Working in a Small, Private Middle School in Rural South Korea

I haven’t talked a lot about my job in South Korea, because beaches and pictures and weird flavors of Pringles just seem more interesting to me. Who wants to hear about my boring 9-5, everyday gig? And I’m realizing that, probably, you do. Because you don’t work here. It’s not boring for you. It’s exciting and foreign and mysterious! So I’m going to take you into my professional world, today. To kick this post off, here’s a short video:

Now, let’s get started. I’ve decided to interview myself with questions that I’ve heard from my friends and family over the past year or so. Because interviews are great, and I don’t have any on my blog yet. Who better to start with than yours truly?

Aren’t Korean kids better behaved than kids in the USA?

No! Did you watch that video? Do you think that only happens between classes and then magically, as soon as the bell rings, the students gracefully sit up straight, have their pens poised and ready to go and shut their mouths? Eyes eagerly looking forward, waiting to learn? Does that sound ridiculous? Great. I’ve conveyed my point. Kids are kids are kids. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.

What’s the difference between a private and a public middle school?

Just from walking around or observing classes, nothing really. They have the same curriculum and school hours, uniforms just like every other school and there’s nothing remarkable about the school building. So from the students’ perspective, I don’t know what the difference is, really. From the native English teacher’s perspective, it just means that I wasn’t required to go to orientation (a blessing and a curse), I filled out a lot less paperwork (no EPIK forms) and my contract is much more flexible than Korean government contracted teachers. I renewed for six months and was able to negotiate half the benefits, something other EPIK teachers don’t have the freedom to do.

Yeah, they're angels.
Yeah, they’re angels.

Do you know all of your kids’ names?

Yes and no. I know all of their English names, but I only know maybe 20 of their Korean names. I tried to memorize all their Korean names, but it was taking too long and compromising my authority as a teacher. It’s hard to get a rogue student’s attention when you can’t even say their name! So English names it was. And I learned all ~130 very quickly.

Are you friends with your co-workers?

I’m at-work friends with some of my co-workers and on friendly terms with everyone. But the majority of them are older, with families and kids and we don’t have a ton in common. I don’t think any of them have ever lived abroad, some have never left Korea. Most of them can’t speak English well enough to carry a conversation. My co-English-teacher is the closest thing to a “friend”, though I’m pretty sure we’re from different planets. She’s 25 with a minister husband, new baby boy and never-been-stamped passport (if she even has a passport?). So while I enjoy working with my co-workers, there aren’t any friendships there that I’ll be keeping up in the long run.

Are there any other foreigners where you live?

Ehhh, yes and no. In walking distance? Definitely not. In the nearby town? Plenty. I just need to hop in the car and drive 25 minutes to see them.

Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.
Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.

Since your school is so small, do you have less work to do?

No. While I teach fewer classes per week than my other native English teacher friends, I have to teach new material with much more frequency. So while teachers working at a big school can teach the same lesson over and over for a week or even just two or three days, I only have two classes before it becomes repeat (unless I reuse a lesson on different grade levels). So the hours that other teachers spend in the classroom teaching the same lesson, again, I spend at my desk making new lesson plans, again. It’s different work but it’s no less.

Are your classes graded?

No. I created a sticker system to create some semblance of rewards for doing well, though. So you could say that my classes are graded by the potential for getting candy at the end of the semester.

How do you keep your kids disciplined?

Sometimes I don’t, and candy. My classes are my own, so it’s just me and a bunch of kids. Considering my lack of cred as a disciplinarian (I won’t hit kids with sticks), sometimes they get a little rowdy. The key is just to have an interesting game or change activities a lot during class. Or bribe them with ten minutes of Sherlock at the end of the lesson, whatever works. Sometimes it doesn’t, that’s just life as a teacher. And candy.

The only surefire teaching method: bribery.
The only surefire teaching method: bribery.

What do you like about your job?

I like the relaxed atmosphere and the freedom I’m given inside my classes. We can cover literally anything in the lesson, as long as the kids are being exposed to English words. I also like my middle school students (mostly), because unlike elementary school, they are going through hilarious and awkward growth and puberty spurts and crushes on girls. I can also tease them without provoking tears and sometimes they even catch my sarcasm. Lastly, living a three minute walk away from work has serious advantages.

What do you dislike?

I don’t like that I’m so remote and far from friends, because it takes away all of my spontaneity. This also means I can’t enjoy a beer after work with anyone, or ever with friends, because I’ve driven there and have to drive home. (And don’t tell me “just one beer is fine” because driving in Korea is all kinds of crazy when I’m sober.) So everything about my school is great, except for the location.

Do you feel like you’re making a difference?

Yes, but not in the way you’d think. I don’t think my students are learning a lot of English and I don’t think they’re picking up on my accent and fixing their pronunciation. (Even though I try so hard!) But, I think that the exposure to someone from the USA/Western world has been good for them, because they see that I’m human. When we talk about Christmas or Halloween or any other cultural subject during class, they listen and are interested. So while they’re not becoming fluent in English while I’m here, they are being exposed to a lot of information about the West that they’d otherwise not know. And they see that I’m a normal, breathing person who likes to eat ice cream and has friends outside of work. So my hope is that they see foreigners not as a weird class of people, but a group of individual people, not so different from them.

Can I have some candy?

Yes, Sally, since you just went through such a long and detailed interview with yourself, I’ll give you some candy. Oh, readers, you want candy too? Sorry, I ate it all.

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If you have any questions of your own for me on this subject, go ahead and write them in the comments below and I’ll add them to this post / answer them. Wouldn’t want to hog the interviewee!

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or sign up for the email list, if you’d like.

Seeing Pinja or Why I Won’t Delete My Facebook

Sometimes Facebook terrifies me. The fact that I constantly have to keep my privacy settings in check is annoying at best, kind of immoral at worst. I don’t own my photographs once they’re on Facebook, the new graph search is pretty creepy and my older brother always insists on putting weird, sometimes vulgar posts on my wall, because he’s my older brother and that’s what they do. Thanks bro.

But despite all of the concerns I have with Facebook and privacy and the company using my information for advertising or stealing phone numbers from my phone, there’s one thing that stops me from deleting my account entirely. (Actually, if I’m honest, two things: I have to keep up my social media presence for this blog!) It’s because Facebook does what it’s supposed to do and it does it really well: it connects.

When I was 17, a junior in high school, I set off on the adventure of my somewhat-short-so-far lifetime. I went to live with a family in Austria and be a foreign exchange student through the lovely program AFS. We were a group of strangers that left New York together and arrived in Vienna as a group of friends. During our arrival, we met up with all of the various people from around the world that would be living here too. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Canada and Finland. Hong Kong. Iceland. USA.* We all had one thing in common: we were going to be foreigners in Austria. We all crossed our fingers that our host families would be nice.

I'd like to thank Facebook for allowing me to find and download my friend's picture from 6 years ago.
I’d like to thank Facebook for allowing me to find and download my friend’s picture of us from six years ago.

That semester led to plenty of new Facebook friends, who would later become old Facebook friends and buried under news feed of newer acquaintances as the years passed since our life in Austria together. Occasionally someone would pop up in my feed and I’d click on their profile to try and decipher what they were up to these days. In 2011, I studied abroad in Argentina and had a short but lovely reunion with one of the old AFSers named Berta. We hadn’t seen each other in four years, yet here we were, meeting again in Argentina this time and feeling like no time had passed. For that, I definitely had Facebook to thank. (That also sparked my decision to stop deleting Facebook friends all the time.)

So when I was doing my bi-annual Facebook stalking of all of my old AFS friends earlier this year and saw that Pinja (from Finland) was in Germany at the moment, I immediately messaged her with news that I’d be in Germany this July/August. Soon enough I had a reply and our schedules lined up. If it weren’t for Facebook, I’d have never known to get in contact with her in the first place and I’d probably only have the most ancient email address to do so.

We worked out a plan, I flew to Germany, took a train to Leipzig and did a couple things in between that exact sequence of events. We found each other quickly at the train station. Apparently, I look the exact same as I did when I was 17, but so does Pinja. We started out with a short tour of the city, touring at old churches and noticing the beat down buildings, remnants of communist East Germany. The conversation was endless: we had over six years of catch up to do, yet we slipped into our friendship as comfortably as we’d left it. And it was just as hard to say goodbye, this time, too.

There we are, looking the exact same as when we were 17 apparently.
There we are, looking the exact same as when we were 17 apparently.

The laughter, the old drudged up memories of being a teenager in Austria, the hilarious German vocabulary that only we (and all of Styria) know; these are the things that old friends share. As old friends we, of course, created new memories too: pasta making adventures, the search for baby clothes (don’t ask) and my first curry wurst. But our old friendship was only reignited because of modern technology. Because of Facebook.

So as much as I dislike consonantly monitoring my privacy settings, knowing that people look at the my photographs and information without me knowing and that Facebook is collecting and creating a nice little personality file on me, I will remain. Because as long as Facebook keeps doing it’s main job, keeping me connected to old friends and new friends alike, then I’m going to stick around. For days like the short ones I spent with Pinja, for last year’s reunion with Berta from Argentina, it’s always going to be worth it. Seeing smiling faces and great big hugs after years-long hiatuses are two pretty good reasons, if you ask me, to keep that Facebook page up and running.

 

*I know I didn’t include every country represented, sorry guys. Writing style, ya know?

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You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also an email list, if you’d like to subscribe.

the end of a job

after some shaky attendance and a few classes for which nobody showed up (causing me to lose three hours of my life), my teaching gig after-school has come to a close a little earlier than expected. while I’m sad that the class had to be prematurely canceled, I’m also relieved. not knowing whether no students or two students would show up to a class registered with over fifteen people was quite an annoyance. that’s what happens, though, when you offer free classes, after hours, with no repercussions for signing up and not attending… during one of the most stressful (and important!) months for the interns, who comprise over half of those registered. Continue reading the end of a job

Lessons Learned About Myself in Argentina

book coffee happiness

When you travel, especially when you travel by yourself (as I am currently doing), you learn a whole lot about yourself. You also learn small things, such as how to get around on public transportation, how to use and find maps, how to pack your backpack more efficiently. As helpful as these lessons are, though, they aren’t the real ones. The real lessons are about who you are and what you’re like, separate from home and perhaps despite home. These are the lessons that I am talking about.

Five personal lessons that I’m willing to admit to:

I am Cheap

I am really, really, really cheap. I buy the same three things when I go grocery shopping for a few days of food: bread, bananas, and sandwich meat. This usually costs about 20 pesos, or 5 US dollars. When I have the choice between reloading my card to take the bus or not, I won’t, and then I’ll end up walking 35 minutes uphill because I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the extra pesos. I also get uncomfortable when someone talks about going out to dinner; that’s for rich people.

I am Physically Lazy

When given the choice of two activities, one that involves physical activity but is worth it and one that doesn’t, I will generally choose to be lazy. If asked, I will claim that I like the former.

I Always Get Lost

I will, inevitably, without a single doubt or exception: get lost. No I am not joking. It always happens. Need to get to my hostel? Lost. Need to find the grocery store? Lost. Trying to find that one museum? Lost. This wouldn’t be nearly so bad, except for the next point…

I am Stubborn

One of these days I am going to wake up half transformed into a mule, like Shrek. This point plays into all of the other ones: I am stubborn and won’t spend money (hence being cheap) and if I get lost, I won’t ask for directions more than once. Even if I don’t understand the answer. If someone invites me to do something that I’m clearly not physically fit for, I’ll accept their invitation and then push myself to do the whole thing. You know, since I already claimed I would. My family can attest to this and now that this is on the internet, I really can’t argue when they say, “I told you so!”

I Only Need Two Things: Coffee and a Book

I could spend a whole day reading and writing in any cafe and I would be content and caffeinated. This may or may not be the first thing I do when I visit a city. Does this make me a bad traveler? Maybe, but I don’t care and I’m vividly aware of my lameness. Thankfully, that also means extra good posts for you guys to read!

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What has traveling, backpacking, studying abroad or just visiting a foreign country taught you about yourself?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also an email list, if you’d like to subscribe.