Until a few days ago, I hadn’t had much direct contact with the Principal Of Our School. The few things I did know about Him – gleaned through conversation with Charles and other teachers, or through my fleeting exchanges with him – can be summed up thus: He is new to the school this year and speaks no English, yet sees it integral to a young Korean’s future success and will be putting his full force behind its teaching/learning at his school. He battled through stomach cancer and now sees life as an opportunity to be seized with both hands and as such is a major workaholic. He seems relatively friendly and social compared to some other principals I’ve heard about (He gave me a high five when I was on his team during the first volleyball session; and that time I mentioned a while ago when all the teachers went out to enjoy a meal in his honour – He paid, plied us with Soju and then took us to a karaoke bar). Most interestingly, He instills a kind of fearful respect in everyone at the school from youngest student (even the naughtiest, most rebellious child falls silent at the very sight of Him) to most experienced teacher (meetings with Him are conducted in one’s smartest outfit and in a high-pitched quiver). This is especially funny as He’s no taller than about 4’3″.
I’d heard it’s tradition here to buy your principal a gift upon receipt of your first wage (which was gratefully accepted last Friday), and so, seeing as the final thing I knew about Him was his love for ridiculous sparkly ties, I bought Him a new ridiculous sparkly tie from E-Mart. The next Monday, with kids following me, calling ‘teacher teacher, E-Mart, girlfriend, oooooh’, I went to deliver Him it. Fortunately He seemed to like it (although I’ve not yet seen Him wearing it), and a speaker of English was immediately summoned to act as translator between us, despite her being in the middle of a lesson. He made some strange monologue about the school students, ‘Andrew’, and respect, before asking me why I’d bought the tie. I’d kind of zoned out a bit and didn’t want to tell him I was mindful of horror stories involving native English teachers in Korea and their holiday time, and so told Him that in England it’s tradition to buy your boss a gift when you first get paid. Funnily enough, it transpired that Korea had a similar tradition!
The next afternoon a meeting was held for all English teachers at the school. Again, the principal made a strange monologue, which was only briefly interrupted by a few high-pitched quivers from the other teachers. He then left, leaving them to explain to me what the meeting had been about. Turns out He’s pretty serious about English. Here are a few of the things He suggested:
– that I arrive to school early and spend 20 minutes in the morning chatting to a particular class, which changes daily;
– that I become involved in a dramatic production of some English-language play;
– that I lead a discussion with the rest of the English teachers once a week on a current affair of my choosing;
– that I start up a reading club at school; and
– that I… allow students to have my personal mobile telephone number so that they can ring me at hour of the day, any day of the week, to speak English.
The first four seem like hard work, but they each have their perks and seem like they could be fun, but you can imagine how I reacted when I found out about the last thing. Hopefully my unequivocal ‘no, sorry’ will find its way back to the principal. I already get Charles’ teacher friends ringing to ask highly technical questions about work experience in hospitals and other places I know nothing about, but having 6th grade girls giggling down the phone when I’m trying to put my barebecued beef into a lettuce wrap is a whole different kettle of fish entirely.
Luckily, my co-teachers (apart from Charles) agree. On Wednesday one of my lessons was cancelled so that I read out the English questions at the school’s version of the Golden Bell, a Korean quiz show in which scores of participants answer questions on personal whiteboards until they get one wrong, when they’re eliminated. (My contract mentions something about my duties other than teaching, I can see now why it’s included. The other night I had to compress Treasure Island – a story I’ve not even read – into a 10-slide powerpoint, so that I could be filmed reading it out the next day. I’ve also been interviewed a few times by students over the last few days for school projects. I’m definitely not just a teacher here.) This didn’t last long, and so my 4th grade co-teacher, Yuni, and I went back to the classroom to wait for the next class with a good 25 minutes to spare. She started a monologue about how mental the principal is. She senses big change at school, with most of the increased workload falling at the feet of the English teachers. ‘There are two types of teacher in Korea’, she said. ‘The first type, my type, become teachers because they want to work with children – they want to teach them, to care for them, and to facilitate their growth into well-rounded human beings’ (not her exact words). ‘The second type, Charles’ type, become teachers because they want to become principals. They see teaching as a means to an end, don’t care about the children, only about the ‘success’ of their school, which is measured in statistics, not in the relationships with and progress of the students’. Again, not her words exactly, but her sentiment was clear. ‘In Korea, you have to leave a school after four years, but you can leave after three. My third year finishes at the end of this term…’. When I brought up the students ringing me thing, she laughed long and hard. ‘Exactly’ was her one-word reply.
This afternoon was one of my most successful so far. I had my best after-school lesson (the kids are finally starting to understand that good behaviour means a game, and at age 8/9 games are not things you want to miss out on. They’re also making progress with the differences between the sounds ‘l’ and ‘r’) and afterwards, a 9 year old student I’d never met came to chat with me in my office. She was tiny and extremely cute with pigtails, and marched up to me confidently, telling me her life story in better English than any of the teachers have. I’ve made a Korean friend! When she left, I shared some shortbread from home with my co-teachers, did another interview and helped different teachers with their English problems. I came home feeling fulfilled, and quickly fell asleep.
The other day Eliz and I stumbled upon some kind of festival going on by the river. The best part of it was this food competition, which I took some photos of with my new smart phone (get me!). I didn’t wanna make a blog just for them, so I’ll stick a few in here now. You should be able to see why I’ve called it a ‘food’ and not a ‘cooking’ competition. Here they are: