Nuggets of Pedagogy: The Department


A new school semester is upon us, which of course means a bunch of sweeping changes.

Typically these sorts of things happen when I’m not at school for a little while. Schedules change on whims and decisions are made instants before their ramifications must come into play on a usual basis, but particularly when I am not around, large decisions are made in the school. Often large decisions that will impact me in various ways. My opinion is never really solicited, but I’m used to that by now. My job is to weather the changes with my regular stalwart endurance.

Coming back from vacation to an empty school, I began snooping. Most of the changes would not be alerted to me for a while, so I would need to prod. I deciphered who was now in the department, and that I had essentially become the longest-running English staff member of the school. I snooped and stalked and figured out how many classes I would have, and noted their low number.

Foreign English teachers in Korean public schools are held to a mystical, sacred number: the holy 22. 22 is the maximum number of classes one may teach at a school before overtime starts getting paid. How this number is interpreted is basically varied and incredibly stupid, and different people will allow slack or become iron-fisted bureaucrats based on their interpretation of our contract. Some education bigwigs once threw a shitfit at one of my friends because he noted honestly that some weeks he did not teach 22 hours. 22, they cried, was both the minimum and the maximum, the alpha and the omega. He must teach them every week! No exceptions! Even a holiday week that only has three days, and nowhere in spacetime that one could theoretically fit 22 classes? It doesn’t matter! Find a way! Bluuurgh!

I was down to 18 by my count. Hovering at my previous number of 21 made it too onerous and risky to schedule me with anything else but my regular classes: with all the random things I do around the school, if I ever got really in a snit (not that I would) I could start making noise about overtime. But at 18, people start to get ideas. Last year the principal had similarly gotten all ideaful, and had essentially demanded that I begin designing entire afterschool English programs, running an English version of the school website, begin tutoring sessions and giving lectures to the staff on English. But at 21 hours, these ideas thankfully drifted off into the First Week of School Good Ideas pit, from whence they would never issue again. This year I could not really escape them.

One idea: teaching grade 1/2, specifically a group of apparently underprivileged kids. A coteacher presented this to me as though I would react with abject horror, shying away from my gaze lest I begin firin’ my lasers. Of course, I like teaching primary, and a year of solid training in misty-eyed idealism in teacher’s college makes me leap upon the chance to teach children who need extra help. Challenge accepted!

The other change was less welcome: weekly broadcasts. Essentially, I am tasked with just sort of filling up ten minutes of airtime with English nonsense on a weekly basis, because, in the eyes of our great and mighty principal, this will improve English education at the school. Through magic and science.

Otherwise, things are running smoothly for the beginning of the year. At least two grades worth of kids I have taught continuously for the last 18 months, and thus they know the system and how to react. They still remember our opening routine, and can recite the majority of my parts of the call-and-response in complete, harmonic unison. They come to class and open their books, pencils at the ready, and turn their eyes to me as soon as the bell has rung. I have trained them well, and their robotic devotion to the system pleases me. Getting the new teachers to fit into the well-oiled machine I have designed is a trickier conundrum.

And then there are the grade 4s. As grade 3s, I have taught some of them in special camps, and these kids already lord it over the others that they’re down with the foreigner. But the rest are coming into a new classroom, with two new teachers, and it’s all being conducted in a foreign language. From what they believe, they are in English Fun Zone, and Happy Michael English Clown will ministrate to their various childish desires for nonstop bingo games and candy. They’ve heard the rumours. Foreigners are basically just large, more highly-trained monkeys, and when a school hires them, it is for their visceral entertainment. They believe I’m not really a teacher. They believe English time is not serious time.

What they believe is wrong.

They are not aware that I am the sheriff, basically. I am harsher and can talk louder than any of the other teachers in the department, and as I have suddenly become the one there the longest, I am basically the most tenured at this point. The other teachers happily defer discipline to me, because they know of my wrath and find it useful. The students don’t know that they are staring into the face of their very doom. But they will learn.

And hopefully they won’t unlearn when I’m forced to stammer on camera every Wednesday morning about whatever.

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5 thoughts on “Nuggets of Pedagogy: The Department

  1. I am harsher and can talk louder than any of the other teachers in the department

    Let me run a question by you, heavily laden with assumptions. As far as harshness and volume, I’m going to assume that as educated North American males, you and I are roughly, somewhat, at-least-a-little similar. One thing I know with dead certainty is that the majority of my American inner-city students are much harsher and much louder. Then back to assuming, I’ll draw from this post and, you know, experiences of Asian Americans + stereotypes thereof, that the majority of your Korean students might, just maybe, be less harsh and less loud than our (assumed) shared baseline. How does that strike you?

    If so, then man, enjoy being the sheriff! And… join me in counting down the final 45 days of my third and final year of teaching!

    • The loud thing can be thrown out right away: at least in elementary school (I can only comment second hand for higher age-levels), Korean students are just as loud as any North American. Before I give a good, hearty series of quiet-down signals, the classroom and most of the hallways sound like airport tarmacs.

      The harshness thing… I think there’s a lot of variables there. When I was working in Toronto schools, certainly a lot of Asian-Canadian students were a little bit quieter and less goonish than some of their peers, but so many other things came into play there: different parenting styles, differing culture, and for those students who were immigrants, a host of other things (including sometimes the language). Most of the Asian students I also taught back home were pretty staunchly middle-class. Here, I’m exposed to a much wider span of kids all from the same ethnicity, with much more diversity in terms of SES, background, family life, etc. I teach at a more well-to-do school, but even there, the kids on the extremes tend to be harsher and act out more than a lot of the others. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, because suddenly this is a paragraph, but suffice-it-to-say, a lot of the stereotypes of Asian Americans/Canadians come tied to issues surrounding diaspora communities, and there’s just a whole different whack of rules and things going on inside Asia Asia.

      Another different thing: in Korea (and a few other countries), the school-year starts in March. Join me in counting down the final… 200-something-odd days of school!

  2. Interesting! You likely do not know this but your grandfather on my side of the family always said he would like to have been a teacher and while he was very good at sharing his experience and his knowledge, I think the idea of being a teacher appealed to him more because he would be the loudest voice in the room, he would be the authoritarian, he would be the alpha leader. That was all well and good but then he had to demonstrate this rule over his four daughters (the five sons were angels) and starting with the leader of that pack – your mother – he soon discovered that only half of his class would recognize the deity before them, after all he was perfect; also, the fact that fatal beatings were not allow put a damper on his plans (not that he would have ever done anything so despicable, he just like the threat and he did have a booming voice – just ask any of your Aunts or Uncles for that matter).

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