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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.]