Nearly a year in, my students still treat me as a sort of rock star, beyond any actual reasoning.
When I first arrived, this was expected. Korean kids don’t have an opportunity to see many non-Koreans in their day, and the school’s last English teacher was Asian-Canadian, and thus had the air of foreignness without additionally looking wacky. The first day I arrived, students actually did a few double-takes, shocked as they were by the very nature of my existence. They would cower, and giggle, and ask about my hair, and my clothes, and my eyeballs, questioning with each second whether they were authentic or granted to me via hours of work and thousands of dollars of surgery.
I assumed this fervor would die over time, and it has to some degree. Where once kids would scream their hellos from down the hall, running toward me at great speeds with both hands held aloft, I am now greeted just as often with solemn bows. But I am still greeted. Students rarely pass by me without acknowledging me, and will often go out of their way to come back and say hello. These are kids that I see multiple times per day. My coworkers walk with me, and comment either pleasantly or with the barest snifter of envy, that I am incredibly popular. Homeroom teachers close their eyes and shake their heads in exasperation as their charges cease the orderly procession down the halls in order to individually greet me and clamour for high fives. High fives which are apparently the succor, the manna they require for their very survival, given the frenzy with which they demand them.
They want to be around me, despite me teaching what could easily be one of their most listless, boring subjects. After a few weeks of the grade 5 schedule being interrupted, a boy in 5-4 waved me down and remarked, in Korean, “It’s been a long time since we saw you!” My fluent kids stop me in the hall and grill me, asking when our next English class is with deep suspicion, as though I am withholding from them.
It’s still baffling. My students back home liked me in a vague sense, as much as one can like an adult who doesn’t regularly buy you food or iPods, but they saw me most of the day, so the specialness wore down quickly, and I became just another facet of school. Here, my very presence is viewed as a treat. I helped a coworker with an open-class, on how to use explanatory language in Korean. Here, I hovered outside the door, and burst in like I didn’t know that there were parents around, asking for some information on certain subjects, entirely in Korean. My coworker had scripted the exchange carefully, but before we could speak every line, the students became too excited and began shouting their interjections, trying to explain to me the concepts in English.
A grade 4 class was given their social studies project: write a letter to someone from a foreign country to find out about his or her life. Apparently half the class addressed their letters to me, finding me plausibly more relatable than Johnny EveryForeigner. Most of this was reported to me by one of my fluent students, HG, who said that his teacher was very thankful to me, as the easy foreign target had really helped the class to focus, and had given them a number of ideas about what they’d like to ask. Me: helping pedagogy by just sort of showing up.