Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring Training

Moving to a new country takes some work. One benefit of all the preparation is that it keeps your mind occupied, and stops you from dwelling for too long on any concerns you might be harboring about the trip. Like, for instance, whether you've accepted a job you are totally unqualified to do.
Mike shadowed an elementary school teacher for a few days before he left, and I remember thinking that was a good idea. This would join "find out if your phone will work there" on the list of shit I planned to do before leaving that I never did. But I didn't sweat it. They knew I had no experience. If they weren't worried, neither was I.

And so, on the Wednesday of my first week, I stepped inside a classroom and found myself standing in front of seven tiny Korean girls, none of whom spoke a word of English. From now on, whenever I hear the phrase "hopeless shit circus" I will think of what transpired in those next fifteen minutes. It got bad enough one of the Korean women who work in front office had to come in and run the second half of class. That no video exists of the first half is a blessing for which I am most grateful.*

*Actually, there might be a video of it. In our school - and, apparently, in most hagwons** - there are cameras in every classroom so parents and members of the administration can monitor what happens. I assume it was the sight of me bumbling around like a wet asshole on their TV sets that sent the front office lady launching out of her seat and into my classroom. It's a creepy and uncomfortable aspect of the job, but I guess I appreciated it in this case.

I'm not sure whether it's just a live feed or if the classes are actually being recorded. Let's hope it's just a live feed.

**Defined by wikipedia as "a for-profit private academy or institute prevalent in South Korea." This is the type of school that I teach at, and they are big here. Most of my students come to my class after a full day of normal school, and before they are carted off to another school to learn something else (usually an instrument or taekwondo). Some of the kids are pulling long ass days and you gotta hand it to them.

The original plan was to train me in the two weeks leading up to my first day. Due to a delay in the processing of my documents, this was a luxury we couldn't afford. I arrived instead on Sunday, February 27th, three days before I was scheduled to start. Monday was the last day of the semester. I observed a few classes, but no teaching went on in any of them; it was all movies and board games. Tuesday was a national holiday. On Wednesday I became a teacher.

So yeah, I fucking blew at it. My second class went smoother than the first - we at least got the books open - but in a way that made it worse. The first class had gone so spectacularly wrong, it barely even qualified as a failure. I had struck out, sure, but I had gone to plate without a bat. On some level, when it ended, I still felt like I had a clean slate. But the second class counted, and afterward there was no argument: my record was 0-1.

My final class was an improvement, but only because I begged another teacher to sit in and guide me. When work ended I staggered home in a daze. It had been one of the most stressful and embarrassing days of my life, and I had no idea whether tomorrow would be any better. I missed my friends and family. There were 364 more days left to go. I crawled into bed, depressed and anxious, wondering what I had gotten myself into.

But things got better. Once the obvious, glaring mistakes from Wednesday were eliminated I immediately jumped from an F to a C-, and I was happy to accept that for now. Since then, as I gain confidence and learn new tricks, each day has generally been better than the last. Still very much a work in progress, but I go home every day and the building is still standing. And anyway that's just the afternoon classes. 

In the morning I teach kindergarten. There are only three kids in my class. All three are impossibly, outrageously cute. They are five years old in Korean years, which means they are three or four.* It's the youngest class in the entire school. They are so young in fact, virtually no teaching is required of me. Just having them in the same room as an English speaking person is, apparently, enough for everyone. 

*Koreans calculate age in an odd way. You start out 1 year old immediately at birth, and then you gain a year on every New Year's Day. So one of my kid has a birthday in December. When she was born, she was one. Then, on New Year's Day, she very quickly turned two. In real time she was a few weeks old. So right now she is three and three months, but she is considered five. Yeah, weird.

This half of my day was solid from the start, even on the otherwise disastrous Wednesday. There's really nothing expected of me other than to keep the kids happy, and that goal is always a "woah hey I'm using my shoe as a phone" away from being realized. It's a hard job to mess up. 

Hey let's meet the kids:

J turned 3 in December and weighs less than a paper clip. The girl teachers go nuts for him and I sometimes think it's gone to his head. He knows 0 english and more or less refuses to learn any.

Robinson is a bit older than J. He was a handful at first but has gotten much easier to handle. Robinson tends to laugh the hardest at the shit I do to entertain them, support that I greatly appreciate. He knows 0 english but is good about repeating the things I ask him to say, and seems to retain at least some of it.

Sarah is the same age as Robinson, and is the most precious little girl I've ever laid eyes on. She is incredibly well-behaved and always has a little bow in her hair. She lived briefly in Australia and came into class already with a beginner's grasp of the language.

On my third day Sarah abruptly decided that she needs the Korean teaching assistant to be around her at all times. When the TA leaves and I am suddenly the only adult in the room, the countdown begins until she starts to cry and tries to leave the room. Usually takes about a minute.

It's confusing, because for the first two days there was no problem at all. We hung out, we colored, we played with blocks - I even got an unsolicited hug or two. We seemed to get along great. Shit, I LOVED Sarah. She was so well-behaved, so smart, so precious. Not sure what happened.

She usually succeeds at leaving the room (she just freaks out more if I try to stop her), then waddles her way down the hall to the front office (where there are many Korean women ready to soothe her). She spends a few minutes in there until Haylin (my TA) becomes available again, at which point the two of them return to class, hand in hand. Then a half hour will pass, Haylin will have to attend to something elsewhere and will sneak out, and the cycle will repeat. 

We had an amazingly long tear-less streak last Tuesday and seemed to be having fun, and then in an instant - literally an instant - she was in hysterics. But I was warned this might happen. It gets better as the year goes along with the little kids, I'm told.* 

*It's a worry for sure, but it could be worse. I'm supposed to have a fourth student, Grace, but she is so terrified of the foreign teachers she loses her shit the second she walks in the building. She has spent every day so far in the playroom, red-faced and screaming. It's gruesome. 

But anyway, that's where we stand at the moment. Tomorrow is my 10th day of teaching. I think it'll be better than the 9th. I think it will be worse than the 11th. At the very least, I'm thinking about it.

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