Pinocchio Teacher

Killed in Deadly Handshake. Things got Lord of the Flies quickly.

The idea of having my own class, of someone finally trusting a group of children into my hands, seems both invigorating and disembowelingly terrifying. Sure, it’s what I signed up for with the whole, you know, teaching career thing. But the long teacher training process, and the various ways in which I have stumbled into teaching gigs has usually left me with a partner or hovering  supervisor. It is strange that teaching a voluntary, ice-cold, interest based English camp half-way around the world would afford me my first chance to teach alone.

That is to say, there is another adult in the room. One of my co-teachers, on a one-year contract, was unable to flee the school like his long-term comrades, and was assigned to sit through my camp. His responsibilities largely drift toward photography, as my school is adamant that we document my smiling charges engaging in hard-core English learning (ludicrous games where the children appear happy are appreciated). Occasionally, for my younger students, I use him as a voicebox, piping him in when the English instructions are too intricate to fully communicate with mime (as one of my third-graders was prone to remark, “Teacher, game is very complicate.”).

It reminds me of the few times when my associate teachers in Canada would fall ill, and thus I would receive a supply teacher. Supplies and student teachers have a mutual, unspoken understanding. Student teachers, especially in areas with highly competitive job markets, are desperate and ravenous for any opportunity to exercise complete control, to show pedagogical independence, for a mere snifter of complimentary words to be sent to the higher-ups about how great we were, even for a day. We are glory hogs and resume packers, gluttonous and well-aware that our only chance of future gainful employment relies on every positive snippet of praise we can have sent into the educational ether. The absence of a regular associate teacher is a chance for the understudy to take the lead role.


Rockin' their Glyph faces.

Supplies, meanwhile, have a crappy job to do, and are usually faced with a battalion of young people who want nothing more than to devour every ounce of joy that individual has ever felt. Children see supply teachers not only as a chance for all the regular rules to evaporate, but also a time where all human decency and sense of morality disintegrate. For one blissful day, theirclassroom can turn into the dystopia they sadistically desire. When a supply teacher sees an over-eager student teacher, one who already knows the children and provides some degree of constancy, a continuation of the regime of the regular teacher, they breathe a sigh of relief.

When a supply was called in during my stints as a student teacher, they were happy to give me free reign. One walked in, saw a young man in sweater vest and backpack, looking swamped and over-worked, knew me for a student teacher, and immediately put his feet up, happy to take on whatever menial busy work I handed him. When student teachers are around, supply teachers are more a legal necessity, an embodiment of insurance liability issues rather than a person who is actually mentally present.  The kids approached me and remarked that there was only one teacher that day (referring to me). I controlled when and where the kids went, I delegated tasks to the support staff around (it was awkward to do so when both the educational assistant and the SNA were older than me by at least double and had been in schools for nearly my entire lifespan). Those few snippets of freedom, of having the kids depend on me alone, were exhilarating, an actual window into life on the trapeze might be without the regular-teacher net waiting gently below.

Stroop test.

Team-teaching can have its charms, as simply having another trained adult around can allow the teaching process to operate more smoothly. Instructing is divided, discipline is divided, and you can more easily handle splitting the children off into groups. But in most scenarios where I’ve worked with another teacher, I’ve typically been the junior, the one with a slightly different area of expertise, or, currently, the weird-ass foreigner with little knowledge of the present school context. My contribution is valuable but ultimately needs to be honed in by others and filtered into the appropriate shape to match the context.

In Korean schools (particularly elementary schools), the long winter and summer breaks feature occasional special learning camps, usually focusing on one area of knowledge. In order to keep their waygooks in line, English camps are almost always required by the schools, and foreign teachers are just as often left adrift with no plans and budgets as they are with set curricula and big piles of money. I was lucky in that I received an actual budget (being from Ontario, the idea that I wouldn’t have to foot the bill for my teaching supplies at once thrilled and baffled me. Money exists for education here? What a country!), but was given no ideas of what to teach. I will be doing a camp. It will have a different grade each week. Ostensibly, there will be children around, and there should be some English or something. Go.

IT, working away. I'm allowed to turn this camp into an art class, right?

I designed my own curriculum. I took from Ontario subjects and used lessons I had done before myself, or worked on with others. I brought in art supplies, and planned drama games. I shoved in English learning wherever I could reasonably fit. I set rules, and procedures, and had students agree to them. I planned for multiple contingencies, and left enough wiggle room for my projects to either take too long or finish bewilderingly fast. I had control.

It has been hard to connect to my teaching here in some ways. The job itself, while certainly teaching, is hard to conceive of as the kind of teaching I was used to at home. I have an obscene number of students, most of whom I can only know in passing. I only have the chance to learn a handful of names. I can only talk to the students so far before we hit the wall of the language barrier. In Canada it was easy to connect to the students, as I was basically them at one point in my life; here, everything I know about the shape of their lives is second-hand and academic.

With camp, I finally get a stable class that sees me every day. I can memorize names and attach faces to them, I can get to know personalities, I can stumblingly communicate to them in their broken English and my broken Korean. For the first time in a while, I feel like a real teacher again.

JT & TH's adjective monsters.

[On pictures: I’ve decided to err on the side of Canadian style privacy laws about photos of my students. Things here seem looser, but for my own ethical blah blah blah, I’ll only post pictures of students en masse, or when their identities are obscured. Which sucks, because third grade Korean children are adorable, and I had to siphon through my photos, and save most of the good ones for my portfolio only.]

11 thoughts on “Pinocchio Teacher

  1. Michael, while it is too bad that you can not show the delight and joy in the faces of your students, you are quite right to keep their privacy. From a photography point of view, you would likely need release forms signed anyway – unless it is a news story – and besides your young charges would require parents/guardians signatures anyway, so as you say you can keep the photos with faces for your own book of memories.


    • It’s considerably looser over here from everything that I’ve seen, but I’m defaulting to the laws that I know and am comfortable with. At home, most schools have a standard media release that families sign for photos to be used in school materials, with the assumption that, basically, the materials will stay in-house, and go to the board at most. If we even wanted to take photos for our portfolios, we needed to get permission, never mind blogging or anything extraneous like that. That said, when I told my co-teacher I might use some of the photos he takes for my portfolio to find work at home, he has now taken to never putting the camera down, and takes shots for three hours every morning.

      • You probably shouldn’t worry too much about privacy laws, etc. I understand why you do, and other Canadian teachers I know feel the same way, but in Korea no one really seems to care too much unless you are doing something exploitative. And there are no concerns about privacy going in the other direction either. Don’t be surprised if you end up on your local community tv station without your knowledge, which happened to me. One day some cameras were in my classroom filming a “promotional” video that I was told was going to be used at a sort of convention for area schools to bring new students to the school, but a few weeks later my neighbours were telling me they saw me on the local news. Great. Except no one told me it was going to happen and no one asked my permission and no one told me what it was saying about me, if anything. Nothing is cut and dried in Korea. There is no black and white here, only varying shades of grey.

        • My concerns are more for my home laws, if anything. The accrediting body from which I have my Canadian teaching license makes some pretty sweeping demands of us in terms of the profession, and I’m sure they would get uppity were I to veer too far away from home standards of student privacy, even in a country where there are no legal problems even in non-exploitive use, such as a blog. My Korean teachers certainly don’t seem to care, but I err on the side of what will not impede me from getting teaching work when I eventually return.

          I know what you mean! Where in Korea do you live? If you’re anywhere near Seoul, two months or so back a friend of mine, a red-haired girl from New York, was regularly appearing on the over-head ads in the subway. I can’t remember what she was helping to advertise (knowing the Seoul subway, I assume it was food of some kind), but she remembers being filmed suddenly and then appearing all over the subways within a few days.

  2. Wow– I’ve been doing a monster camp (aka feelings) but I”m kinda jealous that your students’ drawings are so elaborate and cooler! You must be doing a great job.

    Welcome to English Camp in Korea and co-teaching! Sounds like you’ve gotten how it works. Co-teaching has its joys when you’ve got a great co-teacher but it can also be a compromising balance to which it’s concievable that you could get absolutely no help AND yet, are seen as a “token”opinion (often dismissed) to matters of importance regarding the curriculum or lessons. Sounds like you’ve got things in perspective tho– you’ll survive. 😉

    • To be fair, these pictures were of the champion drawers. A LOT of my kids tried to trace the monster hand-out which I drew. The rest, I just gave them limited options so things didn’t get out of hand, things the monster had to have, how many limbs, big or small, etc. What did the rest of your camp entail?

      I’ve been lucky with my co-teachers, to be honest, though I’ve heard plenty of people who get no respect (Rodney Dangerfield style). One of mine just really respected me right off out of kindness, I think, the other two are new to teaching or new to teaching English, and thus we are on more level footing with one another, so.

  3. Teaching is a very rewarding profession. As long as you teach your students some good lessons in your own little way, you can be a great teacher to them and to their parents. When I was teaching Kinder students I found it so very challenging because I am not a teacher by profession, but I can definitely teach for as long as I know the lessons and topics. And of course they were very young students (4 to 5 yrs old) so I have to teach them basic lessons only. My most challenging part is how to handle their behavior because young as they are, they are very hyper and can not be still. Yet, I was able to manage and I’ve learned how to control them.

  4. Of course, you’re going to feature the best of the lot. Who wouldn’t? I agree with respecting privacy of children, and my opinion has naught to do with law at all, but with decency. R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Also, I just want to tell you I like your blog. All best,

  5. Love the drawings! I did something similar with my students this week too. After teaching the 6/7 years olds all the animal parts from tail, winds, trunks etc they then created their own “cat-dog” or “giraffe-eagle” things…always entertaining! 🙂

    Great blog, and congrats on your latest post being freshly pressed too!

    Janet 🙂

    • Yeah, the “jam some animal parts into your own mammal Frankenstein’s monster!” project is pretty good, it gives me a chance to upload a lot of vocabulary too (both in terms of anatomical nouns and adjectives).

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