Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back to school!

Exhausting, maddening, stressful, frustrating - these are all words I would use to describe the past month of work. Why? Because it's been the beginning of the new school year and, as most teachers would probably tell you, breaking in a new group of students, whether kindergarteners or college freshmen, is no easy feat. And for someone accustomed to all-nighters and an overpacked schedule, these are not adjectives I use lightly, but getting my newbies accustomed to the rules, schedule, system, and myself has been more taxing than I could have guessed. Indeed, I experienced some of this when I first arrived here in Korea, but even at that point it was already half way through the school year so the previous teacher had already done most of the work. This time, however, I'm getting the full experience, spending every morning repeating every sentence fifteen times, trying to become fluent in the very garbled English my kids speak, and continuously walking back and forth between the white board and the happy-face/sad-face disciplinary board. (The phrase "taking two steps forward and one step back" has taken on a whole new meaning during this process.)

The stress of the new semester was not made any easier by the state of the kindergarten, either. After spending our entire post-graduation planning week cutting and laminating paper, I was excited to meet my new class, but not ready for the ensuing chaos. The first week, in particular, was a constant uphill battle. With two new teachers, an all new Korean staff, and a remodeled office on the K-class floor, the kindergarteners weren't the only ones who didn't know what was going on. And not only did this cause many mishaps, miscommunication, and all around confusion, but books had yet to come, we had no pencils or erasers, and the schedule seemed to be changing by the minute. Uff, I'm glad that's all over.

This is not to say that it's all been bad. I've enjoyed getting to know my new class of eleven students: Albert, Flora, Clara, Alex, Noella, Peter, James, Michelle, Lea, David, and Andy. After three weeks together I can finally feel that we're warming up to each other and every day I discover new facets of their personalities. Already, Clara, Noella, and Flora have emerged as the class's queen bees, always showing of their new oversized bows and never failing to comment on my nail polish color; David and Michelle are the snugglers of the class, taking any opportunity they can to sit in my lap or hold my hand; James' shyness has already shifted into more of mild-mannered demeanor while Alex and Peter have blown me away by their intelligence and English skills; and Andy and Albert have proven to be quite the comedy duo, and thus quite the handful. It seems like we're more and more used to our new classroom dynamic and we're finally settling into a routine that works. And after a field trip and birthday party last week, it feels like we're finally a class and no longer strangers. Now I'm just excited to see their English skills take off!

This semester's elementary classes, on the other hand, have been quite the improvement. Originally when I found out I would be moving up a level for all of my classes (teaching 2nd semester and M5 instead of 1st semester and M4) I was rather dismayed; the prospect of having all the same students and thus repeating my hellish previous semester was less than desirable. But as it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised. For the most part, my new classes are full of new students, and the right combination of old students, who are well-behaved, like to participate, and are eager to learn. Even some of my students who were previously apathetic and full of attitude have been peer-pressured into working hard and paying attention, making my new classes much easier to teach. Now, instead of four out of control classes, I have three enjoyable classes and just one class that took all of the worst-behaved students from last semesters different classes and combined them into one. But I'll take a tough 40 minutes of an unbearable 4 hours any day.

Needless to say, it's been rough, but it's almost April and it can only go up from here. Plus, I often see my old students in the halls and stairwell and the enthusiasm behind their hello's, hugs, waves, and high-fives is great motivation to see how it goes with this new batch of kids.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A matter of routine

We humans are creatures of habit, so it’s unsurprising that even when faced with a new location and culture it doesn’t take long to fall into a routine. I may be halfway across the world, living in a country that is drastically different from my own in history, demographics, language, and culture, but my life here quickly adopted a routine, (whether out of habit or as a matter of coping is unimportant). Indeed, the largest change in routine has nothing to do with my move to Korea, but instead with my move from the academic world to the working world. But, take that out of the picture and my life is filled with many of the same mundane activities as before: working, running errands, and keeping house. I go to yoga four or five times a week, frequent the neighborhood gym, and meet friends at our usual restaurants, coffee shops, or bars for mid-week mental breaks. I’ve become partial to a certain pharmacy, grocery store, dry cleaner, phone card vendor, Mini-Stop convenience store, and even a shoe repairman who camps out under a tarp shoved in between two buildings. (Although, I must say I get disappointed when I suddenly come to find that my favorite grocery store or dry cleaner has disappeared or been replaced, due to Korea’s odd habit of tearing down businesses without warning and putting up replacements within days.)

In addition to my neighborhood stops and shops, there are the familiar neighborhood faces. The cashiers at the grocery store who have come to know I never need a bag, and the subway Mini-Stop woman who smilingly gives me freebies insisting “gift-uh! Ok!” The young bank security guard who assists all my transactions (requested or not) and is never bashful to remind me that he “very much likes to assistance the pretty foreigner.” The kimbap cheonguk employees: an ajumma who maternally pats me on the bum saying “pretty pretty” and the ajusshi who likes to lurk as Allison and I eat and do our crossword puzzles until he thinks it’s an opportune moment to practice his English, saying things like “you friend, but you stranger here,” “ah America, what colony you from?” and, “My think you have fun with boyfriends last night! Ha Ha!” And of course there are always the students who live nearby and who are always overeager to wave to their teacher in the street.

This isn't to say that everything has become commonplace, my neighborhood always has something up its sleeve to surprise me. Nevertheless, life and all its routines must go on, in the country I call home or not.