Unpacking with Danielle

Travel & Exploration

Category: Teaching



Alexandra.  The weird girl.

I met Alexandra as a third grader.  She was fat for a Korean kid.  She was also obsessed with pink.  So she was a fat Korean girl who always dressed in pink.  I thought she looked and acted like Miss Piggy.  No one in Korea knew who that was.  But when I showed my co-teacher and her homeroom teacher a video of Miss Piggy they cracked up and agreed, Alexandra was just like Miss Piggy.

In addition to the pink, she also had a pudgy face and pig nose.  Her voice was nasally, like sound originated somewhere between her throat and chest, then traveled up into her nasal passages and out through her nostrils.  It was delightful.

All of the other kids in her grade knew she was weird.  When I first met her she was in class 3-3, class 3 of third grade, which had two bad boys- the worst in her grade.  One kid, Colton, was kind of bad, like you could sometimes bring him to the good side.  But the other kid, Gabriel, was so bad a good day was when no one cried.  

Colton had ADHD.  He had trouble sitting still and focusing on classwork.  Instead he often goofed off for attention, ripped paper and ate it, licked glue sticks, bothered other kids, and ran around the room.  According to his homeroom teacher his mother didn’t know how to mother him, so she’d just let him do whatever he wanted.  So Colton’s issue was a mix of needing a parent who knew how to handle him and getting his ADHD under control.

Gabriel, on the other hand, was a wreck.  He was evil.  He would bother the shit out of other kids.  Not in a lighthearted, silly way like Colton would.  He would torment and bully them until they cried.  I kid you not- almost every single 3-3 English class the first half of my first semester there someone cried.  He had a knack for knowing how to piss off people and get lots of negative attention.  He shredded his English book, the pieces would be on the floor after class, so he couldn’t do any work even if he wanted.

Since Alexandra was weird, these boys loved to pick on her.  They’d run up to her and pull her hair or pinch her, she’d scream, and then my co-teacher would get upset that she was being disruptive.  She didn’t care about the details of what had happened, she just wanted Alexandra quiet.

Alexandra didn’t give up without a fight, though.  Every time one of these boys would torment her she’d try to get my co-teacher’s attention.  First she’d raise her hand.  If that didn’t work, she’d call my co-teacher’s name.  When that didn’t work, she’d get out of her seat, walk right up to her, and explain what was going on.  I had to hand it to her, she was determined to get justice.

Where was I when all of this was happening?  I was in the room, observing, trying to help.  But the thing is, when these kids don’t speak English and you don’t speak their language, there’s a limit to what you can do with classroom management.  You can’t have a discussion with them.  At best you’ll rely on body language and simple common words and hope it works out.  After that, you need to involve the co-teacher, a native speaker, especially when you’re dealing with complex, long term problems.

My co-teacher, though, was apprehensive when it came to discipline.  She didn’t want to fuck them up.  She was afraid that disciplining them would draw more attention to their bad behavior and egg them on further.  She wanted to ignore it, hope they would stop and all the problems would go away.  From my perspective, she was burying her head in the sand.  

My biggest concern with how this class functioned revolved around Alexandra.  She was the sorest subject of these two boys’ negative influence on the classroom environment.  Everyone was victim to these boys, including us teachers, but Alexandra got hit the hardest because she was weird.  

Being weird makes you a target.  I love weird people.  I’m weird myself.  The last thing I’d want to do is encourage a weird kid to stop being weird.  Being weird in Korea just isn’t allowed in most contexts because they value sticking to the straight and narrow path.  This is especially true in school, so if I could offer a kid even a little reprieve from that- a place where they could just be-  I’d feel I was doing something good for them.  So I didn’t want to snap the weird out of Alexandra.  Instead, I wanted to give her a space to be weird in English class, if that’s what she wanted to do.

Working with my co-teacher to pull this off was hard.  She really didn’t want to pull out the big guns in terms of discipline.  It felt too wrong to her.  But she was open to reorganizing the seating.  It was an indirect approach that didn’t call out any one kid- everyone would get a new seat and therefore everyone would be treated the same.  I wanted to give Alexandra some space.  3-3 was a stressful class for her to be in with those boys, and I wanted coming to English class to be 40 minutes of peace from the drama she normally found herself in.  I felt that if I could give Alexandra that, then maybe everyone else in the class could benefit too.

I decided to put Colton in the front of the room in the corner.  That way he could easily pay attention but not be so close to other kids and random shit in the room to mess with.  It also meant that if he ever needed to get up and move around, he had some empty space to do it.  Plus he was right next to the door so he could slip out and make an ass of himself in the hallway, if he so pleased.

I put Alexandra on the opposite side of the room.  She was in the back corner.  She had no one in the seat right next to her, so she could stretch out.  The kids who sat in front of her were mellow.  Helpful if she needed it, but otherwise kept to themselves.  

Gabriel I put in a solo desk, in the back, by himself.  He needed to be away from other students for a while.  He lost the privilege of being near classmates because he just couldn’t play nice.  To bother people, he’d have to make a big, bold effort, which it turned out he wasn’t interested in doing.

It’s amazing what a simple seating arrangement can do.  At first, Alexandra quietly sat back there and observed the room, taking it all in.  She’d put her feet up on the empty seat next to her, sitting sideways, with her right arm over the back of her chair, looking up at the board.  Sometimes she’d play with her pink pig pencil case.  I didn’t care.  She was relaxed, having some fun, and at times focused on class and learning.  Then after a few weeks she started getting into class the full 40 minutes.  She’d pay attention, follow along, write in her book, and she even started raising her hand!  And getting answers right!  She was coming into her own and into class so quickly in her new seat.

As we got into December it was getting cold outside.  We had our first snowfall and the ground was freezing over.  One day as I was walking back to the classroom from lunch, I noticed all the third graders were outside on the playground, playing on the ice.  No adults were around (which is completely normal in South Korea, that kids play on their own, even at school during school hours).  “They don’t bubble wrap their kids,” as one of my British friends put it.

So I’m walking by, kids are running and sliding on ice, giggling, playing, and Alexandra is on her own, sliding in her own weird way towards the edge of a huge patch of ice.  She slips and falls.  I then see Gabriel in the distance immediately yell something, then charge towards her.  A group of boys follows.  They run and slide to her.  They surround her and start kicking her.  Alexandra is on the ground, on the ice, surrounded by the boys of her grade, getting kicked from all sides.  Like some Lord of the Flies shit.

I yell at them.  They all flee and I can see Alexandra laying on the ice, crying.  Gabriel then runs back for a few more kicks.  I yell again and he runs away again.  I go to Alexandra, as do a couple of girls in her class.  We have a hard time getting her to sit up, then stand up.  She wants to be left alone.  I spend at least fifteen minutes trying to help her.  Still no other adults around.  Eventually she gets up and the two girls somehow tell me they will take her inside to their homeroom, I think.  

I should have gone with them, but instead went to my room.  About twenty minutes later the two girls came running to my room, asking if I knew where Alexandra was.  They lost her and didn’t know where she went.  I felt like shit for not sticking around.  I didn’t know what to do or how to explain anything to the other teachers in Korean.

Eventually my co-teacher came back to the room and I told her what had happened.  She called the homeroom teacher and headteacher to explain.  They then held a meeting with Alexandra’s mother and the mothers of all the boys who kicked her.  I wasn’t invited, but this is what was later relayed to me:

Alexandra’s mom spent the meeting apologizing for how weird her daughter is and kept saying she understands why the boys acted that way- because her daughter is strange.  The boys were never punished.  According to the school handbook, whenever there’s any kind of violence the abusers will have a long punishment, like lots of hard labor to do around the school for several weeks or months, depending on the situation.  But nothing happened to these third grade boys because they lied to their mothers about how bad it was, and Alexandra’s mother accepted that her daughter will be tormented sometimes.  

The head teacher told me she wanted to slap Alexandra’s mom across the face for putting her kid down like that and not sticking up for her.  I couldn’t believe her mother’s wishes could override the terms of the school handbook.  It was a disheartening outcome.  That abusers can get away with abuse.  That boys can get away with mistreating girls.  That “normal” kids mean more than “weird” kids.  That the feelings in a discussion weigh more than established protocol.  These were not ways I was raised to think.  These were not norms I was accustomed to living with.  It was a way of thinking and operating I found hard to respect.  It worried me what else Alexandra, and kids like her, endured for being different, and it scared me to think of the long, hard process it would take to truly carve out a free space for them.


Winter break rolled around a few weeks later.  Alexandra and all the other kids had five weeks off from school.  They came back to school for two weeks in February and started their new school year in early March.  Alexandra was then in fourth grade and got placed in the best homeroom teacher’s class.  She was still an oddball, but in no way a nuisance or embarrassment to anyone.  If anything, she inadvertently provided comic relief in an otherwise serious, studious class, and we all welcomed her wholeheartedly.

Colton was in her class, too.  He was also a changed kid, for the better.  Apparently his teacher ripped his mom a new one, which improved her parenting.  He was still goofy, but the big difference was that teachers could get through to him.  He was sweet to work with.

Gabriel ended up in a different class.  He remained disengaged, but he kept to himself.  He was still a problem, just a different kind of problem.  I never figured out how to work with him.  He was so broken I don’t know if I ever would have.
It’s been four months since I’ve been in that classroom in Korea.  I’ve had time to reflect on my experiences and what I can say is this: the classroom environment absolutely makes or breaks a student’s ability to learn- to see themselves in the space, to feel a part of the lesson, and to trust it enough to add to it.  It’s the teacher’s responsibility to do everything in their power to create that welcoming environment.  I hope I was able to do that for my students.

New Job

I got shome shocking shnews: I’m shtaying in Scheoul a bit schlonger.

I know that seems really weird, especially after my post about wanting to leave.  So I will explain.

I got asked if I wanted to renew my current position at my current school in mid-April.  That would mean deciding in April of 2015 if I wanted to stay here until late August 2016.  I had two days to decide.  Some of the new contract terms wouldn’t have been in my favor (nothing personal to me, but rather big administrative changes created cutbacks).  This, in addition to the other things I mentioned made me feel like it wasn’t worth sticking out.

So then there’s the question of what to do next?  I looked and looked and looked.  I talked to lots of people about lots of possibilities throughout Asia.  I interviewed at several places.  I even started looking at and seriously considering options back home in the US.  I spent 2 1/2 months doing all this research and was even starting to get cranky because I wasn’t getting that “fuck yes” feeling, ever.

Then a recruiter in Seoul turned up with a good offer from a school here.  I was already 85% sure I wanted out and nearly called him the day of the interview to say, ‘Fuck it.  I don’t want it.’, but I told myself to be open to it and dragged myself over there.

Apart from not being able to figure out how to open the door when I got there- all I saw was a wall of glass and missed the small button that opens it- everything about the interview was great.  I spoke to several people who worked there, all were really nice, friendly, helpful, great listeners and conversationalists, excellent English (you’d think the staff at all language schools here would have excellent English, but that would be a mistake), professional, transparent, conscientious, considerate, easygoing, etc.  They say the interview is reflective of the job, and I’ve found that to be true of jobs I’ve had in the past.  So if that’s true, this should be a really nice place to work.

I’ll continue to get all of the same benefits of my current job, which includes free housing.  My salary will go up by 25% and I’ll only be a 5 minute walk from work, as opposed to a 35 minute commute on an overcrowded subway.  That saves me an hour a day.  I’ll also have 2 more teaching hours a day, so that should help with the sense of boredom I’ve experienced in my current job here.  Class sizes will be much smaller than what I currently have, probably half the size, if that.  I could go on, but after making a list of positives and negatives, the only negative I found was that it’s in Korea, and that’s only a negative at this point because Korea is now familiar to me.

Shooooo….. shat’s she shupdate.

Why I’m Not Renewing

I’ve been in Seoul for about 10 months now, which means I have 2 more until my contract is up.  Most jobs here for foreigners are on a 12-month contract.  Towards the end of that time, you can ask to renew.  If your school is happy with you and still has funding for your position, you can stay another year.

I decided not to stay.  This is actually a very common decision for people in my position.  Everyone has their reasons.   I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you why I’m choosing to leave.

Overall, things are pretty okay here, but they’re not so great I want to give it another year.  Here’s why:

First, I don’t find the teaching methods they use to be very effective.  Are kids improving: yes.  Are they functional with the language: nope.  I think the methods and classroom organization are holding them back.

Here’s how students are organized: Kids are put into classes by grade, not ability or aptitude.  So kids who are pretty good, motivated, and learn fast are in the same class as kids who know almost nothing, lack interest, and/or are slow learners.  There’s an enormous disparity in the room, which only widens as they get older.  You’re supposed to run class so it’s appropriately challenging to everyone.

While this could be possible, the school generally prefers group uniformity/conformity to individual customization.  That plays out with everyone doing the same work altogether, so English class can feel like military formation.  They also want me to strictly follow the book.  The book is pretty cookie-cutter and also doesn’t allow for individual customization.  This means that advanced kids get bored and slow kids are totally lost.  When this happens, they often goof off, which makes it challenging to keep the class under control.

The approach is to get kids to enjoy learning a language.  So the focus is mainly on games and fun activities as opposed to explaining patterns and rules.  I think in theory that’s a great thing to shoot for, but in reality, if they can’t speak the language, they are never going to have fun with it.  The approach has dropped clear instruction for “fun”, versus finding a balance with it.

I find that maybe a few kids  get the point through these fun activities, but the bulk get lost and frustrated until I show them the rules.  Is listening to a rule fun?  No.  Is playing a game in a language you can’t speak fun?  No.  So I drop a fun thing sometimes for the sake of effective teaching.  I’m getting tired of explaining why this is necessary to my co-teachers who take the “they must always have fun” directive a bit too seriously.

Now onto co-teaching with a Korean teacher.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I have personally liked all of my co-teachers.  They’ve all been very nice people and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them.  On the other hand, professionally, they have varied greatly in their attitudes toward teaching.  Most have been good overall and I’ve learned a lot from them.  One, though, was negligent, disorderly, and accepted no responsibility for outcomes (again, this was the exception rather than the rule).  Whenever she was around things devolved into chaos and she wasn’t willing to work on it.  No one had a clue what was going on under her watch.  So, co-teaching can be great or awful, depending on who you’re with.  But you never know what’ll happen because your co-teachers change year-to-year.  So I have no idea what would happen if I stayed.

The next thought that comes to mind is if I have any influence over things.  Sure, in terms of how I execute lessons from the book.  Officially though, none at all.  I’m on great terms with my principals and they don’t want me to go, but I don’t have any real power or influence in how things are run.  I just have to be open to whatever directives come from above and support that.  I don’t mind it for a short while, but long-term I want a position where I can have the same power as my coworkers and have an impact outside of the classroom.  Since I hit the ceiling the day I arrived, I don’t see this going anywhere for me.

Another factor is the students.  Before coming to Korea I expected to have studious kids, who were hungry to learn.  I know that’s definitely true for some teachers here.  Families push their kids to get ahead.  I was expecting to work hard and be pushed as well.  That’s definitely not the case for me.  Most of my students are very nice, but they are content with a slow pace.  Kicking it up a notch/rising to the occasion isn’t in their wheelhouse.  I try to give them motivational speeches, but they don’t understand and I’m pretty sure my co-teachers don’t either.

But the primary reason is the job is way too easy.  Since I’m expected to stick to the book and not deviate, preparing for lessons only requires reviewing the book, and that takes less than 10 minutes a day.  That means I have 3-4 hours a day to myself.  I have to stay at school, in my classroom, all that time.

At first I didn’t mind it.  It was nice to have quiet time to relax.  But that’s 15-20 hours a week of nothing to do.  Yes, I have my own projects to keep myself busy, but it’s still way too much time.  It’s boring.  Like, it’s so boring I’m sure I’m getting dumber.  I just can’t sit through that for another year.  I’m afraid of the person (or blob) I’ll become if I do.

Despite making the decision to not renew, I have mixed feelings about leaving.  Overall Korea has been good to me, and I feel like there’s so much more I could learn about this place.  But on the other hand, I have to acknowledge that I’m just treading water with what I have.  I’ve never been content with that.  It’s not a thing everyone understands, only the ones who are also continually curious and/or ambitious get it.

Mark Manson wrote a piece a couple of years ago called “Fuck Yes or No“.  In it, he basically says the right opportunity is the one that has you saying, “FUCK YES!”  I just don’t feel FUCK YES about this anymore, so I had to say No.

So there you have it.  The reasons why it’s time to move on.  I’ll spend another 4 weeks keeping the status quo, then I’ll do 3 weeks of camp.  After that, travel.  After that, TBD.

Stay tuned.

Still Worrying About MERS

It’s been over a week and a half since people have been in a panic over MERS.  Last week I wrote about how my school has been handling it.  Here’s an update on things I’ve observed, read, and experienced.

The media hype about this is bigger than it feels, to me.  That might be because even though I’m here in Seoul, I mingle with a mix of Koreans and expats.  The expats generally think Koreans are panicking way too much.  As far as I’m concerned, if I take some pretty normal precautions, I should be fine.  But most Koreans I talk to seem to be more worried about it, to the point where they’re only leaving the house when absolutely necessary.

I don’t blame Koreans for being so worried.  From a PR perspective, the whole thing is a mess.  First, any health scare will always get a certain amount of people in a tizzy.  Next, consider the general lack of trust in the government due to the Sewol Ferry accident last year.  It’s natural to expect skepticism.  Then, after being asked repeatedly, the government took over 2 weeks to release a list of hospitals where MERS cases showed up.  And when they finally did release the list, it was wrong.

Then consider how medical treatment works here.  Generally in the US, when you’re sick you see your primary care doctor.  Your treatment is mainly through this one person unless a) they refer you to a specialist or the ER, or b) for whatever reason you feel you need a second opinion and go see someone else.  In almost all cases you’re going to a doctor’s office which is usually a pretty small place.  Most of the time when I go to the doctor in the US there are fewer than 20 people in the office.

In South Korea though, when you aren’t feeling well you go to the hospital.  You sit in the hospital’s waiting room and then you go see a doctor.  When I wanted to get a refill of my migraine medication here, I was at the hospital for about 3 hours and must have passed a couple hundred people in that time.  And next time I need more migraine medicine?  I can go to ANY hospital.  While it can be convenient for me, the patient, it’s scattered and lacks consistency from a treatment perspective.  This hospital doesn’t have my medical history, including where else I’ve been.  It also exposes me to a lot of other sick people, which can be devastating when you have something like MERS going around.

So, the fears and lack of trust among the general population make complete sense to me.

That said, I read Western media and also grew up with doctors for parents, so I’m not on board with all the worrying.  Should there be some cause for concern?  Absolutely.  If you’re stupid and don’t take any precautions you could get sick.  But should I put myself in voluntary quarantine when I feel fine?  I think that’s going too far.

So here’s what I’m doing:

  • I’m living my life as usual.
  • I’m being extra diligent about washing my hands regularly.  This includes bringing my own soap to work since they removed bar soap from the bathrooms and only have liquid soap, and theirs is basically lemon-scented water.
  • I bought a face mask, which I wore once because it felt disgusting always having hot air on my face.
  • I’m not sharing food with anyone.
    • Normally I don’t, but a lot of Korean cuisine involves sharing a large pot of stew, barbecue, and side dishes.  I’m just not going out for those meals.
  • I’m not going to the gym.  But that’s mainly because I’m lazy.

Since I teach at an elementary school, here are more things I’m doing:

  • Any kid who feels sick, at all, gets sent straight to the nurse.
    • While this is standard practice in the US, it doesn’t seem to be normal here. (Your education is too important to miss class!) What tends to happen is the teacher has a long conversation with the kid about how s/he feels, and then maybe after that they go to the bathroom and come back.
  • I spray disinfectant on desks and doorknobs daily.
  • I don’t touch kids.

I should also note that MERS has mostly spread in hospitals and among families of people sick with it.  The ones who’ve died were generally old and already had a severe illness, so their immune systems were weak.  I haven’t been to a hospital since the outbreak, I live alone, and I’m pretty healthy.

That said, I did feel sick last week.  The left side of my throat was swollen.  Normally I’d go to the doctor to get it checked out, but I decided against it.  Since most of the MERS cases spread in hospitals, I figured I’d wait it out rather than expose myself to who knows what.  It passed in two days and I feel fine, for now.

Reflections on Teaching: School Placement

I’ve been in South Korea now for about 5 months.  I came here for a break from American corporate culture and to try something which I thought would be more meaningful, teaching.  While it’s been a break from corporate life, it has definitely been work.  Most people I know here have much to say face-to-face about their teaching experiences, but far less often I see people writing about it.  It probably has to do with saving face, which suppresses any urge to be openly critical of anyone or anything.  But for anyone who knows me, I’ve never been, nor do I think I will ever be, overly concerned with what other people think of me.

I say this because in people’s desire to save face there’s a lack of transparency, and a lack of transparency gives other people false impressions and hopes, which ultimately leads to dissatisfaction and poor results.  In my time here I’ve noticed a lot of absurd, dysfunctional, and at times disturbing ways schools tend to work, so much so that if I had read about these things in blogs, glassdoor.com, etc, my decision-making process to come here would have looked very different.  That’s not to say everything is awful; there are a lot of good things about teaching.  But the writing is disproportionately tilted in the “it’s so amazing!” camp that I feel someone needs to say, “Hold on, let me show you the other side of the coin”.

So this is the stuff I wish I had known before coming.  It’s meant to help people make a well-informed choice to come or not come, and set expectations based in reality so they are adequately prepared.

The first topic I’d like to explore is school placement.

You have very little say in which school you work.  What you do have say over is which province or city you’d like to be placed in.  This is no guarantee that you’ll get it, but you do get to list your preferences.  When you’re given an offer for the job you’ll be told which province you’re in, but you won’t know where exactly you’ll be placed.  For example, I was placed in Seoul.  Where I live and work is basically the edge of the city proper.  So it still looks like a city, but it’s like a busy suburb.  Other people I know are right in the middle of super busy areas while others are so far in the outskirts it’s almost rural or like a small village.  This means that even though they asked to be put in a city, they’re really not living “in the city”.  They’re really in a village 1 hour outside the city.

Your commute may be a short 5 minute walk to school, or you may need to ride public transportation for up to an hour each way.

Your apartment may be brand new, with the latest technology, and be fairly spacious, or you may be in a closet-sized apartment, in an old building with bad plumbing, and a previous tenant who left the place a filthy, stinking mess.

You may work in a wealthy neighborhood, where almost all your students already speak English fluently, or in a poor area where the sight of a Western person startles people, and where “hello”, “goodbye” and the alphabet are the extent of their English vocabulary.

You may work in a school that is well run and the teaching philosophy jives with what you believe, or you may work at a school that’s disorganized and uses teaching methods that make you uncomfortable.

And the thing is, you won’t know any of these details until after you’re already here, after you’ve already signed your contract, and for some, after you’ve been working at the school for some time.  Everything could turn out great- and it does for some people- but many people experience challenges with these things.  And this system of having no say in the matter and just being placed somewhere was very new to me.  Coming from a large internet company and previously being at a progressive non-profit, and all the while working in theater, I can say the topic of recruiting is always hot.  Any good workplace in the West does not take that lightly.  In fact, they pride themselves on taking as long as they need to, even years, to find the right fit for a job.  This is because they know how important it is to the success of the organization to have not just people with the right skills, but also the right personality in the job.  Cultural fit is essential.

But in Korea, at least in the education system, they seem to think anyone who passes a test and an interview at a city, or even a national, level will be a fit at any school.  This is how it works to be a teacher here: you study education, you take an exam, and if you pass the exam, you apply to a province to be a teacher there.  The province then places you at a school somewhere, whenever they get an opening.  Then every five years they move you to a different school, and again, the province chooses where.  So public school teachers here have no say over where they teach.  This is also true for school administration, like principals and vice principals.

Now, to illustrate how this gets even more complicated, let’s say you spend your first five years teaching at a school in the wealthiest part of the city, then for your second five-year stint you’re placed in the city’s poorest area.  It’s like going from teaching New York’s elite in the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the poorest of the poor in the Bronx.  Somehow your skills are supposed to translate even though the demographic is completely different.

Now while you’re halfway through your second year at a school, your principal changes.  Whenever leaders change anywhere- in schools, companies, nations, etc- so does the feeling of being there.  So your first principal may have had a “just keep the peace” way about him/her, and the new principal may be very rigid and strict.  Korea is a very hierarchical society, so you always have to agree and go along with whatever your superiors tell you to do, no questions asked.  So with a principal change like this, you may have to change your teaching personality.

I bring this up because in the US part of why I chose to work where I worked was because the values of the organization and the people I was working with fit well with what I wanted to pursue and how I wanted to work.  There was at least some transparency with cultural fit and an expectation that I would be myself because who I was already fit with the organization’s current culture or what they wanted to evolve into. (That’s not to say it was always great. I did leave places because I had changed or they had changed in a way where it was best to move on.)  The important thing to note here is that both the actual organization I worked for and I had a lot of upfront contact before either of us made a decision to work together.  This does not happen in education in Korea.  Everyone is just expected to mold and fit in together.  So long as people are willingly flexible with their work personalities, this “works”.  But this country has the highest suicide rate of OECD countries, so I’m going say it’s not really working.  (I know a lot of factors contribute to that statistic, not just work culture, but work culture isn’t helping.)

This is not to say you should not be open and try to adapt to your new school environment.  You definitely should do what you can to make this new experience work.  But what it does mean is that things will come up that you are not expecting, and you will have to figure out a way to deal with it.  For example, this could manifest itself as teachers at your school using corporal punishment as discipline, and kids not responding to authority unless they think you may hit them.  I’m guessing most people reading this are against corporal punishment.  If that’s the case, you’ll have to figure out a way to earn your students’ respect without you hitting them.  And the answer is never a simple ‘just don’t hit them and it’ll be fine’, because when they’re used to being hit, you not hitting them is weird, and weird stuff confuses them.  You’ll have to be thoughtful, creative, and well-informed in your approach if you want to succeed.

But back to the original point- you have very little say in which school you work.  When you look more closely at it, all these details about how you work (and this is just scratching the surface) are also part of what you don’t have say over.  So when you sign up for this program, you really have to be totally open to whatever they give you, for better or worse.  And no matter what you do to prepare, things you’d never guess will happen and you just have to go with it.

A Kid Named Turkey

Since it’s Thanksgiving, I figured I’d tell you about a kid named Turkey.

Turkey is one of my 5th graders.  The first time I met his class I had the students make name tags with their English names on one side and their Korean names on the back.  Most kids didn’t have English names, so I put last year’s 100 most popular American boy and girl names in a bag and had them draw one.  Whatever they pulled was their name.

I kept the name tags in the classroom.  Students would pick up their name tag at the beginning of class and drop it off at the end.  For most kids this process worked fine, but this one kid ate his name tag.  And since he’s the kind of kid who eats name tags, he’s also the kind of kid who doesn’t remember his English name.  After a couple of weeks I got sick of referring to him as “No Name Kid” and thought, ‘Fuck it.  Your name’s Turkey.’  So we made a new name tag for him and he’s been Turkey ever since.

I know you might be thinking, ‘that’s a shitty thing to do to a kid’.  And you’d be right, if we were in the US or another Western country.  But before I left for Korea, I talked with several people who had taught here.  One guy said he gave all his students animal names and they loved it.  It seemed bizarre to me, but at the same time delightful.  What kind of kids love being called animal names?  But I figured if it worked for him, it could work for me.  It still felt a little wrong, but I went with it.

So back to the kid- he had no idea what “turkey” meant.  No one in his class knew what “turkey” meant either.  Except one girl who giggles everytime I call on him.

“Turkey!  Sit down!”

“Turkey!  Stop talking!”

“Don’t do that Turkey!”

“Turkey!  Stop!”

“Turkey!  No!”

Are you listening Turkey?”


The first month of school he was so annoying- always finding some reason to get into trouble.  He was one of those kids you just want to kick in the face, but you don’t because, unlike him, you have self control.


Henry, trying to hold down a rambunctious Turkey.

But then he started to calm down, actually take an interest in class, and he even started to feel pride for his name.  “I TURKEY!” he’d say beaming.  I would feel a little bad that I had given him such a stupid name, but then I’d have to remember it was probably okay here.

The thing with kids like Turkey is they are never truly reformed.  Their good days never last that long.  Within a few weeks Turkey was back to his old self and he was a mixed bag.  One minute he’d be calmly doing his work, the next he’d be screaming about something.  Then he’d beg for you to call on him, followed by chasing someone in the back of the room for 10 seconds, then back to his desk to rip paper.  When he wanted someone’s attention, instead of calling their name he’d bob his head forward and make a spitting/farting noise.

Sometimes I pull up videos of wild turkeys attacking people.  I watch, then look up at him, then look at the video, then look at him, and I think, ‘Turkey is the perfect name for this kid.’

A few weeks ago Turkey started to catch on that something was off about his name.  He asked my co-teacher, “Is Turkey a real name?  For humans?”  She covered for me and said, “Oh yes.  There are some people with the name Turkey.”  Apparently he didn’t fully believe her, but he accepted it.

Then the other day I was making a PowerPoint presentation about Thanksgiving.  Several of his classmates crowded around my desk to see what I was doing, and of course they said “turkey?” when I was making the slide about food.  As soon as he heard his name he excitedly ran over because he thought we were talking about him.  “I TURKEY!”  I said, “Yes, you are” as I shut the presentation.  I couldn’t let the cat of the bag just yet.

Today was finally the day he’d find out what his name means. I was apprehensive to tell him.  What if he got angry and became more aggressive in class because he didn’t like his name?  Or me for giving him that name?  But I figured I’d just do it and cross that bridge if and when I came to it.

Turns out Turkey fucking loves his name, especially now that he knows what it means. Every time I said his name during my presentation he got excited. I even used him as a model turkey to explain how to prepare one. “You cut off the head. A lot of blood squirts out and the body keeps moving like it’s still alive.” His natural body movements fit the description perfectly.

The last thing we did was make Thanksgiving cards saying what we were thankful for. His said, “I’m thankful for Turkey!” (And then he made a second saying he’s thankful for his mom.) He also begged his class to please not kill turkeys “because they should not die.”


Turkey while he makes his card.


Turkey’s finished card. It matches his coat.

So this Thanksgiving I’m thankful that my 10-year-old-boy sense of humor was favorably received.

[Spit-fart noise in your face!]


I teach English in an elementary school.  My students are in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade.  They live in a really poor part of Seoul.  Only a few have exposure to English outside of my class, so most of them have really bad English.  It’s an unusual scenario in this country (from what I’m told), but it’s what I got.  So whenever a kid uses any English I’m impressed.

The other day the 4th graders were on the lesson “Don’t Enter, Please.”  It’s got several expressions that start with “Don’t”, like push, shout, run- you get the idea.  And thank god they’re learning this because I have to say it a lot.

Every chapter includes a song.  Every song has a music video.  Every music video has 2 girls and one guy.  Every girl has pigtails.  Every guy is immasculated and doesn’t know it.  They’re all dressed in pastels.  Their voices are unnaturally chipper.  Their dance moves make 4th graders think, ‘wtf?’  It’s as if the Disney Channel lost its mind a bit more.

This section of the chapter is called “Sing!  Sing!”  I know how cheesy it is, but apparently songs help kids learn so I play the song and try to get them to sing with it.

So I’m playing this song and most kids are staring at the TV like, ‘Dear god…’  And I’m saying through an uncomfortable grin, “Why aren’t you singing?”  And they’re looking at me like, ‘You want me to do what?’

Meanwhile my co-teacher, a tiny, middle-aged Korean woman wearing a suit with a skirt just below her knees (who, by the way, is a substitute since my normal co-teacher is on maternity leave), is rocking out to it in the front of the room.  So I say, “Come on!  Everyone sing it!”  One enthusiastic boy, who is made of jello, gets out of his chair and can’t wait to do it.  Then 2 other boys get up to, to mock the whole thing (which is fine by me if they’re doing it in English), one of which has cerebral palsy.  They are going nuts.

As the class stares at the TV with a ‘kill me’ look on their faces (minus the three boys who are the epitome of ‘dance like no one is watching’) I hear, “TEACHER! Don’t Sing! Sing!, please.”

Somehow I’ve succeeded.

And then God said, “Your kid has ADHD.”

There’s a 3rd grader with ADHD.  He’s a really good kid; he just can’t sit for more than 5 minutes.

His go-to moves are walking across the front of the room like a dinosaur, running to the back of the room to get paper and crayons, exploring my desk, and making constant noise with his mouth.

Sometimes when he’s exploring my desk he does interesting things like acting like he’s a wizard cooking up something over my reed diffuser.  It’s either really funny, like when there’s time to kill before class, or incredibly annoying, like when you’re in the middle of teaching a lesson.

He had medication but his mother didn’t want him taking it.  She thought it was upsetting his stomach.  The school’s been trying to tell her all year, “No, your kid really needs it”, but she just won’t give it to him.  So since I’ve known him he’s been referred to as, “ADHD Boy”.

But the other day he was really tame.  He only got up once to touch the board and sat back down.  Huh?

Turns out he was with his mother in church for three hours last Sunday and the priest asked her to control her son.  So she tried and realized it was impossible.

Korean Priest

So, now he takes his medicine.

How do you tell a kid..?

Today in class we went over a story where a witch has magical powers.  Before we started the story we asked students to guess what the magical powers could be.

“She can change from a girl to a boy.”

How do you tell an 8-year old, growing up in a conservative Asian country, you really don’t need magical powers to do that?  All you need is $50,000 and a note from a psychiatrist.



If Young-mi can do it…

A class learned today that the girl with autism, who no one thought could do anything, can actually spell better than most of the other kids in the class.

It’s been interesting watching her learning unfold.  My first week teaching I really thought she should not be in class with the other kids.  She clearly learns in her own way and needs lessons customized to her needs.  Also, she couldn’t be quiet and focus.  Several times in a 40-minute period she would make loud noises, grab people, and get up.  She was very moody and a few times hit people and once chocked my co-teacher.  It was so bad that even her aide ran out of the room when she got violent.  The rest of the class found her distracting and were consequently apathetic.  I couldn’t blame them.  How would you feel if every time you tried to focus someone started screaming, grabbed your arm tightly, and started pulling as you were trying to write?

That said, the girl loves to draw.  So we give her paper and crayons.  Whenever she doesn’t feel like sitting and listening (?) to what’s going on in class, she draws.  She loves drawing pink bunnies.  The rest of the class is so out-of-control that honestly I was content with her quietly doing that and not giving the other students another reason to lose focus.  We also moved her seat to the back middle row so she could still feel part of the lesson but would be less distracting whenever she had a “moment.”

This seems to have helped her more than the other students.  Since moving her, she has not had one meltdown.  She quietly sits.  Sometimes she listens to the lesson and watches what we’re doing.  Sometimes she draws.  Sometimes she looks out the window.  Sometimes she stares off into space.  Sometimes she flips the pages of her textbook against her face.

I really don’t care so long as she’s occupied and quiet.  I told my co-teacher if she learns a handful of English words I would consider it a success since there was no indication she knew any English and even her Korean wasn’t good.

Today as I passed her desk, she had drawn this:



Then she sat up and said, “Carrot.”

I was stunned.  Based on what I’ve seen, most of her classmates couldn’t do that.  Their apathy throws mud in their wheels.  But this girl just did this all on her own.

I also know I didn’t teacher her that.  I don’t think I’ve even said the word “carrot” since I’ve been here.  She must have picked that up long ago.

Yesterday my co-teacher pointed to some colors in her book.  The girl wrote “pink”, “brown”, and “back”.

According to my co-teacher she never wrote or said anything in English last semester.  After trying to help her and getting nowhere, they figured English was too hard for her and that’s when they busted out the paper and crayons to keep her occupied with drawing.  Now she’s starting to put it out there.

What else does she know?  And, why is it coming out now?