As time is seemingly flying by in this year (it’s already May??), I have been on the island working at ISponge English for almost two months now. I can definitely say that I enjoy working at this school more than the one in Dongtan. This is a much smaller school with about seventeen kindergarteners and about thirty after school elementary students, compared to the one hundred and ten or so kindergarteners at Wiz Island. We have five main teachers, our two bosses, a cook and one part-time afterschool teacher, most of whom speak great English. At this school I feel like an actual teacher, not just the token foreign girl who is there to play with the kids, pose for the parents and be another warm body to watch over the children. Here I have my own classroom with my own kids and my own responsibilities. I dole out the kids lunches, I make sure they eat, I check some of their homework, I make sure their bags are packed and ready to go home, I get to decorate the classroom, and I am respected as an authority figure by both the students and the other teachers.
Last year I was scared and nervous and wanted the children to like me. It was also drilled into my brain that the kids should have a constant happy experience with the Native English teacher, and it should be “happy fun time” with Codi Teacher as opposed to “sit down, do your work, listen and respect your teacher while also having fun” time. I didn’t know how to establish myself to the children, and therefore I wasn’t exactly taken seriously as an authoritative figure. There would be hours sometimes (usually on Friday’s during our play day) where I had to actually just sit and play with the kids. I know that this sounds awesome and breezy, but it’s just not. Number one, all of the students pretty much just want to play with the other students. Also, there’s that awesome language barrier so the kids didn’t really want to make the extreme effort of learning while they were playing with me (how weird). But really, I did not move to South Korea to sit on my butt and be a glorified babysitter. I came to have a job and be a teacher and start a life here – not to dance around the classroom like a monkey trying to get students to play dolls or blocks with me, which I really didn’t want to do in the first place. I also wasn’t really given the chance to help out with things around the school like attend the meetings, help prepare for an activity or get the students organized. Because only two other teachers could speak English well enough to communicate with me, I became more of a pain in the ass when trying to help than actually being helpful. It was frustrating and I often felt seriously useless, in the way and out of the loop. Now, don’t get me wrong – all of the teachers were sweet as pie and tried to include me in everything; however, that usually meant outings and dinners where I would sit there in silence lost in my own little world while everyone else chatted it up and had a great time in Korean for hours. Someone would lean over and say something like “we’re talking about plastic surgery”, which I had already gathered by all of the hand gestures and tugging at their faces; however, that was the extent of my end of the conversation. They tried to get me to go on a few getaway weekends, but I seriously avoided that at all costs. Sitting through a five hour dinner not understanding anything was bad enough, but to spend an entire weekend away with these people sounded like slow and unnecessary torture. It got to the point where I had a list of excuses lined up in my head as to why I couldn’t attend one weekend getaway or another.
“Oh, as much as I would love to spend the weekend at the waterpark in my bathing suit with fifteen tiny Asians who in total make up my mass bodyweight, and no one speaks English so I pretty much sit there by myself and wish away my weekend to only see you people again the very next day and start the workweek all over again, I already bought tickets to this event with my friends and it’s nonrefundable. Bummer though!”
I know that this sounds harsh, but seriously. I made some amazing friends my first round in Korea, and let me tell you that these people are not around forever. There is a continuous stream of people coming in and going out of your life, and I would rather spend my time with them, those who know and love my heart, rather than be miserable with fifteen people who have no idea who I am or where I come from. The hardest thing about leaving that job in October was giving up that gorgeous apartment that made the job seem worth enduring.
There are a few key things that I’ve learned so far about being a teacher.
You can’t hold a grudge against a student. I know that this sounds obvious, but until you’re faced with it you don’t realize how much willpower and control that actually takes. A child can be a total brat, refusing to do their work and making your life absolutely miserable one minute, and then turn around and be sweet as pie and a perfect little angel the next. All you can do is speak to them about their bad behavior in the moment or send them out of the classroom, and when they start acting right again you have to totally forget about the issue that made you so frustrated before, put a smile on your face and praise them like you normally would. And that can be hard, man!
You must go in and establish your authority. Last year I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t want to be “mean” to the kids, and the other teachers didn’t really seem to think that it was my duty to discipline them (remember, I was happy fun time teacher). My suggestion is make them feel super welcome. This year with my little six year olds I gave them hugs, picked them up and shook them around, made them laugh, tickled them, had fun; however, once class started and a student thought that it would be funny to act up, I put an end to it immediately. No more smiles, my voice went deeper and I made long-lasting eye contact and let them know that what they were doing was unacceptable. Once they see that you are serious, you should then move on with a smile on your face and basically forget about it. You should do this each and every time an issue comes up, otherwise you will have a classroom full of small children thinking that they can get out of their seats, run around and talk over you. And if you haven’t really established your place right up front it can take you a long time to get there.
As a teacher of small children you have to give up all shame. You have to think of a million ways to keep these students engaged, and that often means singing, dancing and waving around like a crazy person. You have to have endless amounts of energy, and when you think your energy is all gone, you get to dig in deeper and find some more and put a smile on your face while roaring like a lion or jumping around with your hands scratching at your pits like a monkey.
Yes, my friends, this is the golden life of a kindergarten teacher (and a parent I would imagine, only on a much more intense, long-term level).
As I said earlier though, I have learned from my previous mistakes, placed myself in a school better suited for me, and I’m enjoying teaching more than before. I can see myself doing this for a few more years and really enjoying it. Until, that is, I’m ready to be done and move on to something else.
Aside from teaching, Renee and I have been settling in and adjusting nicely. We’ve also been exploring our area and the island, traveling to Oedo Botanical Garden by way of ferry, stopping at a large rock formation in the sea called Haegeumgang with our friend, Norah, who came to visit for the weekend. It was the perfect weather and we saw some beautiful sights.
This weekend is also very beautiful, but it feels great to be lounging around inside with all of the windows open, letting the breeze in and catching up on some reading. Also, payday is coming up and we are currently short on cash (teachers here get paid once a month, so the third week is usually a bit tight), therefore, I’m happy to take advantage of this lazy weekend and let my heart, mind and body restore its happiness, energy and patience for the upcoming week.