Korea and Me: The School


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As I was shocked to discover, the Korean government did not fly me to Asia for a year-long vacation on their dime. They actually want me to work! And educate! And thus, I was introduced to YeonHwa Elementary, my school for the year and possibly beyond. Unlike nearly every school board in Ontario, this place actually wanted to hire me, and continues to pay me actual, real money to pass knowledge (or at least language) to its charges. What’s your day like at this Korean elementary school, I infer that you ask?

To tableset: many, if not most, Korean schools these days have installed an English zone, a souped-up Mega Classroom filled with gear, games, and gadgets. Korea as a country generally takes education pretty seriously, and they pump a lot of money and effort into it. Why, they have even taken up the practice of flying waygooks from around the world in just to help conversational English and pronunciation in their students!

Anyway, my English Zone is a separate class and office on the second floor, featuring numerous drama centers, a dozen computers, games I haven’t quite figured out the purpose of, and a nice projector. Many schools even have smart boards just for the English Zone, some even with the fancy shmancy LCD touchscreen ones with no projectors. Even without it, my English Zone is pretty rad, which is a good thing, as I am cloistered there most of the day.

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In some Korean schools, the foreign teacher will have a desk in the main teachers’ office, or in a grade teachers’ office, where they work and are around the other Korean teachers all day. For me, I’m generally alone, or with one other co-teacher sitting in the other room. It is thus very quiet, and I can get lots of work done. Also facebook.

When I have a class, I unlock the doors, turn on the projector, and then prepare myself. As someone used to class caps, the sudden onslaught of 35+ children bursting in at first seemed horrific, near dystopic. Korean classes can generally run up to 40 students, although I lucked out in primary with a few less. In front of these smiling, bemused faces, I am largely to become a dancing language monkey. I can’t communicate many instructions to them in Korean, and thus every word I say, every idea I communicate, needs a lot of support: I mime, I draw, I write. I blast them with English in as many mediums and modes as possible and hope that one of the methods hits the mark.

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My function, essentially, is to get them to speak, to mimic my phonology, to use some grammar, and to produce some English conversation. In a school system usually oriented towards teacher-centred education (where the teacher lectures or facilitates most of the action in the class), getting them to suddenly begin talking and interacting freely is like getting them to relearn how to go to school. The very nature of what I was hired to do runs against much of the nature of Korean education, such that my classroom starts to more closely resemble a Western one. I do not care for most of the suggested activities provided by the government, so I seize upon whatever freedom I am given and load the kids up with games, drama, art, and anything that does not make them quietly attend to worksheets and textbooks.

Elementary classes run for about 40 minutes, give or take. Usually take. My classes generally show up late, as 10-12 year olds tend to do, and often getting them in and out of the room during transition time shaves us down to a lean half-hour. Between classes they, and I, get a 10 minute break in which to shuffle around and do nothing or prepare whatever else one needs to. (The 10 minute break thing is also the greatest carrot and stick there is possible to hold over them, especially as a foreign teacher with limited disciplinary power otherwise: they won’t shut it, they miss some of their miniscule break time.)

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When my classes are finished (by contract, I teach a maximum of 22 classes per week, unless they want to pay me overtime), I whittle away the hours in one of two overarching ways: 1) planning and 2) desk-warming. The English program in elementary actually follows a strict curriculum, which is a benefit, although one that features staid, boring video clips and offensively easy textbook exercises, so I try to generate as many ideas as possible to keep the textbooks at bay. Desk-warming is… exactly what it sounds like. When you run out of things to do, the siren call of the internet summons you into its calming, time-wasting embrace.

When I feel adventurous, I explore.

For one thing, Korean schools are enormous. In Canada, the elementary schools I attended and taught at regularly came in under 400 students, the largest being roughly 350. When they manage to cram that many children into one facility, the school seems positively thrumming and overstuffed, its doors sure to burst like shoddy dams from the force of so many kids. Korean elementary schools can run between 5-7 floors, and my current school has 1,000 students. There are also about four or five other elementary schools nearby boasting similar numbers. While Ontario schools scrounge for population and cling to every family, schools here are essentially swimming in children.

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The schools, being ridiculously well-funded, are big on technology and keeping things polished. The principal and vice principal’s offices are lush, verdant oases, filled with tropical plants, oceans of polished oak, and absurdly comfortable leather chairs. Every floor has countless conference rooms and teachers’ offices. There is a room designated entirely for broadcasting. My friend Pierre’s high school has a gym just for badminton. Whole classrooms exist for purposes I can’t even begin to divine.

Not that some things don’t betray this. The Westerner in me sees the dirt field outside of YeonHwa, and I can’t help but think of industrializing countries. They couldn’t even pony up for some grass? the snob in me sneers. Further, the students have the job of cleaning the halls and the classrooms, and there is rarely a time I can walk down the hall without several 7 year-olds jogging past me, mops in hand. I then recall: this school has 1000 kids. They make a mess. And every school in Canada I have been in becomes a giant, swampy mud-field for two months after winter, and during any hot month, the kids wear down whatever grass and create their own dirt expanse, so Korean schools just skip the middle step of bothering with turf in the first place.

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Wandering the halls gives me one of the few chances to interact with others, to escape my Youtube stupor and actually venture out into a Korean world. I say hello countless times to my students, and field their tentative, intriguing English questions (“What is your favourite thing?” “What is your blood type?” “Do you play StarCraft?”). Occasionally, I field their Korean questions, as they bound up to me and prattle away in Korean, apparently unable to recognize the terror and confusion creeping across my Caucasian features. Around adults, the rest of the staff, I bow, I greet in Korean and English, and I smile as though I’m being paid for it. With little to no way to actually communicate to one another, the only things they can get to know about me are whether or not I look pleasant and happy when I’m walking around the halls.

And then, after more hours of nodding and smiling, jumping around like a monkey, and devouring bewildering Korean school food, I take my walk home. On any given day, several inexplicable things happen. I eat foods I have never heard of and cannot, for the life of me, place in animal, mineral, or vegetable categories. New, quirky tasks and responsibilities are thrust upon me at random, and usually seconds before I am to engage in them. Other days, I am told, just before class, that everything is cancelled, and I will not teach for the day. I often have no idea what’s going on. And it’s pretty cool.

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