The rewards of being a teacher

Somewhere along the way there comes a point where you come to realise just how rewarding teaching can be. Be it when you get one enthusiastic student or a whole class full of drive and energy. It can be challenging and difficult at times too, especially with the tough students.

There is one student in my 5th grade class. His name is Seong Mo. When he came into fifth grade I was told by another English teacher that he was ‘trouble’. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but I think it had something to do with the fact that one of his his parents was Filipino. Korea can be a difficult place to be if you are not ‘of the norm’. Koreans are notoriously outspoken and it can be quite offensive and upsetting if you take things too literally. Comments such as “Teacher why you red face?” (Sunburn) or “Teacher dirty” (unshaven) are classic lines. I dread to think what it must be like for a student that sticks out. I was told that she had given up on him, his English was appalling and I should give up on him to. I did not.

In the first lesson he forgot his English book and was moderately disruptive. In the second lesson there was no change. I started thinking about ways this could be dealt with. My method was just to have a quiet (international sign language) word with him and make him understand he needs to be ready for class with his English book. Lesson three, no book. I then made him write me a letter of apology and got my co-teacher to translate whilst I spoke to him. I told him he could be my special student and that we could be friends if he was good. Then I took every opportunity I could to encourage him with speaking in class and writing the date on the board. I also learnt his name, which was pretty important too as I could refer to him directly during the lesson. The results were amazing. He became focused and behaved well. Most of the time he remembered his book. In my last class he stood up and told me the day and date in perfect English, I was amazed.

After I told the class that I was leaving to go back to England, he wrote me a letter in Korean. I asked my co-teacher to translate it and this is what it says:

Seongmo's letter

Apparently he thinks I look Argentinian too? Maybe I’ve spent too long in the sun?!

I’m told that he has now decided he wants to be a scientist, and so has come to the conclusion it is important he learns English and studies hard. Even if he does not learn English I hope that I have started to make him believe in himself and showed him that when he focuses he can achieve anything. I am so proud of him.


The school play

As one of my last projects with the students before I head off for sunny old England, we did a little drama performance. The text was adapted from the wizard of oz, and entirely in English. My students spent around 3 months learning acting techniques and about 4 weeks rehearsing for this performance. I really am blown away by their ability to remember all of the lines that they did, considering they are so young and English is not their first language, they really did do very well

English text books in Korea.

I constantly complain to my co-teacher about the poor quality of the text books we teach from. We do  not overuse them because we know that they are relatively limited in useful dialogue and exciting activities, so we tend to mix it up and use more of our own materials in the classroom. That being said, we still use the text book as a guide and follow the syllabus and key vocabulary. There is however one problem with this. Inevitably if we do stray from the text book too much there are certain activities (written or otherwise) that are skipped altogether. Generally I would say that they are skipped because we have looked at them and decided they are pretty stupid. The text book has its place in that it is a well constructed and thought out curriculum. The main problem is that it was clearly written by people who have studied English as a second language. The main issues with this are that it has key expressions that are unusual and sometimes useless. I fear that whenever my students hear someone say “I have a cold” they will feel obliged to reply with a sarcastic sounding response of “That’s too bad”. Not the most useful of expressions to learn. The teachers handbook is also solely in Korean, which is not very useful to a solely English speaking teacher, and so many of the activities are rather puzzling to me anyway.

Around a month ago we had a parent complain to the school. This was because (being a pushy Korean parent) she had gone over the text book religiously with her son or daughter and asked them daily what they had studied in class. When they discovered that we had been skipping the ‘story’ section in the books, she complained and we were told we had to teach it. I was pretty surprised that the school let a parent walk all over them like this.  We are expected to supplement the books with our own teaching ideas and methods, but as soon as a parent thinks they know better than you it is back to the book. I guarantee if we taught from nothing but the book, we would lose the attention of every single student in the classroom in the space of a minute. Considering the length of time my co-teacher has studied for gaining her teaching qualifications, and the quality of her lesson preparations, I am pretty surprised that ‘John Smith’ (or Korean equivalent) is allowed to claim he knows better. See below for today’s thrilling installment of storytime, complete with key expressions such as “I also got her love”.

Story Time 2


Korean exams, and mark fixing…

On Wednesday something happened at school that made me just about as mad as I have ever been.

Korean students study hard. I mean really hard. They have so much pressure on them. Parents pushing them to succeed. Mid terms, end of term tests, university entrance tests. Literally all the time. I feel really sorry for the kids, and they get themselves so worked up into a panic everytime they hear the word ‘test’.

So here is my point. This week my school ran some tests. The reward for the top 5 students was a trip to New Zealand. This is paid for half by the school and half by the kids family. To a load of Korean kids that have probably never been out of the country before, let alone on an aeroplane, this was a huge deal and a fantastic opportunity for them. They took two tests. I have no idea what the first one was as I was not asked to be involved. The second however I marked personally, as it was a speaking test.

Come Wednesday and the scores from the two tests were counted. Two students in 5th and 6th place both had exactly the same overall score. I then spent the next hour trying to be persuaded by one of my teachers to just add an extra mark in to one of the students so that this would not be a problem anymore. I refused. I did so for two reasons. Number one they had both worked really hard and did not deserve to be cheated out of a place on the trip. I remember when I was in school and at 11 years old I was banned from going on the school trip to France for being a ‘maverick renegade’ or ‘general pain in the arse’, however you want to look at it. The point is I was totally gutted, and that was all my own fault! Imagine what it is like for these kids to miss out. The second reason was because the kid that they wanted me to ‘bump’ up the score for was, in my opinion, the worse student. He got 90/105 on my test whereas the other student got 97/105. She also applies herself a lot more in class and has a stronger desire to speak English. The argument in the boys favour was that he “had a headache on test day”.

I did the only fair thing and offered to give them both a shot and did a retest with a bonus question. She won again by a clear margin, and thus this settled it fairly and she got the bonus point. I teach both of these kids, and testing aside which I know can be difficult and stressful, she is much better at English. That was the criteria.

So I chose her. It went down on the marksheet and was thus official. Later that day I was told that they had given the place on the trip to the boy and had already phoned the girls parents to let them know of the change. Basically they gave it to her, and then they took it away again! Angrily I enquired why. I was told that the other student’s sister had been given a place on the same trip two years ago and therefore it would be ‘unfair’ to give the place to the same family. I was so mad. After attempting to reason with them, and argue that she had won the place on her own merit and worked hard to earn it, it became apparent my arguments were falling upon deaf ears.They kept using the word ‘fair’. “It is only fair that it goes to another family”. Ridiculous. I told them that I abhorred this decision and completely refused to condone it. I think they were pretty stunned and just assumed I would agree. It also made me realise that this was the reason they had been trying to persuade me to give the bonus point to the other kid in the first place. Imagine if you worked really hard for something, only for it to be taken away because your sister had got there first. I would be so mad…

The British Section

As a proud (and outspoken) Brit, it seemed only apt to host a royal wedding party on Friday. Union flag banners and bunting, postcards of all the royals on the walls, roast potatoes and chicken, banoffee pie, and gin. Unable to get the usual BBC coverage through my laptop I was devastatingly saddled with the traditionally substandard ITV coverage. I was however immediately encouraged by Philip Scofield’s live reading of the Facebook royal wedding drinking rules, which was a particular highlight. Naturally the village idiots picked out for interview by ITV presented a good cross-section of British society, we aren’t perfect after all.

Living in Korea and surrounded by foreigners of all nationalities it was a time to showcase everything that makes Britain great.

Nicole and JB (America and Canada) had their first taste of banoffe pie, Andrew (Ireland) was on his best behaviour and to his credit did not once mention the “rape and pillaging” of his nation that has become his tagline. In fact he arrived in shirt and tie and was in very good form. Eunha got to witness her favourite country in its true blinding beauty (she is really British after all). Lewis managed to provoke a record for the quickest ever attendance of security ‘fun sponge’ personnel banging on the apartment door, having set off fireworks from the balcony and led a rebellion to ensure their continued explosions. Myles (Ireland) typically lackadaisical turned up after it had all finished. Dylan piped up every time Charles was on screen to point out he is in fact “The prince of Wales…although he can’t even speak bloody Welsh”. I wore my hat.

Many people were left slightly disappointed having persevered through the wedding service and waited on the promise of a great show come the time for the balcony kiss, which was actually rather anticlimactic. ‘Was that it?”‘ was among the many comments of discontent floating around the room. Still, I thought it was a cracking day. Kate Middleton looked fantastic and was outshone only slightly by her younger and more attractive sister Pippa (the subject of many a debate).

On Friday 29th April 2011 the world was watching Britain. Many people who refer to themselves as republicans objected to the royal wedding, and questioned the motives behind many people’s feelings and celebrations. Meanwhile there were hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets, waving the union flag amid cheers of joy and celebration.

Today is Monday 2nd May 2011 and the world is watching America. The picture there is the same and you’d be forgiven for thinking there is a similar highprofile wedding or some similar event. A sea of national flags, thousands of people lining the streets in national celebration. Except this is under very different circumstances, with the announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden, which is being met with hysterical celebrations. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions…

My hat

School handball champions…

My school love handball, and they have good reason to. The boys team are pretty awesome and after cruising through their quarter finals match they steamed their way to the final of the national elementary school handball competition. They won on home turf here in Samcheok, defeating an Incheon school team by two goals. The girls team is nothing to be sniffed at either, coming a respectable third and still claiming a trophy. The whole school go mad for it, and you have all the students banging together home made drums made from empty water bottles, with the teachers keeping the students chanting in rhythm and banging their own drums. It’s quite a sight to see.

The game’s pretty good aswell, and can get quite physical. Sin bins, yellow cards, hard hits and several bloody noses are the standard of the day. The magic sponge seems to have been replaced with a magic towel that the assistant coach runs on with everytime one of the kids takes a big hit. When not in service to the players the magic towel is used to dab the sweat from the forehead of the coach, who looked like he was suffering from some jittery nerves. Well done boys and girls!


Korea ‘good for health’

“Oh my god, what happened? You look terrible”

This was how I was greeted today upon my presentation to the school nurse during my break this morning. FYI I don’t ‘look terrible’. I do however have a bad cold, bordering on a nasty case of man flu, but I have to say I was slightly offended at this suggestion.

So she patched me up and sent me off with several drugs and assurances that my condition would improve (cheers). When I got back to the office I asked the Korean teachers what she had given me. One pack of  brightly coloured pills with variation on dose depending on whether it is daytime or night, and three bottles of ‘쌍화탕’. I was then informed by my teachers that it was an ‘ancient oriental medicine, like tea’. So a placebo then? Well that is my assumption, and I have to tell you that for a placebo is tasted pretty awful, it seemed a strange cross between a christmas pudding and anti septic.

I can only speak from my experience, but in my school, being sick is a big thing. Firstly because Koreans NEVER take a days sick leave. Therefore when you are sick and in work they presume it is worse than it actually is because far short of being laid up in a hospital bed on a drip with an arm missing they would expect you to get to work at some point in the day. Therefore it is safe to assume that even though you are in work you are really quite unwell.  “Are you sick”, “Did you take medication?”, “Did you see the nurse?”, “Did you visit the hospital?”, “Do you need to visit the hospital?”…these are just a few of the usual questions that follow a sneeze. Not that I feel I live in a nation of hypochondriacs, but seriously maybe they are a bit over the top with potential illness.

There are two types of food and drink in Korea. One that is ‘good for health’ and one that is ‘not good for heath’ and you can guarantee that everything has been scrutinised as some point “Tim, why do you put milk in your tea? It is not good for health” or “Eat this squid it is good for health”. Well just about everything seems to be affecting my health in one way or another.

On the rare occasion that you do visit the doctor or pharmacist you can guarantee one thing. Regardless of what it is you think you may have, you will come away with a selection of pills and medication. This usually consists of a bag of three or more different pills, god knows what they do, but they look kind of crazy. Even something as simple as a hangover has its own dedicated recipe called something like ‘morning rescue’ and is available at every corner shop. Which is about the only thing you can get outside of a pharmacy. This can be very frustrating if it is out of hours and you’ve got a little headache.
Visiting the hospital as a foreigner is a dangerous game too. Miscommunication nearly landed my flatmate on the operating table when he went up there with food poisoning . What exactly did they want to operate on? Knee jerk reactions. Cut now think later? Maybe.

On the other side of the coin, if I am ill and I want to see a doctor, I do. The same day. The same hour even if I go straight there. No messing around, no NHS esq “Oh you want an appointment today? Well in that case you have to be dying or dead already, otherwise come back on Friday morning when you’re all healed up”. All in all I think the Korean health system is good and efficient, not to mention dirt cheap…if not ever so slightly paranoid.

Maybe it is the kimchi, maybe it is the fact that I’m constantly eating things stuffed under my nose by Koreans claiming they are ‘good for health’, or that I am knocking back a bottle of god knows what medicine every time I have a slight sniffle, but I really do feel far healthier in Korea. I think a large part of this has to do with their lack of carpets and as a result less dust and allergies. It may be the clear coastal air, given the fact that I am used to living in a big city and I now live in a small town by the sea. The fact is though that I have not had a really had a bad cold since I’ve been here, or anything else for that matter. Cheers to that.

My placebo of the day


Disclaimer: I am a big fan of the NHS, just not the waiting time for a doctor’s appointment…

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5 other followers

Blog Calendar

June 2018
« Jul