September 12, 2008


Now that I have a day off, I can get this blog current and answer a bunch of questions.

Okay, first of all, about my job: It was really bumming me out for a while. In fact that's half the reason I had John write the last post. I really didn't want to use my blog as a place to complain and I knew that if I did, it would worry some of you and also probably allow me to continue feeling sorry for myself, which I didn't want. Here's the deal: I teach 20 classes a week, which is more than anyone else at my school. Other teachers usually teach 13-16 classes a week, but they have paperwork to do for the state that keeps them incredibly busy. I think it's about normal for the native-speaking English teachers in Gyeonggi-do though.

Here's how the school system in Korea works. Elementary, middle, and high school each consist of 3 grades and the numbers restart at each level. So there are grades 1-3 in all 3 schools. It looks like this:
High School

The middle and high school grades are about equivalent to grades 7-12 in the U.S. Within each grade, the students are split up according to academic performance. The smartest of each grade are in Room 1 of their grade, the mediocre students in Room 2, and the poorest students in Room 3. So far it has been my experience that smaller schools may only split their students into 2 groups per grade.

So I teach M1-1 (the smartest 7th graders) twice a week, M2-1 and M2-2 (the smartest and the average students of the 8th grade) twice a week, M3-1 (the smartest 9th graders) twice a week, and the entire 11th grade, H2-1, H2-2, and H2-3, four times a week. There are 40 students in each class except for the one 7th grade class, which has 18 students.

My H2-3 class was absolute hell for a while there. The very first class I had with them, they wouldn't actually let me talk. The spoke in Korean to each other across the classroom while their normal teacher just rubbed the shoulders of the students in the back who were sleeping as a way of gently waking them up. It was so frustrating. I tried to talk a little bit about myself and then ask them questions, and then allow them to ask me questions, but I couldn't even get through the bit about myself. So I moved on to asking them questions, but that was nearly impossible, and then they wouldn't even ask me questions. I had only taught middleschoolers at this point (this was my first day) and they had been largely too shy to ask me many questions, but I had hoped the highschoolers would be a little more outgoing, not out right obnoxious. One of them actually told me I looked like Jesus (my hair was down, and being brown and wavy, they made the connection). Then they also told me I look like Angelina Jolie and Jessica Alba. Basically, I don't really trust Korean comparisons of Aryan people to other Aryans. Hahaha.

The next time I saw any of the 11th graders, I had an activity for them so that we might get to know each other (since I had failed so miserably on the first go around). This is how I learned that boys perform much better when given a task to complete. But my H2-3 class was still giving me trouble, and while all of the other classes had sort of gotten on board with me, this class fought everything, however minor. It continued like this for the next week and a half, with me trying something completely different each time I saw them. I mean they wouldn't even write down the answer if I gave it to them.

I finally reached my breaking point. I was doing the second half of a lesson on American pop stars, which was simply games having to do with some of the stars' songs, when my computer froze up. (The computer was providing the music.) The lesson wasn't going well, so I took the opportunity to ask Teacher Quak (their usual teacher) what he thought I should do about the problem. We talked for the next ten minutes while the class just chatted with each other, initially assuming we were trying to figure out the technical difficulties but more and more realizing that we were talking about them. Finally, I decided I would just do my best to make them feel foolish. Now, there is a TON of personality in this class so I knew it would be difficult, but I think it semi-worked. I just made them stand up and do what I did (John does this for fun with his girls but I knew my boys would hate it). And they did. I made them raise their arm, hop on one leg, turn in a circle, stuff like that.

Eventually I told them to raise both arms above their heads, and didn't let them put them down for a few minutes. All it did was tire out their arms, but eventually, the kid who called me Jesus and who is sort of the ring leader (not a bad kid, he just likes attention) said sorry. And I was like, "Good! Who else is sorry?" And most of them said sorry and I let them sit down. Then I announced that if they ever attempted to chat in Korean throughout an entire class instead of follow my directions, I would have them do the arm thing for the whole period. But I was cut off by some kids in the back who started talking to each other.

I was too shocked to care and class was about over anyway, so I just had Teacher Quak translate the point I was trying to make and left the class. (The students are in the same classroom all day. It's the teachers who change every period.) But the next time I saw them, they were quieter, and they finally participated in the activity. The Jesus kid even pointed out that they were quieter in the beginning of class, almost as if they had made a collective decision to be. So I thanked them and did a warm-up of hangman (the world was FAMILY) and then asked them to draw me their families and told them they could get candy if they volunteered to tell me about what they were drawing. It was the best class ever. I had a lot of fun with the group in the back that gives me the most trouble. They wanted the candy, so they raised their hands in a hurry, but I really made them work for it. They had to tell me all about each of their family members in complete sentences. Anyway, they ended up making up this elaborate story about how two of their fathers are in rival gangs, and their siblings each have a different position in the gang....hahaha we laughed a lot, especially when one of them started threatening to call his father if I didn't give him the candy. Now he says"Father call?" to me when he sees me in the hallways. They're actually very intelligent, just disinterested in school. That should ring a bell with plenty of teachers in the States!

So after class, I asked Teacher Quak if he said anything to them. He said no, he was just as surprised as I was that they cooperated. He thought that they probably realized they were being rude and decided they didn't want to be. He said at lunch that they seemed to have "opened the window to me". This was the last class before Chuseok (the reason why I had today and yesterday and next Monday and Tuesday off), so I'm hoping that this wasn't just a one-time thing.

In all, this is what makes my job difficult:
- I am teaching all boys.
- I am a young American boys have a hard time taking me seriously.
- The large class size makes both activities and maintaining control difficult tasks.
- Except for the H2-3 class, I am alone in the classroom.

I wouldn't have really started to feel bad for myself if I weren't aware that most of the other native speakers in Yeoju had it easier. They are not on their own in the classroom, they are not teaching all boys (as a woman, no less), and they have smaller class sizes. But now that I have made some progress, I am doing much better! It'll still be difficult, but at least I don't feel bad for myself anymore. I think that happened somewhere between the class where I punished them and the class where they were quiet. Now I just have to figure out how to get my 9th graders to participate.....

[The End]


Liane said...

Wow! Sarah you're doing a great job! I know it doesn't feel like that, but trust me (as a teacher) you are! I think the optimal size for a class is 16. I absolutely hated having 30 and 33. You're right that it is difficult to maintain control of an unmotivated group of 40 students. And, all it takes is one jerk to really ruin the whole thing. But, if you managed to get any cooperation it means you are on your way to success!
I did have to smile to myself. Reading your struggles brought back memories of the first time I ever taught. I got the class list 15 minutes before the first class. I didn't have any direction about what to cover, how to do a syllabus, how to choose books, etc., etc. I can actually FEEL myself back in that classroom, with the sun coming through the windows (it was an OLD building with those tall windows). All the students (32) were at their desks and I was standing in front of the blackboard (Black, not a white board--dates me!). There was complete silence. And it dragged on, and on, and on as we looked at one another. Suddenly, I realized that if I didn't say something NO ONE was going to say anything! Boy, was I ever green!
Anyway, I want to encourage you to hang in there; be tough if you have to be, but don't let the turkeys get you down. You are going to end up being a VERY fine teacher because you are learning in the trenches. If you succeed there you will be amazed at how easy teaching and presenting and public speaking will be for you for the rest of your life! It is very different learning to teach by actually teaching--no theories and no textbooks can ever really prepare you for the real classroom. Every class is trial and error anyway because the students and their interactions with one another change. Just stay as flexible as you have been so far and you'll do fine.
One thing you can try to find out from them is about their Thanksgiving. I was startled when John mentioned the holiday to me last night. The Germans, for example, don't have such a holiday--of course, because they didn't have Pilgrims. So where did the Korean one originate. It might be interesting to compare the US holiday with the Korean one. :-)
Anyway, YOU GO GIRL! I'm proud of you--and your parents surely are, too.
Love and hugs,

Danny Shahar said...

Glad I found this! It sounds like things are really going well, in spite of how it seems like you might be feeling at times. Just remember that your awesomeness is an objective fact, and not just something you tell yourself to make yourself feel good. If you can learn to combine the identity of "teacher" with your own existing self-image, you'll probably be able to achieve a lot more inner harmony than you will if you try to cram the identity of "Sarah" into your preconceived notions about what it is to be a teacher, and your students will probably do better and like you better as a result. You probably already know that, but I figure it can't hurt to drop a friendly reminder. As always, much love!

P.S. How do you think being categorized as a xx-3 student impacts the kids' self-confidence? Do you think some of the problems you've been having with them might stem from that categorization? And on the other end, do you think the smart kids have benefited significantly from being separated into a more accelerated program?

Sarah said...


Thank you! I appreciate you sharing your experiences with me, and for giving me some credit. It helps!

About the Chuseok thing, I was thinking about making comparisons when Thanksgiving rolls around. It might be more efficient to do it now, but I don't want to make too much more work for myself than I already have. Plus I had my middleschoolers teach me about it...I'll post photos of the pictures they drew me. They're cute. Thanks for the suggestion though!



Sarah said...


Good to hear from you buddy! How's Irvington-On-Hudson treating you? I really appreciate your commment...I never thought of it that way. I've definitely been working on seeing myself as a teacher. It's a little weird, but I basically just try not to think about it for too long. Everyday I am surprised by myself in how I teach. It only took one class for me to get over being nervous and be confident instead. And John is always laughing at the things I say and do when the kids piss me off. As a student, I often thought about what kind of teacher I'd be, or at least strive to be. None of that seems relevant, now. You are who you are no matter the situation, but I do aim to be kind yet firm. It's really strange though - I just sort of threw myself into this job. I don't know if I assumed a teacher personality that was always within me but never had an outlet, or if I'm just acting the part. I will try to be more conscious of it. Being a better teacher is important to me, these days.

As for your postscript, I have wondered a lot about that myself. I really think it does affect the kids, though. I think the kids in Room 3 take advantage of the fact that less is expected of them. I know lots of them actually believe they can't speak or understand English, but when forced, they perform. And the kids in the first Room have the advantage of being surrounded by kids who care about school and who can push them to do better as well as not actively interfere in their efforts to do so.
I understand why it's done though. If you read what Liane said above, it's true that "all it takes is one jerk to really ruin the whole thing." John and I are looking forward to learning more about this system - how the kids are categorized and how often, and how academically mobile they really are. I'll try and get back to you on that.



Sarah said...

p.s. Liane - you were talking about having my students tell me about Chuseok, right? John made the point that you might have been talking about the Koreans in general. Also, I don't think there's a real efficient way to view comments I've written to other people besides looking at all of the comments on the posts. You're not computer illiterate!

Mom said...

Hi Sarah...I agree with Liane! I have never had a lot of confidence when I am presenting a loan, partly because I don't do it everday (and partly because they are often out to "get" you!). Being comfortable presenting and thinking on your feet is a valuable skill in any career. Congratulations on being able to handle the group! Isn't their culture male dominant? Do they show respect to the other females? Why do you have such an unbalanced work load compared to the rest of your group? We are very proud of you Sarah and John! Mom

Danny Shahar said...

Dear Sarah,

Tell us what's new!

Your loyal fan base

P.S. We watched Teenagers from Outer Space the other's still awesome


Sarah said...

sheez. you try doing my job! work is hard! and then i am tired when i come home....but i've been working on some stuff. hold your horses already. and i really am sorry for not updating more often.

P.P.S. ahhhahahaha

Dad said...

Sarah Beanie-
Just catching up to your blog (specifically about your trials and tribulations with school.. I will get to the rest later). Here's what I have to say about this: 1). Its not so bad being compared to Angelina Jolie and Jesus, is it? I am usually compared to Brad Pitt. Took a while to get used to it..2) your are powering through that difficult class. I am proud of you. It is a lot of responsibility. Keep up the good work, but try not to get discouraged. You can't be perfect, even if they think you are Jesus.
3) I gotta go. The coffee's ready and Angelina Wakeen is asking asking for it. Love you. I'll be back. Dad.

Anonymous said...

Sarah Beanie,
Nana says "go girl"! I am very proud of you, keep them in line. I do hope you will not be teaching always, you are to smart for that job and I think you will get bored.