When I arrived in Hwacheon in mid-August, it was actually the start of the second semester of school. Before my first day of work, my stomach was in knots, and I woke up with nerves three hours before I needed to, but when I strolled into school, I was greeted with carefree smiles and unfettered students. Kids and teachers alike were coming back from their summer vacations, resettling into the roles and routines they had grown comfortable in. Class dynamics had been solidified, their daily schedules remained more or less the same; a rhythm was in motion and it was my job to jump into the pattern as seamlessly as possible.
In the beginning, the only way to catch up was to constantly be working. I spent hours sifting through the textbook, trying to figure out what was relevant and what would be boring, how to best pick up where the previous teacher had left off. I was determined to do well, while also afraid of disappointing my co-teacher, my students, and myself.
Despite this, once classes officially commenced, mishaps inevitably occurred. The Thursday before classes started, I pulled my co-teacher aside for approval on the materials I had worked on. With a great deal of patience and kindness, she smiled and nodded as I spoke, before apologetically informing me that the book I had been using was mis-marked: the students were actually about to start the previous chapter. Equally bewildering was my first attempt to use the smart board. In front of my students, the touch screen kept on freezing. It took a few zealously helpful fifth graders and a quick assist from my co-teacher to get things on track.
Eventually, it took less time to think of games and ways to present materials. I learned a few key classroom phrases in Korean (“sit down!”, “stop that!”, and more positively, “keep trying!”). I moved staplers, computer keyboards, and pointers, just before students tried to grab them. I looked forward to the little conversations I got to have with students between classes and after lunch.
Most importantly, I gained a stronger sense of buoyancy. I owe a lot of this to learning from my co-teacher. No matter how stressful or seamlessly a class went, once it ended she would immediately touch base. “Do you think this activity should be a bit longer? Maybe if we change the way we explain this concept?”. Then two minutes later, unfazed, she would be rearranging our materials before the next class rushed in. Whether a class turned out great or ended up being a fifty minute frenzy, it was important to shrug it off, learn from what you could and start fresh once the next class started.
By December, we wrapped up our textbooks, and in January, Dana and I ran a week long winter camp before setting out for our winter vacation travels. In the midst of these travels, we reached the official halfway point of our year here. When I landed in Korea again, eager to see all of people that I had missed the previous few weeks, I was struck with the realization of how quickly my remaining time here would pass by me.
Throughout February, while I’ve had no classes, I’ve been at work. Thus, I’ve had a lot of miscellaneous free time. I’ve been brainstorming a few ideas for lessons, reading books, studying Korean, and making bread with my co-teacher. Dana and I even got to assist and taste test a fourth grade cooking class, and then joined the students outside for Korean dodgeball. Meanwhile, the students made preparations for the upcoming 6th grade graduation, many of them coming to the English room to say a quick goodbye (and to ask for “graduation candy”).
Because of limits on how long teachers can stay at one school*, there have also been a lot of teachers moving out with teary goodbyes, including one of the English teachers. At the same time, a sea of new faces have moved in. In a few days, I will find out what grades and classes I will be teaching,** and when March rolls around, my 5th graders will become 6th graders, and a new year will begin.
It’s a time of flux, and for a change, the entire school is morphing together. My coworkers are quickly packing their things and switching classrooms, my old students are buying uniforms for middle school. Meanwhile, while my days of desk warming*** range from the productive to the more stir-crazy, the free time has given me a lot of time to reflect on teaching so far, and a chance return to some of the thoughts and worries I had about this experience prior to coming to Korea.
In my first blog post, I mentioned how my decision to apply for a teaching grant stemmed partially from how much I had enjoyed the short-term teaching experiences I’d had in college, and partially from how gratifying the experience of learning new languages has been for me in the past. When I received my acceptance however, my excitement was mixed with caution, and I spent a lot of time researching the role I would be taking as an ETA so I had an idea of what to expect.
Specifically, I worried about teaching English. While my desire to learn languages in the past has stemmed through curiosity and interest, or exploring personal ties to other cultures, I knew for my students, English would be mandatory, potentially even a source of distress. I worried about contributing to that in some way while here.
I wondered how English was perceived in Korea. Like many lingua francas of the past and present (Latin, Arabic, Mandarin, French etc.) English’s predominance in the international arena today stems from a historical power imbalance, particularly British imperialism and American influence. At the same time, use of English worldwide today coincides with an increasingly globalized and connected world, and having a connecting language can clearly be useful and practical for a country with global interests.
Historically, attempts have been made to create more neutral man-made global languages. In 1889 Volapük, created in Germany, claimed to have garnered nearly a million speakers. Today, Esperanto, developed in Poland by an opthalmologist, is the most widespread constructed language still in use. Yet none of these languages ever managed to build momentum in a global community. Without existing roots and cultural ties, it was hard for these languages to gain as much traction as preexisting languages which, however perniciously, were already integrated into the infrastructure of many countries.
Nevertheless, using English as a common language doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. The onus on learning English falls on everyone outside of native speakers, and while that can sometimes reflect historical power imbalances, other western European countries with similar histories have had to learn English today as well, and many heavily recruit ESL teachers. In a modern context, the practicality of connecting with a shared language to complement local languages can theoretically pave the way for easier trade and diplomacy.
Since coming to Korea specifically, I’ve noticed that for the most part, Korea’s investment in English, and teachers’ and students’ own personal motivations for studying English feels removed from the direct history of the English globalization. It has is less to do with America or the UK, and more to do with the world. Broadly, Korea wants to stay competitive internationally in business and other sectors. Korea also has a fairly large population of students that go abroad for their education. A lot of my teachers and students, even in my small town, have siblings, or children that are attending a portion of their high school years abroad. Korea has the third largest population group of international students to the United States. Conversely, my host mother told me that for her personally, and many of her friends, the desire to learn English stems from the simple convenience of traveling to other countries with the ease of having English in their arsenal.
Even beyond history though, there other drawbacks to using English as a common language. For instance, teaching English in classrooms around the world can create an imbalanced burden on some countries and students. The odd spellings and grammatical rules are much easier for some foreign language speakers to learn. For speakers of Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, or Korean, where the script, grammar, and vocabulary is so different, it can understandably take a lot more classroom time to reach the same level of mastery as a French or Norwegian speaker. Even created languages, such as Esperanto, tend to mimic the script and grammatical rules of only some language groups.
Another fear that comes with global use of English is unintentionally causing disuse, or extinction of smaller, regional languages. I see this in India, where schools can be run in English-medium, or other local languages. A few summers ago, I volunteered at Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, a school that fully funds a boarding school education for socioeconomically disadvantaged children, that happens to be taught in English medium. In response to backlash about choosing English over a local language, the founder of the school pointed out that wealthy Indian students are often sent to expensive English schools, while low income families are expected to learn local languages and uphold cultural values, despite the disadvantages this later poses when searching for jobs. For many countries, it can be difficult to balance preserving regional culture and history, while also meeting the demand for cross-community communication.****
That said, Korea understandably doesn’t seem too preoccupied with Korean being threatened. For most of its history, Korea has had a strong national identity with a mostly shared linguistic background. Today, Korea has its own Korean map system, its own messaging app, and a growing and internationally popular collection of Korean literature, TV, and music. In fact, Korean itself actually poses a threat to another language, Jeju-mal, the language once spoken on Jeju Island in the south of Korea. Today, only a few thousand speakers remain, mostly of an older Jeju generation, while young students on the island tend to speak standard mainland Korean.
It’s Leviosa, not Leviosa- theory vs. practice
Despite not being directly threatening to Korean, English education can be a large source of stress for students especially, who want to do well on their exams and stay competitive for colleges and jobs. It can also end up being costly for parents, many of whom invest a lot of money to send their children to supplemental English classes. All this stress is especially unfortunate given that, with the exception of a few careers, in the day to day lives of most adults here, only Korean is really needed to get things done.
While meeting with a Korean high school student recently, she showed me her suneung (national exam) practice books. As I flipped through the English section, I was shocked to see how difficult the passages were. I came across a lengthy and confusing short piece on the neurochemistry of ADHD followed by a series of confounding, equally lengthy multiple choice questions. Whenever I ask to my co-teacher about English in Korea, she mentions that there are currently a lot of policy changes being debated and enacted related to teaching restrictions and exams, hopefully with the aim of lessoning the stress of English education. 1st and 2nd graders will no longer be allowed to take English classes in school. Additionally, the grading methodology for English on the suneung may change to a pass/fail, or graded in tiers system, hopefully allowing students to concentrate on other subjects once they get to a certain level.
I try to embrace my role as an English teacher by focusing on what I can offer to my students: a chance to practice English is a low-stress environment, and hopefully build confidence and speaking skills. I try to make sure that I convey that I am encouraging English practice, and not promoting English as a necessity however I can. I also try to emphasize clarity of speech over pronouncing things just like me. My advanced students seem to enjoy the extra chance to practice, while some of my students who struggle a little bit more hopefully see how much I appreciate it when they offer me even a few words in English. I want to make sure I’m supporting my students, and next semester, I want to check in more with my co-teacher to ask for feedback, and to ask questions about students, hopefully improving as I go along.
Meanwhile, while my Korean leaves much to be desired, outside of class I try to slip as much of it into conversation as I can, even if it’s combined awkwardly with English. The most important thing I can do to avoid placing a large English demand on my surroundings is showing that I am invested in and trying to use Korean, even if my level of Korean can unfortunately slow down conversations.***** Sometimes, it can be hard to figure out whether the people around me prefer a chance to practice English, or are relieved when I attempt to relieve that burden and piece things together in Korean. Still, I enjoy mixing both into conversations whenever possible. Once, when a student wasn’t responding to my question in English, I repeated it in Korean. He gave me a surprised look, and then, after a pause, thoughtfully asked me if I found Korean hard. I told him that I did, but I that tried my best to practice even a little bit when I could, “slowly, slowly” trying. The student smiled, “Teacher, me and English, same!”
Life as 쌤
When I did my round of research and talked to previous ETAs, one of the biggest things that stuck to me was the glowing reviews and clear bond that a lot of the grantees had with their students. They raved about how sweet and respectful their students were to them, and talked about how much they missed these kids. I knew that each placement, and age group of students would be a vastly different experience and kept fairly tempered expectations prior to arriving in Korea. That said, when I arrived in Hwacheon, I was genuinely surprised by warnings that I received about some of my classes. “They can cause a lot of trouble,” one teacher warned me in earnest. Another told me point blank that I would have a very hard time.
Indeed, some classes were dizzyingly difficult. In an instant, a quiet classroom could disrupt into a chaos of noise and students moving around. For one of the more difficult groups, I remember seeing how stressed the homeroom teacher was prior to receiving her open class evaluations. Knowing that many teachers struggled with some of the students should have helped a bit, but I still felt a lot of worry for them. I hated the idea of failing them in any way. I found it most motivating and uplifting when, out of the blue, a teacher would come up to me and advocate for their children. The, “I know they cause a lot of trouble, but you can’t give up on them!” and “They have really good hearts, try your best to see that when they cause trouble,” were maybe a little saccharine, but filled me with determination and resolve.
Sometimes, things would hit a stride for a few weeks. And then, out of the blue the disciplinary problems would rise again, and things had to be changed up. My co-teacher and I ended up spending a lot of time discussing different strategies to help some of these classes go smoothly, but it really was hard to predict what would work on any given day.
Along with the difficulties though, I really did love my students: in the easy classes, and the hard ones. I loved it when they cared for each other without asking. Once, in fifth grade, a girl inexplicably started crying in the middle of class, and all of friends promptly came over and gave her a hug. Another time, when one of the boys started to get frustrated with an activity, the student next to him told me not to worry, and that they’d work on it together. In December, in sixth grade, my co-teacher had to step out to discipline a student half way through class. Because of the way we had divided this lesson, I realized that we had finished my portion, but I also didn’t have access to my co-teacher’s materials for the next part of the lesson. Sensing some hesitation on my part, my students surprised me by telling me not to worry, and to just keep going. Slightly embarrassed and touched, I picked out a few sentences from the textbook, made up the game on the fly, and the class went along. My students surprise me a lot. They can be apathetic and rude, but also kind and respectful and sweet. They can be level headed and helpful, or start picking fights out of the blue. They’re still figuring a lot out, and growing into themselves, and it’s kind of marvelous to be around for.
It was bittersweet when the sixth graders graduated. I worried about some students adjusting to the strictness and rigor of middle school. I wondered how these 6th graders, who loved their red lipstick and t-shirts with random english phrases, would handle the uniforms and the jump in difficulty of English class. I worried about some of my students with additional needs, wondering if their teachers would care for them the way I’ve seen the Elementary school teachers care for their students. In a small town like Hwacheon, I’ll still see them around, but I’ll miss the routine of seeing them every day.
Soon though, they will start middle school, and the Elementary school will begin a new year. I’m sure it will be challenging at first, but there’s some comfort in knowing that the teachers, the students, and everyone will be adjusting together, day by day until we find a new synchrony with one another.
*Teachers in Korea have a limit on the number of years they can spend in one school. This is done partially to keep talented teachers from accumulating in one area, and allows them to receive benefits and salary increases proportional to how many years they’ve worked overall, rather than just at one school.
**An update to when I initially started writing this post: I will be teaching 4th and 5th grade next year!
***Deskwarming is a disgruntled term for being at school for long periods of time when there are no lessons or other administrative work to do.
**** In my most recent visit to Hyderabad, I was surprised to discover that for movies, a lot of the songs and scripts are not written out in Telugu script, but romanized. The practicality of this became more clear when I realized with how linguistically diverse casts could be. Coming from different regions of India, it’s easier for them to piece out English spellings of Telugu words than Telugu spellings.
*****One thing I found out about Fulbright in the summer of last year was that they have language exchanges both from America, and in America. ETAs teach English in different countries around the world, and FLTAs (Foreign Language Teaching Assistants), come to America from a variety of countries and language backgrounds to act as native teachers in the U.S.