Friday, May 6, 2011

Korea 2011 - Trial By Fire

I was sitting at my desk this morning, drinking a cup of coffee and going over lesson plans for the following week. Via proxy server, I had my favorite Pandora station playing in the background. I stuck a pen behind my ear, keeping it there the majority of the day. Many of the kids found some of my habits funny. I had to remind myself that I was foreign…someone they aren't normally use to seeing. The way I say certain words, my mannerisms, my clothes: they pick up on everything. The bell tune rang, and 35 pre-teens came streaming into my classroom getting ready for their first lesson with me. I would get bombarded with questions, and would politely ask them to hold on till the lesson. With one last swig of my morning coffee, I stood up in front of the class and began my lesson.

This was day 4, and I already had a routine. Cue the panic air-raid sirens.

My first week in Korea has been a mix of a whirlwind of uncertainty and a steady pace of routine and monotony. It hasn't slowed once until tonight, and my insomnia kindly informed me the gravity of my situation. I am going to be here for an entire year…

To tell you the truth, being a teacher isn't that bad. I'm not pulling a "Dead Poet's Society" just yet, but I'm not super terrible either. The level of difficulty in my job is just enough to keep me on my toes, but definitely not out of reach either. It's hard to determine what exactly I'm suppose to be doing sometimes, which makes crafting lesson plans difficult. 

I don't know if I'm a teacher or more of a supplementary instructor. There are three Korean English teachers at my school, and their lessons are based around a curriculum and textbook. I have three grade levels, and I see each of their classes once a week. In total, there are 15 classes that I teach, with 3 different lesson plans for each grade level. The kids come to me to improve their English and learn on top of the curriculum that they're learning from their main teachers. My first week was dedicated to introducing myself and feeling out the level of English that these kids know, and next week we start with regular lessons. This format is very straight forward, yet I'm granted so much freedom in what I do that I don't know exactly what I'm suppose to be doing. 

Here's the thing though: I came here to learn by the 'trial by fire' approach. I'm not a teacher by trade (or I wasn't before), and I don't have any formal training. I'm learning as I go. At times, that's very liberating. I can roll with the punches without any expectations or demands. I can worry less and teach more. At other times, I can get paralyzed by the freedom of it all and shut down. I don't have a direction to go in and try to pursue multiple avenues at once. At the moment, I'm my only critic, and the voices in my head can only do so much.

The kids can be trying as well. They don't always respect you as a teacher. You can reach out to some, and those kids make even the worst days worth it. It's still hard enough to get to you, and you have to develop a thick skin. Right now, I'm a bit sensitive to it all.

I'll learn though. Trial by fire, and I'm stubborn enough to fix the stuff that's broken and continue on.

I just got back from a walk around the block, and I couldn't help but feel so alone. In reality, I'm far from it. I have a killer support system here with my co-teacher and my colleagues alone, and that's without meeting other foreign teachers. True, lasting friendships are already developing, and I know from experience that many more will come. If you find a way to combat the culture shock, you'll meet people. It's science.

Yet here I am, half a world away and sitting on my porch thinking about what I have in store for me. I feel at times like some kind of tried and tested cowboy. I have my trusted steed and guns at my side. Once the sun sets on town, I saddle up, light up a cigarette (kids, I don't condone smoking), and ride of into the sunset….alone.

In a way, that's why I keep this blog going. I want to share my experiences with others because I don't have that partner-in-crime to go on these adventures with. I mean, I have the orange sweater, but without my endowment it's only a piece of cloth. 

My co-teacher asked me a wonderful question today over pizza. She asked if there were any benefits to getting older. I couldn't think of any. I think that's why I'm doing what I'm doing. Getting older to me is putting on your running shoes and sprinting until your legs give out from old age or you find that one reason to settle. Why hang up the laces early? Travel while you're young…as job and settlement opportunities will always be waiting for you on the other end.

I'm not as alone as I thought I was…and this is going to be a great experience. Brush it off, because you're already one week in. You're settled in, you're in the mix. You're a local now. Time to find some meaning.


  1. Hey you! Just thought Id tell you that I am super proud of you. Teaching is not easy at all, let alone teaching a second language. I am a little surprised that they arent helping you strcuture things more -that sounds really overwhelming. But you are a badass, and can definitely come thought the fire ok. :) Do you get to do fun things like have them translate songs or w atch ridiculous English commercials and that sort of thing? Something entertaining for both you and them? haha.

    And I agree with your sentiment that you cant hang up your running shoes early. Which is why I am training for a marathon while in the middle of the Andes. Because dammit, we are getting older and there is shit I NEED TO DO. Good thing we take the world by storm. :)

    Hugs to you! Hope week 2 goes great

  2. I have this after-school class where I get to do some fun stuff like that. And the freedom I have with all these lessons kinda lets me do whatever I want. I do have help, but it's more like a nudge in the right direction rather than giving me a curriculum and saying 'teach this'.

    You know me though. I expect alot out of myself, and when I under perform I'm not too happy. This is definitely one of those learning experiences though...patience is key.

    We're kinda awesome people Aly, and I'm glad you're still doing the Indiana Jones thing plus even more awesome stuff like running in the Andes (seriously, who does that? SO COOL!). When we're old and grey, we can say 'yeah, been there done that'.

  3. Haha, exactly. Well have fun with the after school class. And don´t stress or be hard on yourself. You have one of the coolest jobs, and you are living in fucking South Korea. You´ve already won.