Tag Archives: school

4 Reasons I Don’t Like the First Week of School

I think I’m a pretty positive guy. I try to look on the bright side of things. I only say that because I don’t anything to think of this as a gripe. It is merely a chance to share my unique work situation.

Here in Korea, the school year starts at the beginning of March, so I have just finished the first couple weeks of school. And I am very glad about that. I know a lot of people don’t like going back to school (students especially), but there are several unique factors for a foreign English teacher in my position that makes the first week of school a lot less fun.

1. Getting to school

I don’t have a car. If I did, this would not be an issue. I do have a motorbike and the bus system here is very good, but still, it takes a while to get everything straightened out.

I live in a city of about 600,000, but I work in the countryside around the city, which means I can’t walk to my schools. In times past, some of the teachers would pick us foreigners up, but they usually don’t like doing that anymore, and honestly, I don’t like getting picked up. Even if I have to take a bus, I like to be independent. I can ride my motorbike to two of my schools (I work at four different schools) because they’re relatively close, unless of course it’s pouring rain or a blizzard or the bike’s broken. In other words I have to know how to get to all my schools by bus.

Unfortunately, all of my schools are in different directions and I have to transfer buses to all of them, so I have to coordinate two bus schedules to make sure I get to the transfer stop before the second bus gets there. All this for four different schools which start at different times. I ended up being to late to one school and having to take a taxi to another one the first day in order not to be late.

Wanju work map

2. People assuming I don’t know anything

I’ve lived in Korea for nine years and have taught public school here for five years so I pretty much know what’s going on. I speak the language, can use chopsticks, know the bus system, and everything else you need to survive. But I’m not Korean, so everyone naturally (or not) assumes I got off the plane yesterday. I don’t necessarily blame them, since there is a high turnover rate for foreign English teachers and so a lot of us are fresh off the plane. Still, the first day or two at a new school is invariably the same.

“Can you use chopsticks?” “Oh, I think that food is too spicy for you.” “Oh wow, you can speak Korean!” “Do you know how to take the bus? You do? Wow, how do you know?”

And so on. Again, I’m not trying to criticize the Korean teachers, but it does get tiring when you go through the same routine again and again and again.

3. Not knowing anything

Even though I know a lot about Korea and public schools in general, every new school I go to has its own idiosyncrasies, for one reason or another. One of my schools is built like someone found the plans to the Labyrinth, thought that looked too straightforward and kicked it up a notch. Schools all start at different times, one has lunch after three periods instead of four. Some have English classes in an English room; others in the classrooms. In other words, I do some wandering around sometimes, asking people a lot of questions like where the bathrooms are and what the password to the class computer is.

One of my schools. It looks straightforward, but it's best to hire a Sherpa if you have class in one of the far buildings.

One of my schools. It looks straightforward, but it’s best to hire a Sherpa if you have class in one of the far buildings.

4. Introduction class

In elementary schools in Korea, there are no classes on the first day. The homeroom teachers are getting to know their students and getting them to color name tags or doing other icebreaker activities, so I don’t have to teach. In middle school, there are classes on the first day, but the teachers don’t want to start the textbook, so they say some variation of, “Just introduce yourself today.”

How long does it take to introduce yourself? Not the whole 45-minutes of class, that’s for sure. Even if I show them the Introduction to my Hometown powerpoint that I have, it only takes five minutes. Now I have been teaching long enough that I come prepared to get the kids talking and fill up the period but it tends to be awkward and I do the same lesson over and over again. I’m not complaining, but I’m always happy when the first week is over so I can get into real teaching.

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It’s a brand new school year!

Well, it’s back to the daily grind again. Here in Korea, today was the first day of school, which makes for one very tired Green-Walled Tower keeper. I got in the habit of getting up at 8:00 or 8:30 during vacation; now I have to get up around 6:00. As well, I’ve taught almost exclusively elementary schools for the last five years and this year I’m teaching mostly middle schools, so that’s a big adjustment.

All that to say, don’t be worried or offended if I’m not around as much in the next few days. I have a lot to do and not much energy. I’ll do what I can though.

A look into the mentality of school. This says: "The day has finally come." "The First Day of School" (high school and middle school students' final day)

A look into the mentality of students here. This says: “The day has finally come, &*@#!.” “The First Day of School” (high school and middle school students’ final day)


You Have to Follow the Rules

You have to follow the rules, even when those rules are unwritten social rules, and even when they inconvenience everyone involved. This is a true story that happened to me one Friday last fall.

I go to four schools over the course of a week, so there are several schools I only taught at once a week. One week, my second Wednesday school principal (who was a sweet, grandmotherly type of woman) invited me to a barbecue the school was having that Friday. My Friday school was far away, but I told her I would try to make it, since it was possible to get there if I rode my scooter.

She told me to get there by 3pm and since my classes at the other school finished at 2:30, that was perfect. I rode my scooter along back roads in the mountains and got to the school just before three.

They were packing everything up.

Here was my first dilemma. I could have just taken off, but I didn’t want the principal to think I hadn’t come. That might make her feel bad. So I went through the crowds and found her to say hello.

I was planning to just say hi and leave but of course, as a good host who had invited me there, she couldn’t let that happen. So she told some of the women to get out a grill and cook up some meat for me (samgyeopsal, for those who know Korean food). I tried to refuse, but like all grandmotherly-type women, she didn’t know the meaning of the word “no”. I could have just left, but that would have been rude.

samgyeopsal

So there I was, sitting at a table while a woman cooked meat for just me, while most other people were sitting around talking or cleaning up. The principal, because she was hospitable, sat next to me to keep me company. She didn’t eat anything, since they had all eaten before. However, she did make up food for other people.

In Korea, when you eat barbecued meat, you take a lettuce leaf, then put a piece of meat on it, with whatever other vegetables or sauces you want, then wrap it up like a little package and eat it in one bite. The principal kept making these up for other people, who had to take them even though they were full, since you can’t say no to the principal.

Like this

Like this

After a while, most everyone else wandered off to deal with other stuff and a few women sat talking, while I kept eating. They had made a ton of meat and while it was delicious, I was getting full and felt uncomfortable sitting by myself. I kept asking others to come eat with me, but they all said they were full. I apologized to the women cooking, since they were only waiting there for me to finish. Of course, they said it was fine, since it was have been rude to say anything else. I hope it really was fine.

They had made a lot of meat and I felt obligated to eat it all or at least make a big dent in it. I didn’t eat it all and finally left, very full.

I don’t regret going, since it really was delicious meat, but thinking back it is amazing to see how the iron rails of social etiquette predestined this scenario. It could not have played out any other way without offending someone or at least breaking unwritten rules. Every culture has its own social etiquette rules, some more strict than others, but they’re there so that everything runs smoothly. Whether you like it or not, you have to follow the rules.

…Or do you? What do you think? Are there some social etiquette rules you break?


The Last Few Seconds – Friday Fictioneers

I was quite surprised and pleased to open up Rochelle’s post today and see my picture. For the curious among you, this picture was taken in a small country school in Korea. In the two years I worked there, the enrollment ranged from 14-20 students from Grade 1-6, usually with 2-3 students per grade. Only two were from the area and the rest came from bigger cities and lived in a dorm as a sort of countryside  exchange program. The school did have a electronic bell, but it couldn’t be heard well outside, so they hung up this bell to let the kids know when recess was over.

copyright David Stewart

copyright David Stewart

The Last Few Seconds

One minute remaining.

Brent Brianson stares at the clock, willing it to go faster. His lip trembles in anticipation, like a chinchilla caught in a hurricane.

Thirty seconds.

He is doing stretches, running in place.

Ring!

Out the door he goes, shoving aside the secretary coming in. A congratulatory cake smashes to the floor, like an egg fired from a howitzer. Gravel sprays the building as Brent peels out of the parking. A distant rumble indicates that Mr. Brianson has just broken the sound barrier.

The math class stares after him, aghast.

“Mr. Brianson couldn’t wait to retire, it seems.”

(This story is also dedicated to one of my high school math teacher, Mr. Bingle, who vowed he would leave as soon as his retirement came, even if it was in the middle of class. I think he’s retired by now, so I hope he’s enjoying it.)


Why Korea Feels Colder than Canada

In general, I like cold. I grew up in Newfoundland, in northeastern Canada, where the daytime temperature during the winter is around -10 Celsius, dropping down to about -20 at night. At times, it can get down to around -40. It’s no fun waiting for the school bus in that, let me tell you.

In Newfoundland, we call this May. [Source]

In Newfoundland, we call this May. [Photo]

In Korea, it’s not nearly as cold. Wikipedia shows the average temperature in January to be between 4 and -6 degrees. Cold, but not crazy cold. Houses here are heated by a system of under floor heating called ondol. It’s wonderful to walk around on, or just lie on, although you have to remember not to leave any chocolate or meltables on the floor.

Public buildings, including schools, however, are not heated that way. Some are not heated at all. Many small schools use nothing but space heaters to heat the classrooms. The students and teachers both where their coats all day long.

The bathrooms also are not heated and most don’t have hot water. Also, the hallways aren’t heated and usually the doors of the school are open all day long.

Korean school door

This is the front door of my main school. Most schools keep their doors open like this all year long.

Why on earth would you keep the door open all day in winter? It’s not masochism, I swear. The reason is ventilation. Koreans love ventilation more than heat, it seems. I had a class once in the library, which was in the back building and didn’t get any sunlight anyway. The principal would come in in the mornings and open all the windows in the middle of winter. It took about 3 hours to get it back to a liveable temperature.

When I was growing up, I never really felt cold, unless I was outside for hours and hours and my gloves got wet. But in Korea, I’m cold most of the day in the winter. I used to like winter a lot more too. I realized that cold is only fun if you can get warm afterwards. Nobody wants to go from cold outside to cold inside. And that is why Korea feels colder than Canada.

(P.S. One unexpected thing that Korea does have a lot of is heated toilet seats. That at least mitigates things a bit when you have to wash your hands with cold water.)


Desk Warming the Day Away

If you’ve ever taught English in Korea, you know of the joys of desk warming. I did a Google search for “desk warming” and the whole first page was about Korea, so it seems to be a largely Korean phenomenon (maybe Japan as well).  Basically, it means going into work when there is no work to do and killing time however you want.  It is what I am doing right now.

Deskwarming

There are two main strains of desk warming. The first is during the school year. Normally, English teachers in a Korean public school teach 22 classes a week, which equals about 15 hours of class time for me. However, we are expected to be in school about 40 hours a week, preparing for classes or whatever.

Now, if you are in one school, that is not unexpected. You probably have a desk or maybe even an office and can sit and do what you want until it’s time to go home. I, however, teach at four schools a week. I have known teachers who have taught at up to 7 schools in a week. When you are at multiple schools, you don’t get a desk. You either go directly to the classroom or sit in the teacher’s room, awkwardly out of place. So, a bizarre situation arises where you are supposed to stay at school all day but the school doesn’t necessarily want you there. You can go to the Education Office to kill time but they don’t necessarily have a place for you either, although they can stick you in a corner somewhere or in an empty meeting room.

Yay! I'm being productive!

Yay! I’m being productive!

The other type of desk warming is during vacations. The average English teacher gets a week or two of vacation each break but the school vacation is always longer than this, which means any day we don’t have a vacation day and there are no classes, we have to go into the Education Office for 8 hours.  Some people read, watch TV shows, play computer games. I knew a teacher that curled up in a blanket and slept on the floor every day. The bosses don’t care what you do, as long as you’re physically present.

Laptop, Kindle, Chinese textbook. I'm in for the long haul.

Laptop, Kindle, Chinese textbook. I’m in for the long haul.

Summers aren’t too bad. The summer vacation is only about 4 weeks long now and after doing some English camps, I ended up only having to desk warm for two days this year. In the winter, though, the school vacation is over 2 months long, which means you generally end up sitting in a cold meeting room for about a month.

I’m the only one here today. I took the picture above this a few minutes ago. Either the other teachers have classes today or they just didn’t come in. I’m not really complaining  since it’s not a bad gig to get paid for doing nothing.

Still, I could do nothing at home.


The Blair Witch Project it ain’t, but still…

One of the fun bonuses of teaching English in Korea is the chance to teach English camps. I’m only partially sarcastic there. While it does mean more classes to teach once the vacation has started (often with no extra pay), the camp curriculum is often more relaxed and as long as they are well planned, they can be a lot of fun. The one I just finished was at a middle school where the kids were very enthusiastic and a lot of fun to teach. On the second day, we went through movie genres and a few sample scripts and then I got them to write their own movies. They wrote the scripts, practiced them, and then I recorded them on my phone and edited them later. Their English level isn’t super high, but they tried hard. Anyway, here for your viewing pleasure are two of the movies they made. They are about a minute long, each.

1. Number 1: This is a ghost story about a top student who has died and comes back to haunt the 2nd place student in school.

2. Stupidman and the Zombies: This is a zombie comedy where apparently the zombies and normal people can switch quite quickly. I can’t say I totally understand it, since they didn’t explain it to me.

The production values aren’t great, but it was a good activity and gave the students more fun and a better sense of accomplishment than just doing grammar exercises. I had them vote for the best movie in several categories. “Number 1” won hands-down for best acting, all for that scream. There was a third movie too, done by an all-boys group, that had to do with gambling and a lot of people getting shot, but they didn’t want me to post that one.


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