Monthly Archives: September 2008

All that glimmers

It’s Friday, and I just got paid (two days ago), which officially makes me a millionaire. Absolutely no joke, I’ve never seen that many digits on a bank statement — granted it’s in Korean won, which unfortunately seems to be the only thing falling faster than the American dollar. This would’ve been sweet if I had any U.S. cash left to exchange, but now I’m looking to send money home to cover some bills.

I still have some money at home that I can use for the time being until the won decides to sort itself out. Other than that, things are good. Like I said, it’s Friday, and I’m staring out the window at sunny skies after watching three episodes of Entourage while anticipating the weekend. It’s so much nicer to be working in a place with windows. Even on the gloomiest of days, it’s nice to be able to see something other than colorless walls. I’ve been meaning to take a picture of the view, while not too bad isn’t definitely postcard material.

Regarding classes, I can feel the teachers loosening the reins a little bit. The co-teachers are asking more for my input about the lesson plans instead of pointing at different sections of the book to present. It’s nice that in two weeks, they’ve started to trust me a little more. I’m definitely no teaching expert, but I know teaching straight from the book doesn’t help these kids think in English, which is the goal if we want them to speak it.

Those worries are for another day. Now it’s Friday afternoon, and almost time to leave for the weekend. I’m probably checking out a rock climbing gym tonight then having a night on the town. The good times in Seoul continue.

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Teaching troubles

I’m in my third week of teaching now, and it has been every bit of an adventure as I had imagined it. The kids are doing the things kids do (especially the swooning fifth-grade girls), but they’re nowhere near unmanageable. All in all, it’s still, not unexpectedly, a learning experience.

The biggest challenge in this job is the fact that I’m co-teaching. The rapport between each of my three co-teachers and me still isn’t quite there. We’ll accidentally cut each other off thinking it’s time to transition, and other times, we won’t even have a transition. This lack of chemistry affects how I present my part of class, and I’m sure the Korean co-teachers are adjusting, too.

The hardest part of finding this balance is the lack of hierarchy. I’m obviously the better English speaker, but they’re the more experienced teachers. These kids have been with these teachers since March (because their school year starts in the spring), and I’m still a fresh face to them. Because of my lack of authority and experience, it’s hard to tell co-teachers certain things (i.e. the curriculum) don’t really work. Sometimes I get bored teaching in my own classes because we work from the CD so much, but I’m not confident in my own alternatives — if I have any.

With each week, though, I hope to be able to invoke more activities (especially with my fifth-grade class where I hold the reins) separate from the curriculum and turn it into a more conversation-centered class. Singing “I like apples” over and over can only go so far.

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It’s not what you know but who you know

After arriving in Korea with an E-2 visa (one designated specially for English teachers), it’s necessary to get an Alien Registration Card (ARC). The ARC is more or less my ID as a temporary resident in Korea and is necessary for things such as opening a bank account (which I actually did without an ARC thanks to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education‘s sponsoring us at orientation) and acquiring a cell phone (which I actually did without an ARC thanks to the shadiness of Itaewon).

The process is somewhat tedious, but I finally got my ARC this week with the help of my Korean co-teachers. Here are the steps to apply for a Korean alien registration card:

  1. Get two passport-sized photos of yourself.
  2. Get a medical check at one of the public hospitals in Seoul. You’ll need one of your photos for this.
  3. Pick up medical check a few days later.
  4. Make an appointment at the Seoul Immigration Office or show up and wait forever (I’ve heard up to two hours) in line.
  5. Show up and turn in your ARC application with 10,000 KRW, your medical check, and your passport.
  6. Wait 1-2 weeks for your ARC.

Or you could have a co-teacher who knows someone who works in immigration in Incheon who makes a phone call to someone who works in immigration in Seoul and can shorten the whole process at the Seoul Immigration Office to a painless 20-minute wait and have you walk out the same day with your ARC in hand.

I went with the latter of the choices. It was fantastic. Also, in other fantastic news, I learned my school doesn’t require me to be at school during winter break when I’m not teaching the winter camp. The holidays lasts from December 24 to February 2 and then from February 14 to March 2. After taking out two weeks for the camp, I have about three weeks in January and two weeks in February to do whatever the hell I want — and still get paid for it.

I’m thinking a three-week backpacking excursion through southeast Asia in January and maybe a jaunt through the States in February, but as we all know, that could very suddenly change. Stay tuned.

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Who is she? Who is he?

My elementary school. Its only four years old.

My elementary school. It's only four years old.

I just finished the first day of my second week of teaching (yes, on a Wednesday thanks to Chusok ), so that means there was a first week of teaching that happened, well, last week. Convoluted syntax aside, it was definitely an eventful week — especially since I have 23 different classes a week. Twenty-three classes each with roughly 30 students — most of whom have only Korean names — means that I will never know their names. It’s kind of sad really.

I have five third-grade classes, six fourth-grade classes, five fifth grade classes and six sixth grade classes. While it sounds like a handful (and in some aspects it is), I only have to make one lesson plan for each grade per week, and on three of the five days of the week, I have three hours after classes to lesson plan. It’s not easy being me, though.

I’m kind of a rock star around this place. The first day I was here, the principal introduced me over the announcements — the same announcements they do on closed-circuit television. From what I’ve heard this is a very common occurrence, and that means all the kids know who I am before I’ve ever met them. They’re always excited to see the new teacher to whom they can say “Hello!” and practice their English. Well, most of them do. The girls often just say “Hi!” and giggle incessantly.

The first set of third- and fourth-grade classes went pretty smoothly. Those classes are really easy because the students don’t understand most of what I’m saying (think back to your first couple of years of foreign language class), so the Korean co-teacher directs most of the class and works mostly from the book and accompanying CD, which results in annoying songs being stuck in my head. Then Wednesday arrived along with my first fifth-grade class. My fifth-grade co-teacher and I don’t share an office, so we didn’t quite plan a lesson before the class started. I figured she would ease me into it with the CD and book like the other teachers.

After I finished my Powerpoint presentation about myself, I looked at her…only to see her looking back at me. Fuck. After an awkward second, she finally whispered to me that she was expecting me to lead the class and she would translate instructions or ideas the students didn’t understand. I had to improvise the activities for the rest of class. It’s not something I would recommend to any teacher, but I was much better with the rest of my classes since I already knew what to do from the first class.

Sixth graders, however, are the bane of my existence. The Korean school year starts in the spring and ends in the winter, so this is their last semester of elementary school. They simply no longer care. They’re loud, obnoxious, and don’t like English. It’s frustrating.

Some of the other teachers and me on a beach on the west coast of Seoul.

Some of the other teachers and me on a beach on the west coast of Seoul.

The entire staff, not just my co-teachers, have made the transition rather easy. On Tuesday, I went with them on an annual staff outing to a grape farm then to a beach 1.5 to two hours west of Seoul. We all had a good time, and all the teachers who spoke any English were very welcoming. The ride home included the treat of noraebang (don’t say “karaoke” because it’s Japanese, and Koreans hate the Japanese) by my, um, rather inebriated principals and co-workers. I might or might not have sung Britney Spears’ “Toxic” on the bus, and I’ll leave it at that.

All in all, the school has been great, and I’m sure it’ll get better once I get into my after-school classes, which are smaller and have students who are smarter and a little more eager to learn. Goodness knows that I’ll be learning just as much right along with them.

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Back from the dead

Ok, so I landed in Korea and went MIA for 3+ weeks. I spent the first two weeks here doing very little, but that doesn’t mean it was uneventful. I arrived one week before my orientation for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education was supposed to start to get adjusted physically, financially and mentally. The first few jet-lagged nights weren’t as bad as they could’ve been thanks to my prolific sleeping abilities.

As the girlfriend worked during the day, I was left to my own machinations. My days usually consisted of taking the subway to various parts of Seoul and simply walking around the neighborhoods and/or watching “Scrubs.”

In Gangnam

In Gangnam, more or less the financial district of Seoul

In the Namsangol Hanbok Village

In the Namsangol Hanbok Village

Walking around town alone soon became monotonous and turned into more hours of “Scrubs.” I watched four and a half seasons in less than two weeks — alone in a studio apartment with a dog. It was pretty gross. The second week of visual gluttony resulted from fabulous Korean foresight and efficiency: I received an e-mail the Sunday before my orienation that said I had been moved into the second orientation one week later.

At least that meant I could get settled into my apartment sooner instead of staying crammed into a studio with two people and a dog. I drag one of my 50-pound bags across town to the meeting point only to have this conversation after the obligatory greetings:

Korean co-teacher: That’s a really big bag.
Me: Yeah, I know. We can just drop it off at my apartment.
Korean co-teacher: Where’s your apartment?

It’s rather disconcerting to find out the person who is supposed to take me to my apartment doesn’t know where it is. Apparently they confused “I’m already in Seoul but staying with my girlfriend for the time being, but I still need an apartment” with “I’ve found myself a place to live, so don’t find me an apartment.” Luckily, though, another native-speaking English teacher (henceforth known as an NSET) at the girlfriend’s school is leaving her two-bedroom apartment in Itaewon, which is more or less the shady expat neighborhood. The area isn’t ideal, but it’s hard to turn down a two-bedroom apartment compared to a cramped studio.

Orientation, though, couldn’t arrive soon enough — and it was (for the most part) fantastic when it finally did. That was when the reality of traveling finally set in. The orientation, set about 1.5 hours outside Seoul, comprised about 200 NSETs from all over the world, including the U.S., Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Teacher camp, as the girlfriend called it, meant being confined with these people for six days with no escape. As a result, the best thing we had — as cheesy as it sounds — was each other. As important as the workshops were, the most significant result of the orientation was that all the NSETs, most of whom came alone to this unfamiliar country, could build a network.

The moment I realized we were all in this together occurred (rather appropriately?) while I was illicitly drinking off-campus (shhh!) with a handful of Irish and English NSETs. Despite the various accents, we all spoke, literally and figuratively, the same language. We had all traveled halfway around the world to be most likely the only fluent English speaker in our school, but now we were no longer alone. Nobody was “the Canadian” or “the Irish guy” here; we were all English teachers.

Now the fun really begins, and I promise to tell you about it more often. I’m finally here. Let’s go.

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