Monday, 23 July 2012

The Second Semester

It’s nearing the end of the school year. As a matter of fact there are only two days left. So, to summarize, I thought I’d write (much like I did last semester) about my experiences with my students in each grade this year.

I’ve had more kindergarten students this semester, there are around thirteen students and I see them once a week. There are a few stars of the class, students that were there last semester have certainly improved and answer questions in English, whereas, new students some of which must be around five years old or younger, have picked up a few words over the course of the semester but remain too young to really learn anything outside of simple words. Names of animals. Basic greetings. I enjoy these classes, I usually dance around and sing some songs, drill some vocabulary and read a story related to that vocabulary. Sometimes we’ll do some colouring. Things are kept simple. Today was my last (possibly ever) kindergarten class, we were learning about food, we ate some fruit that the kindergarten teacher ha prepared to tie in with the lesson, we sang some songs, and then we did some colouring in relation to the very hungry caterpillar, it was a lot of fun.

My Grade 1 students have obviously moved up from kindergarten and a vast percentage of them were totally new to the school. I have seven students in this class and they are probably my second favourite class although nearing the end of semester they are getting a little to excitable to handle. Kim Jae -Min is an ADD student who can sometimes make this class very difficult, he doesn’t really pick anything up as he has trouble concentrating. I feel kind of sorry for the guy as the other students seem to bully quite a lot. He runs around screaming hello for the first five minutes of class and then settles into doing whatever distracting thing he’s decided to do for the rest of the class. The rest of the students here are generally good, their English has gone from next to nothing to a level at which I can have a small basic conversation with them. This is a class where it’s clear to see exactly what I’ve taught them and I’m pretty happy with how far they’ve come.

My Grade 2 class obviously moved up from Grade 1, but there are many new students here, at a class of 9 this is one of my biggest classes. Only 4 students from my old Grade 1 class are in this class, so they are mostly new students. It’s touch and go with them. Sometimes they’ll be well behaved and other times they won’t be, I guess it depends on whether or not there is a co-teacher in the room. I teach all these classes on my own though, as I do with every class this semester, if the co-teachers do show up, they just help out by keeping score during games or reinforcing the things I have planned. There are twins in this class, identical twins that always wear the same clothes, which gets frustrating as I never know which one is which, one is good at English and the other isn’t. Nightmare. There is a shy kid who cries whenever he loses a game, so I always try and make his team win to save any unnecessary tears. In general I have a lot of fun with Grade 2, we don’t use a textbook here so I’ve basically made my own curriculum for them, which has been a lot of fun, albeit a lot of work.

Grade 3. The class from hell. The class I dread. The class that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. During their textbook classes where their homeroom teacher sits at the back of the class they are generally well behaved and I can teach them something. During afterschool classes I’ll spend at least twenty minutes of each forty minute class trying to discipline them, get them to sit down, or get them to pay attention. They run around, they hit each other, they climb on the tables, they play on the computer, and they throw things at each other. A typical conversation will go like this:

“Min-gi, sit down.”
“Sit down.”

You can’t really argue with that when you know they won’t understand anything else that you say. They’ve got better. I experimented with different methods of getting them to focus and what seems to have worked is offering candy to the winning team of whatever game we play that lesson. However, if they get five strikes (I write these strikes on the board with the name of the student) then they get no candy. So now it goes like this:

“Min-gi, sit down.”

I walk over to the board and put my pen on the board.

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

By the time I get to one he (or whoever else is annoying me) has usually sat down or stopped doing whatever irritating thing he might be doing. So, bribery. That’s what works here, but it makes for a much more peaceful and much less stressful class. I won’t miss them.

Grade 4 are a joy. They can often be very loud as they are a big class of excitable students. There are ten of them in total. Yu-Min is a little shit and likes defacing his textbook but when he focuses he really does try. He usually needs similar motivation to that of Grade 3. Shin-hee is a new student who started at the beginning of this semester and is one of my favourite students. Although her English isn’t great she always tries hard and she always talks to me about whatever is going on in her little fourth grade life. The chubby kid who annoyed the hell out of me last year is now another favourite of mine, his English has improved ten-fold and he likes to show me magic tricks. There is a kid in this class who always stares at me. With evil eyes. Everywhere. At lunch. In class. In the hallway. So, I have staring contests with her that she always wins much to her delight. I enjoy 4th grade and although there is never a co-teacher around I always get things done with them, I’ve never had to discipline them to the point of stupidity. Which is nice.

Grade 5 are my favourite class. Strange, as Grade 4 was my favourite last year so this class has consistently remained my favourite class. Their English is the best in the entire school. They always pay attention and we always have great fun in class. I can plan really fun lessons because I know I can explain things and I know they will listen. Min-ji, the daughter of the kindergarten teacher is another star student, I give her some afterschool tuition and her reading has really improved, she’s a fifth grade Korean student but she can read words that I would have struggled with at her age. Good for her. Ji-Sung was a bit of a terror last year but he’s settled down and is improving. Dong-Hou always participates and makes anything we do into some kind of monster or alien activity. Write about your family. “My family are aliens.” Make a menu. “Alien spaghetti.” That kind of thing. It’s kind of hilarious. Yong-Chae and Se-Jin are some of the best English speakers in the school and basically Grade 5 is just incredible and I look forward to teaching them every week. This happened with Yong-Chae last week. “Ok, now we will write about our grandparents.” “Teacher, my grandparents die.” Then she made a slit the throat motion with her hand accompanied by a “ugh” sound. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Then we arrive at Grade 6. Their English ability has remained the same. I can’t say it’s improved outside of learning some new words. We had a new student join the class Ji-Eun, who is no doubt the best English speaker in the whole school, she must have moved from a city school or have gone to hagwons (private English academies) for years. These classes are generally fun but there is an apathetic tone across the whole class. They would rather be somewhere else and whenever I ask them how they are I get the same monotone responses. “Teacher, I am sleepy, angry and hungry.” Everyday. For the whole semester. Sleepy, angry, hungry.

So, that just about sums up my experiences with my students this semester. We have two more days left of school before I start my camps which will last one and a half weeks and then I’ll be on my vacation. Things can still be up in the air here and things always happen at the last minute. Surprise classes or surprise class cancellations. I’ve gotten used to it now and tend not to worry about it so much.

A year has been enough for me. I’ve had a great experience and have had plenty of highs and lows. Plenty of clarity and plenty confusion. Lots of good classes and some bad ones. Days when things have been exciting and fun and days that have been boring and monotonous. I’m not sure I’ll miss school for a while once I’ve left but I’m sure there will come a day when I do. I won’t miss being in the dark, not knowing vital pieces of information, I will miss the relationships I’ve formed with some of my students, the jokes and the compliments. I’ll even miss the school lunches. Shock horror. I’m getting excited about my camps now I’ve got them planned. The first day we are doing make your own superhero. This all starts on Wednesday. Although, saying that, there are some things written on the staff room bulletin board which make me question whether my camps actually do start on Wednesday. I guess, much like with everything here, we’ll wait and see what happens.

Monday, 16 July 2012

A Little Bit of Rain

Nathanael cooked breakfast. It was delicious. We had American style biscuits with pork sausage gravy. An American traditional breakfast food so I’m told. It was a good way to start a very unpredictable Sunday. I woke up at 7am and pulled the blinds up to reveal a very rainy Sachang. The rain was thundering down. Usually this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but we had big plans. The whole Sachang posse was planning to hike the tallest mountain in the province, Hwaaksan. Everything was set, I had bought lunch, we had arranged to meet at 10am, and everyone was excited about the climb. As I looked out of the window at the stormy skies I knew that most people were going to drop out. I knew that Nathanael would be as crazy as me and would decide to climb the mountain anyway.

By 9am it had been confirmed that everyone bar Nathanael and I had decided to stay dry. Ben was kind enough to offer us a ride in his car to the trail head. The trail head was about 6km outside of town past many military bases and farms. We exited the car into the rain and started the hike. The trail started out very promisingly, the path was easy but it quickly turned into suspicious concrete slabs and we ended up in someone’s garden with two dogs that weren’t chained up and that did not want either of us there. They barked their little faces off at us. They chased us around a bit. All of this, whilst we tried to figure out where we were supposed to be going. We had no idea. The trail just stopped beside a thunderous river and a bunch of farming fields surrounded by forest.  We tried to look for a trail whilst keeping our eyes on the dogs. We even waded through the stream to see what was on the other side. We had almost given up when I suggested we walk up to the top of a small hill above the fields as it looked like you could get some more perspective from there. Low and behold the small rise turned out to be the very trail we were looking for. By the time we started hiking we were both drenched, there was no turning back.

The trail got steep pretty quickly, wet tree branches kept hitting us in the face, the ascents were slippery and both Nathanael and I had several falls which covered us in a good dose of the sticky brown stuff. Mud. It was the mud festival this weekend (a popular Korean drinking festival in which you get very muddy), it’s safe to say that Nathanael and I had our own little mud festival in the blistering rain on the side of Hwaaksan mountain. The higher we got the cloudier it became; we were clearly walking into the clouds. The sound of distant thunder echoed and reverberated through the trees. We climbed over rocks, ducked under fallen down trees and eventually came to some flat land along a ridge line where we could catch our breath.

We had been on the trail for about two hours before we reached the first sign that we might be near the top. It was a small clearing. You could see the clouds moving directly in front of your eyes, by this point we were probably at about 1,000 metres. You could just about make out a taller peak in the distance so we caught our breath and trekked on. I was cold, I was drenched from head to toe, small droplets of rain were annoyingly and constantly trickling off of my hair, I was sure that the lunch in my bag would be ruined. It was another hour before we finally made it to the peak of the mountain.

There is a military base on top so you can’t technically reach the summit, however we felt incredibly accomplished that we had made it in such conditions. We celebrated by eating our soggy lunches, we felt the cold wind splash against our faces. We were up 1,400 meters and we felt pretty good about it. I was worried about the descent though, it was bound to be slippery, the water that consumed my clothing was very cold by this point and I imagined myself getting pneumonia and being left on the mountain with nowhere to go.

A short way into the descent it became apparent that we had taken a wrong turning, we trekked on regardless certain that we were at least heading in the right direction. At some point during the descent, I slipped. I grabbed a tree branch to save myself from the fall. There was a bee sitting on the tree branch that I must have disturbed as I grabbed the tree, it stung me right on the palm of my hand. I panicked. What if I’m allergic? The good thing about getting stung by a bee was that all of the pain I had been feeling in my legs was clouded by the pain in my hand. We picked up the pace and headed southward.

“Is that a road?”

“We’re saved!” I exclaimed, as we turned and saw a concrete road in front of us. We had been hiking for four hours and we were both physically exhausted, the rain was still beating down. We slid down a mudslide and joined the road. We hiked down the road for around half an hour, each corner we turned was a mystery waiting to be solved as we had no idea where we were. I joked that we’re probably on the other side of the mountain. It was pleasant to be off of the narrow forest trail, and the road got us down to the main highway pretty quickly. We headed in the direction that we thought the town should be in, we turned and read a sign letting us know that Sachang-ri was in fact in the opposite direction. We were on the other side of the mountain. How had this happened? When I saw a sign for the Hwaak tunnel I knew that we were still very far from home. We had no choice, I don’t think I could have made it, we stuck our thumbs out and within fifteen or twenty minutes a kind Korean man en route to visit his son at the military base in town, picked us up, and saved us from at least a 10 – 12km walk along the road, back home.

Nathanael talked to the Korean man that had offered us a ride and it turns out this was his first time in Gangwon-do. We joked about this and that, and before we knew it we were back in town. We had made it. My hand stung, I was dirty, I was dripping wet, my knees ached, my head ached, I was a happy young man! I got home and spent an hour in the shower just lying under the hot water. I was tired. I was also happy about what we had accomplished.  I have no idea exactly how far we hiked, but it was about five hours round trip in wind, rain and mud. Satisfied. That’s a good word.

I mean, really, it was just a little bit of rain.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


“If I could offer you only one tip for the future… sunscreen would be it… the long term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists… where as the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience…”

If only I had listened to Baz Luhrmann. Then I wouldn’t be sat here two days after being exposed to the suns sizzling rays still feeling uncomfortable and itchy and still looking like a ripe tomato. I’ve rubbed copious amounts of Savlon into my back, I’ve looked up home remedies on some rather untoward websites in search of a quick cure for the burning sensation, I’ve stood in front of my air conditioner, I’ve basked in freezing cold showers, but still the problem persists. Min-gi one of my overly excitable third grade students thought it would be funny to hit me really hard on the back today. I can still feel his hand.

Ok, I’m over reacting. I’m not going to develop any tumours, but it bloody hurts and it was my own stupid fault. We went swimming down by the river again on Sunday. The sun was beating down. I haven’t been so hot all summer. When the sun dipped behind a cloud there would be a gentle breeze and the water would be cold, when that sun was out I couldn’t bear to leave the water. The river is deeper now, only two weeks since the last time we swam in it and the onset of rainy season is taking effect.

I enjoyed swimming in the river and I enjoyed walking to and from the river but what I didn’t enjoy is my back, shoulders and face being burnt to a cinder. It’s not even funny. Mr. Chae thought it was funny. The first thing he said to me on Monday morning was “you are an apple.” Students have been pointing and laughing asking me “what?” “why?” “teacher red.” “teacher tomato.” Hilarious.

I’m sure it won’t last much longer. It’s only really my shoulders that are painful now, but they are still painful. This week is going by quickly. Thus far I’ve had all of my classes and I’ve been given no indication that any other classes will be cancelled this week. Although there are some rather intriguing things written upon the monthly calendar in the office that makes me think that there might be a few school trips on the cards. I can dream. I wonder just how many classes I have left with my kids now. Each class could very well be the last.

I’m giving a summer camp that will last eight days that will start on the 25th July. Although I have a distaste for anything Olympic and if I was in the UK I would no doubt be infuriating everyone I know with arguments against the hosting of the games, the Olympics have given me an easy theme for my camp. I have a few ideas about exactly what my classes will consist of, the Olympics opens you up to all kinds of different language lessons. It should be fun, we’ll make posters, we’ll play games and we’ll have a few of our own little Olympic events, egg on a spoon? Could get messy.

Everything is falling into place. Natalie will be here in just over a month and I’m very excited about her arrival. Three months is a long time to be apart. We’ll make up for it with our big vagabonding adventure and although everything is pretty much planned now I’m still scouring the web to look at things we can do and see and eat whilst we’re on the road. If you ever want to go on a trip and don’t want to plan it, call me up, I’d be happy to help. I can’t get enough of it.

I’m still undecided as to what I’m going to do on my vacation, I’m torn between the temple stay, a visit to Gyeongju to visit the UNESCO world heritage sites or a trip to Seoraksan National Park, I probably won’t make up my mind until I’m actually on my vacation.

Well, it must be time to leave work now, the maintenance man is walking around shouting “te gun” (home time) as he does every day. It’s the little things like that I’m going to miss when I leave Korea. The sense of achievement on a student’s face when they read a word that they didn’t think they could, the look of overwhelming accomplishment when they get given some candy, the treacherous, deadly bus rides through the mountains, the lady who knows that when I walk in the door of her snack bar I’m after two rolls of gimbop… simple pleasures…

Trust me on the sunscreen…

Friday, 6 July 2012

Travelling or Teaching?

The relationship between travelling and teaching English is an interesting one. It is becoming increasingly more popular as more and more countries are requesting foreign English language teachers. Countries like Georgia and Saudi Arabia are taking more and more foreign teachers per semester and they aren’t paying badly either. However, whilst I don’t see a problem with ESL teaching, what being an ESL teacher has taught me is that if you want to be a vagabond, if you want a meaningful cultural exchange, then shockingly, ESL probably isn’t for you.

There are benefits. I’ve raised all of the funds for my round-the-world trip whilst teaching ESL here in South Korea. For graduates fresh out of University with no real sense of direction ESL is a good opportunity, an opportunity to pay off some loans and experience a different culture. In essence that’s what I want to talk about. As an ESL teacher your experience of any culture will be biased (seen through the eyes of an insider not an outsider) and thus will drastically affect your vagabonding experience.

There are three main ways that you can go about teaching English abroad, there are obviously more than three but for the purpose of my argument we’ll talk about the most popular. They are: public school teaching (usually being hired by a government agency, EPIK, or JET are good examples), private school teaching (this is probably responsible for most ESL recruiting across the globe) and private tutoring. All offer vastly different experiences, but all of those experiences will put the vagabond in a foxhole, a closed space that promotes cross-cultural exchange but in a restrictive environment. A nine to five. A one to ten. A job.

Most of the teachers I know are under the same contract as I am, you’re led to believe that every experience is uniquely individual but when I meet with other teachers there are always more similarities than there are differences. The differences will be mainly aesthetic but the heart of the experience is almost always the same, of course it has to-do with the kind of person that you are. If you align yourself with the philosophies of vagabonding then you are probably a creative, intelligent and open person. However, what you get when teaching ESL is a very hand-to-mouth experience. I’ve been teaching here for a year and at times it has been a mentally exhausting experience, stupid lessons, besieged by boredom and mediocrity. This isn’t a useful banner under which to experience a new culture.

No matter how you approach a new country and a new culture you are going to come at it with pre-conceived ideas and assumptions and these will no doubt impact on your experience of the country. It is hard to be fully open in the 21st century as pre-conceived notions of places and people can be negatively affected by the media, by the internet and by globalization.

There is no calling to question the fact that from a hyper-globalist position the spread of English is a benign outcome of globalizing forces. Notably here in Korea in certain circles of Koreans can be skeptical about a kind of linguistic imperialism, that English teachers are rip-roaring through these countries, bringing their pre-conceived notions of ‘otherism’ with them, and whilst the spread of English is too complicated to be considered evil, the question stands, what impact does an influx of ESL teachers have on a country and its culture?

Phewey, big questions! What has this got to do with being a traveller anyway? Isn’t the point of vagabonding to infiltrate new cultures, to get under their skin, to understand them? Well, yes, and that’s kind of my point, how can you truly do that if you are experiencing the country through a teachers eyes and not through a travellers eyes?

I spend most of my days sat at my desk planning lessons, I spend most of my days looking at a computer screen, the time I am teaching I’m teaching English, I’m talking about my culture and my language. The time to experience this culture is reserved for after school, out on the streets, and that’s fair enough, don’t get me wrong, you do have time to get to know the place, but when most of your time is spent at school can you really call it vagabonding? How much of the experience is jaded through the eyes of your experience at school? I’m an expat. I work here. I live here.

It is not up to me to define what vagabonding is, what travelling is and what it isn’t. It’s not my place to question the motives of an expat community that is so vast and expansive that it becomes difficult to define. What’s interesting to me is the effect that English teachers have on cultures, how they change cultures, for better or for worse and whether an anthropologist, a social scientist, a traveller seeking answers to life’s big questions can find those answers when they become part of a global movement that is changing the lives of so many young people.

Food for thought.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Visa Day

It’s visa day. That basically translates into I just spent three hours filling out forms. The process still isn’t over. Things need to be printed, signed and sent to London. I can’t complain really. The agency that is processing our visas has been incredibly helpful and made things easier than they would have been with no agent. Now we just have to cross our fingers and hope that nothing is wrong with any of the forms. The Mongolian form that I have to print off isn’t working either, which is annoying. I get stressed over small insignificant things. I’m going to have to get my parents to print these forms for me as living abroad when applying for these kinds of things is even more complicated than it is if you’re actually living in your home country. I genuinely can’t wait until these arduous formalities are over and Natalie and I can get on with our trip.

It’s stupidly hot. Rainy season made its first real statement yesterday. It rained flat out from about midnight on Friday through to about 2pm on Saturday. The heat dried things up pretty quickly though and today the sun has got his hat on. I’ve been inside however. Making sure I wasn’t making any mistakes whilst filling out these damn forms.

There are only three weeks left of term at school now. Then I’ll have two weeks of either camp or desk warming, and then it will be vacation, Natalie will arrive and we’ll be out of here. Time will inevitably fly by.

On Friday I had to go to Hwacheon to watch an open class. An open class is where teachers from across the county are invited to watch a class and critique it. It is designed to share teaching ideas and improve the English education program. None of that really happens though, everyone is too nice to say anything negative so all that happens is mediocre, safe, overly rehearsed classes are performed and then given cringe-worthy appraisal. I was drowning in the bullshit that surrounded me. If things are ever going to improve here this needs to change. The problems with English education in Korea aren’t going to be solved or even discussed at these open class events. I was intending to write a critique and explain away these problems but I’ve decided against it. That’s not what this blog is about and to be quite honest I just don’t care enough.

Afterwards a few of the English teachers went for drinks in Hwacheon. We convened around a gazebo in Hwacheon and played beer pong in the hot and humid outdoors. It was good to talk to other foreigners whom I don’t usually get the chance to hang out with. It was really the only note-worthy thing that happened this weekend outside of applying for the visas.

I don’t want this to sound too negative though, it’s just been one of those weekends where I’ve had to stay in and get things done. It’ll be worth it in the long run and I have my fingers crossed that everything will run smoothly. Thus far during our planning process we’ve had no major hiccups so it would be nice if we could get through this with a similar outcome. Yes, that would be very nice indeed.