18 September 2009

Teaching, Week 4... or the lack thereof (Year 3, Day 24)

For reference, here's my normal teaching schedule.
  • Monday: Low-level Adults Conversation
  • Tuesday: Intermediate Adults Free-Talking; Grade 1 (American system 10), Classes 1 and 2
  • Wednesday: Intermediate Adults U.S. History
  • Thursday: Grade 1 (10), Classes 1 and 2
In all 7 class hours. It's a pretty light schedule, and it's probably the lightest of all the teachers in my program. My friend has often quipped that my school is the program's retirement home, and there's justification for calling it that. As if it weren't light enough, my students are advanced, so agonizing over restricting my vocabulary and grammar patterns, talking like a robot, clarifying every minute detail over and over aren't really issues for me. I have been blessed.

Besides having a fantastic schedule and comprehending students, as an additional bonus, every so often I get a sort of unofficial vacation from teaching, a week or so of class-less bliss. (That's class-less, not classless. I've never been short on class.) This week was one such week.

Don't get me wrong, school is still in session here, but testing and preparing for the new group of students has decimated my class load. Specifically, this week we had Grade 2 and 3 (11 and 12) mid-term examinations and all grades had to take the national university entrance mock examination on Thursday.

On Monday, my Adult Conversation class was canceled apparently. No one showed up at any rate, and I realized that with mid-terms both students and faculty take the afternoons "off". The scare quotes are there because the students study for the next day's subjects and the faculty grade the tests so they can get them back to the students IMMEDIATELY. (The faculty do this for every test at this school, and I admire their dedication. Student scores are usually posted by the end of the period following the previous exam.)

On Tuesday, all of my classes being in the morning, I taught all three of my classes for that day. Grade 1 (10) read through personal ads and played match maker, a lesson I borrowed from Laura K., one of our better educated teachers in the program.

On Wednesday, two of the three teachers that usually participate in the U.S. History topic course had to go on a recruitment trip, so we decided to cancel that course as well.

Thursday was the national mock examination, so no classes then.

And Friday, my only responsibility is to sit at my desk for a bit.

Let me be clear. It's not like these mini-vacations allow me to get out of town. I have responsibilities here still (Korean classes, faculty meetings, etc.). So, what do I do with my free-time then? I write, and I read. Preparing for grad school is no small task.

These schedule interruptions are troublesome, especially when one is trying to develop lessons that build on each other. A few weeks ago, I did a lesson series on environmentalism that incorporated practicing open forum debate and discussion skills. Although it is fairly typical for teachers in our programs to teach single lesson topics, after teaching for two years I prefer these lesson series because it allows the students to acquire and practice new vocabulary instead of just retaining it for the one lesson.

This is difficult to accomplish with interruptions, however, because students will often forget what they've acquired with too much time in between lessons and because, as is the case with testing periods, students have trouble concentrating on their English when they're worried about the math exam they have to take tomorrow. To combat this and to help the students relax a bit, my co-teacher and I have adopted a policy of playing games during the lessons before major exam periods like mid-terms and finals, and I am careful not to schedule major projects so that they are due immediately before examinations.

Next week, for instance, I really only have Tuesday for a constructive English conversation lesson. The week after is mid-term examinations for Grade 1 (10), so Thursday will be a game day. After those Thursday lessons, I won't have class with my students again for another 11 days.

Of course, one might ask, why not just make them study in your classes? You are a teacher after all, and your responsibility is to the kids and their learning. Kids may not like broccoli, but parents make them eat it anyway because it's good for them to grow up healthy. Students may not like learning certain subjects, but we make them do it anyway because it's good for them to have a well-rounded elementary and secondary education.

I appreciate the sage-advice, oh, rhetorical device, but the reality of the situation here is, while I feel my classes are important and helpful for these students, I also realize just how supplementary they are.

Native teachers who first come to Korea often come with the misconception that they will be like their teachers in their home country. They will have control over their classrooms and curricula. They will stretch and enhance their students minds. They will improve their quality of life.

When I first came here, I was loathe to give up any of my classes for the sake of examinations. I decried the system. It was unjust to subject students to the kinds of torture studying for the national examination system entails. It was unhealthy for the students, and it was a poor measurement of aptitude besides. I fought for every class and bargained with teachers to make up classes I would miss because I knew that my class was making a difference in these students' lives and was helping them to see the world in new and better ways!

And while I truly believe that we do make a significant impact on these students, I came to realize that in the Korean education system, for better or for worse, we and our conversation classes are the sideshow. The main event is the examination. For most students, this means acquiring facility with English reading and listening, no more, no less. For most of my students, this means getting a good score on TEPS, largely a vocabulary knowledge examination, so that they can put that on their early admittance applications for top technical universities.

My point is, after a couple of years here, I've realized that we need to strike a balance. Yes, we should teach. Yes, we should educate. Yes, we should do all of these things with intention and diligence to present the best possible window into English speaking culture and to get our students actually communicating in our language rather than just comprehending it.

On the other hand, speaking English like a pro and knowing what Americans do on Thanksgiving Day isn't going to help my kids get into college. I have come to realize that I need to be humble, to step aside and let the students prepare and study and pass their examinations.

And these few hours, these few moments I am given to interact and explore with my students--these are all the more precious for it.

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