Monday, August 31, 2009

First Day Report

As the title of this post suggests today was my first day of work. I had trouble sleeping last night, woke up early this morning, and could barely eat due to jitters. My co-teacher picked me up at 8:15 and we drove to the school, which is located about 15 minutes outside the city. That isn't very far but once you're there the school seems very remote as it's surrounded by green sloping mountains and is the only visible man-made structure in the area. The school itself is two buildings separated by a large dirt playground. Almost as soon as I arrived I was herded outside and onto a stage in front of all the students (lined up in very militaristic rows by grade) and introduced by the principal after which I gave a very brief speech ("Good morning. I am very pleased to be here. Thank you.")

I don't have a classroom but I have a desk in the teacher's lounge. Unfortunately the previous tenant left a lot of trash and papers stuffed into its nooks and crannies so I had a lot to keep me occupied until my first class. Now, at orientation we were lead to believe we would be teaching grades 3-6 but once I arrived it turned out I would also be teaching grades 1, 2 and kindergarten. My first class was with the 1st graders who are totally adorable. My co-teacher/handler teaches first grade so after my stumbling introduction she took the reins and suggested activities for me to do with the students. One of the games I volunteered that went over well was a game of hangman with my name. 1st year students can't write very well in English so spelling "Sophie" took lots of guesses. Instead of drawing a stick figure I drew a robot and they seemed to like that. They even make some what I think were deliberately wrong guesses so I would draw more robot. Generally speaking though the English level of 1st graders is very very low so I think it's going to be a bit of a struggle.

My second class was a couple hours later so I spent that time cleaning my desk and looking through the teaching materials. Unfortunately much of the English textbooks are in Korean so I had to do some translating to find out what was what. I also made a list of some materials I'll need to buy for the classroom.

The next class was fifth grade. This was more of a struggle. The fifth-grade teacher spoke virtually no English and apparently expected me to lead the class for the entire period although my co-teacher had told me I would only need to prepare a short introduction. This left me flailing awkwardly and making up activities on the fly, some of which were more successful then others. One failure was when I tried to play a simon-says type game with the students where I said a body part and they have to touch that body part to their desk-partner's body part. Ie: elbow to elbow and knee to knee (and for those of you who thought otherwise, shame on you). Turns out if a boy and a girl are desk mates then under NO CIRCUMSTANCES will they consent to touch each other. The game was a total failure.

Since the fifth graders had minimally better English I had them ask me questions. The first question was "How old are you?", a very important question in Korea since here age and status are very strongly correlated. I had them guess my age and of course one joker volunteered "30" and another "14". I put all the guesses on the board and then went through them one-by-one erasing the wrong answers until we arrived at 24. For those readers who are also EPIK teachers please note this was a pretty successful game. After that one student asked me if I had a boyfriend and another had a question about my hair my co-teacher was unable to translate.

(It turns out my hair was a central topic of conversation for the day. Later I took lunch with the fifth grade teacher and some other co-workers and the sixth grade teacher ((whose English is a little better)) explained that the question was about what I call the color of my hair. When I told them my hair is red they refused to accept that as an answer. They would accept the terms "strawberry blond" and "gold" but very emphatically NOT red. There was also some referencing of Anne of Green Gables which apparently is a figure all Korean people seem to know because someone completely different mentioned it that night at dinner when ((again)) the topic of my hair came up. I had a couple students try to touch my hair too. I think it's very bizarre to them.)

After that experience I went back to my desk and wrote up a more extensive lesson plan for tomorrow's classes. My class load is very light this week because I won't begin teaching after-school classes until next week. My full schedule is to be 18 classes a week. Eight 40-minute periods (one per week with grades 1-4 and two per week with grades five and six), eight 40-minute after-school classes (more on that once I begin teaching them), one 20-minute "playtime" with the kindergarten class and one "free period" class whose contents I'm still pretty unclear about. Since that's still four classes short of the 22 per week I'm getting paid for I can see there's no chance of my being paid for overtime classes. While this is bad for my savings I at least think it will give me lots of time to work on my Korean and on DCIGTH.

At about 4pm I was invited by my co-teacher to dinner. Of course I accepted and good thing too because it was a dinner with half the faculty in my honor. I had been warned previously that Koreans don't give much notice when they plan outings or dinners but I was still surprised. We went to a pretty nice restaurant, all expenses paid, where we ate Bulgogi (grilled beef). My last dinner was also bulgogi and at this point I'm wondering if they're choosing it because they know all Americans like bulgogi (which is totally true, it's delicious). There was less drinking this time (thank goodness) and I got to speak with some of the other teachers and a lot with the principal whose English seems even better then last time. I think it may be, however, that I'm adjusting to the Korean accent and have slowed down my speaking speed by about half. Part of communicating in English to non-native speakers is about choosing words and vocabulary they can reasonably be expected to know and avoiding overly complicated grammar and idioms. Realizing this made this dinner's conversation flow a little more smoothly, I think.

The most popular topic of conversation (with me anyway, there was plenty of conversation in Korean I was not a party to) was Korean vs. American everything. Customs, food, language, &c. I told the principal I could read hangul and he made me read some signs and was, I think, impressed. He was also very complimentary of the four Korean phrases I know. Honestly, I couldn't feel that flattered because I think it spoke more of the low expectations Koreans have of Americans and other English speakers then of my own abilities. How many European countries would be overjoyed to learn that someone who has immigrated to their country can speak just a handful of phrases? Or think of many Americans' attitudes that immigrants to America should "speak English or get out". I guess I'm luckier to be in the situation I'm in now, but in a way it seems like a sad one for Korea.

Anyway it's almost 9pm my time which is when Terry and I have arranged to have our first international Skype call! I can't wait. I've been exchanging e-mails with him every day and with my family and friends fairly often but his will be the first familiar voice I've heard in almost two weeks. It'll be a comfort.

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