Saturday, 17 March 2012

Emma's First Week

Despite having completed a Graduate Certificate in TESOL at university just two summers ago, I was completely unprepared for my first week as an English teacher. On the morning of Monday the 5th a colleague picked me up from our apartment block and brought me to the city school where I am responsible for 16 different classes, Monday through Thursday. Other than the name of the establishment and the fact that I would be teaching middle school students, I had been given absolutely no information. That first morning I was introduced to the principal and vice-principal and shown my desk, which is in the middle of one of two staff rooms. It is a nice desk with a phone, a computer connected to the Internet, and my own set of drawers. The best feature of my desk however is its location, or more specifically who I sit next to. Every EPIK teacher is supposed to be assigned an official co-teacher, somebody who not only takes classes with them but also helps them with out-of-school necessities such as organising bank accounts, phone plans, accommodation, and other things of this nature. Our first few days here were rough for me because the woman assigned as my co-teacher moved out of town before term started and my school neglected to nominate another teacher in her place. After the initial introductions that first morning I found myself abandoned in a big school with no English-speaking allies and no idea who to ask for anything - I didn't even know where the restrooms were. I am so thankful that S swooped in and took on the role of being my co-teacher, out of the goodness of her heart or perhaps simply because it was her bad luck to be seated next to the foreigner. S is also new to the school this year and only teaches one class with me (I have four co-teachers here in total, two of whom I teach with five times every week).


The first two days were very stressful, mostly because I did not know what was going on and, worse still, I did not know what was expected of me. My colleagues seemed to be under the impression that I would already have materials prepared and that I knew how to teach, despite this being the first day and nobody even showing me the textbook, let alone outlining which elements of the curriculum I would be responsible for. Technically I spent some time teaching L2 classes during my university course, but these were small classes of adults - the youngest person I came in contact with was 18 - and the students were there voluntarily. In Korea I am faced with classes of up to 36 bored 15- and 16-year-olds who make no secret of the fact that they would rather be anywhere else. I think teaching these classes would be a challenge for anybody, regardless of the language barrier or confusion about the course work. By Wednesday I had established that I was there just for listening and speaking activities, and I was told that my classes were entirely discretionary and not to be based on the textbook. This sent a wave of panic through me - I had not been invited to sit in on any of the Korean teachers' classes so I had no idea of the general structure or what to expect of the students. We do not go to Seoul for training until March 21st, and I did not have even a rough idea of the students' language level. That night at home I hurriedly made a slide-show of photos about my life and New Zealand so I would at least have something to show the kids and which I hoped would generate enough questions or discussion points to get me through those first classes.


It turns out I may have expected too much. By the time the students get to middle school it seems their English career will have gone one of two ways - either their parents are wealthy enough to send them to after-school classes and they can keep up with the textbooks and possibly even hold a basic conversation, or they cannot afford extra classes and have therefore fallen irretrievably behind. Classes are 45 minutes long, and I was dismayed to learn that my slide-show could not generate anywhere close to the amount of discussion I had hoped for. In an attempt to simply get the students talking so I could assess their level, I set them a basic activity of introducing a classmate, along the lines of "this is Tom, he has two brothers and a dog, his hobby is baseball". Simple, I thought, surely this is much too easy for 16-year-olds. Korean kids start learning English from kindergarten and Stephen has indicated that many of his seven-year-olds can introduce themselves without much prompting. Not so my teenagers. To be fair there were always five or so who could do this no problem and were clearly keen to continue a conversation with me. Unfortunately for these eager beavers the vast majority of students either could not or would not complete the activity. Being teenagers however they were not content to sit quietly when they couldn’t follow the lesson; there was yelling, things were thrown around, the boys started hitting each other. Usual behaviour from teenagers, sure, but nothing I was prepared to deal with.


Friday heralded a repeat of Monday. Another colleague picked me up near our apartment and took me to my rural school, where I will teach two second grade and two third grade classes one day a week. As at my city school the English teachers assumed I knew what I was doing and after introducing me to the students my second grade co-teacher actually left the room altogether, leaving me alone with 30 15-year-olds. I played my slide-show; the students were not interested, I tried to get them to introduce each other; this once again largely failed, and yet somehow I made it through the four classes. Between periods one of the staff told me I was to do listening and speaking activities, but that was the extent of my instructions. No hints about the class schedule, which chapters needed to be covered before which exams, what aids I was expected to use, nothing. During the final class of the day the third grade teacher sat at the back and silently observed. Great, I thought, she's going to have a chat with me afterwards and outline my role here. As it turned out I spent the final hour and forty minutes of the day twiddling my thumbs in the staffroom. No feedback, no clues, no nothing. Then I left.

Stephen's First Week

Right now I have less training than the average untrained guest English teacher in Korea. Not only have I never taken a course on teaching English as a second language (such as TESOL), but I have also not completed the week-long training course that all EPIK teachers have supposedly endured before they begin teaching. You see, Emma and I arrived in the country on the final day of the February intake course, which covers teaching methodologies as well as surviving in Korea. As a result of our involuntary tardiness we have been scheduled to take the second run of this 'orientation' course in Seoul starting March 21st. Staying in Seoul for five nights will surely be wonderful, but I fear that the seminars may be too late for us as by then we will be relative veterans of both teaching and living in Korea.


As you can imagine, I was a little apprehensive going into my first proper day of work at my city elementary school, where I teach Monday through Wednesday. The previous Friday Emma and I had taken the bus (without issue!) to this school and met up with my main co-teacher, who introduced me to the principal and showed me to her classroom, where my desk and computer reside. This was comforting, especially as I arrived half an hour early on the Monday morning. I found my way to my desk, but failed to find the light switch, which was hiding in the hallway. Even worse, I couldn't elicit a response from the heating system. My lifesaver in this situation was that the computer at my desk did not have a password and so within minutes I was happily emailing and browsing. It was not until close to 9am that my co-teacher realised we had missed the teachers' meeting at which I was due to be introduced. This did not bother me as I generally like to avoid introductions. We returned to our now warm classroom where I spent the rest of the day occasionally meeting other teachers, rarely seeing any students, and just generally not teaching. At this school English classes do not actually begin until the second week of the semester, hooray!


I whiled away the next three days reading through textbooks and scouring online forums for tips on being a foreign English teacher. On Monday afternoon my co-teacher and I set out to open my bank account and hopefully get my cellphone onto a plan. This turned out to be more of an adventure than I had imagined, taking over two hours in total. It was windy and raining, but luckily you never have far to walk in a Korean city to find a bank or telecommunications provider. We took a number in the queue at the bank, which was very busy around lunch time, and sat down in front of a television that was tuned to a news channel. I understood little more than 'Putin'. It was the NH Bank that I signed up with, after spending a decent length of time waiting and then just as long again handing over my temporary alien registration paper and passport, signing in a dozen different places, and putting my pin number in six different times. There was a charge of 1,000 won for a 'check card', which was handed over then and there. Unfortunately there is no money in my account just yet, so I haven’t been able to test out the card.


Down the street we found an SK Telecom store. There are literally hundreds of these in Gunsan alone. I handed over my iPhone 4S, temporary alien registration paper, passport, and bank account number. Here the charges were substantially steeper. A 30,000 won registration fee is added onto the first bill, which comes in the mail at the end of the month. In addition to this was a 20,000 won 'foreigner insurance' fee and 10,000 won for a new micro-SIM card, both to be paid upfront. The plan I chose comes in at 44,000 won a month, and that gets me 500MB of mobile data and 200 minutes of calling. It is 53,000 won a month for unlimited data; I may upgrade later, we will see. Don't forget that your cellphone must be unlocked for this transition to be possible. You can of course buy a new cellphone, there are plenty to choose from! I’m glad now to have this paperwork out of the way and unsurprisingly the mobile service is very good. Having access to GPS and bus routes makes exploring new areas much more efficient.


On Thursday morning I was picked up from my city school and driven to my rural school. I was relieved to see it was not quite as far away from our place in Gunsan as I had thought, although the bus ride does take an hour in each direction. It is a true change of pace out there surrounded by farmland. The school is quiet, having only 25 students in total and 12 or so staff. My classes range in size from two to six souls, which allows me to cater to each child individually when teaching. The big difference here is that I take more of a leading role in the classes and need to do some lesson planning and resource preparation ahead of time. With the teacher's guide in hand I was able to knock out a simple outline for each of my four classes in less than an hour. These turned out to contain more than enough content to fill the 40 minute classes I taught on Friday, all of which I felt went well. The kids are friendly and keen enough to speak English with me. As they are beginners it can take an entire lesson just to get through 1-2 sentences, but they still seem to be learning the language faster than I am learning Korean.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Getting There

Welcome to our journal! It has been a hectic time but now, at the end of our first week teaching, things are starting to settle down.

Our trip over from New Zealand went very well. On the evening of Saturday February 25th we flew up to Auckland and met with another soon-to-be English teacher before boarding our Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore. Our seats were great and we were lucky to be able to sleep the whole way. We had an eight hour layover in the comfortable Changi Airport, during which we visited its warm but curious Butterfly House (warning to any mottephobic little sisters who may be reading!)


After another pleasant flight we reached Seoul Incheon International Airport at around 10pm on Sunday night. Immediately we were squeezed into a packed subway carriage that shot us down to customs where we handed over our fingerprints and a mugshot along with our passports. A shuttle van soon rescued us from the -2°C chill and dropped us at the Incheon Airport Guest House, where we were able to grab a few hours' sleep in a nicely heated room. Early the next morning we headed back to the airport and caught the intercity express bus to Jeonju, the capital city of the Jeollabuk-do province.

The bus ride took almost four hours and we had the pleasure of seeing the sun rise over Seoul as we crossed the bridge from the airport island and headed south. We spent much of this trip doing our best to read the signs written in Hangul, the Korean alphabet. At Jeonju we were met outside the Core Hotel by our co-teachers. First they took us to the Provincial Office of Education where we signed our official contracts and received a few important papers. Straight after we were driven to the education board in Gunsan, the smaller city about 20 minutes west of Jeonju where we are to be living and teaching for the next year, to discuss our accommodation options in a quaint and cosy office.

In the afternoon we were taken to a local hospital for the most challenging part of our trip so far, the health checks. It was 2pm by now and we were starving, as we had been instructed not to eat before the medical exam and our last meal had been the in-flight dinner from 8pm the previous evening. The exam consisted of a chest x-ray, getting some blood drawn, peeing into a cup, and basic eyesight and hearing tests. After all that was done we were finally able to eat, so our co-teachers took us to a Chinese restaurant (the nearest Korean restaurant was closed).

Bellies full we went to look at the only double accommodation available, which thankfully was perfect. Our apartment is on the second floor of a large complex in downtown Gunsan. It has a decent kitchen, two bedrooms, a western style bathroom, and is close to many shops. The landlord and his wife popped around on Monday evening to check on us and turn on the heating and gas. We found a local supermarket and managed to buy a snack and clean sheets before heading to bed for our first night in our new home in Korea.

All of Tuesday and Wednesday were spent cleaning. The apartment came with one twin bed, a gas cooker, a cage for a pet rabbit, and lots of grime. Stephen's co-teacher contacted the education board for us and we soon had brand new bedding and a second twin bed, which we are using as a couch. Our neighbourhood has a few electronics stores and we quickly made friends with an eager young man at the Samsung outlet who sold us a computer monitor at a great price. Stephen's Mac Mini survived the flight over in his hand luggage, and when everything was plugged in we were pleased to discover that the previous tenant had not cancelled the Internet connection. Having Internet access suddenly made everything seem a lot more manageable, as not only were we able to email and Skype our families, we could also browse maps and find other information easily. We hadn't been in the country long nor interacted with many people but already we were starting to feel somewhat isolated and lost in a vast sea of Hangul and unfamiliar etiquette.

Our first teaching experiences will be chronicled shortly. We apologise for the lack of photos, the camera still hasn't been unpacked. We promise the next entries will be more colourful!

Click here for more photos.