Things that Are a Thing Here

They say that major lifestyle changes—even positive ones, like starting a new job or moving—are one of the biggest stressors out there. By that measure, it’s been a wild week: I’ve moved in with my host family in Naju, set up a Korean bank account and phone number in my name, and started teaching English at two middle schools. Unfamiliar digs, unfamiliar language, unfamiliar students and coworkers. But on all sides, I’ve been fortunate to find myself surrounded by supportive, understanding, and hardworking people.

Skip these two paragraphs if I already told you about my weekly schedule. I spend Monday through Thursday at an all-boys’ middle school in Naju’s old town. At about forty students in each grade (divided into two classes), it’s smaller than average, but our students more than make up for it with their rambunctious energy. Fridays, I’m out in the countryside in an actually tiny one-building school that has only twenty-five or so students (it’s the satellite of a school in a neighboring city), all very proper and devoted to their grade-level classmates. The second school is in a gorgeous setting: epic mountains pouring down fog from all sides.

At my main school, each homeroom gets English class two or three times a week; I teach one class and my supervising coteacher teaches the other. After school, I teach a smaller group of students an English conversation class (the students are all required to participate in a club class but they get to choose from various school subjects). I expected the large classes to be the hard part because of, you know, crowd control. But the club classes have proven more challenging because they expose the students whose English isn’t as strong. Half of the students are bored because they understand nothing, and the other half is bored of waiting for the former to catch up. This situation calls for creative pedagogy. I don’t know what that’ll look like yet, exactly.

Now, I’ll do my utmost not to be that foreigner who windbags about “how the Koreans do it.” So, with the caveat that I do not intend to define cultural differences comprehensively, let me share two things have stood out to me this week: First, it’s really striking how much authority teachers have here. Despite my youth and inexperience, my fellow teachers place a lot of faith (certainly undue) in my ability to plan solid classes. They’ve given me a textbook to follow, along with ample supplies and auxiliary materials, but nobody has nagged me for any bureaucratic nonsense like a tabular correlation of my lesson plans with those of my supervisor. The team trusts that I’ll do the work well, and I do my best to meet their expectations.

Observation number two: There’s a stereotype that Korean schools teach everything by rote, but to me, this appears to be more of a generational difference than a cultural one. If anything, it’s kids in the US who suffer truly tedious classes, structured the same way every day (“I will be able to … ”), because American teachers’ livelihood depends so desperately on their students’ standardized test scores. While standardized tests are also a big deal in Korea, teachers themselves seem to assign (and are permitted to assign) students’ overall learning and well-being more importance. Additionally, my students in Korea take a much wider variety of subjects than their American counterparts. Art, music, literature, and “morality” class* matter just as much as the STEM subjects, whereas the schools I’ve worked at in the States seemed to treat anything that isn’t quantitative as an ancillary. (But then, I did grow up in the shadow of Microsoft, Boeing, and Amazon.)

In short, I really love my job. Call this the honeymoon phase, but I want to gush about one more thing while I’m riding high: On my first day, I received from the vice principal a tabbed, leather-bound notebook labeled “Teacher’s Diary.” I chuckled at the odd English, thinking it was just a regular planner, but it isn’t. Many of the teachers at our school actually keep a journal, in prose, reflecting on their daily lessons and pondering ways to improve their pedagogy. I’ve started doing the same. And I can already feel it making me more present in the classroom, more aware of how my students are faring. I mean, why wasn’t this a thing in my high school?

* I really want to observe this one. I was leafing through the morality textbook and it consists mostly of short parables and comic strips, which students read and then respond to with brief journal entries. When I remarked to another teacher that there are no such classes in America, she asked if we just learned morality during philosophy class. I told her we don’t normally have philosophy classes in grade school either. She turned back to her computer, looking perplexed.