The Pedagogy Marathon, or, Building a Classroom in 4 Hours or Less

I'm sure setting up a classroom will be no hassle at all.

I’m sure setting up a classroom will be no hassle at all.

At long last, I staggered into the staff room of my new school.

Due to the stringencies required for visas, I arrived in China roughly two weeks after training for the new school year had begun. Frantic emails were shunted in my direction every day from secretaries, from principals, from coworkers offering help and condolences and desperate pleas that I maybe get a move on.

My picture had clearly been passed around, as my principals shook my hand, the other grade one teachers gathered to celebrate my foretold arrival, and dozens of others cooed their appreciation at this droopy, wide-eyed newbie. Suddenly I was on a team of people discussing how best to perform sports hall duty at lunch, and whether or not paper was allowed, and how there was always paper to be picked up during PE class, and how that was not on, but maybe if they brought colouring books, or what if they wanted to write, and when did we blow the whistle exactly?

An ocean of information crashed upon me. Schedules and curricula and class lists and furniture arrangements and duty rosters and names and names and names. I met nearly 50 people that day, and would remember the names of maybe four. I arrived in my classroom, Spartan and clean and mine, and was told to prepare.

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Pre-Summer: The Longest Wait in the World

Things are very nearly settled into their summer gear here at SUF HQ, which, as you may recall, is the dining chair in front of my laptop where I eat ice cream in my underpants. The sun is shining, the air is thicker than oil, and the tropical storms and monsoons have begun to cleanse the roads of puke like some vengeful god drowning away our sins. The day of release from our constraints is nigh, and everyone I interact with is essentially checked out. Children, adults, teachers and students, Korean or foreign: it’s time for summer vacation.

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The Parade of Weird

Subway tile

My excitement to finally have a visitor in Korea was pretty palpable. That I would both be repaying a similar degree of touristy kindness to Greg and Agatha for showing me around China, hosting old friends from the university days, and showing off both the country that I’ve grown to love and the language that I speak with a kind of childish competence makes the experience all the more fulfilling. There is a lot to show in this country, but I think the primary function of tour-guiding someone around should, as always, be to immerse them in as much local weirdness as possible.

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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.

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Open Book Life: Michael and the Ten Thousand Girlfriends

Well, at least they don't know about the blog.

Small-scale celebrity is something I’ve grown accustomed to in Korea. As the only foreigner the majority of my coworkers and students regularly interact with, I am a subject of a certain degree of fascination and notoriety. What I do, what I eat, what I wear—most everything about me is remembered and shared amongst others as gossip. It’s not just within the school, either, because my students and coworkers live in the same neighbourhood, and if I am spotted in the off-hours, it’s almost certain to be reported back to the school hive by the next day. With this celebrity, I’ve had to get used to never having any secrets, and to just having my business be everyone else’s.

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Nuggets of Life: Lunchtime with His Majesty

Our current principal is a pretty okay guy, as far as Korean principals go. What I mean to say by this is: Korean principals are generally capable of doing whatever the hell they like. As older (often male), highly positioned educational officials, assignment to a principal position essentially gives you a fiefdom. They have absolute power over basically everyone who works at the school: where they go, what they are paid, what they eat, when and where they may vacation (the principal must sign off on requests for Korean teachers to leave the country). This amount of power can often go to their heads and make them terrorizing monsters, quick-set totalitarians ruling over their schools with a capricious, unyielding iron fist. That our principal passes on most of these and prefers, as some do, kind of vaguely wandering around and smiling at things or chilling in his remarkably swag office has endeared him to me considerably.

That said, I try to minimize my interactions with him. Nice as he is, interactions with a principal in Korea are always risky, and generally go one of two ways. Either you are doing a fantastic, spectacular,  unheralded job, or you are the worst bum that Korea has ever seen. Whichever of these becomes the narrative for discussion yields the same two options, which are: lots more work, or lots less work. The chances of either option are about equal.

The last time I had an open class, the principal was duly impressed. After, he inquired as to my credentials (having never really looked into it before, what with the peaceful wandering), he declared in Korean that I was a super-duper teacher. The following days saw the news that I would be heading several new English programs at school, and that my winter camp teaching would be doubled, such was my skill. Yay, it sure is nice to be great?

To avoid these sorts of scenarios, I generally err on playing dumb. I like and do well at my job, but I play down whatever I’m good at, I don’t do anything pedagogically flashy when he is around, and I almost never speak Korean around him unless absolutely pushed. If I am neither seen nor heard, he won’t remember to dump more busy work on me.

Such was what coursed through my brain when I was told we’d be going out for lunch with the principal. It was winter vacation time, and I was spending roughly four or five hours of my day on camp, and the principal wanted to treat us with lunch. I had been working hard lately, and real vacation so tantalizingly close, and I became nervous. Uninterrupted time with the principal would give him at least an hour to think about me, what with sitting directly across from him. This was dangerous. I am far safer when he is not thinking about me at all.

We sat down in the restaurant, and giant, voluminous hot-pots of sea creatures were brought to us. A live squid undulated angrily in one side, while various chitinous monsters quivered in their submarine homes. The whole bowl was a mess of wriggling, and there was considerable debate in Korean at the table over whether it would be more or less delicious to eat the various terrors within the pot before they died or after (thankfully, we went with after). I did as my parents, many years ago when I was an obnoxiously picky eater, would have wanted of me, and simply shut up and ate whatever was given to me, mostly because everyone assured me of how expensive it was.

I kept quiet, answering whatever questions were asked of me in Korean or English, but as usual when I am at a small table with Korean staff, they simply discussed me in the third person like a centrepiece, which I have grown increasingly comfortable with. At one point, the principal half-heartedly attempted to set me up with the librarian.

We had almost gotten through the meal, I had downed the squid’s brain (it is, as I was assured, good for man strength, wink wink nudge nudge), when the subject came once around to me and my coworker. “What time does work finish for you two?” the principal inquired. I tensed immediately. I was working hard on my camp, certainly, but I also had about three hours in the afternoon of quality alone time that could be filled with squalling children, should the principal decide.

I studied his indecipherable expression. His whim could make my life much easier or much more difficult, with but a simple word. I tried not to stare into his soul. My coworker mentioned when we left the school, hours after my camp had finished.

“Oh,” he murmured in Korean. “If you finish so early and you have something else to do, why don’t you just go home? No point in you sitting around all day.” He waved his hand magisterially, and rose from the table, while one of the secretaries took care of the bill.

His majesty had just freed up my afternoons for at least a few days before he forgot his generosity. But I would take this boon, and then go back into comm silence so he couldn’t remember to reverse his decision.

School Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Korean photoshopping: it's just that thorough and vigorous. (Also, dig "Michoel")

I generally hate having my picture taken. Cameras always seem to capture me at just the most awkward angle to pronounce every feature I generally attempt to minimize, and on a day where I feel relatively comfortable about my grooming choices, I am suddenly presented with badly angled evidence that makes it look as though I am a thoroughly disheveled, wild-haired, generously bechinned urchin. I endure people taking portraits of me the way children accept going to the dentist, or how I imagine medieval lords and ladies dealt with their loveless marriages: a kind of sullen, contemptuous devotion to my duties, with hopefully the promise of moderate reward for not complaining. This stretches back as far as I can remember. That school included a yearly, ritualized form of picture-taking served only to enrage my tiny, cowlicked spirit. But my hate was a malleable thing, and it changed with each passing year.

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Seasonal Affective Zombie Disorder

A nice day on the pier

Related stock photo for opening metaphor? Oh, do I have some.

Children, en masse, are like the sea. They are capricious and dangerous, and awing and inspiring, and also maybe filled with crustaceans. Their emotions are torrential and stormy, and a bad mood creeping over their waters can spell marine tragedy for whatever wayfaring, Ishmael-esque figure decides to brave the waves. And they are controlled by the season, by the moon and the sun, by the passing of time, and the slow burn of spring into summer, the great chill of fall into winter. The tides shift and become impassable, and then suddenly the waters calm.

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Nuggets of Pedagogy: The Other School

“Michael, do you think you can go to different school and record their listening tests?” Like most requests that come from my administrators and are filtered through the tremulous, worried tones of my overburdened main co-teacher, this was not actually a question. She phrased it like a question because she knows English, but what she was really saying was, “You have to go and jabber at another school for a day. It will be boring. See you later.”

Why, pray tell, would they need my golden vocal cords? Didn’t they have an indentured foreigner traipsing through their campus already? Why couldn’t he/she do it? Was this one of the schools where the other English teachers were quivering bags of goo when it came to speaking, and demanded multiple foreigners to fill out the various parts of the dialogue for the tests?

As it turns out, their language monkey flew the coop.

Have we talked about the midnight run? The midnight run is when a foreign teacher in Korea packs their bags and screws off back to their respective homeland without telling anyone. Occasionally it is because they are actually in a horrible situation, occasionally it is because they are a jerk (and very occasionally it is both). Either way, this worried me. Just recently, the only foreign person likely in most of their lives shirked all of his responsibilities and ditched back to England. I imagined resentment. I imagined my arrival heralded with suspicious, shifty eyes, and quick efforts to lock up all the silverware. I imagined muttered conversations and disappointed head-shakes. Pitch-forks. Torches. A metal detector and a pat-down. Aspersions cast on my ancestry and my character.

As it turns out, it meant they just had ludicrously low expectations*. When I got into the car, two teachers waited for me, brimming, and nervous. How long have I been here? What country am I from? Did I just sign another contract. …do I like Korea? Kimchi? Jeju and Busan? 4 seasons? They tentatively broached that their last dude had ditched, and were careful not to mention that this sucked.

We got right down to recording, and after each grade finished in a clean 15 minutes, I was responded to with a hearty, “Wow! That was amazing! What a great job!” Wait… are you guys being condescending? I mean… I did a job, certainly. I moved my mouth and sounds came out. Why the clapping like I’m a trained seal?

“Oh. Last teacher… he make some mistakes, sometimes. So maybe recording takes one or two hours.” What? I asked to repeat. I was confused. How did he make an hour’s worth of mistakes on “I like pizza. Do you like pizza? I’m from Vietnam!” This is not exactly reading Tolstoy in the original Russian, here.

Soon after, I asked for clarification of another teacher’s name, which I still misheard, and thus wrote on the paper in Hangul. “Wow, you can read Korean!” Well, yes? It soon became clear to me: I could play these people like a fiddle. I got to work.

As we walked through the hall, a grade 5 teacher passed by and greeted us. Bypassing the English teacher, she asked me directly, in Korean, if I could speak. I responded in kind, and gave my usual mealy-mouthed “Oh, my Korean is terrible!” stuff, to jaws that nearly landed on the floor with audible thuds. When we returned to the office to wait for the next recording, I pulled out my special education textbook, and on their investigation, explained my teaching license, and how I was studying online to improve my degree. They cooed. They were mine.

I don’t like casting aspersions on other foreigners, but it seems like their previous guy was kind of a goon. But in the end, he provided me a great service: I could easily impress another school. (They jokingly mentioned that maybe I should quit my school and come to theirs, ha ha ha with a set of shifty, “But could you?” eyes punctuating the sentence.) In turn, this would impress my own school. And winter vacation negotiations are coming up, which means I need to begin making deposits in the favour bank.

*A current coteacher of mine was last at this school, and it explains her constant waves of shock that I am not a mouth-breathing boob.

Teach to the Grave

Here lies your youthfulness.

When I was young, I was very often awed by my teachers. Not only were they tall and old, things that I was implicitly respectful but suspicious of, but they seemed to have mystical powers, ones specifically aimed at being better at herding children and knowing all of their secrets. They could sense when something was amiss, could see things even when their backs were turned or across an entire soccer field, and were walking human lie detectors with incredibly high accuracy scores. Their eyes were lasers, their spines were steel, and I was relatively certain that they never slept. When did they develop these powers? How did they acquire them? Could I pay to have them bestowed upon me?

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