Friday, December 27, 2013

Reflections on the 2013 school year 3: Plans for next year

My lessons aren’t perfect. Next year will undoubtedly present more difficulties than 2013 or 2012 did. There are several reasons for this:

The more I teach, the more I need to learn

While my footing may be surer than it was two years ago and I’ve a better idea of what to teach and how to do it, that doesn't necessarily mean learning has ceased. Quite the contrary: every day brings on a series of questions. If the lesson was good, what was good about it? What can be done better? If a lesson wasn’t good, how come it wasn’t? What could have been better? Was there another way to teach the material? What about next time? These questions determine what happens next.

Also, while I may understand more about Korean culture than before, the journey continues. The more time I spend here, the more nuances come out.

Increasing coordinator duties

A new head coordinator took over in August. He’s an energetic, indefatigable man and he’s got us working on bettering the EPIK program. Admittedly, there isn’t much I can talk about here, but I’m excited about what’s to come down the road. This past year has been a good introduction to coordinating and I welcome what’s ahead in 2014.

Changes in co-teachers

One coteacher, JB, told me that he’ll be moving on to another school once this year concludes. He was here when I arrived and has been a great help both in and out of school. For a time, he was my main co-teacher, so he was in charge of business trips and any issues that arose outside of school. In every instance, he provided invaluable assistance and understood how the EPIK program worked. Moreover, he has unquenchable thirst for learning English because he’s always studying and asking questions about the expressions he comes across. His vigor’s inspiring, for it reminds me to keep studying Korean and not to get stuck doing or saying the same things over and over. He’ll be missed.

Another co-teacher’s finishing out her 5 year stint at one school and will have to move on. She’s co-taught with two other Cheorwon veterans and is another tireless learner. She too understands EPIK and will be a boon to whichever school she teaches at next because of her bright smiles and charming personality. Our conversations are a highlight of school life. But there’s a chance she’ll simply move to another of my schools because the school transfers aren’t final yet. She won’t know where she’s going until March.

My obligations borne out of time spent here.

Admittedly, I don’t know what will happen, but the trend’s been that every year means more responsibilities on the professional side. It makes sense, each year here brings a raise, so asking for more work in exchange for more money’s a fair trade in my mind.

To be sure, there’ll most likely be another night class or two as well as more record keeping to do. The night classes this semester went well because they featured a small group of high level speakers, so each lesson was more like a coffee shop chat than a formal class. I’d choose a topic, draw up some questions and vocabulary, and briefly explain them before we got going. The students simply had to follow the topic (ie, traveling) at hand and speak in English. It was a format that worked well, but for next year, I’ll be including more A/V materials as well as more opportunities for writing. I should’ve better employed their notebooks this year.

More to come later.

Also...I'd like to wish everyone a belated Merry Christmas and hope everyone's enjoying the holidays.

Friday, December 20, 2013


The last few posts detailed professional concerns, but life hasn't been all work and no play in Cheorwon. Seeing as it's Friday, here's something lighter to kick off the weekend:I've begun cooking in earnest. I should've done it much, much sooner, but it's never to late to learn and do new things, is it? The late-20s are as good a time as ever to begin cooking for oneself.

Thanks to the lovely R and to JT Gatto for inspiration.

For my British friends: Beans and toast! It was every bit as good as you said.

Rice, fried tofu, and raw veggies.

You know it, I know it. The egg came out mangled, but it still tasted like victory.

Reflections on the 2013 school year 2: Anger

Avoid it as much as possible.

I’ll confess to losing my cool and yelling at students for misbehaviors. It’s not something to be happy about. It didn’t do anyone any good because it not only worsened the situation; it gave the kids their much-needed dose of attention. They got what they wanted and I got a headache and a sore throat. Korean society emphasizes the concept of “face,” which I definitely lost a few times over the years here. I took care not to ruin the class and quick switched a more positive mood to get the class rolling. Sometimes it was too late, but we usually got back on the right track.

On a similar note, Pink Floyd’s immortal warning of “No dark sarcasm in the classroom” proved all too tempting to ignore because there’s nothing a good harsh quip to put a student in his place, right? Wrong. Sarcasm doesn’t do anyone any good either. Life isn’t a movie script. There’s no peanut gallery watching the classroom for cutting lines or deft jests, there’s just me, the co-teacher, and the students. Moreover, sarcasm wouldn’t bring about any behavior change because it says nothing about the behavior that’s best for the classroom (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Here’s how: Saying something like “Oh, I see you’ve graced us with shining presence” to a tardy student may gratify for a second, but it won’t make him get in the door any sooner. Something like, “Good to see you, Joe. Arrive sooner next time,” would work better because it’s neutral and also points to the desired behavior. It also speaks the truth—I am truly am glad to see Joe and would like it even better for students to learn that expression to use among themselves. But, there’s another, more effective solution: Wait until the students are off and doing an activity and leave Joe a note or talk to him privately. Doing so allows for two things:
l       Joe gets no unnecessary attention when he enters the room.
l       He’s reminded of his misbehavior.
l       The conversation’s kept private.
l       I (the teacher) have time to cool down.

Contrast that with the aforementioned sarcasm and see which method’s more effective for yourself.

On a final note, I've found that telling the students I’m angry works because saying so always prompts a question as to why, and then I can explain. Yelling doesn’t work, but saying what the problem is—or demonstrating it, one of the two—always yields better behavior.

Let’s conclude by saying that sometimes voices need raising. One example comes to mind here: It happened during a word game we were playing at the boys middle school. One boy’s turn to speak came up and before he could say anything, another boy fired off a salvo of “You’re stupid” and “You don’t know anything” quips. The words cut the boy to the bone and he broke down and cried. As this happened in Korean, I missed the words and only saw the boy crying. A quick question to the co-teacher had her explaining what happened. It was no ordinary joking—it was verbal abuse. I yelled “Stop!” and halted the game so that we could review what showing respect and speaking at appropriate times means. By this time, everyone had gone silent. The other boy knew he’d done wrong, but rather than talk to him privately, I addressed the entire class, for they needed to hear this. They needed to know that taunting and verbal abuse is uncalled for. My co-teacher also talked to him after class and noted the incident in her log. 

More reflections coming soon...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reflections on the 2013 School Year 1

Exams have concluded today and we’re entering the last days of the school year. The year concludes on 27 December, so we’ve about two weeks left before the winter classes begin. The regular year is, for all intents and purposes, over. We still have more classes to do, but they’ve already been planned out, so I’ve more some time to relax and stretch out. Hence, this post and a future series of posts reflecting on how the 2013 school year went down. Here’s the beginning:

Favorite lessons/activities:

l       The Price is Right--the students had great fun guessing prices of various items we learned about. It also provided an excellent review of money and numbers. The teams liked competing with each other for the closest price as well.
l       The hotel and airplane tickets roleplays--The students enjoyed walking around making their various plans with people. They got to do some real life English as well as practice activities they'll likely do as adults. As reading's been called an "imaginative rehearsal" for real life, so to are the role plays.
l       Battleship--The activity does take some time to explain, but the students understood it after a couple of tries. The game's format lends itself to repetition, so students get plenty of practice with variations on a speaking point without wearing the point out. The students also had fun guessing where the ships were.
l       Board games--UpWords and Scrabble. The games allowed the students to use their repertoire of English words in a fun context. To keep track of the words, they wrote words that they played on a handout and turned them in for my review.

What else went well? Why?

l       Anything I mentioned about America. The students are hungry for knowledge about my home country as well as the chance to compare Korea to other countries. The students delighted in hearing about how it’s possible to vote, buy rifles, and smoke cigarettes at age 18.*

l       The notebooks and the bringing of materials.I've written about this before—at the beginning, it felt like moving mountains get the students to remember that yes,this is class, and yes, you will bring your materials with you, but theydid get the message. Soon over 80% were bringing books, notebooks, and pencils to class and we began taking notes in earnest. Some grumbled at this, but it was the next step after brining the stuff to class. (Many did see the value, though) The note-taking part’s still being worked on, but the students are starting to see that yes, they need to write stuff down from time to time. Writing helps, interestingly enough, with the hallowed study method of memorization. It’s funny how students will copy words and sentences for pages, but writing stuff that appears on the board is forgotten much of the time here. Oh well…one more thing to work on next semester.

*They couldn’t believe it was possible to own a gun while still in high school. And as someone who turned 18 just before senior year began, it is a strange thing to think about. The Korean students can’t drive, smoke, or vote until age 19, which means after they’ve finished high school. What a contrast to America—driving is high school for a good chunk of the population, for better or worse.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On to SKY

Few things in a teacher's life sound as good as hearing of a student's successes: One my former students has been accepted to the prestigious Yonsei University! Ji-hye deserves it: A consummate scholar and a bright presence, she always showed up to class with a smile and practiced her English at every opportunity. She's certain to do well at the university. Her amiable personality and intelligence will serve her well in the years to come. She's done our school well.

This is what happens when you study hard and keep focus. Well done, Ji-hye! Here's to bright college years. The road ahead won't be easy, but we've every reason to believe she'll keep up the good work.

*Yonsei's part of the Korea's illustrious SKY universities: Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Teaching tip: You can only be you

Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson  [Quoted here]
Teaching corollary: Teach how you will, but no matter how you do it, you'll always be you. 
Whether you're teaching in hagwon or EPIK, chances are that if you're teaching in Korea, you will have heard about your predecessor(s) in the classroom. Maybe you're like me and you not only met her, you were neighbors with her. And chances are that in doing so, you have heard students or teachers talk about what predecessor X did for a lesson or how X's differed from yours. It's inevitable when considering all of the different people who go abroad to teach English here. In hearing about X, you may feel tempted to compare your classroom performance to him or be more like him in the classroom. But however you think of X, resist trying to be X. 

While it's good to draw inspiration from teachers past and present, it does no good to try to be someone you're not. You can only be you, especially in the classroom. By all means, learn from your colleagues and emulate the masters, but remember that trying to be someone else is futile.

During my first year here, I thought about the woman I replaced and how my style compared to hers. Since we were neighbors for a time, comparisons inevitably popped up in conversation. Students called her the "games teacher" and referred to me as the "educational teacher." She had a kinetic and whimsical style; I moved more deliberately. She so spoke highly of her former girls middle school students and the lessons they did together that I wondered how well I was doing. The questions came in flashes: Was I boring them? Should be I more like her? Should I jump around more? What if they resent me because she's gone? I'd get into that pattern for a while before the thought of hey now, you're not her and never will be--relax already! came to mind like a Seattle sun-break and I moved on.

As the months grooved along and found my footing, those questions dissipated and were replaced with more practical questions about how to adapt her good lesson ideas to my classes. I couldn't be her, but I could certainly emulate her. Doing so helped alleviate the anxiety and allowed me to concentrate on reaching the students because above all, the students will know when the teacher's on uneven footing. They can sense it and are masters at spotting uncertainty. Like Emerson said above, we can only be who we are, but we should strive toward becoming the best possible versions of ourselves. The students will adjust to you because you are not the first foreign teacher they've had and nor are you likely to be the last. In short:

  • Do the best you can, because you can only be who you are.
  • There's no one way to teach and there are many different styles.
  • The students will adjust to you. They have plenty of other teachers who teach differently. You're no different.
  • The students will know if you're going too far out of your comfort zone. 
  • Overthinking leads to mental fatigue
And as I'm a fan of bookends, let's conclude with more of Emerson's wisdom from his essay Self Reliance:

There is a time in every man's education when we arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is give to him to toil. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he tried.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Choppers overhead

I was walking home from school this week and looking up at the hues of the sunset when I heard them. Choppers. More than two, from the sound of it. I kept walking and within seconds, they came into view like something out of a movie. Helicopters fly by occasionally up here, so seeing them was nothing new, but the combination of seeing the three of them coming out of the southwest looked startling. We don't usually have three choppers flying by at a time here, despite all of the army camps strewn about Cheorwon. I wonder what they were up to? It makes no matter now. Helicopters and rifle fire from nearby ranges are as much a part of Cheorwon as the kimchi.

The picture below came a little late, but it conveys the idea.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Smart phones aren't entirely evil

Two high school girls watch an online lecture on a smart phone during a study hall. 

Korea has a wealth of online lectures for students to watch and learn from. From the looks of them, they're well produced and practical.