An open class is what it sounds like. In Korean schools, it means that the doors of your class are thrown open to observers, so that they can come in and basically be all up in your grille, watch your every move, and judge to their heart’s content. Who can come? Well, it depends. There are staff open classes, filled with principals and vice-principals, teachers and department heads, janitors and janitresses, vice-lunchladies and tech staff and the copy boy. There are parental open classes, where dozens of moms with the day off wander in and see just how often you call on Junior. There are open classes for student teachers, and members of the public, and educational big wigs, and probably one for the Korean head of state, should he ever feel the need to sit down for forty minutes of grade 5 English.
More importantly, though: open classes are times when Korean teachers go completely insane.
A lot rides on these single 40-50 minutes, and it is said that their careers can be made or broken by how the lesson progresses. As such, they kind of turn out all the tricks to make sure things go swimmingly.
For the foreign teacher, an open class means considerably less: a chance to show those you work for that you’re not a boob (my principal, after one recent one, curiously asked whether I had a teaching license, and was surprised/pleased that I did), and show to the parents that you’re not molesting anybody or taking heroin in front of their precious ones. It can maybe help you renew, if that’s what you want. But it holds nowhere near the stress, because you handle the parts where you talk in English, and for all intents and purposes, you’re about the only person in the room who actually speaks English. You don’t need to worry.
But your coworkers do. And they need to talk to you about it. A lot. A LOT.
I generally enjoy a degree of peace in my language lab. I sit around the corner from the other teachers: they in the office, and me in the classroom. My computer screen is turned away, and my earphones are in the entire time that I am not teaching. It is a kind of lavish privacy that I luxuriate in daily. I finish my work and lesson plans with robotic efficiency at around 90 wpm, and then go about whatever else it is I spend my time with. My coworkers, inundated with stupid paperwork and confident that I will plan all the lessons so they don’t have to do much of that icky stuff, are completely satisfied to let me wallow in my bubble, undisturbed in glorious silence.
But not when an open class approaches.
When an open class approaches, there are meetings. Countless meetings to discuss ideas, and fine-tune powerpoints, and rework games and activities. To discuss minutiae, and to clarify every tiny facet of the key phrases. To practice grammar and pronunciation. To whittle down our performance to the cleanest, most perfectly practiced 40 minute one-act play, like a really weird Samuel Beckett script that didn’t survive the translation to Korean all that well. We rehearse and rehearse and discuss and rehearse and go over things and rehearse some more. We begin meeting a month before the open class (usual classes get a meeting, if ever, within 24 hours of the class itself), and don’t stop meeting until the class passes.
If I was used to this sort of involvement, this engagement, I might not find these incursions so officious. But the amount of work that goes into those 40 minutes compared to the amount of work that goes into… all of the rest of the minutes of the year is staggeringly off-balance. And so when the work starts to pierce my covetous, hissing bubble of quiet time, I become agitated, like a horrible, greasy troll forced from under his bridge.
Glossy, laminated, 30×30 posters are made, with full colour, on printers that I didn’t even know the school possessed. Hand-outs and flashcards and markers and props appear as though through sorcery. The class is suddenly scrubbed, and the things are moved away from the places that we all agree to keep the things. They must be hidden from sight. People cannot know we have things in the classroom! Things imply disorder. Things must be banished, lest we appear like people.
Long, boring conversations are held with my nodding, vacant face about nonsense. Nonsense like the density of board markers resting on the whiteboard ledge. “Maybe there are too many there. People will think it is messy. Maybe we should just have one or two there. What do you think?” I think nothing, because I don’t think about those sorts of things, and anyone who does is insane.
Teachers emerge out of the woodwork to wish luck upon us, though especially my hard-done-by, beleaguered, and suddenly motivated coworkers. I am drained for every idea I could possibly have, as the best, finest, and most streamlined lesson plan is generated. It is at least 11 pages long, and there are 40 copies printed out on colour paper, arranged in an artful splay across the drama room, which has become our Open Class Reception Hall. There is juice. There are cookies.
A camera is set up. We will be recorded. In our grade four open class, 25 different staff members, including the principal, fill out every additional seat we have, and then all of the standing space, and then anywhere it is possible to hover in a doorway. I am not entirely convinced that there are not teachers somewhere above us, peering in through dropped ceiling tiles.
The class itself goes off without a hitch, because of course it does. We can handpick which class we want to do it with. Adults in the room outnumber the students, and they dare not breathe, never mind act out in any sort of way that would make us look bad. I feel bad every time I call upon one of them to speak in English: their hearts are pounding. They’ve never had such a big audience before.
When the class is over, we are practically swarmed with people telling us what a good job we did. Well, I think, we certainly did the job that we are supposed to do everyday anyway? My coworkers beam and feel confident. An insufferably long meeting is held which I am required to endure. The principal uses my name at least three dozen times, spread amongst the lightning fast educational Korean like a fine seasoning salt.
Promises are made. New investments will be made in the English department. My coworkers teem with pride. I will not take this from them. I will not belittle this. They certainly did work hard the last little while for this very specific thing. I sit quietly and allow them to converse for 45 minutes while staring blankly at the wall, as is required of me.
The only promise I desire is unspoken, and it is enacted as soon as the meeting is over. Soon, soon, they leave me alone. I get back to work, and there is peace. The open class is over.