Saturday, March 2, 2013

How my co-teacher went from being a co-worker to being family in less than 48 hours

So, my first encounters with my co-teacher were a bit terrifying, as we struggled with understanding each other's accents, cultures and the nervousness of putting my life (and her students) in the hands of a stranger. I didn't know much about her, other than that she has a young daughter, but what I did know made me understanding of the load she's bearing and how much I add to it.

Not only is she my handler, which means she drives me around, stands in queues with me, discusses things with bureaucrats in Korean, does all my paperwork, listens to my complaints, and is responsible for my well-being, but she also has to do all those things for the other Native English Teacher at my school. Add in the planning, admin, and marking that comes with teaching 3000 students. Throw in the administrative work she's expected to do, as Koreans take the 'Civil Servant' aspect of being a government employee very seriously. And the four hours of translating work she does as a favor for a foreigner who attends her church, every night, so that he can understand the sermon. And caring for her parents. And being the single mother of a very gifted, and very sweet little girl. The number of things she has to deal with, or is responsible for, is absolutely staggering. So that's why I am glad that I am independent enough to be able to do a lot of things without needing my hand held.

I find a lot of Native English Teachers (NETs) complain that their co-teacher is absent, forgetful, or unreliable. But a lot of the time these NETs seem to think that they are their co-teacher's sole responsibility. And that's not really fair, is it? They forget that these amazing people are human beings with their own commitments, and often, as in my case, they were forced to do this job despite their already-full workload. Of course, in conservative Daegu, the hierarchy is everything, so if the principal or administrator says jump, you fetch your trampoline and start hopping, while juggling rabid monkeys.


Anyway, at first my relationship with my co-teacher seemed a bit hesitant. We were being very polite and friendly, and neither of us wanted to accidentally offend the other. She was also very busy, so at first I was left on my own a lot - and this was most difficult when I had to try to find a doctor, on a public holiday, in a city I'd only just arrived in. I was feeling pretty low, and scared, and was wondering if I'd really made the right choice in coming here. It was starting to feel a lot harder than I thought it would be.

Then, yesterday, when she came to drop off some things I'd forgotten in her car, she invited me to dinner at her house. Bringing someone into your home is a pretty big deal in Korea, and to even be invited made me feel incredibly flattered, so of course I agreed immediately, and enthusiastically. The prospect of having company and food without having to wander around, lost in the cold, also helped to convince me. So off to dinner we went. It was nothing fancy, and her house was in a general state of lived-in comfort, rather than like the 'show homes' you might see on K-dramas. I have a few friends with small children, so I understand the scattered comforts of children's toys, clothing and books. This house was full of books, in both English and Korean! I immediately felt at home. She left me to watch K-pop on TV with her daughter while she went out to quickly buy some food for dinner. That immediate sense of trust was incredible, and her daughter seemed to feel very comfortable with me as we commented on Shinee's hair, or SNSD's dance moves. She prefers the girl groups to the boys.

My co-teacher returned with food, and I helped her to make a salad while she cooked some marinated beef (불고기). Her daughter insisted on kimchi (hooray!), and we had some healthy brown rice. We sat at a low table, on the floor, and snacked on some oranges as well. My co-teacher is very big on using food to cure ailments, so she insisted I eat at least two oranges, and a lot of meat. After dinner we had some tea, and talked late into the night about teaching methodologies, South African and Korean culture, South African history, and other such deep topics. She also opened up to me about more personal things, showing me her vulnerable and sensitive side, and showing me how strong she is to have gone through some really hard times.


It got so late that she suggested I sleep over. ANOTHER big deal. She said she wouldn't normally suggest it to foreigners, as we're so individualistic and like our privacy. She mentioned a Canadian NET from long ago who had refused to go on a school field trip because she didn't want to share a room with a Korean teacher. She felt comfortable asking me because I'd been so open from the start. Her daughter and I read a story together, alternating who read the English and Korean parts, and her English is definitely much better than my Korean. I borrowed her largest PJs and a new toothbrush, and slept in her daughter's room, on a traditional yo, or sleeping mat. It reminded me a little of sleeping on the floor in my parents' room in summer, when I was a kid, as that was the coolest place in the house when it got too hot to bear it. Here, on the other hand, Koreans sleep on a yo on the the floor so they can use the ondol (underfloor heating) to keep warm. It was toasty warm, comfy, and I had a huge fluffy duvet to snuggle into. Another bucket list item ticked, without even trying.

This morning, she asked me if I wanted toast for breakfast. Foreigners usually have bread in the morning, right? Well, bread gives me pretty bad indigestion, so I went for the Korean option. We had soy bean paste soup with tofu, left-over bulgogi from last night, kimchi, seasoned tofu, and rice, followed by some strong and delicious Dutch coffee and a Korean snack that is basically a healthier version of Rice Krispy Treats.

from AliensDayOut
We talked over the textbook for the grade we'll be teaching together, and came up with ideas of how to divide the work and make things more engaging for the students. Usually NETs cover the speaking and listening, and the Korean teachers cover writing and and reading, but she wants to try to see if I can help out with the writing, and combining writing with speaking. We also thought about using real pictures of ourselves and our students for dialogues, stories and speaking activities, which could be fun. I'd quite like to get together with some of the other local NETs and make videos and 'photo stories' (like comic strips) that we can share, particularly if we're using the same textbooks. We also spoke about after-school programs, and the difficulties they've had with NETs in the past.

We spoke so easily, and freely, and with such shared ideas of compassion and a passion for teaching and learning, that it seems like we'll work really well together. She made me feel so welcome in her home, and her family. I feel like I've been accepted into her family, and that is the biggest honor of all. It just took one night. Her daughter invited me to come to church with them tomorrow, and even though I'm not religious, I was flattered to be invited and I'm curious to see how Korean church services are different to the ones back home. It's also an opportunity to meet some more people and expand my network a bit, so I said yes.

1 comment:

  1. So glad to hear that you are getting on with your co-teacher so well, because that is going to be one relationship that you are going to treasure over the year!!