I’ve realised that so far I’ve mentioned very little about my school, the place of my employment and the system within which my professional life hangs by a thread.
Jijok Middle School is within five minutes walk of my house and is directly between Jijok and Noen subway stations. It is a school of 1,050 approx and my classes are directed at grades 1 and 3 respectively.
Its a newish school (built 10 years ago) and a school that feels like it has aspirations for it’s kids.
So, where do I fit in?
I’m an English conversation teacher, so I am there as an example of an uncluttered english accent (in my case, being from England, quite literally). Imagine my horror when on the first day I found my co-teacher for my 3rd grade class in the staff-room and tried to initiate conversation, to which she replied:
“I’m used to hearing American accents, I dont understand you.”
This was an example of spoken english, even amongst teachers of the language, being a source of embarrasment. I have since had some great laughs with the co-teacher in question and my accent is less of a problem for her provided I speak slowly, but she was bashful at first because I sound different and she didnt want to get her answer wrong in front of me.
The Guv’nor (who’s real name is Jong-won) thinks it is a bit unfair of the school to have no idea how to handle a native English speaker. The previous two teachers were both Korean-Americans and therefore could speak enough Korean to get by and, I suppose, not be too much of a visual distraction to the students.
Before it sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet, I’m not. I’m no oil-painting but I’m fair haired and blue-eyed, I’m also typically western in terms of having hair on my arms and enough on my chest to get second glances when I have my top button undone. These factors, combined with my almost total lack of any Korean (EPIK never said it was a job-requisite) had led to me feeling very alienated at first, especially when I felt all my team-teachers just werent that keen on me because I was different in looks and culture.
The students are different though, kids dont lie very convincingly when it comes to liking someone. If the kids think that you’re a tosser, they tend to behave in a way that lends itself to you feeling like one. I’ve had one or two problem kids but none that I’ve felt I cant handle, and here is the reason why….
No ego. That is an ideal way of looking at it, but what I mean is: dont try to feed your ego all the time and you will find that influencing people to work with you and not against you is a lot easier.
Example? My 3rd grade boys are wild. They arent bad though, they are just 13 years old oiks having the chance to have some time off. By being a hard-arse I just alienate them, by giving them sweets (something I refuse to do, its just not my thing) I make them Pavlovian and uninterested unless there’s reward involved.
So, what to do?
I think people, by and large, respond to respect. It is a totally two-way thing and if you want it, you have to give it. I give my students as much respect as I can, I dont humiliate them if they’re off the mark with their answers and I punish disruptive behaviour with a smile on my face. It works when you have enough guts to challenge some kid to show me and their peers that they’re good at english (and the ones who are disruptive are sometimes the more willing, if not able pupils.)
Kids need someone to positively reinforce the notion that they can do something. They’ve been told they’re no good by other authority figures in their lives, they can expect something different from me. Call me an idealist, but in every person there lies the ability to better themselves and sometimes what they need is a person who tells them that they can.
A kid came up to me with a note after class and tried to explain to me that he would not be here next week. I asked him why and he didnt answer, I asked him again and he told me:
“Auntie died, funeral is next week.”
After telling him that I would inform the head of department and that I was sure it was ok, I was pretty much on the verge of tears. He bowed, and then confidentially leaned in towards me and said:
“Mr, Riley, one more thing: your flies are undone.”
We both cracked up. I’m learning from these kids all the time.