Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Teaching: Part 2

While the last post was more about the mechanics of my job, here are some of the peculiarities of being a teacher in Korea: 

-Honestly, many of my students pronounce my name better than most Americans. I figured out over the summer how to spell my name in Korean (한야), and it's worked remarkably. 

-Even I've started referring to other teachers by their first name followed by "Teacher" (i.e. Bella Teacher). A student addressing any of his teachers by "Ms./Mr. So-and-so" is unheard of. That's perfectly fine with me; being called "Ms." makes me feel old anyway.

-Rock-paper-scissors (or rock-scissor-paper, as it’s known here) is practically the word of God in the classroom. It’s solved countless disputes about who will go first and who will play a certain role, and the kids generally accept it as the fairest way of deciding. Thank goodness for that.

-I was warned from the beginning never to write the kids’ names in red ink. According to Korean superstition, having your name written in red means you’re going to die soon. O.o

-Apparently it’s an Asian thing to signal a big X with your arms or hands to mean no/negative/false. (O means yes/true.) I’ve grown so used to doing this in class that I’ve carried it into my everyday conversations as well. 

-My students are amazingly good about returning the things I’ve lent them—pencils, erasers, crayons, etc. It’s as if the virtue of giving back what you've borrowed has been drilled into their little minds from birth.

-It's such a satisfying feeling when a new word comes up in a lesson and, through explanation or acting, I help my students understand what it means and they all say a communal “Ahhh.” I’ve also realized that sometimes it’s fun to be goofy and animated in class, for the kids' sake but also for mine. 

-My hagwon's students all have one Korean teacher and one foreign teacher, with the Korean teacher responsible for more of the grammar. In general, the students' grammar is definitely not their strongpoint, so—me being a grammar queen—I've been trying to weave more of it into my lessons. It drives me crazy when the kids shout, "Teacher, me finish-ed!” or “Me is first!” Still, when I think about how nonsensical some (or most) English grammar can be, it makes me glad that English is my first language. This site really highlights how confusing it could be for a non-native speaker.

And now some of the more serious things:

-Apparently at hagwons there's a high turnover rate not only for foreign teachers, but also for Koreans. The longer I spend here, the more I realize that working at a hagwon can be an enormous amount of work and stress, especially for the Korean staff. They're required to be at the school for much longer than us foreigners, they've constantly got their hands full, and they're usually so tired at night that they have no energy to do anything but go straight home.

-Recently I asked some of my older students what happens if they don't do well in school. Quite a few of them said their parents hit them with various objects, and one girl said her parents threatened to erase her birth certificate. (!!!) I asked my Korean coworkers if these stories had any merit, and they told me that some were probably true, but I should still take them with a grain of salt. I hope so...

-Parental involvement in my hagwon, and probably in many others, is insane. The two Korean teachers who man the front desk are constantly making or receiving phone calls to and from kids' parents. If a kid is late to class (they have to scan their ID cards as soon as they get there), their parents get a text. If they get an 80% or less on one of the "voca tests" they take twice a week (in addition to their biweekly “chunk test"), their parents get another text and the students have to stay after class to take the dreaded "retest" over and over until they pass.

-There is a very large focus on memorization. Even I’m intimidated by the number of English words my students have to memorize every week. I've already had one of my better students leave because she said our school was giving her too much stress and homework.

-At the same time, there is immense pressure on the school and its teachers for all the students to do well. In one of my classes, the kids were being mean to each other and made one girl cry. I later saw one of the culprits being scolded in Korean by one of the Korean staff until he was sobbing, and I assumed she was just returning the favor. However, it turns out she was actually telling him off for not doing his homework. His mom had called the school and blamed the Korean teachers for her son's lack of discipline. After all, that's what she was paying the hagwon for, right? To force her kid to learn. Therefore it’s the Korean teachers' responsibility—not the parents’—to shout at the kids if they're not working hard enough on something they should be doing at home. What...??

-At the end of the first month, all the teachers had to write short progress reports on each of their students. (We had to write much longer ones at the end of the term.) I tried to be fair in my reports—point out the good things but also nicely mention the bad. And then the head of the Korean staff told me that when the Korean teachers used our reports when talking to the parents, they would maybe just say the good know, "little white lies." I almost boiled inside. It's like how we're strongly encouraged to only give above a 30 on a 40-point scale, and a 5 out of 10 comes out as a B. The hagwon system is incredibly skewed towards making every kid sound like a star, which is why some kids are moved up through the levels even when they're not ready for it. I'd heard about this sort of thing from several hagwon teachers before, but still, it's frustrating when I have to be a part of it. 

-And finally, Koreans have no concept of vacation. It turns out I will get a small break at the end of December/beginning of January (4 weekdays total). But while our students get a month off in January, that just means our hagwon has to work twice as long to fill the gap left by their normal schools in the morning. Because not having to go to elementary school just means more time for all their other academies! Yayyy...

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