As I near the midway point of my year-long contract here in Korea, it’s difficult to tell how fast the time has gone. On the one hand, when I have been stood in a classroom during the non-teaching part of the first of seven identical lessons, watching the school leavers video of some unsuspecting American child, it has felt like the weekend is a lifetime away – let alone August 25. Incidentally, that’s what I spent Thursday and Friday of last week doing: the sixth graders “graduate” this month and one of their final English lessons consisted of learning about the differences between the ceremonies here and in the USA. I’ve no idea where my co-teacher found the video of “Daniel O’Hare’s Elementary School Graduation”, as it only had about 100 plays on YouTube when we watched it, but I decided not to ask. On the other hand I think of the new native teachers who will be arriving in Korea for their orientation around now; remember how unused I was to my new lifestyle; reflect on how much I’ve learned – and it seems like the previous six months were spirited away with a click of the fingers.
I’m well and truly settled in to a routine now. There are slight, insignificant changes to school life every so often – I’m now known to the fifth grade boys as ‘Long Leg Daddy’ rather than ‘Teacha Six-Pack’, for example – but on the whole I know what to expect and when to expect it: I overtake the same child on my journey to school every morning; I’ll walk past the same group every day on my way to teach after school and they’ll call me “ugly Joseph” in the hope I’ll pull a mock-angry face at them; I’m told to prepare a 20 minute game or activity the afternoon before my first lesson of a particular grade cycle – “it doesn’t matter what game, I trust you”. As the school calendar completes another cycle, little changes as the students are shifted up from grade 3 to 4; 4 to 5; and 5 become the new kings of the school – in Korea, even names remain almost the same (45% of Korean people bear the family name Kim, Lee, or Park). I’ve started being able to make fairly reasonable predictions about what sort of grade 6 student my after-school kids will become, because at this age – and I’m sure this is true elsewhere, too – trends and patterns are repeated.
But there are still enough small, individual moments to make my time at school enjoyable. I never tire of being called handsome, especially when the staff here are so creative in their compliments (one co-teacher told me my beard was “very gorgeous” and another said a big nose was a sign of “strong, sexual… you know”). Some of my sixth graders have become a bit more friendly and have stopped running out of the classroom as soon as the bell rings, and it makes your day when one abandons the need to seem cool at all times to stay behind for a chat (to ask if a particular student was my nephew, in one case). And I’ve recently progressed with after-school from jobs to household objects, but they keep calling a toaster a toast. I was trying to coax the right answer from them by hinting that they just needed to make the word slightly longer, and so one girl shouted out “toastman!”.
Actually, after-school is one time when I haven’t been able just to go through the motions. January was a holiday month, which I think contributed to my class-size rocketing from about 12 regulars to 28, and the safety in numbers gave the more mischeivous of them a previously unseen confidence. This has continued now that I’m back with the 12 regulars, and so I’ve had to conduct an After-School Crackdown. Previously empty threats have been carried out: I’ve separated constant chatterers; I’ve tipexed out reward stamps; and I’ve even cancelled games. It’s lead to a few “oooh, teacha angry”s but I’m not angry – they’re 7 and 8 year olds staying behind to learn English – I just can’t be bothered to tell them all to sit down for an hour straight. There was one awkward moment when after repeated warnings a girl wouldn’t stop playing on her phone, and when I asked her to hand it over she point blank refused. I stood there with my hand out until the rest of the class were shouting at her to give it me but she wouldn’t, and it only concluded when a Korean teacher came in from outside. I spend a lot of my time telling a pair of best friends to shut up, but they’re secretly two of my favourites. Whenever I try to teach them a new word, they’ll say “teacha, Korean say…” and then tell me the Korean word for what we’re learning. If I want the class to focus on me again I’ll speak Korean – everyone still loves it when I try and speak their language.
Apart from my co-teachers, that is. If the novelty of me hasn’t worn off for the kids, it certainly has for them. I sometimes study Korean at my desk, listening to podcasts or making vocab lists, and you’d expect that this would merit a “oh, how’s it going?” every now again. It doesn’t. I’m starting to feel a bit alienated at lunchtimes when I walk to the canteen a few steps behind the rest of them, straining to understand a word or two of their Korean conversations, despite the fact that they’re all English teachers. I don’t mind that much though, and the new term starts in March (on a Friday, for some reason), some of my co-teachers and my timetable will change and there’ll be another man in the office – maybe things will be different. It will be interesting to see if I’ll have to adapt to a new routine, but like I’ve said, I’m pretty happy with the old one.