Click here for one of the best rapper ever's best raps ever.
Last Friday saw me complete my first full week of teaching at an elementary school in the upmarket Seocho district of Seoul. The school is a 45-minute journey from my house with about 30 of that spent on the subway. The subway comes overground to cross the Han River every morning, and the novelty of this is still very much alive for me. Seoul does not have the instantly recognisable skyline of a New York or a London or a Hong Kong, but it is very much a foreign landscape, and looking across the river to the smog-covered skyscrapers makes me feel exhilaratingly far from home.
My school lies within spitting distance of the brand-new Sinpyeong-yeok subway and I emerge from underground into a high-rise suburbia which is currently under construction. Directly opposite the station is a huge and brand-new apartment complex that has been lived in for only two months or so, whilst to the right and left are immense building sites throwing up like-for-like apartment buildings for Seoul's white-collar workers. A quick survey of one of my classes informed me that my kids' parents are of the doctor, lawyer, architect and dentist variety. This is the Korean Cheshire Set. Seoul-derly Edge, if you will. A short walk through a small park and I enter the school, giving a half-bow to the two ladies stood with their little machine, taking the temperature of every child that enters. They have done this every day since I arrived as a precaution against swine flu (of which 2 kids have been diagnosed in the last week) and each day I'm tempted to go stand in front of them and hold my mouth open to see if they'd take mine. I haven't yet. I might, though.
The school is 4-storeys tall, reasonably modern, and clean. Each classroom (there are at least 40) is fitted with a 50-inch Samsung LCD TV which we use for displaying Powerpoints, flashcards and inappropriate YouTube videos (more of that later). I teach mainly 6th grade students, but I also have five 3rd Grade classes a week, two 2nd grade and one 1st Grade. Although this schedule makes my planning slightly more confusing than for other teachers in the SMOE programme, I can hardly complain as my planning tops out at four lessons a week. And that's if I find it in me to separate the 1st and 2nd graders in term of level - I haven't as yet. The kids are good fun, mostly well behaved and very, very smart. One 1st grader - a 6-year-old girl - pulled me up on my spelling of the word 'Clementine' by standing up, adjusting her glasses and saying, verbatim, "Teacher, I believe you have misspelled Clementine", before sitting down, adjusting her glasses again, and rolling her eyes at the boy sat next to her as if to say, "Who's this dipshit"? I turned and muttered "I think you'll find it's mis-spelt," before sulkily correcting my woeful spelling on the chalkboard. Turns out it is misspelled, actually.
We were promised more free time when we decided to take up public school positions and I suppose we have it...I guess it just depends what your definition of free time is. We have to be at school between 8.30am and 4.30pm but my teaching is always finished by 1.30pm. This means that I have a minimum of three hours planning time every day but,with only four (well, three) classes a week to plan for, this planning time becomes free time which must be spent at school. It is so, so boring. I am trying to use this time productively to do some writing, but it is a frustrating few hours and I would much prefer a system whereby, provided I could prove I had planned my lessons (and I would be happy to do this) I could go home and sit around in my boxer shorts rather than sit feverishly refreshing facebook or talking to the school geek about an Apocalypse theory he's read about on adolescentangst.com. Seems pointless to me.
The main difference in the teaching between our public school gigs and last year's hagwon job is the difference in class size. I have 25-30 students in each class and, whilst this makes the lesson more difficult to control, you do get more characters in your lessons. There's one kid in my class who doesn't say a word to anyone, does his work quietly and perfectly, but 3 times now has handed me a note at the end of class saying, in English, "Do I make you angry, Teacher"? Or the other lad who insists on doing the robot every time he moves away from his desk. Or, my personal favourite, the special needs boy at Kendra's school who will fix Kends with a keen stare before shouting, "MY NAME IS KENDRA TEACHER!" at the top of his voice and running out of the classroom, only to be found peeping around the door moments later to see if Kendra is looking. I suppose it is the kids that make a teacher's job worthwhile and it's moments like this that do make the boredom less of a pain. However, the main thing I miss from the smaller sized hagwon classes is the one-to-one interaction with the kids and I can't see a way of us getting that this year. It's a shame.
Another difference is that we have a co-teacher in each of our classes who, in theory, is there to control the class, help with any language barriers and do a little teaching. This relationship will be very important for the year ahead and I'm lucky that my co-teachers are quite cool, young and speak English well. We're getting along okay so far and, as I say, I feel lucky for that. However, one tip I would give to anyone considering this experience for themselves would be to double-check any YouTube videos you were thinking of showing the children before pressing play. In the first class that I would lead, and the first opportunity I had to impress my co-teacher with the world-class teaching that I bring to the table, I showed an animated video for the song, 'Anything You Can Do' from Annie Get Your Gun that I was using as a lesson on comparatives. The video ended with the two characters baring their arses before giving each other a double-fisted middle finger- something the students found considerably more amusing than my co-teacher did. Embarrassing moment #2 came during my first (and hopefully last) appearance on the school's television network when I was to introduce myself to the school and express my joy at returning to Korea. Humiliating enough, you might think. Well yes, you'd be correct, had I not coupled it with a huge outbreak of sweat and an odourless but definitely audible fart as I stepped in front of the camera. Horrific.
We knew coming into this that it would be a different working experience than last year, but I'm not sure we were prepared for how different it was going to be. The days are long, the teaching
difficult and, in a minority of cases, the colleagues are dickheads. But, one of the reasons we didn't take the hagwon jobs in Busan was to take ourselves out of our comfort zones and, when we order our 4th cocktails of the day, lying bollock-naked on a beach somewhere in south-east Asia come February, I'm sure we'll be able to see the benefits of our decision. We're in this together and I'm certain it will be worth while. Every day is an experience, and we should be thankful for that alone.
Anyway, I'm going to hit the sack. Got to do it all over again tomorrow.
Peace and love,