Seemingly the greatest, most horrific event in the life of the Korean public school teacher is the open class. Here, the doors of the classroom are thrown open for spectators to come in and squint, criticize, and hand down judgment upon the teachers. In some cases, parents (who, in Korea, are like grand arbiters with great deals of clout should they want to complain) attend, in others, principals and big-wigs sit in. Blood pressure rises, teachers begin to develop tics, and everyone worries about how they will come off in the reviews.
The open class day for the English department was much ballyhooed. My co-teachers began to scramble, asking me for any particularly flashy or interesting ideas. I would pass by and hear them whispering in English, trying desperately to perfect their tones, their inflections, their word choices. Every aspect was rehearsed and trained. They were like dancers going over their steps, making sure every swoop was crisp, every leap articulate and emotional. This is what they were training for. They would be ready.
Open classes are generally meant to be a little artificial and over-the-top. You dress up extra, you pull out the big guns. At some schools, some people even pre-teach the lesson to the kids so that the kids know the steps, making the entire thing a group secret, like a well-rehearsed educational flash mob. A former co-teacher came to borrow a bunch of English department electronics for her open class, to make things seem more smooth and hitchless. As English teachers, we were even allowed to futz with the schedule, to pick which class of kids would prove most benign, quiet, and angelic for a viewing audience. Essentially, we were gods, picking and choosing which kids were the least kidlike, to make the parents believe us such masters of classroom management that the children were awed into quiet, mind-expanding quiet.
The other teachers wondered why I carried myself with such nonchalance. On the day, 13 parents came to watch our lesson with the calmest, most gentle grade 4 class. When asked for quiet, the children suddenly grew mute and attentive, as though I’d personally removed all of their vocal cords. When asked to speak, a sea of trembling hands rose into the air and swayed as though washed by a gentle breeze. Every kid could participate, and almost all of them wanted to, even while being watched by all of their friends’ moms. I could leave them for 40 minutes and be relatively confident they will have sat quietly, books open to an appropriate page, waiting for my return.
The other major boon: most of the parents don’t speak a lick of English. Thus, whatever I’m jabbering on about most of the time is largely ignored. Am I getting the kids to say some things? Yup. Am I also speaking in English? Sure am. Do I look like maybe I am planning on shooting some heroin or abducting the children? No. A + Michael Teacher. Keep on keeping on!