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I’m a Seoul Man, Part 2: Teaching in South Korea

September 17, 2009

I work as an English teacher at Kyeong-in Middle School, with around 1000 students. I teach 1st and 3rd graders (the equivalent of 7th and 9th graders) and teach each class only once a week — I have 22 different classes, and I teach each lesson 11 times in a week. I work with co-teachers (the Korean teachers that speak English and grammar) but they generally do more disciplining and explanation than preparation and teaching. My specific job is to get up in front of a class and to say things to the students, then get kids to say those things back to me the same way. A speaking teacher, basically.

Koreans are incredibly good at reading and writing skills in English, but their speaking skills leave something to be desired, largely thanks to lack of use, shyness and the sometimes mediocre speaking skills of their Korean teachers. Thus, the Korean government decided a few years ago to begin bringing in native English speakers such as yours truly to teach students once a week and get them to start talking and using the language more naturally and fluently — and thus EPIK was born, the “English Program in Korea,” the employer for most ESL foreigner teachers in Korea.

As well as this program seems to work, there is one big problem for native teachers who come in and try to teach Korean children — the idea of “saving face” is a huge deal in Korea and many students are already too shy or scared to talk in class for fear of being wrong. The presence of a foreigner makes this many times worse. My classes are thus split fairly evenly between those classes that are either exceptional, good, or loud and out of control, and those classes which range from eerily to catatonically silent. To get these students talking is like pulling teeth, and it takes a lot of effort to stop calling on the one student that seems perfectly comfortable speaking, present in every class, and try to revivify the 16-25 other students that seem content to simply stare at you, bewildered, for 45 minutes, without saying a damn thing.

That being said, these painful classes are often more than made up for by the excellent classes where the kids come in with bright smiles and are anxious to participate and begin learning. And, to provide a good measure of balance, there are classes that are loud and obnoxious and are a challenge to keep under control, but who generally and enthusiastically participate once you can capture their attention. There are certainly a wide diversity of students, and perhaps this is only the bleary-eyed myopia of a foreign observer and a ingenuous newbie teacher, but amidst this diversity I have not seen any out-and-out delinquents or screw-ups, when my personal experience in American middle school left me religiously convinced that this period of life is the fountainhead of such characters.

But then, Korea in general is bafflingly free of such behavior even in adult life. I have been told that the district I am living in one of the poorest in Seoul, and that my middle school is one of the poorest schools in the district. But crime, both here and in my district, is virtually nonexistent (the only place one has to watch oneself in is Itaewon, the foreigners’ district and home of the American military bases, the spawning ground of dozens of drunks who pick pointless fights left and right). When one considers that Seoul is a city almost double the size of New York City, and that a placement as a teacher in the poorest school in the poorest borough of New York City is tantamount to getting hired as a shrubbery sculptor in the Amazon rainforest, the label ‘poorest school in the poorest district’ seems no more than an ill-chosen inspirational slogan for the school’s front-lawn billboard, and thus registers only droll confusion for me.

Without further ado, some pictures. Apologies for not having more shots of the kids, but I felt creepy and unprofessional going around and taking pictures of them:

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41 Comments
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