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.
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.