Wednesday, March 13, 2013

First Week At School

Monday: I stayed up late perfecting my introductory lesson plan. I wasn't sure when I'd be teaching and wanted to get my bearings so I left early, getting to school about half an hour before the staff meeting.

Of course, the door to the "English Lab" was locked. Yep - that's what our office is called. Like we're scientists or something. Or maybe it's a reference to whatever has been growing in the dustbin next to my chair since the start of vacation. Apparently some students are going to come clean in here but right now they're just moving furniture and books.

Our school has a lot of different departments rather than one main staff room, so I went to one that I think is the main one and hovered around uncertainly. The look of terror when I walked in - I could hear them all thinking, "Please don't make me speak English!"

We deskwarmed for the whole day. All that frantic preparation in case I was teaching the first day was wasted, so I spent most of the day figuring out how to change my browser and Office languages from 한글 to English. Because I have no idea what 'Insert custom animation' is in hangul. It was challenging, and I contemplated the pros and cons of spending the day making a cheat sheet for hangul to English commands (Pros - it would take all day and I had time to kill, Cons - Eish. What a mission!). My office was quite nice - it was a room specially for guest English teachers and temporary ones. And the other ladies in the office are lovely, and very helpful when it comes to finding out about last minute schedule changes, of which there were many.

Something that did spice up the day was the opening ceremony or assembly. Now, I went to a very strict, very formal (and pretentious) boarding school. We clapped like ladies and whispered commentary under our breath behind folded lace fans. All right, maybe not the last bit. But we never, ever speak over the principal or wander around in the middle of the ceremony.

In Korea, or at least, at my school, things were less comparable to the Queen's garden party than they were to a nuthouse. I’d never seen so many kids in one place at the same time – there were about 1500 of them, and that’s only half the school. It was my first sighting of them, other than the hoodlums I’d spotted sitting on the roof of a car when I visited the school the previous Friday. The kids were standing in rough lines, but these lines got progressively squigglier. The teachers were milling around, high-fiving and joking with the students. And the headmaster just kept talking over them, into the microphone. Some girls were doing each others’ hair (and I learned some Korean hair-dressing secrets just by watching them).  I had no idea what anyone was saying, so I stood near my co-teacher, thinking she’d translate if there was anything important (she didn’t). Then, all of a sudden, I was being shoved into a line of wide-eyed and well-dressed new teachers and sent up on stage to be introduced and to bow to the school. Basically, the school wanted to show off the new foreigner to all the new first graders’ parents, who were sitting miles away, snacking on kimbap and watching TV on their phones.

An hour or so of computer-fiddling later, my co-Foreigner took me to lunch at the cafeteria (another madhouse). All the students eat in this one little cafeteria at the same time, over the space of an hour. The lucky ones get there first. The rest stand in line (girls and boys segregated, of course). It feels like I’m teaching at two single sex schools that share a building. Very strange. The teachers eat with the kids, but we have our own line so we get to jump ahead. We also get slightly better food than they do. The food generally looks like this:

(From eat yourlunchee, as I haven’t got the nerve to photograph school food yet).

The food on the first day was supposed to be dokpokki (best described as rice gnocchi arrabiata with fish cakes) but apparently the students aren’t huge fans of spicy food so this was just sludge with chewy bits in it. My heart sank. Gone are my dreams of delicious food for free (well, deducted from my salary but it’s not cash out of my pocket so I’m happy).

It was a long day but I made it through. The next day, however, I was immediately yanked to teach a class, first thing, with no prior warning. So having done all that preparation paid off after all. Since then I’ve taught about four or five classes a day. And boy is that exhausting. Still, at least I only have to plan 2 lessons per week, so that’s a plus. I’ve already planned for the next 3 weeks for the 3rd graders. The first graders’ work is more of a challenge as it’s 3 times as dull, and I have to spice it up.

My lessons have been going all right, but I’ve had a lot of constructive advice from my co-teachers so it is constantly getting better. My biggest challenge is simplifying the lessons for the lower levels without dumbing them down. Another problem is that I forget my flash drive at home almost daily, so when I *do* remember to bring it, that thing is going to live here. I took it home optimistically thinking I could fix up a really awful lesson, and I have forgotten it every day since then, as I keep running late and rushing off.

This post is getting long, so maybe I should throw in some subheadings.

Making friends with staff members
In Korea it’s very important to show that you consider yourself to be part of the team and are willing to work on the relationships with your co-teachers in order to make that relationship stronger. So, standing with them at assembly, and eating with them at lunch – these are highly recommended, and they’ve been doing wonders for my experiences here at the school. At my second lunch, I sat with the Geography teacher, who is also new to the school. He has a very pretty wife and an adorable baby boy, and we chatted in adequate English and terrible Korean about travel and blogging. That afternoon he sent me the link to his blog. I was a bit nervous about reading it, as I can’t read Korean, but it’s mostly photography from what I can tell.

The maths teacher also kept popping into our office, as she only teaches the first and last lessons of the day and so she was bored and lonely, so she came to hang out on our couches. She’s not very confident with her English but we got on like a house on  fire and she’s looking into finding out where I can have free Korean classes, as I’ve heard rumours of one at one of the universities. She invited me to dinner tonight, so that will be fun, and we’re considering having some sort of weekly language exchange dinner.

Getting to know the neighbourhood
As I had spent the first weekend here lying in bed, coughing up a lung, I met up with a friend and we walked along the river. Well, we tried to meet up. For future reference, when you tell someone to meet you at a bridge, you need to be specific about whether you’re meeting on the bridge or under it.

Especially when you’re meeting at this bridge. 

We walked for hours, all the way to Costco along the river. Walking along the river is becoming one of my favourite things to do. Especially since I have a secret hope that one day I’ll spot an otter there. 

Since then I’ve managed to find my way downtown (a 35 minute walk) and back again, and I’ve been steadily adding markers to my GPS’s map, whenever I find a good restaurant or a particularly popular hang-out spot. I’m also getting more and more confident at finding my way around without it. One thing I haven’t quite gotten used to is the way that my students bow to me if they see me in the street, or how very young children gasp and say, “Oh! Waygook saram imnida!” when they see me. “waygook” is apparently a little derogatory but the polite “imnida” makes it adorable. Yesterday on my walk home, a child leapt out of a door and shouted hello at me.

Language Barriers
On my third day at school, my co-teacher rushed in and gestured frantically at the timetable. She asked me why I hadn’t taught a particular lesson the day before. I told her I had taught it. Apparently I went to the wrong classroom. It turns out the numbers that I had thought were home room numbers were in fact the name of the class that uses that home room, but the kids move around and combine classes for English as they are streamed according to their level. So I asked my co-teacher how I was supposed to know which class to go to, and she said, “It’s written right there on the timetable. See? Here.”

Scribbled in rushed and hard to read handwriting were the words , , , and . Typed out all neatly like that, they look different. Scribbled in handwriting, I had thought they all just mean ‘Room’. Those are the names of the teachers with whom I would be teaching those lessons. But how was I supposed to know where to go? Ah. This is Korea. So I explained to the co-teacher that I still don’t know people’s names yet or where to go for the lessons, and now she’s made me a spectacular timetable with rooms, teacher and which level the students are, very clearly written. I heart my co-teacher.

However, my co-teacher is very busy, so when I found that I had 4 periods plus lunch with nothing but deskwarming I decided to take the opportunity to open a bank account, but she was teaching so I was on my own. I walked to the nearest branch of KEB (recommended for foreigners especially if you want to send money home) and tried to open an account.

After a lot of calls to customer service, who translated between me and the clerk, I was told that I couldn’t open an account without two forms of ID as well as my ARC certificate. I’d only brought my passport. Not to be beaten, I took a taxi home to pick up my ID. Only, I didn’t know my address, so I tried to get dropped off at the huge church near my apartment. The taxi driver spoke no English so I drew a crucifix and said the name of my neighbourhood.

He drove about 10m, stopped in front of a church and pointed. The church had the name of what I thought was my neighbourhood. So… Ouch.

Good thing I’ve figured out my way around! I directed him with handwaving and we ended up at the right church, which was only one syllable different (unfortunately it was the syllable that means East or West). I picked up my Saffer ID, wrote down the hangul address for the bank (I learn from my mistakes) and got another cab. Except Koreans don’t really use addresses except for post, so the taxi driver had no idea what I was talking about. So again, with some miming and drawing,  I got us to the right spot. And now I have a bank account. However, I can’t get money til I go back to the bank and give them a phone number to attach to my account. I can’t get a phone until I have money. Catch-22. So I’m going to use the school’s phone number temporarily, if and when I ever make it back to the bank. I might just wait until my ARC arrives and then I’ll sort it all out at once. Once you have an ARC, you’re a real person.

An alien. But a real one.

It’s been a crazy week but I’m getting the hang of things. Slowly but surely. 

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