Standard Deviations? More Like Weirdo Deviants: My First 2 Weeks in Review

I’ve finished my second week of teaching, and things are starting to feel normal. That was certainly not the case for the first couple days.

I don’t have a camera yet, so I have to apologize for the dryness of the posts.

After my jet hangover weekend, I started my first day of teaching on day 3 of my year in the Republic of Korea (ROK). My first lesson about anything Korean is that the management style leaves something to be desired. Not to knock my bosses or anything like that, but I spent more of my first day trying to figure out where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be there, and what the hell I was supposed to teach than anything else. To figure this all out, I had to consult about 30 different schedules. Most of my instruction came from the other English teachers, probably because they were thrown in the same boat when they arrived. Eventually, I got some directions from my bosses in varying degrees of broken English. After figuring out where and what to teach, there was that whole thing about knowing how to teach.

Before I delve into how teaching went, I’ll describe how my classes are laid out. I have two kindergarten classes that I teach for 80 minutes every day. I have an assortment of afternoon classes that are each 40 minutes long. One afternoon class is every day, and the rest are either on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or Tuesday and Thursday. My days start with kindergarten at 10 am and end at 6:50 pm on MWF and 5:20 pm on TTh. I have about on hour of breaks on MWF, and 2 hours of break on TTh. Needless to say, MWF suck royally while TTh are pretty chill. To be honest, after two weeks of this schedule, I kinda dig it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing lamer than having long as Mondays and Fridays, but keeps the day-to-day less tedious.

Now into the meat of the job, the teaching. The kindergarten classes are insane. The kids are amazing at English but full of energy. Congress should investigate children as an alternative to oil; just put those tiny meat bags of endless energy on some treadmills, and connect them to the grid. Students in my younger class are incredibly nice and I love working with them. They can get real antsy-pantsy about things like playing games and whose turn it is to pass out books. Otherwise they are responsive to learning English (and Power Rangers). My older class however, is full of little hell-spawn. They are great at English, can read, and can mostly write, but they are awful at listening, not screaming, not running around, not getting into arguments with each other, and can be just plain disrespectful. Some days are great, I think I’m making progress, and I feel like a champ. One day later, though, and I’ll be at my wit’s end. By the end of the year, I promise to make these kids not the worst.

Afternoon classes are exactly the opposite. These classes are taken by older kids, around 8 years and up. Some are insane with English and could survive in an American class, while others are working on single syllable words. Some kids are products of the kindergarten program while others must have just wandered in. These classes are much less dramatic than the morning classes, too less dramatic. They also coincide with the time of day I become sleepy, which means I need to add instant coffee to my water bottle on most days.

In most of the afternoon classes, I am able to joke with the kids, get them to respond, and everyone seems to enjoy our 40 minutes together. In on class, however, it is a struggle to get the kids to even look at me. The kids in this class are at the upper age limit of our students and have been at my school for several years. However, they are dead silent, even when poked, prodded, cajoled, or bribed. Partly this is because the material is way over their head. They can barely form sentences, but are supposed to learn 20 multiple syllable words 3 times per week. Also, I learned that they are at an age where, in Korea, it is considered embarrassing to not speak another language. I can definitely understand both these problems (being embarrassed has prevented the sober version of me from doing plenty of things) and I intend to alleviate these problems as best I can. I’ll deal with making them feel comfortable first; a good rapport can take the teacher student relationship a long way. Then, after I’ve settled into the school and have proven myself, I’ll work with the bosses to give them more appropriate course content. These kids will know and speak English before I’m done.

Here’s a picture of something to break up the monotony:

Side note: Coffee in Korea is worse than anti-freeze for your dog. All instant coffee has sugar and cream, and ground coffee is mostly the Folger’s Maxwell house stuff but about 4 times the price.  Apparently, small coffee shops roast their own shit, but I have yet to venture into one for my crack beans.

Back to school: So far, I’m loving this job. When I can connect with the kids, I feel great. Other days, I feel like I have no idea how I am a teacher. Truth be told, I have that feeling most days, just sometimes in a positive light, sometimes in a negative light. So far, I’ve been using my experience as a native English speaker, my time as a leader in marching band, and my boyhood charm to carry me through until I figure out an actual teaching style.

One of the challenges I’ve faced is making worthwhile enticements and punishments. I’m used to motivating college students and adults. My style needs to change to be effective for kids. I can reward my kids for doing well and chastise them for doing poorly, but I struggle to make kids comprehend the repercussions of their actions before it’s too late. For example, I will tell the kids that they will get gym time if they can behave for fifteen minutes. The first ten minutes are awesome. Then, they lose it, even if I remind them. I think the trick will be to find a simple and memorable system of rewards and punishments and stick with it.

Another problem I have is handling the skill gap between the kids. When I was in marching band, I constantly dealt with an ability gap in the playing and marching of different people. With 20-somethings, I can keep the superstars entertained while pushing the limits of what the laggers are capable of. Kids, however, cannot be pushed far past their comfort level and are too impatient to wait for slow pokes.  This can make something as simple as coloring turn into a huge ordeal. Worst case scenario, smart kids finish way ahead of schedule and either start to complain about being bored or run around screaming. At the same time, the goobers (that’s right, goobers) are either staring into space, clinging on to me in hopes I’ll just tell them the answers, or being distracted by the trouble-making brainoes.

I’ve come up with a couple of tactics to prevent this problem. First, I have adopted an “80% rule” (the actual percent may vary). I try to pace the class so that 10% of kids have been done for a while, 10% aren’t done, and the remaining 80% have just finished when I move on to a new topic (Actually, this could probably be more aptly described with a standard approximation of a normal curve and some standard deviations, but I won’t get into statistics tonight (aside from the title of this post)). This tactic sucks for the slow kids, but every kid that finishes is another distraction for them, so it’s better to wipe the slate clean. This brings me to my second tactic, breaking the day into chunks. If the segments of the lesson are smaller, the delta-t (time difference) between the kids on the extremes is smaller, so the fast kids don’t have as much time to get bored, and the slow kids don’t get too far behind. The problem is that the fast kids are usually smart, so they can predict what is coming next and just move on. Then, they finish with everything early and suck.

All in all, I feel like I’m getting more comfortable figuring out how to effectively teach kids. Motivating some of the afternoon kids will just take time to build a rapport. Breaking in the bucking broncos of the morning will take patience and a stiff upper lip, or TNT, or dirty deeds (I’m not really sure if any of those metaphors apply). I am getting better at predicting what will work and what won’t. I think I might actually understand something about teaching and dealing with kids by the time my year’s up.

Time for sleepsville. Until next time, when I will either discuss my first two weeks outside of work or simplistically compare Korea to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Peace.

[Edited for grammar and general poorness 8/19]


About foambrew

I'm a food science graduate from the University of Minnesota. I spend my time being in Seoul for a year, brewing beer, consuming food, biking, playing the tuba, and enjoying the Twins and Gophers. I can usually be found doing some combination or derivative of these things.
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