Sunday, March 08, 2009

First week at work

We were told that our first week would be an "observation week," during which we would get to know some of the teachers and sit in on their classes to see what we were in for. They didn't tell us that the teachers might be embarrassed of their English and would refuse to let us in their classrooms, therefore relegating us to a week's worth of Facebook and web surfing (with a little bit of lesson planning thrown in).

Luckily, the two younger English teachers at my school have been more eager to interact with me, less timid about making mistakes, or perhaps just have less face to lose, and they have let me participate in a couple of their classrooms. My first class was Miss Hwang's third grade class. (In Korea, grading numbers start over at the beginning of each new school era, so a high school freshman - a ninth grader in the US - is a first grader, and a senior is in third grade.)

I was a little bit surprised to find out that the class was taught almost entirely in Korean, with just a few choice words or phrases translated into English. One of the big problems in Korean schools is the students' lack of conversation ability. At the same time they will ace reading or written tests. This class went pretty far in explaining why. Even though my high school Spanish classes were largely in English, by my senior year Senor Opazo limited his English to word definitions if needed.

Miss Hwang's class smelled like girls, well, because all of her students were girls. They all carried girlie stuff like pink pencil trays and cartoon-printed blankets and bottles of lotion. As soon as I walked through the door a loud chorus arose. "Woahhhhhhhhhhhhh!" They were all smiles, especially when I stood up periodically throughout the class to read a passage from the book or answer one of Miss Hwang's unexpected, off-the-cuff questions. "What is the difference between a proverb and a maxim?" Jesus, I don't know. "Ummm... a proverb often has a deeper meaning than a maxim... or sometimes a religious connotation." Miss Hwang, like virtually all of the English teachers at I-dong, considers me an expert in the language, by simple virtue of the fact that I grew up speaking it. I am quick to admit that Americans, and probably native speakers in general, are often some of the worst authorities on spelling and grammar you can find. The teachers here have already, on multiple occasions, taught me a thing or two about my own language. And yet, while I do make my share of mistakes, I like to think that I'm more qualified than most to be teaching here. At the very least I know the difference between 'your' and 'you're'.

After reading a sentence about driving dangerously, Miss Hwang asked me when I started driving. The girls were shocked to learn that kids in the US can drive at 15. In Korea they can't get behind the wheel until they're 20. Though that doesn't seem to make the roads any safer or the drivers any more sane.

In another period, Miss Hong started off her first grade homeroom class in English. After many long silences and a sea of blank staring faces, the class ended in Korean. And while I admired her flexibility and ability to adapt to the level of her students, it only made me fully realize my inability to employ such methods when faced with the same situation. If my students don't understand my accent or the vocabulary I use, the only option I have is to speak more clearly, more slowly, and using fewer words. It isn't as easy as it sounds - it takes practice to simplify and slow down your speech in a way that actually makes sense.

Miss Hong also carried a black tape-wrapped stick the length of her forearm, which she used to up her menacing appearance. It seemed sort of comical to me. She is a really jovial woman, always smiling and laughing and clapping innocently, so it was hard for me to take her seriously. Furthermore, it was yet another teaching method I wouldn't be able to copy. While corporal punishment is allowed, and sometimes employed for the most headstrong of students, it's not something I plan on using. I'll have to figure out alternative ways of dealing with troublesome students.


  1. You meant "your" and "you're", right? :)

    The Korean students in my Applied Linguistics class have talked about one of the problems you mention here, that their English classes in Korea used the grammar translation method of language learning that's focused on helping the students pass written tests and write papers in English, and mostly ignores spoken language. I think the situation in Japan is pretty similar. A lot of the foreign exchange students here get amazing scores on the TOEFL, much higher than native speakers, but they can't hold a simple conversation. Fortunately we have a good Intensive English Program here.

  2. Haha touche. Dad was also helpful enough to point out that i misspelled 'language' as 'langugae,' which, hopefully, readers would recognize as a hasty typo (I don't spellcheck my blog, sorry) and not an error out of ignorance.

    I guess that's what I get for making even the most modest of claims to ability.

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