabotage and how to ruin the system. My brain instantly goes on flights of terrible fancy, revenge fantasies against people I don’t even know that turn into Tarantino films, soaked in blood and talky scenes about my petulant rage. I am never more bitter and self-indulgently full of myself and my distaste than when other people are condescending to me.
It is thus that most of the teacher training in Korea is set-up basically to raise my ire.
An open class is what it sounds like. In Korean schools, it means that the doors of your class are thrown open to observers, so that they can come in and basically be all up in your grille, watch your every move, and judge to their heart’s content. Who can come? Well, it depends. There are staff open classes, filled with principals and vice-principals, teachers and department heads, janitors and janitresses, vice-lunchladies and tech staff and the copy boy. There are parental open classes, where dozens of moms with the day off wander in and see just how often you call on Junior. There are open classes for student teachers, and members of the public, and educational big wigs, and probably one for the Korean head of state, should he ever feel the need to sit down for forty minutes of grade 5 English.
More importantly, though: open classes are times when Korean teachers go completely insane.
Children, en masse, are like the sea. They are capricious and dangerous, and awing and inspiring, and also maybe filled with crustaceans. Their emotions are torrential and stormy, and a bad mood creeping over their waters can spell marine tragedy for whatever wayfaring, Ishmael-esque figure decides to brave the waves. And they are controlled by the season, by the moon and the sun, by the passing of time, and the slow burn of spring into summer, the great chill of fall into winter. The tides shift and become impassable, and then suddenly the waters calm.
“Michael, do you think you can go to different school and record their listening tests?” Like most requests that come from my administrators and are filtered through the tremulous, worried tones of my overburdened main co-teacher, this was not actually a question. She phrased it like a question because she knows English, but what she was really saying was, “You have to go and jabber at another school for a day. It will be boring. See you later.”
Why, pray tell, would they need my golden vocal cords? Didn’t they have an indentured foreigner traipsing through their campus already? Why couldn’t he/she do it? Was this one of the schools where the other English teachers were quivering bags of goo when it came to speaking, and demanded multiple foreigners to fill out the various parts of the dialogue for the tests?
As it turns out, their language monkey flew the coop.
Have we talked about the midnight run? The midnight run is when a foreign teacher in Korea packs their bags and screws off back to their respective homeland without telling anyone. Occasionally it is because they are actually in a horrible situation, occasionally it is because they are a jerk (and very occasionally it is both). Either way, this worried me. Just recently, the only foreign person likely in most of their lives shirked all of his responsibilities and ditched back to England. I imagined resentment. I imagined my arrival heralded with suspicious, shifty eyes, and quick efforts to lock up all the silverware. I imagined muttered conversations and disappointed head-shakes. Pitch-forks. Torches. A metal detector and a pat-down. Aspersions cast on my ancestry and my character.
As it turns out, it meant they just had ludicrously low expectations*. When I got into the car, two teachers waited for me, brimming, and nervous. How long have I been here? What country am I from? Did I just sign another contract. …do I like Korea? Kimchi? Jeju and Busan? 4 seasons? They tentatively broached that their last dude had ditched, and were careful not to mention that this sucked.
We got right down to recording, and after each grade finished in a clean 15 minutes, I was responded to with a hearty, “Wow! That was amazing! What a great job!” Wait… are you guys being condescending? I mean… I did a job, certainly. I moved my mouth and sounds came out. Why the clapping like I’m a trained seal?
“Oh. Last teacher… he make some mistakes, sometimes. So maybe recording takes one or two hours.” What? I asked to repeat. I was confused. How did he make an hour’s worth of mistakes on “I like pizza. Do you like pizza? I’m from Vietnam!” This is not exactly reading Tolstoy in the original Russian, here.
Soon after, I asked for clarification of another teacher’s name, which I still misheard, and thus wrote on the paper in Hangul. “Wow, you can read Korean!” Well, yes? It soon became clear to me: I could play these people like a fiddle. I got to work.
As we walked through the hall, a grade 5 teacher passed by and greeted us. Bypassing the English teacher, she asked me directly, in Korean, if I could speak. I responded in kind, and gave my usual mealy-mouthed “Oh, my Korean is terrible!” stuff, to jaws that nearly landed on the floor with audible thuds. When we returned to the office to wait for the next recording, I pulled out my special education textbook, and on their investigation, explained my teaching license, and how I was studying online to improve my degree. They cooed. They were mine.
I don’t like casting aspersions on other foreigners, but it seems like their previous guy was kind of a goon. But in the end, he provided me a great service: I could easily impress another school. (They jokingly mentioned that maybe I should quit my school and come to theirs, ha ha ha with a set of shifty, “But could you?” eyes punctuating the sentence.) In turn, this would impress my own school. And winter vacation negotiations are coming up, which means I need to begin making deposits in the favour bank.
*A current coteacher of mine was last at this school, and it explains her constant waves of shock that I am not a mouth-breathing boob.
When I was young, I was very often awed by my teachers. Not only were they tall and old, things that I was implicitly respectful but suspicious of, but they seemed to have mystical powers, ones specifically aimed at being better at herding children and knowing all of their secrets. They could sense when something was amiss, could see things even when their backs were turned or across an entire soccer field, and were walking human lie detectors with incredibly high accuracy scores. Their eyes were lasers, their spines were steel, and I was relatively certain that they never slept. When did they develop these powers? How did they acquire them? Could I pay to have them bestowed upon me?
The School Festival was something I had been anticipating for a while. Basically it’s a day where all the classes get cancelled and my students are set loose into the field to enter various booths to complete activities of various stripes: art, science, handicrafts, cooking. Released from the horrors of learning, my students become actual children again. Even the walking corpses that form most of the grade six student body suddenly perk up when given a chance for yard time. For MichaelTeacher, this meant free time as well: carousing the booths myself, taking photos, and fucking off with great elan.
But then: terror strikes. “Michael, you will help me with the English booth?” It is phrased like a question, but it is meant like demand. It feels like a knife across my face.
To add to the humiliation, I was told to wear a white shirt and black pants, to appear like a lowly waiter to serve the students. They would enter our booth, spout some English from a menu, and could then receive a yogurt drink if they managed to say anything resembling what might be asked for in a restaurant.
It was sluggish, boring work, one which most of my students barely understood the purpose of. Served prop foods, they were left bewildered as to whether they were actually allowed to enjoy their yogurt drinks. But we filed the great masses of the student body through our shanty for several hours, emptied our boxes of Yakult (I know), and sauntered off, happy for the rest of the day. I even got to interact with the grade ones and twos, who heretofore saw me as a meandering specter, a haunt of rumour and mystery, discussed obtusely by their older siblings and rarely seen but through windows and around corners. But we were done. Freedom!
Then: further horror.
“Michael, I heard you are supposed to run the booth for 3 more hours?”
Where did you hear this, pray tell? And can I set fire to them?
“Supervisors will come to school this afternoon for ceremony. So maybe Vice Principal wants to keep school festival going for longer time. I don’t know.”
I instantly went into responsibility-shirking mode, claiming to my oblique and confusing business, and preparing to be away from my desk for the next few hours so no one could reach me. When I was caught, I tried to attack the problem with logic. “But we have no more yogurt? But every student has already done our booth? But by 2, all of the students will have gone home?”
“Vice-president says until 4.” [sic]
There are certain times at my school where I simply don’t fight. I know that, ultimately it is better to make a show of being long-suffering and simply submit to whatever stupid ideas I am presented with than to make any overt attempts at mutiny or rebellion. The truest path to righteousness: do it so half-assed you are eventually released from responsibility. Our booth closed at two. Victory!
*Also, this was the day one of my grade sixes decided to shout “What the fuck?!” right in my face. Apparently my expression was enough to communicate the exact nature and intensity of my displeasure, because as I took him off to stripmine his very soul, he began shouting “Whoaaaa! Whoaaa!” loudly in dismay to everyone around him, looking desperately for assistance. They knew better than to interrupt.
As Korean school children start grade three, they begin their government mandated English education. And with it, their first exposure to a few truths: people are different. People from different countries especially so. They speak wacky, they eat wacky, and they do wacky. But how can we best bring them to this realization? How can we show them different countries from the comfort of a classroom nestled safely in Korea? How can we make the little tots cultured and worldly without actually having to go to all those icky places? Let’s explore together.
I was sitting quietly at my desk when a co-teacher approached from around the corner. “Can you do me a favour?” she asked plaintively. I am used to requests, usually of the “Edit this raging sea of grammatical errors and wrangle it into an English paragraph,” and so I prepared myself. A post-it was placed in front of me. “This boy has lived in America the last seven or 8 years,” she said. He was a third grader, and thus was probably born there, but the lives of kids abroad are always sort of talked about like weird wild-goose vacations. “He just moved here. He wants to speak to native speakers more… would it be okay?”
When something is brought to me in this way, as though I am really helping the other party out, I don’t want to rob them of the illusion. Korean schools are economies of debt, of repaying favours and oddjobs and kindnesses. Of course I’ll talk with the boy! Of course, underneath, she didn’t realize that this was basically a favour to me.
Every day I speak a kind of alterna-English, in order to get my meaning across and to actually communicate. If I spoke anything approaching how I usually talk, there would be chaos in my wake, as my coworkers and students would flee from the mighty and horrific sound. Fast English is scary, and I know that, so I generally refrain from wielding it.
But some of my kids are fluent. Scary fluent. Some were born in the States, or lived in the Philippines, or attend a frightening number of hagwons. One of my grade fours simply has an amazing aptitude for language, apparently fuelled mostly by watching aa lot of Hannah Montana videos.
They don’t always identify themselves to me. One or two have stumbled up one day and basically reported, “So, I speak English.” But the rest have been ferreted out via investigation or suspicion, or tidbits discussed amongst other teachers. One day I passed through the halls and a third grader said hello to me, and when I responded, he chirped a happy, “Have a nice day!” I cautiously threw back a “You too,” and when he was able to respond again almost instantly, I knew there was something up. None of my regular students are capable of regular pacing of conversation, and that’s okay, because they just started. But when a kid is suddenly capable of speedy back-and-forth, I know something is up.
Another time, in class. A flight attendant appears in the video. We ask the students what her job is, and most of the students brightly suggest that she is a “studious.” One boy quietly raises his hand from the back. “Her job is to navigate people to their seats and help them in emergencies and bring them food and water.” I narrowed my eyes, and handed over the reins of the comprehension questions to the co, before rushing to this boy. “Where did you live?” I asked, almost accusingly. Because that kind of English was not grown locally.
It is with these few kids that I can speak quickly. That I can use complex grammar constructions, generate sentences longer than 6 words, and never concentrate on slowing down my speech (beyond how I would naturally slow down a little for kids). I invite them to come and talk to me at any time (which I do for all of my students, although these are the only ones likely to ever take me up on the offer). I sneak over to them in class and drill them with additional comprehension questions, differentiated writing tasks, and anything that will cause them to break out their otherwise dormant English language skills. Anything that will allow me to break out my otherwise dormant language skills.
I also can actually know these kids in a deeper way. Because I have so many students, and because so many think of English as at most pragmatic and at worst something emerging from the depths of a Lovecraftian nightmare, I can only know so much about my kids. Where at home where I worked with single classrooms and knew the kids backwards and forwards, here so much is guesswork. And I miss actually knowing the students I teach, and knowing them is difficult when you can’t really ask them anything. All of their personalities and strengths and weaknesses I cobble together from inference, snatches of Korean conversation I pick up, and the few times when they un-self consciously and freely speak to me, in either language.
With each new semester, the staff gets shuffled around from place to place. New people are hired, old ones retire, and most of the subject staff (especially the English department) get assigned to different grades and subjects based on need and the capricious whims of our mighty overlord, the principal. Thus, we have a new science teacher with near-perfect English, another new English co-teacher for me, and all of my other co-teachers getting assigned wholly new grades and additional classes (at my school, the English teachers are all saddled with morals/ethics class, to their deep and prolonged chagrin).
I mostly weather these changes with benign passivity. Everything mutates around here with increasing frequency and without particular reason, and so I just sort of ride along sidecar. Very rapidly, I am becoming the most tenured member of our current English staff, as this honour has just sort of fallen upon me as a result of being the most difficult person to shift around. The only things I typically pay any mind to are those likely to move me from my desk: our slick new library and Art Hall (basically: a 5th floor amphitheatre), and the additional classes being run in my classroom that force me into the boring, computerless depths of the English office.
But I have a new coteacher for grade five, and whenever I have a new teacher, I always approach them delicately. I’ve become accustomed to simply having the entire workload handed to me, and so I gently try to assess how quickly I can assume the reins. I have had a taste of full control, and I like it, and thus I want it. But when New Co and I had our first meeting, she casually mentioned that she was similarly used to preparing the lessons entirely on her own. I was dumb-struck. I had a co-worker who did work?
Her lessons turned out to be pretty by-the-book, but just sort of showing up and having something handed to me was a bewildering experience. As the day went on during our lessons, the reason for her overplanning became clearer. Every time I took control, or quieted the class down, or showed some vague inclination to be more than a braindead voicebox waiting out the hours until quitting time where I could do as all foreign English teachers do (ie. get drunk and ruin Korea), surprise washed over her face. I knew names, and could quiet kids with a glance, and memorized the plan for the class quickly. I had discipline well in hand, and my voice generally manages to get to booming without the slightest strain. From her hinting, it sounds as though most of the other foreign teachers she had dealt with were largely feckless, or that she knew most of the vague rumours about our quality as educators and humans, and thus my possession of feck made me stand out to an immense degree.
Apparently my just showing up and not sucking made her regale my coworkers with the tales of my greatness for some time afterwards, which she also did about the kids. When I heard this, I was confused. Grade 5? Our grade 5? But this is the first week, and the grade fives were all acting suspiciously on their best behavior around her. They are the picture of docility, quietly accepting her ministrations and instructions with nary a thrown piece of stationary or long, muttered conversations in Korean. I don’t know exactly what their game is: for now, they are hunting the stamps which the New Co doles out to them (to ends which are unknown to me and thus they are consumed entirely by the acquisition. But once that falters, and they go back to normal, is when the real teaching comes out. That’s when they will reveal themselves to be the ravenous beasts yearning to feast upon our souls, and I will have to go wild west sheriff on them for a few weeks to keep thins calm.