They’ve been eye-opening, that’s for sure, my first few days of regular school. As helpful as orientation was, there’s only so much theory you can take to a classroom, and to say I was nervous as I loaded up my introductory PowerPoint for my first group of 6th graders on Friday morning (Thursday was actually a ‘ceremony day’ and I wasn’t required to teach) would be an understatement to say the least. I had previously been warned – repetitively – about this age group, and 12/13 year old adolescents are a whole different kettle of fish from cute 8 year olds with pig tails and missing front teeth. But afterwards, I wondered to myself where these warnings had come from. Perhaps levels of behaviour are different here compared to those in the UK (where I went to primary school you’d never get a whole class staying behind after school to wipe the blackboards and to pick up rubbish), or maybe I’m untrained in spotting naughtiness, but I noticed little, if any, ‘bad attitude’ or ‘very crazy actions’. They were loud and they were blunt (‘do you have girlfriend?’, ‘is she pretty?’, ‘how much do you weigh?’ etc.) but I’d been told to expect this. Maybe as I become less of a novelty and they tire of asking personal questions they’ll get trickier to deal with, but over the past week I’ve had a bit of time to stand back and make a few observations about school from a teacher’s point of view – something I’ve never had the opportunity to do before.
Consecutively teaching different classes from the same year group, you notice a lot even in a morning. You’ve got the cool kids sat at the back with their arms folded chewing gum; you’ve got the teacher’s pets and know-it-alls sat right at the front, eyes wide and pens at the ready; you’ve got the laddish types sat wherever they can get a seat because they’re late from playing football in the yard or fighting in the corridor; here in Korea you’ve got a few who just sleep through the lesson – and the same is true of every single separate group. Because they all seem so bent on a certain stereotype, you almost want to tell them (especially the cool kids) ‘look, when you’re my age you’ll look back and wonder why you spent so much time and effort on being a certain type of child’, but then you realise a) that’s kind of the whole point of childhood; b) if you start saying ‘when you’re my age’ there’s no turning back; and c) they don’t speak English anyway.
Their reactions to my introduction have been funny. I’ve put together a 20-minute presentation on myself and on England. One group started clapping when I showed them a picture of the Union Jack (Roo & Max I hope you’re reading this) and a few clapped at one of me playing rugby; another group got up and started shooting each other when James Bond came on screen; there was a collective ‘oooooh’ at a picture of my house and an ‘ahhhhh’ at one of Stella, my dog. Generally, in a game I play with them, they guess my age to be 26 (which it isn’t), my height to be 193cm (which it is) and almost no-one guesses that I studied maths at Uni. I’ve already mentioned some of the questions they asked – one girl asked me if I like snakes, then if I like frogs, and then if I like crocodiles, until the co-teacher had to ask her to stop being annoying in Korean. One particularly tricky student asked me to describe my personality (‘I am very kind’).
Some of the physical features of the kids are really funny too. I always want to laugh when a kid puts his hand up and answers a question with a voice deeper than mine when his best friend still sounds like Billy Elliot. Most of the girls tower over most of the boys and at this age maintain physical superiority over the opposite sex. The comparatively ‘immature’ boys fight their battles by being annoying – pushing pencil cases on the floor, pulling hair and then running away, etc. – and succeeding, and so probably have a psychological advantage. How times change. All these things you never seem to notice at that age, and it’s been one of the most interesting things about being a teacher so far – having that teacher’s perspective, and not just of the students, either. I wish some of the dialogue videos we have to show were available on the internet. Picture three badly-animated cartoon teenagers having this conversation, only with the words being heard 5 seconds after their mouths move:
1: How was your vacation Joon?
2: It was not good.
1: Did you learn English?
1: Did you read books?
1: Did you visit your grandparents?
(At this point you want to scream ‘what the hell DID you do, then?)
1: Did you watch TV?
1&2 together, heads wobbling: Hahahaha!
It takes it out of you, teaching. After three years of being a student, for whom the concept of time doesn’t apply (save for the exam period, when it seemed like Monday morning 24/7), I finally felt that Friday feeling once more. When that weekend bell rang (I say bell, it’s more like an advertising jingle for a cheap cleaning product), the sheer relief I felt at the prospect of an evening free of lesson-planning and a whole two days free of “teacher, teacher tall” definitely merits a mention. It was nice at the weekend to have conversations in English made up of full sentences rather than single words a few of us went out a couple of times to the bars around Ulsan. I think weekends will start to become as valuable as they were when I was back at school, when they meant freedom, lie-ins and a general lack of anything school-related. Apart from this weekend, when I had to go out shopping for school slippers (here in Korea, everyone who goes to school for any reason must wear slip-on shoes. When I first met the school’s principal with a group of other teachers, they spent a good 15 minutes discussing my feet and my lack of appropriate footwear) and a textbook for my after-school 1st and 2nd graders. I think they’ll provide my toughest challenge – I’m required to teach a group of 5 kids 5 times a week who seem to have an infinite list of vocab committed to memory but who can’t string together a full sentence between them. I’ve actually just finished my second session with them, which went horribly and I finished all my material with 15 minutes to spare.
It’s now 20 minutes until the end of the day, when all the teachers are going out together for dinner because the principal is new this year and he needs to be welcomed. The hierarchical system here is something I will comment on another time, it’s pretty interesting. But anyway, I’ve just signed my contract to work here until August, and my co-teacher talked about enjoying Soju together, a rice or potato-based drink comparable to vodka. Whether or not he meant tonight I was unable to glean, so I’ll be very drunk either in a couple of hours, or at some other unspecified time. Koreans, I’ve learned, aren’t big on specifying things like when/where/who/what/why, but that too is another topic for another time.