In researching Korea, I'd scoured every blog you could imagine, reading horror stories and nonstop dream-land fantasies about this mountainous, coffee-shop-paradise, Kpop lala land. (Please--for all of Korea's good times--read the sarcasm in that last sentence.)
Most of the horror stories discussed cultural-conflict. The nonstop-dream-land fantasies nearly all about concerts, too-many-nights with too-many-bottles-of-soju, and monthly adventures out of town.
By all means, I've got posts queued up about my second Seoul trip, my traipsing up mountains every Autumn Sunday, my Halloweekend Fireworks Festival, my cringe-y K-pop-loving self at a Busan Music Festival...and there's the things I don't like, too. The things that remind me I'm not from here (and that's okay).
But let's talk about school. Let's talk about the good, the bad, and the make-your-heart-so-full. Let's talk about how you may have stumbled into education, unsure whether you belonged here. Let's talk about how you might still not be sure, but how much you desperately want to give these kids the quality education they deserve.
Let's talk about the way they look at you--the foreign teacher whose class they know they can sleep through . Let's talk about the 사랑합니다s that inexplicably follow you in your girls' school, and all the rowdy middle school boys who bang on your classroom window to wave hello, even if they glare daggers at you during class.
Let's talk about co-teachers you can never feel quite so relaxed around, and co-workers who shyly say a "See you next week!" Let's talk about it all, because it is, after all, why you were brought here in the first place.
The Make Your Heart So Full
You've got Halloween lessons with Hocus Pocus all retold for the kids to enjoy, hamming up the Sanderson Sisters appetite for children. You sprinkle Harry Potter and Twilight references in your slideshows because a gaggle of girls ran into your office saying they loved those stories, asking if you were a Gryffindor or if you liked vampires. You jokingly cover your ears when they squeal over their favorite Kpop star in the fortune teller you'd made, telling them you'd watch the group's new dance practice after they complete their assignment. You chase away a student prodding you to spill secrets about your love life while she sings that you're too cool for boyfriends anyway. And yeah--those moments help you feel loved alright, like maybe you're doing something halfway right for a popularity contest at least.
But this stuff'll fade once your sheen as the newbie wears down. You've only been here a little while after all.
The-make-your-heart-so-full memories? They're not all that dramatic...
This past Halloween, my boys' after-school speaking club won a movie lesson. All of them had chosen Coco, but I couldn't manage to get the version with Korean subtitles. I told them, I apologized, and they still wanted to see the movie. By all means I have a couple of advanced students, but, for the most part, my boys' school teeters around the lower levels. Despite this barrier, my boys sat rapt for not one, but two 45 minute classes, gasping when Miguel's family broke his guitar, whispering small "oh nos" in all the heart-panging scenes.
It seems silly to say, but watching Coco with my boys felt like I actually learned more about them. I felt like they shed some of that tacky machisimo and bravado that permeates every pore of an all boys' middle school. It was quiet, and vulnerable, and I want to keep that image of them for when I get frustrated. A gaggle of thirteen and fourteen year old boys who stopped pretending to be so tough for just a little while, who didn't know everything being said in the movie but understood it all the same. I stood at the back of the room, separate from the scene and watching them watch the movie. I noticed them write a word they thought they recognized from a snippet of dialogue, noticed them close their eyes when they thought Miguel was going to die, noticed them tap their hands to each song. For some of them, we'd done a lesson on dream jobs two weeks prior. I couldn't stop thinking about some of their answers as they watched Miguel fight for the family and life he wanted.
The boy at the front whose English is as good as mine--he mentioned the idea of a Translator. One of them, the instigator who hates studying and loves pointing out when I forget to take out my nose ring--he wants to pursue professional cycling. The kid nicknamed Troublemaker says he wants to be a teacher; and I don't know how true that is, but he's got a good heart for all his mischief. And the one who goes by every rendition of the name Snail/Slug said he didn't know what he wanted but maybe engineer, maybe bus driver, maybe boxer (definitely boxer).
And we all watched the movie. And tomorrow I have a follow-up lesson they'll likely talk straight through, hating and humoring me for turning movies into school. It's okay, though, because I'll remember how vehemently they'd insisted on watching Coco without subtitles anyway. That the movie was just as enthralling even if they didn't know all the specific words, that the animation and Miguel and the something in this story resonated with them despite a difference in language and culture.
The-make-your-heart-so-full memories? Like I said.
They're really not all that dramatic...
About that Education System...
You'll notice I didn't address rote memorization. Nearly every negative had a positive-side for balance, but, see, that's the tricky part.
It's tricky because you know you can't change the Korean education system. Because who are you to do that anyway, foreigner? Save those kids? Got a complex or something? I've seen all the dark corners of the internet where EFL teachers complain about being the best educator possible, about being trapped in a system that doesn't allow them to really teach students, or about the position being tainted by people without the proper pedagogy.
I agree to an extent. You've got to love teaching--at least in some capacity--to be here. But I don't want to be a real teacher here. I can't be--I didn't go through their system to know how to work it!
Maybe you--maybe I--can't change a thing. Hell the education system back home is just as screwed and I've only been teaching for two years anyway.
Maybe all you can do is try to make your class the one where they can rest, where they can play, where they can try to interact with this weird foreigner suddenly part of their lives. Maybe all you can do is know that--out of all these school hours--they've got a once-a-week block they don't need to worry about.
Maybe sometimes all you can tell them is, "Please get some rest."
Maybe sometimes all you can hope is that they understand.
Maybe sometimes they smile back.
Maybe sometimes they tell you they will.
Pedagogy and Reflection
We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience