Day Two and the School Dinner

I only had a few classes to teach. The schedule is very wonky since school just started. Remember, March is the equivalent of August in the United States – the very first day of school.  They’re starting a brand new school year. So the school has all new teachers, the 1st graders are brand new to the school and all lost, computers aren’t working, and, of course, no one knows what’s going on.

Classes are being cancelled left and right for almost no reason. “You don’t have that class because it’s boys” – okay, sure.

Chris has boys and girls in his classes but my school is completely segregated. On every floor is a staff room which separates the boys classes from the girls classes. All the girls have classrooms on the left, and all the boys have their classes to the right. Even at lunch they eat on separate sides. So for some reason I will teach all-boys every other week in the 2nd grade. I’ve only taught 3rd graders so far and one second grade-girls class. I haven’t even seen 1st graders because they are on the top story of the school. I know they’re small because they are basically elementary school kids still.

My first class was 2nd grade girls, then 3rd grade girls, then 3rd boys. The boys, of course, were the worst. They weren’t stomping on the papers like on Monday, but they all refused to do the work. I was left alone with them for a few minutes and they all got up and messed around, smacking each other, changing seats. I’m probably being tested. Which is why I sent one kid to do his work in the corner. He didn’t have his friends to mess around with but mostly he didn’t have them to use as a crutch, revealing his true  English ability (low). Some kids are fluent, no accents and know most things – it’s insane. These are the kids who go to Hagwons – private “academies” every night until late.

A few kids don’t know anything. Even more unusual (not to Korea, but to us) is that Chris has taught three students with mental handicaps (one is obviously Downs Syndrome, the other two autistic/aspergers). And another student who is deaf. It’s possible I had a deaf/handicapped student in my third grade boys. More likely I think he doesn’t know any English. At ALL. He may have transfered from a rural area or has been left behind his whole life (I know this feeling from math).

All I’m asking is they fold a paper in half – on one side, write what they like, on the other, what they don’t like. His paper was blank, but folded, so he’s trying and he can follow directions. When I came over, I asked him to write it down. He began writing letters the way I would write Chinese characters – carefully copying down the shape and mimicking angles and lines. In short,  he doesn’t understand the meaning of the letters. I wrote out “things I like” “things I don’t like” and just tried to get him to draw it. The Korean teacher hung out with him for a bit – maybe she has more insight. If he needs to start with letters, it wouldn’t be that hard to print out a few things for him to do while the rest of the class works on the assignment. The idea of him starting high school next year with no English knowledge is terrifying.

I had a student in 2nd grade who was sick, and **surprise** the school has no nurse. So the homeroom teacher was just massaging and pushing on her head, trying to make her migraine go away. I asked if she could go to the nurse or lay down but there are no options. So that’s interesting. She just laid her head down on the desk. When I had them do activities, her friends made her stand up and were really working hard to make sure everyone was participating for my sake. This was really, really sweet of them, but I had her sit back down. Can’t learn English with a migraine.

I’ve accidentally implemented a shoot-myself-in-the-foot-stamp-system. When students do an activity the fastest or have the most words, sentences, etc. I’m giving them a stamp in the inside of their books. The blue stamp is the best – ten stamps = a prize. The red stamp is supposed to be worth half of the blue stamp but for some reason it’s now worth 15. I’ll never be able to correct this or keep track of which classes are 20 vs 15 so it is now stuck like that. I don’t mind buying a few prizes but it’s not going to be an all the time thing. Maybe we’ll see if a collective class-wide stamp system can be used for a movie day or something other than individual cookies, stickers,etc. I also plan to be a bit more conservative on my stamp handing out. Although, once they understood the stamps they got really into the system.

It’s not all carrot, though. If classes don’t have at least 3 volunteers, everyone has to stand up. You can only sit down once you have spoken English. You don’t get any stamps for this. Also, with the boys, I’ve considered taking stamps away (crossing them out) this maintains the collectivist thinking that is all too popular. It should also mean the students who behave well and have lots of stamps will help me keep the class quiet.

After school we had a big school-dinner. These are very common to get the teachers to bond over food and drink (mostly drink). Already, my lunch yesterday bonded me with more teachers who are very impressed with my octopus-eating, kimchi-eating. Basically anything I do is impressive for now, and that’s pretty fun.

Class got out and I was waiting for my ride. My whole office was standing with their jackets on and  were about to go but they got really worried about me. Many don’t speak English but one really sweet guy came over “Kay-TEE. Whom is driving… to dinner?” I pointed to the person’s name in Korean. They got on the phones and called the person almost angrily – like come get her so she isn’t alone! So sweet.

If I could eat the octopus yesterday then I didn’t care what dinner was today. Same thing? I didn’t care. Fortunately, it ended up being grilled meat. The co-teacher picked me up and she chatted in English the whole drive there. She said some interesting things – one, she believes American culture is spreading to all the other countries (true) but not always in a good way (also true – saw this all over Europe). She blames teen pregnancy rates in Korea, which are slowly getting more common on this American influence (possible). She also has a huge stigma against NETs (native English teachers) that we’re lazy. This is a very common belief in Korea but is true when you compare our work load (and benefits) to the work load of a Korean teacher (who isn’t getting a house provided by the school). We were talking about how American students don’t learn very much in school but also how lazy schools and students can be she suddenly piped in – “also like English teachers.”  A stigma I will never be able to break. She has worked for 15+ years as a teacher and has seen many NETs come and go. Most of which were lazy and probably the reason Chris and I had so many drug tests to pass to be employed. As the night went on, though, she talked about how I was a good teacher and she was very impressed that I would try the food or that I could read Hangul.

Korea is small and homogenized so almost everyone is surprised when I know something Korean – ondol (floor heating), hangul, rice cake, Yuna Kim, etc etc. Their eyes get huge and they make that Korean “oohhhh” sound. When we sat down for dinner she pointed at the soju -the traditional alcohol of Korea. “you know this?” “yes!” I said probably too enthusiastically. She couldn’t stop laughing for three minutes and told all her friends in Korean that I’m either alcoholic/love soju or just crazy. Women cannot smoke in public here and women drinking is not very huge either. When the whole school had to do a toast, most of the women poured water into their shot glasses. I had to balance fitting in in Korea, or fitting in with just the women. I took soju. Which impressed the Koreans very much – “ohhhhh”

I survived with chopsticks, tried some sesame leaf, and ate quite a bit of banchan. I didn’t get a chance to grill anything – as the youngest there, it was technically my responsibility but I wasn’t given a chance. Also I didn’t pour any drinks/or share any drinks with anyone. Chris has major bonding with a PE teacher at his school dinner – they shared the same cup (which is like a blood brothers thing) and the PE teacher wanted Chris to call him “dad.”

One Korean – the one who demanded I eat all the seaweed at the octopus lunch was sitting next to me. She’s sweet and tries to council me on how to eat things. She showed me how to eat the grilled meat (your wrap it up in lettuce). Then we had noodles – she stirred them for me but then got upset when I didn’t cut them. I didn’t have scissors so she stirred them more for me. She seemed upset too that I didn’t eat very much – keep in mind she speaks no English. So all her helpfulness is just communicated in pantomime. She shook her finger at me and pointed at the food, it felt like childhood again “you have to have three more big bites and then you can go” fortunately, since Korea is very group-oriented, everyone had already finished eating. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to continue so I got out of jail.

After dinner, the head English teacher pulled out a microphone and a stereo – I was horrified we were going to have to sing “norabang” (like karaoke but because Japan is the enemy you don’t say karaoke).  I was honestly about to just start taking shots of soju until I could do it. Fortunately I didn’t because all they wanted to do was have all the new teachers (1/3rd of the school is all new teachers) come up and introduce themselves. The friend who drove me to the dinner stood up and did hers, they were going to pass the microphone over me but I decided I wanted to do it. I stood up and a few people gasped. I honestly think a few people in the school didn’t even know there was a waygook (foreigner)  present – the school is big enough that this is possible. “Annyonghaseo” I said and bowed. “ohhhhhhhhhhh”

They clapped a bunch like that was all I had, but no, I had more. “Chonun Kaeti imnida” I introduced myself. The room exploded – clapping “ohhhhhhhh!!!!!!” then chatting between themselves. I had to wait for a few seconds before I could say “Chonun Migug saram imnida” – I am an American. I stole a glance at the principal, he looked pretty happy. I thanked them in Korean, and bowed low. They exploded again and I sat back down. Awesome. My friend leaned over and said “they are saying your pronunciation is perfect” I doubt it but that’s really nice to hear.

The next morning a few more staff members said hi to me in Korean – the Korean broke the ice a lot and maybe I’ll have a cup-buddy at the next dinner.

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