Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Lantern Festival

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Saturday was a day for lights.  The day started with a most dreamlike run, then a hike and picnic, and finally Brittany and I then bundled up for Seoul’s oncoming winter and headed west to Seoul’s magical Lantern Festival.

First thing we see is a guy walking by in a Nazi uniform with a mask on, followed by more Nazis.  This seemed odd (turned out being about recent allegations that the president ordered the national intelligence organization to post negative messages about opposition candidates during the election), and resulted in about 500 cops marching the streets and patrolling the protest.  A most strange start to our evening.

Like all things it Seoul, the Lantern Festival was packed to the gills, but we got in quickly and easily enough and traveled back in time, looking at the lanterns made for Korea’s various dynasties.   These are some of the lanterns that lit us up.

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At the end we came to a very sad protest piece about North Korean atrocities with stories from or about individuals repressed or killed under the dictatorship.  And then there was this…

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Seoraksan

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Last weekend we decided to (finally) head out for our first sojourn out of Seoul since moving in in August, and joined a tour of Seoraksan National Park, located on the eastern side of Korea. We got up before sunrise (a shocking 6 AM alarm, one of only three times we have been required to get up at the ring of an alarm in the last three months), and caught the tour bus.

When we arrived at 1 PM we were given the choice between an easy hike and a difficult hike. Daredevils that we are, we opted for the difficult hike, and set off with hundreds of other people, enjoying the sight of the tanpoong, Korean for the red, yellow, and orange autumn foliage.

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The trail up was quite like a line at an amusement park, complete with foot-traffic jams that left us at a dead standstill on the trail. Every ten minutes or so, we would come across a large establishment of restaurants where hikers could unload and grab some food and alcoholic beverages before continuing on their arduous journey.
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Early in the hike, we heard a helicopter far in the distance and saw two men running up the mountain with stretchers roped around their back. Soon after, the helicopter was hovering directly above our heads, moving only slightly for about ten minutes. By the time the helicopter left, all of the leaves were blown off the trees, and we were scrambling through six inches of leaves on the trail. Hopefully the person the helicopter picked up is okay. It is important to heed such advice:

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The crowd started to thin out as the hike got steeper and turned into a pretty solid set of stairs.
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The stairs were just attached to solid rock, barging their way straight to the top. I avoided looking down as the stairs were always shaking and vibrating with people going up and down, but the view was amazing.
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We finally made it to the top, and could hardly see over the crowd crammed at the top. Vendors selling medals and pictures certifying one’s ascent of the mountain were crammed in with tourists moving to get a glimpse over the railing. We took one look at this bumbling crowd, I shoved my camera in the air to snap a few pictures, and promptly turned around and headed right back down.
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Luckily we found small turn off with a slightly lower viewpoint off the mountain, much less crowded than the first, and got to take some time to appreciate the views of the surrounding mountains and the Eastern coast of Korea, stretching all the way to the Sea of Japan.

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On our way back down, we got to grab some ice cream cones and relax a little before heading back down. IMG_5240 copy

On the bus ride, we were sleepily waiting to get to our hotel when we heard “Ryan Dunn” from the seat in front of us. It turns out that Ryan’s friends coworkers were on the trip and meant to keep an eye out for him. We spent the night in a small mountain town playing cards, under the hostile eye of the hotel worker whose television program was interrupted by our presence in the lobby.

The next morning, we went on an easy walk through Jujeonggol Valley. The water was perfectly clear and the rocks underneath were differing shades of red, blue, green, and orange, making the river quite magical.

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The trip was wonderful, and we’re hoping we can go again at a time that there are less people; this was one of the peak times of the year due to the autumn foliage, but hiking in general is just a busier affair in Korea than in the US. Even with all the people, Seoraksan was beautiful, and a nice break from Seoul.

안녕하세요 ^^.  I have been running in Seoul now for just over 2 months.  Nominally, my goal is to run the Seoul International Marathon in March.  This, however, is more or less of a larger goal to help me focus when I lack the motivation to get out the door.  My real goal is just to be a runner, and moreover, to enjoy running, the way that I do on my best runs that stay in my memory.

I am writing this both to chronicle my experience running in Seoul and as something of a guide for beginner runners, as I myself am really only just restarting to run and I know many people who would like to run but just can’t get into it.   As I start to move beyond my beginning phase into being more confident in my ability do long distances, I thought it might help others struggling to start to see what has worked for me.

For those of you who have no interest in starting running or my experience in starting running, please enjoy the pretty pictures of places I commonly run in Seoul and have a good day.

I have found that with running, like all things, the hardest part is getting out of the door.  Never once have I come back from a run (or other random adventure) and been disappointed to have gone.  So this is my nudge out the door for those wanting to run.

Running Here and There

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I guess I’ll start at the way beginning.  My first few runs (beyond the punishments of high school and college sports) were brought about by my sister’s idea to run the Colfax Half Marathon in May 2011.  At the time, I didn’t take it seriously at all, with the philosophy that if I really had to, I could wake up on any given day and run 13 miles.  Between March and May of that year, I ran 3-5 miles about 5 times, and a few weeks before the race, I ran 10 just to make sure I could do it when the time came.  Despite fancying myself as something of a runner at the time, I don’t think I can make any legitimate claims to have been one during this time.  It did, however, give me an interest for later days.

I first became a habitual runner when I moved into my Washington, D.C apartment in October 2011.  Luckily, I lived just a block from the incredible and mostly unused trails of Rock Creek Park.  So I started with 3-mile explorations, and eventually let myself get lost in the woods.  Those were the days that I first started to love to run.  Like my current schedule in Seoul, my mornings were free, I had nothing to do but enjoy the change of the seasons and explore the trails.  During those times, I was comfortable running 6-10 miles 3-4 times a week, and I was doing so with no goal, no training plan, nothing really but my genuine enjoyment of being out of breath running through the trees, past the farms, through rivers, and up and down the hills.

Unfortunately, I completely lacked the inspiration to continue running in Denver.  Denver is flat, and its best places to run were the wide-open spaces of the parks.  While these made for a few decent short runs, I just wasn’t enjoying running like I once did.  On top of that, my schedule changed to leaving early in the morning and returning just before dinner, by which time I was thoroughly done with my day and didn’t much feel like going on a run.

Finally, school ended last year and I began traveling.  In California, I enjoyed a couple of 4-5 mile runs around the neighborhood I was staying in before jumping right in and going for a 10-mile run by the end of the week.  That was a mistake.  For the first time, I had a running injury.  Simply put, I had been mostly inactive for too long, and my thighs and hips were not strong enough to sustain me for that distance, and my knee tracked incorrectly, causing inflammation and considerable pain in what is commonly known as Runner’s Knee.

When I finally settled in Seoul a month later, just a few miles would bring the pain back.  Since abolishing that injury, I have been running 6 times a week.  I started at 25 miles a week, and I have increased every 4 weeks, so that as I write this, my weekly plan is 50 miles a week.  Most of my runs range between 6-10 miles, but I sometimes am lazy or sore and cut it to 3, or I throw in the occasional half-marathon, 15 miler, or 17 miler to keep me moving toward 26.2 in March.

Starting out

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I always say that the hardest parts of any run are the first mile and the last mile.  The first mile, your body is kind of grouchy about being pulled into an aerobic state, and the last mile, almost invariably no matter the distance, my mind starts getting a little lazy and dwells on the difficulty of its condition.  With that in mind, I think runs of two miles or less suck.  If you are in moderately decent condition (writes the man feasting on a large glazed muffin – aka a miniature cake), you can probably run 3 miles.  Do it.  Do it really slow if you want, but try to run for three straight miles.  3 miles lets you start to get into a little bit of a groove, and that gives you something to build on.  If 3 miles is too much, then run 3/4 mile, walk 3/4 mile, run 3/4 mile, walk 3/4 mile until you’re good for 3 miles.

You don’t have to get out of breath when running.  Your heart rate will elevate and your breathing will definitely speed up as well, but never go too far.  You can’t recover from it on the move.  Even later, unless you’re pushing for a short distance personal speed record, red-lining is a bad idea.  Running is a good cardio workout, but it’s more about muscular endurance (which improves as your cardio health improves).

My last suggestion for people starting out is to research running a bit.  This has helped me in a few ways:

1. When I get mentally tired, I am able to think about my running form in comparison to the “ideal running forms” you read about.  This gives me something to focus on inside my own body, rather than thinking about how much I think this sucks at the moment.

2. Reading gives good general training advice, and will give you ideas to make you more comfortable so you can enjoy your runs more.

3. Some of it’s just fun to know for the sake of knowing.

Some good books on running/exercise:

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise- Tells about neurological studies on the chemical changes our brains undergo during aerobic and acrobatic exercise and draws conclusions on how exercise can be used to slow aging, treat ADD, depression, addiction, and anxiety, and improve brain function.  It’s kind of dense but still interesting.

Runners World Complete Guide to Minimalism and Barefoot Running-  For anyone interested in said school of running.  A good book for starting out.

Born to Run- Just a good story that makes you want to get out and run.

Enjoy Your Run

One of the difficulties of being a beginner runner is getting over the mentality that running is a horrible task, but we should do it because it will make us look pretty or feel better.  Running is in fact incredibly fun.  People look at running as some sort of punishment for drinking the night before or eating unhealthy.  While running will probably make you look pretty and feel better, these are simply unintended and pleasant side effects (other pleasant side effects include: decreased chance of heart disease, cancer, depression, and general illness, improved attention span, and better general ability to learn) and should not be considered the ends to which you are running.

First and foremost, runs should be fun.  So while the idea that you will suffer for 30 minutes now and feel good later might get you through a few runs, it probably won’t sustain you as a runner.  This isn’t to say that you’re going to be bursting out the door every morning at 6:00 a.m. just starving for a run.  I still sleep in late some days and have trouble getting out the door, but I never regret it by the time I get to my third mile.

And every now and then you get lucky.  You get out the door like it was any other day, and all the sudden you’re in the zone.  You can run fast, and you can run far.  The scenery is breathtaking, and briefly, as you feel your legs turn and your heart beat, you see the world appear in a way you didn’t know it could, and everything feels perfect.

My first suggestion if you do not enjoy your runs is to change where you’re running.  Running is a form of exploration and adventure, and should be treated as such.  Just before posting this, I became a little burnt out.  I took 4 days off of running and decided to follow my own advice.  I took a run to somewhere completely new in the city.  I got lost, found where I was, got lost again, got stuck, turned around, became concerned I was being chased by a homeless man, and ran down a new path.  It was an excellent adventure.  I had become too concerned with how far I was running and too concerned with adhering to a specific training plan.  I followed the same path because I knew exactly how far each run was on that path.  But really, it started to be more work than fun.  That’s when it’s time to go somewhere new.

DO NOT RUN ON A TREADMILL.  I never write in all caps.  I think it’s annoying and overbearing.  Still, I just did it because I cannot emphasize this enough.  If it is blistering cold and there is snow to your knees and you threw your running shoes into the wilderness during your last night’s drunken escapades, then perhaps a short run on the treadmill just to get the booze out of your system is okay.  When I first moved to Seoul, I joined a gym and started running on a treadmill.  It was brutal.  My runs seemed to take forever, I was exhausted after 30 minutes, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the wall or the time slowly ticking up.  On top of that, my Runner’s Knee was coming back.  In short, it was boring and monotonous; hell must have nothing but treadmills in its gym.

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After taking a week off to strengthen my legs, I set off on my first outdoor run in Seoul, and it was easily one of the best of my life.  It was short and simple – 4 miles at most – but as I ran through narrow back streets up to the base of the iconic Namhansanseong, I was properly acquainted with my new city and new country for the first time.  Running was an adventure, a chance to see and experience new things, and for the first time in a long time, I liked to run again.

The point is, that if you’re bored on your run, then go somewhere that has something new or amazing.  The easiest way to do this is to go somewhere where nature is close at hand.  I remember an incredible amount of detail from my trail runs, because so many awesome little things are always happening, or the light is amazing at whatever time of day I’m running, or I see somewhere to explore on my next run, or I see some crazy spiderweb, or leapfrog some logs blown over by the last night’s storm.  Running close to nature is infinitely entertaining, even if you’ve been there 100 times.

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For me right now, when my trail running options are limited, I still have great paths to explore, and running is a new journey everyday.

I also recommend running without headphones.  Like my minimalist recommendation, this comes with no experience in the opposite direction.  I have never run with headphones, but I feel like something would be missing if I did, like I couldn’t get deep into the run.

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 Minimalism

There’s a lot of talk right now about the idea of minimalism and barefoot running.  I will say that I am what is considered a minimalist, though, for me that’s just sort of the way it has always been.  I bought a pair of Five Fingers to do the Colfax Half in, ran with those until I moved from DC to Denver, then bought a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves as a pair of lightweight camp shoes, and I have ended up running several hundred miles in those.  I never intended to make myself a minimalist runner, but that’s just the way it worked out.  So while I am about to say that minimalism is great and I have suffered almost no injuries as a runner and I almost always feel great in my shoes, I really have no basis for comparison.  I have always run in minimalist shoes, and for the foreseeable future, will probably continue to do most of my running in minimalist shoes.

Undoubtedly, almost everyone reading this is at least vaguely familiar with the idea of minimalist running.  The main principle, as I gather, is that the human foot evolved over a couple million years and can damn well handle the stresses of running just fine, but we crazy folks have gone and weakened our feel with our fancy supportive, shock-absorbing, new-fangled running shoes.  Thus, our feet, which would otherwise evenly distribute our weight and the impact force of running, cannot do their jobs properly, and it leads to more injuries.

The debate is strangely heated on what “the right running shoe” is.  Really, find something that works for you, and keep using it.  Like I said, I started out minimalist because I always liked being in my bare feet, and as minimalism has caused me no problems, I have stuck with it.

The logic of minimalism does seem legitimate to me, so here are a couple of the most important points I will bring up from what I have read and experienced.

1.Strengthen up first:  If you have not been doing much for awhile, take the time to get your muscles in shape to run.  Do core strengthening, play other sports, jump rope barefoot, do one leg balances, and exercise your IT band. These will prepare your body for running.  I enjoy yoga, and since yoga generally addresses your entire body, builds strength, requires a body-awareness that running does not, and promotes flexibility, I think it’s a very good supplementary exercise.

2.  Start Small:  I started with a distance I was confident I could manage without injury – 25 miles a week.  The next 3 weeks I did 30.  The next 4 weeks I did 40.  I am now at 50 for the next four weeks, and I am hoping to move up to as much as 80 a week, but I am in no rush to do so.

3. Play other sports:  Running, especially if you’re not on trails, is a pretty monotonous game.  Your motion stays the same.  Some muscles that could support do not fire much in running, so it helps to play other sports once a week or so.

IMG_20131112_110115That’s about it.  I probably could say more, but it’s already too much.  Stay golden.

Halloween

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Because Halloween is not traditionally celebrated in Korea, Ryan and I were asked to head the planning of Halloween celebrations at our school – the day before Halloween. We scrounged up an assortment of games and activities around Halloween vocabulary (witch, ghost, Frankenstein, haunted house, etc.) and tried to think of creative costumes to wear.

Thus, the hour before school on Halloween found me wrapping Ryan in two rolls of toilet paper to transform him into a mummy. Toilet paper is not all that sturdy, and even with scotch tape and repeated re-wrappings, Ryan’s mummified wrappings were falling off before the kids even arrived. I took an easier route and borrowed a kids’ witch hat and cape that our school manager had bought to supplement Halloween decorations, and just wore all black.

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Our co-workers were highly entertained by Ryan’s impromptu costume. They burst out in fits of laughter every time they saw him, and kept coming back to take more pictures of us.

After the kids arrived for the first class, we walked to a nearby park so the kids could “trick or treat”, which in this case meant running around the park and finding our school managers, who were holding large Styrofoam pieces decorated as doors, and would hand out candy when the kids knocked. Ryan and I were briefed on this plan, but still surprised when we arrived at the public park, one of the Korean teachers gave a few words of directions, and the kids scattered out of sight. The kids are around 6-10 years old, and I could just imagine the parental fury if an activity like this were to take place in the US. The kids were completely out of sight in a public park! Who knows what could happen! Korea is a safe place, and all the kids were back by the time we were going on to our next activity.  We think.  Nobody took attendance.

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The next activity involved Ryan and I acting out Halloween vocabulary and having the kids guess. Thus, I ended up cackling like a witch and flapping my wings like a bat while Ryan stalked some children with devil horns held high above his head.

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After these festivities, and much shouts of trick-or-treat (which the kids now think means “please”, as if it is a magical polite word that conjures candy out of adults’ pockets, as a week later they still try to trick-or-treat), we headed back to school. For the remainder of the day, Ryan and I were saddled with the Korean teachers’ classes on top of our own to play Halloween games. This meant that our normal classes of 5 students increased to a whopping 10 – or sometimes even 15! – students. The horror! The kids were having a lot of fun, but after five classes of managing said fun, we were quite run down.

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By 7 PM, our boss was very insistent that Ryan and I come to the back room. She seemed a little hurried, and we thought we might have done something wrong. The kids were quite out of hand. But Angela, kind and motherly boss that she is, had made us a plate of songpyeon (traditional Korean treats), rice cake, and a Starbucks Frapaccino to split. “You look tired”, she said, and watched our classes while we had a brief snack.

Halloween was fun, but exhausting. The next day, Angela bought us pizza because she could tell we were still run down. So Halloween left us tired, with desk drawers and pockets stuffed with dum-dums, but certainly well-fed.


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Observations from Sun and Earth Class

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Brittany’s Classroom

Going from teaching full-time in public schools to teaching at a private academy in a foreign school has illuminated some interesting differences.  In Korea, kids attend public school as American kids would, and then go to private academies. Educating children is very expensive here. By middle school children are not only attending public school until 3 or 4 PM, but then attending multiple academies. One student said that throughout the week he attends English academy, Korean academy, World History academy, PE academy, and Music academy, but on average it looks like most kids attend 2-3 academies a week, which adds up to about 12-15 extra hours of being in educational institutions.  Frankly, this sounds awful to me, but then again, these kids are much smarter than me.  They’re also largely pretty happy to be there- at least the little ones- and make teaching really fun.

Middle school culture here is highly intense. For the entire month of September, middle school students prepared for exams. The class schedule at our academy increased, and some of the teachers were teaching classes until 10 PM. Some of my middle school students – 13 year old kids – come to class at 8 PM and chug energy drinks (despite my protestations). All of the academy teachers are required to give homework, so on top of their 9 AM to 9 PM school schedules, our students have loads of homework when they get home. It’s crazy seeing 11, 12, and 13 year old kids working so hard.

In the last couple years of teaching, particularly pushed by TFA’s “no excuses” classroom culture model, I had adopted a very strict mode of teaching. My first year teaching, I started with 30-35 kids in a classroom. In order to reign in the (seriously scary) chaos, my classroom became highly structured. Now, with my classes shrunk to between 2-8 students and English language, this type of structure is not only unnecessary but would be very silly.

I was surprised when I started teaching through TFA at the behavior management plans put in place for high school students. I marveled at the structure that they expected us to use in the schools we were in. The structure, I recalled, was not what was used or necessary in my high school. Why use such a different mode of teaching? But with so much chaos in my class, structures and behavior plans (i.e. “three strikes you’re out” and the like) and incentives (i.e. candy and prizes) for high schoolers did work, and did help me keep my head above water. I relied on them through two years of teaching, and now it’s a hard habit to break. When I ask a question to my middle schoolers in an 8:00 PM class and no one answers, it’s strange because it’s very hard for me to not get frustrated because my expectations really are higher than that, but it’s also hard for me to realistically expect their brains to still be functioning at any level after the day they have had of academic preparation.

Another huge difference is in teaching strategies and curriculum. Here, we are supposed to stick to the book. We walk through listening, speaking, and writing activities, in the order the book provides them. In the beginning of each month, we give the school a pacing guide for the month and a homework schedule. We are not to do games or activities not found in the book. After two years of being highly sensitive to that moment when students’ eyes glaze over and you know you’ve lost them, it’s hard for me to trudge through with an ineffective curriculum. No wonder they’re bored; I get bored. But because the school has drawn such a hard line, my feelings of ineffectiveness and guilt are fairly confusing. Every TFA advisor I my first year teaching said that when administration wanted you to do something that doesn’t help your kids, you smile, nod, and do whatever works for your students anyway. I lucked out my second year with an administration that encouraged more innovation in the classroom and listened and considered teacher input on his/her classroom way more frequently than my previous administrators. But here, with a job in a foreign country and immersed in an entirely new culture, I feel like the best line to take would not be disobeying their specific instructions to follow the book. So here I am, fighting all my good teacher instincts and trying to make the book a tad bit more entertaining.

I also have to comment on how ridiculously good at drawing all of our students are.  If we gave grades for drawing (or grades at all really) almost everyone would receive high honors for their artistic abilities.

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teaching vocabulary!

Because our school is a private school, they are very fixated on increasing and maintaining enrollment, because enrollment=money. Ryan and I were surprised when, in our interview, the director of the academy was very, very, VERY pleased with our pictures and how we looked.  In fact, this was really all she cared about, saying that after seeing our pictures she was 99% sure she wanted to hire us, and our classroom qualifications and experience made up the other 1%. In our first meeting after classroom observations, the most positive thing they had to say to me was how beautiful I am, and they often compliment Ryan on his “movie star face.”

In a recent faculty meeting, while discussing ways to increase enrollment, someone suggested creating more fun, creative curriculum, such as teaching phonics and then reinforcing with activities building and modeling with sand. One of the teachers was very against this new turn, and while the conversation switched to Korean (as it usually does about five minutes into the meetings), the end result was that in order to increase enrollment, we should create new flyers advertising the native teachers – us.

So we dressed up for new photos on Monday. One of the directors brought in eight of her own blazers for me to wear, and they had me put on one after the other, asking Ryan, “Aren’t you so happy you have a beautiful wife?” I put on seen different blazers, and they took pictures of me in every one of them. On top of that, the assistant taking the pictures had her camera turned on continuous mode, so each time she took one picture of me in a blazer, it was really about ten. Equaling about a hundred pictures in each blazer. I wonder what will become of all of these. At least half our importance to our school is as a marketing tool.  So it goes.

Our coworkers are all pretty awesome.  They are a very supportive, funny, diverse, and interesting bunch, and pretty damn good teachers who seem to genuinely enjoy their work, which is more than I can say for some of the overworked, overstretched, and overstressed teachers I know.  Pressure, however, on the Korean teachers is pretty high, as half of them are not salaried but paid by the class instead, so losing kids means losing some much needed money, and they are in a constant battle to keep students and parents happy.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, as with anywhere, there are, from my perspective, many shortcomings and difficulties at our school, but the teaching life here really is great.  We are lucky to have such wonderful students and a bunch of good teachers around us everyday.