Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Being Difficult: Teaching in Korea

First off, the Korean school system is a hierarchy. Very roughly, the principal sits at the top, then the vice principal, next the head teacher, after that regular grade or home room teachers, and finally special subject teachers (English, music, science, art, and physical education). Decisions are made at the top and information is trickled down from there. My co-teachers are often the last to know about things because it is the responsibility of each higher party to relay the information downward. Why they don't just send out staff emails bewilders me. 

This makes for a lot of scrambling on a daily basis for Korean teachers, because not only are they learning information about schedules and classes - by American standards - inconveniently late, they are dealing with that information constantly, constantly, changing. In a normal school week, we have at least two or three changes where English classes are cancelled or two classes are switched or a class we don't normally have that day, surprise! One of the more common conversations I have with my co-teachers:

Me [five minutes after class should have started]: "Sooo, no fourth graders today..."
My co: "Oh, I forgot to tell you. We will teach them tomorrow." 

On top of this, Korean teachers are kept incredibly busy. The teachers at Doam have instant messaging on their computers and the English classroom phone rings no less then five times a day -- they are rarely left in peace; how they get anything done is beyond me. My co-teachers are continually scurrying out of our classroom many times returning with random paperwork, forms for me to sign, and bits of information about schedules that I pencil into my calendar only to have it changed five seconds later. 

I won't say I've gotten used to this system, but I have come to surrender to the short notice without many hard feelings. With my co-teachers learning about things on the fly, I know that I'll learn about them even more on the fly. I can be standing in front of a class, starting a lesson, when my co-teacher says, "Uh Abby, we are having a test today," or, "Oh! Abby, the police officer is coming to teach about safety." That one was great because the officer showed a professionally choreographed video of the police academy dancing to "Gangnam Style." So, I do enjoy an aspect of that spontaneity, which also comes in the form of snacks, but it creates an unnecessary factor of guarded enthusiasm. 

I talk about emotional strain because it gets to be a bit heart-breaking when class after class are switched or cancelled. I invest a lot of mental time gearing up for lessons that often get pushed to the next day or week when I'll have to deal with more changes. I've thought about this and it's like getting all pumped up for a race that gets rescheduled as I'm crouching in my starting position. Or setting up a board game to have everyone say they'll play later. All that adrenaline and excitement has nowhere to go but down the road of slight disappointment, which doesn't get more fun each time it happens. 

The other side of the coin to the relentless schedule tweaking is obligation with no discussion. My first co MN a couple of times would get a phone call and then run off to sub in other classrooms. The principal wanted an English festival and my second co HG was in charge of making that happen. The first time I heard about teaching at a new elementary school, in addition to Doam Elementary, was when I was being told that you will start teaching at a new school. I didn't even know that this was being considered. 

It's a game of limbo where the bar unpredictably moves as you're bent over backwards trying to pass under. It's teaching in Korea. I did chalk up most of the stress and anxiety for being a foreigner teacher with a language and cultural barrier. I've told myself again and again to suck it up, because I knew that I would have to be flexible and that it would be a lot of work. However, MN was as surprised and concerned about me teaching at two schools. Together my new Doam co-teacher SK and I hate on this semester's insane English schedule. "I have no power," she told me when she had no luck changing it. Me either. Suddenly, I don't feel so much a struggling foreigner teacher as I do a struggling Korean teacher.

That is something I can grasp onto as I sort through two separate schools of 1st through 6th grade classes. I feel okay tearing my hair out now that I know this isn't a personal problem. It's the system of wild expectations Korean teachers deal with every day. The demands run even higher for them, and they don't have a 22-hour teaching limit like I do. All the praise to them, truly. 

1 comment:

  1. I love this - obviously not the feeling, but how you articulated it so well. I've felt that emotional drain when classes were cancelled/moved, but never stopped to recognize it. And what you've described is exactly what it feels like for me - getting pumped up for a race that never starts.

    Just today, I've already gone to two classes that were cancelled for class elections. ^ ^