Unpacking with Danielle

Travel & Exploration

Tag: ESL



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.

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.