My wife and I are celebrating something very special this month. April 23 is the five year anniversary of when we first started teaching in South Korea! We haven’t worked here the whole time, but we’ve put in enough months over those years to be substantial. At our current job we just passed the 8 month mark, so we’re 2/3 done. So I thought it might be fun to do a profile of a day in my life as a teacher at an English Village.
If you’re not familiar with the English Village system, it is quite different than most of the other teaching jobs in Korea. We live on a campus where schools bring their whole student body to spend anywhere from two to ten days at an “English camp.” During this time the students sleep in dormitories, eat their meals in the cafeteria, spend their money at the on-campus 7-11 and participate in classes and activities from 9am until 8:30pm. We currently have about 18 full-time teachers, half Korean and half foreigners from native English-speaking countries. Most teachers work the day shift from 9-5:15. A few work the evening shift from 1:30-8:30.
We’ve been pretty lucky in getting to be on night shift for most of our time. The alarm wakes us up at 10am. We wake up slowly, the way waking up was intended to be. Half an hour later one of us gets up enough initiative (or needs the bathroom bad enough) to leave the bed and stumble to the coffee pot to start a brew. We spend the morning on the Internet or catching up on some shows. Then at one o’clock I head out to the cafeteria for an MSG- and sugar-doused lunch of fried, bleached white flour food products, white rice, spicy soup and kimchi (a spicy fermented cabbage dish). I try to salvage as many vegetables and fruit as possible, picking around the rest of it for stray bits of meat. After 5 years I no longer question why the fruit salad includes tomatoes and is covered in mayonnaise, or why rice cakes in red sauce (ddok-boki) constitute a main dish that should be eaten along with a heaping pile of white rice.
At 1:20 I head down to the auditorium where anywhere between 60 to 500 students are waiting to be escorted to their afternoon classes. The good kids sit at the front of their team lines, call out my name as I pass by and wave. The bad kids are (hopefully) sitting at the back of the line playing some kind of hand game where the penalty for losing is a swift, hard smack across the knuckles. Or if they’re not being closely monitored they’re running around in the back, trying to tackle or drop kick anyone who comes within five meters of them. A voice booms from the speakers “Anja! Anja!” which means “sit down!” and the kids quickly obey for about 30 seconds. Our head teacher Robbie grabs the microphone, makes announcements for the day, and then says “Teachers! Team rows, team rows.” I amble over to the team which has my first class of the day, hoping that I’ll be dismissed last. If you’re dismissed first you often find yourself in the classroom with 15 expectant kids eight minutes before the bell rings, so you have to fill up more time. Robbie says my team number and tells them to “Follow your teacher.” I head up the steps with my little ducklings in line behind me.
Our campus has three buildings where we teach any of 40 different situation classes we all have down pat. Here are some examples of classes we teach: chess, telephone, grocery, hair salon, economy, transportation, police station, restaurant, airplane, bank, post office, darts, comic strips, pop song, science, library, fire station, music, dance, golf, ultimate frisbee. These are all classes where one teacher has one individual team in the classroom. We also have group activities with multiple teachers and multiple teams, like: dominoes, scrabble, dodgeball, jungle survival (quiz game), pop culture quiz. At nighttime the students have a 90 minute group activity. Usually two teachers are in charge of 5 to 9 teams. The students either have Fashion Show (making clothes designs out of newspaper and having their models walk a runway), One Last Winner (a team quiz game), Creative Origami (making a team poster from little colored papers), Human Letters (using their bodies to spell words), or Tug-of-War.
Once I’ve gotten all the kids in and have settled them in their chairs I introduce myself. That always gets laughs because when I say “Ryan” their ears hear “lion.” So my kids are always making jokes about me, and I reciprocate by telling them that if they are good students I won’t eat them! Then I take attendance, trying to get them laughing by making fun of their names. They all pick or are given English names when they come to our campus, so when I see someone’s name is Michael I call out “Michael Jackson.” Any Hannahs become “Hannah Banana.” All Harrys become “Harry Potter.”
Next I remind the kids of the classroom rules at our school. They help me list them: 1) No speaking Korean; 2) No fighting; 3) No running or shouting; 4) No eating or drinking in the classroom; 5) Listen to the teacher. Without fail, the first rule is broken by at least three children by the time we’ve reached rule #5. Rules one, two, three and five will get a serious workout for the remainder of the 45 minute class. Besides these five classroom rules, we also have three more campus rules, the funniest (and in my opinion best) being rule #6: Take a shower every day.
We move on to the first part of the class: vocabulary. There are 10 to 15 flash cards the students need to memorize with words and pictures they might need to use in the lesson. In airplane class I say “flight attendant” and they repeat “ply attenda.” I write some kids names on the board to let them know they are speaking too much Korean. Then we get into the lesson, which can involve making two kids read a dialogue about some life situation, or learning the proper way to use some sporting equipment, or playing some game tailored toward using the classroom content. Thirty minutes later, after breaking up a verbal fight or two, I tell them to clean up the classroom and line up for stamps.
They all carry “passports” which have pages where we stamp the classes they’ve taken. They can also get three “excellent stamps” if they keep all the rules and participate, two stamps if they did the bare minimum, one stamp if they were a little naughty, zero stamps if they were very naughty, or minus one stamp (I cross a previous one out) if they were fighting or swearing. Sometimes I give out a bonus stamp if a student was particularly a cut above. It never ceases to amaze me how the children who ignore me the whole class and speak Korean constantly hand me their passport and whine “Bonus, teacher. Bonus!!!” While the stamp process is happening I’m constantly yelling across the way for the kids to stay inside the classroom until we’ve all finished. If the team was overall good, I give them a team stamp. At the end of camp, the student from each team with the most excellent stamps wins a fabulous prize: a certificate with their name printed on it. Woohoo. However, the team with the most team stamps wins some kind of snack for each student.
We line up at the door and wait for the passing time bell to ring. “Teacher go! Teacher go!” They scowl as I show them the time on my phone and tell them “We still have one minute left. We can’t leave until the bell rings.” I lead them out of the class and on to their next class. They’ll wait outside that classroom, or run around the halls screaming and writing graffiti over the walls, or get into fights for the next 15 minutes until the next class begins. It will never dawn on them to use the bathroom or drink some water until they sit down in their next class.
I lead my last afternoon class to the cafeteria and make sure they are in line. I eat and then have about an hour to burn at my apartment, just a one minute walk away. Then I make my way down to the nighttime activity. Some nights I’m on the microphone trying to control upwards of 120 students. Other nights I’m a backup so I just assist the main teacher. Most nights are more relaxed in that we get more time to talk one-on-one with the students. But because there are so many bodies in a small space we also usually spend a significant amount of time trying to quiet the students so they will listen to and understand the basic instructions. I finish up by saying good night and handing the microphone over to one of the Korean camp counselors, who will lead the kids back to their dorms and sleep in the dormitory that night.
I get home and am into my “fat pants” (pajamas) in under 20 seconds. I hit the electric kettle’s button and wait for the water to boil. Peppermint tea, rooibos or masala? Hmmm. Choices, choices. As Jessie ventures off to her yoga class, I sit down to participate in one of my newest hobbies: taking online coding classes, working on my business website (hopefully it’ll be up later this year), watching The Universe episodes, or writing another blog post. Once Jessie gets home we do something together until we get tired and drag ourselves to bed.
So there you have it, a normal day in my life……but only for the next four months! Then we’re outta here and on to warmer places!