Korea: Year 3. Wait, what?

In which the author comes out of her laziness-imposed blog hiatus to tell you about staying in Korea for one more year.

One of Korea’s national slogans is just two words: Dynamic Korea! What this means is that life in this country is very fast-paced and can change very quickly, with little to no warning.

Take, for example, the beginning of the school year. The second semester ends with a couple of weeks at the end of January/ start of February, when students return from their winter vacation to attend school for ten days, also known as “Graduation Week”. Everyone then goes back on holiday until school starts in March.

Those few weeks of “Spring Break” are when teachers, Korean and foreign alike, will find out their new school placements. Korean teachers have to change schools every 2 – 4 years, and the same generally goes for foreign teachers too (unless your school really, really likes you). This means, of course, that those whose contracts do not begin with the school year (so August-intake or just random start dates like me) can find themselves switching schools after only six months.

The worst part is that these changes are often made with little or no notice to the foreign teacher concerned. Fortunately, this February, an enterprising long-term foreign teacher managed to get hold of the schools list and put it up on Facebook for us a week before the start of the new term. My (now former) co-teacher only texted me two days before I had to show up at my new school. Thanks muchly!

But I’d learnt by now to somewhat anticipate these krazy Korean antics. I knew that my two years at my first school were almost up (or would be at the end of March), and that in all likelihood I’d be leaving. I had mixed feelings about it, but on the whole I was not sad to go. 2012 was a difficult year at that school, with having my days cut to two, my awesome co-teacher leaving and being replaced with a useless brainless English-hating moron (no, we did not get on, at all), and generally not enjoying it as much. I would miss the staff and my kids, but I knew it was time. Besides, the kids knew all my jokes and teaching tricks. It was definitely time for us to part ways.

So I said my goodbyes to the staff, left a note for my students on the whiteboard, attended the farewell dinner, and cleaned out my desk. Goodbye, Gwakgeum! I could hardly believe my two years at that school were over. Where did the time go?!

Clockwise from top left: last lunch in the (tiny) school cafeteria, farewell soju with the principal and vice-principal, goodbye lovely little school out in the middle of nowhere.

Clockwise from top left: last lunch in the (tiny) school cafeteria, farewell soju with the principal and vice-principal, goodbye lovely little school out in the middle of nowhere.

My new school is in the city, surrounded on three sides by high-rise apartment blocks. It is enormous. 

The front wing (wing!) of this enormous school.

The front wing (wing!) of this enormous school.

Each grade has between seven and nine classes, with 29 – 31 kids in each class. There are seven English teachers: two Korean teachers who teach by themselves, three co-teachers, and Jonny and I. Who is Jonny, you ask? Why, he’s this guy:

The blond guy. In case you couldn't tell.

The blond. In case you couldn’t tell.

and basically one of the reasons I really don’t mind teaching at this school at all! As of April he lives in the same apartment building as me, so we get to share taxis – I mean, walk to school together in the mornings. We also collaborate on lesson plans and, it must be said, rather extensive bitching sessions. Fun times!

The two Korean solo teachers teach, between them, all of second grade, half the textbook to grade 3 and 4, and a third of the textbook to grade 5 and 6. Jonny and I both teach first grade by ourselves, I teach grade 3, he teaches grade 4, and we split grade 5 and 6 between us. The grade 1 classes are the only ones we teach without a co-teacher. I still go to Hallim once a week, on Fridays, to teach grade 5.

Things I’m glad about:

– I’m so happy to be teaching grade 1 again. They are delightful and fun, they love to sing, and I’m teaching them PHONICS (along with the awful textbook).

– I ONLY have to teach three grade 6 classes a week, and all on a Monday. They’re almost always horrible, and there’s nothing worse than seeing a grade 6 class first thing on a Monday morning, but at least there’s only three. Last year I had 12 – count ’em, 12 – grade 6 classes. The horror. The horror.

– Being at a city school I’ve noticed that the students are generally much better at English than the kids I’ve taught before. Many of them have been going to English hogwans (private after-school academies) for years, and they tend to come from wealthier families and therefore will have had more exposure to English (travel, computer games, movies). Also, they will have most likely been taught by actual English teachers, as opposed to a homeroom teacher relying on the CD-ROMs (no disrespect to overworked homeroom teachers).

– The school is a 25-minute walk, or a 7-minute taxi ride, from my apartment. This means I have an extra hour in the mornings to do with what I will (usually, sleep).

– More money means more resources to do things like laminate flashcards, make worksheets and so on. Also, we have our own photocopy machine – bonusuh.

– We have a large fridge in the office, with a freezer. It’s amazing right now – ice cold water is a good tonic for a sweaty horrid day.

– One of my favourite burger restaurants is around the corner.

– I have a MUCH better desk chair than last year.

So comfortable, in fact, that you can nap at your desk.

So comfortable, in fact, that you can totally nap at your desk.

Things I’m meh about:

– Having a co-teacher for 19 out of 22 classes means very little prep work in the afternoons. I don’t mind, because I’m lazy, but I also worry that my brain is slowly atrophying.

– Last year I had nine classes I saw twice a week, and four classes I saw once. This year I have 22 classes I see once a week. I like seeing a variety of grades and students, but I miss getting to know kids better.

– I have seven grade 3 classes, which means doing the same lesson seven times over. On the one hand, you get to refine and perfect your lesson; on the other, it can be incredibly boring.

– This school has an English library where between Jonny and I we have to spend three afternoons a week (basically, being white and English, but ostensibly to play games, read books, and put on DVDs for the kids. Have I mentioned yet that this school is kinda wealthy?) I don’t mind so much, but sometimes it gets really loud and raucous in there, the last thing you want after a morning of dealing with kids already, especially on those rare occasions when one actually has work to do. Also, technically, we should be receiving $6 an hour for “non-instructional overtime” but I, ah, feel a certain indelicacy about pointing this out.

– No more after-school class. I miss the little tykes, but I am relieved I don’t have that stress anymore.

Things I dislike:

– Having to share an office with seven other people. Urg! You know when you just want your own space?! Yeah.

– Teaching with co-teachers is a many-varied experience. One is really good but makes me feel rather like an expensive accessory; one does nothing more than the bare minimum (ie, what is outlined in the textbook) and believes that spending half the period singing ridiculous English songs is a profitable use of 20 minutes; one is an absolute moron who can barely speak English (she replaced a good but terrifying teacher who went on a year’s maternity leave). So it can be very frustrating.

– The school doesn’t have electric ceiling fans. I harbour bitter resentment towards them for this.

– The food varies from pretty good to terrible. Monday and Tuesday are generally good, Wednesdays are hit-or-miss (allegedly “Good Food” day. I beg to differ) and Thursdays are usually terrible. I suspect Thursdays are supposed to be “vegetarian” days: it actually ends up being “no food” day. Bleh.

– Because there are so many English teachers, it doesn’t make sense to have one single English classroom, so we have to traipse around to each class’s homeroom. This would be fine, but beware the dangers of sticking your USB flashdrive into many different computers! I’ve had three viruses (and counting) so far this year.

– I really, really miss having my own space. And a sea view.

Pictured: Things I miss.

And my kids, of course. Well, mainly just these ones.

At Hallim, I teach four grade 5 classes every Friday with Lisa, my most favourite and awesomest co-teacher ever. (My previous co-teacher, who I taught sixth grade with twice a week, is now a third grade homeroom teacher. I think the sixth grade broke her.) I taught them last year as grade 4s,  so I’m very happy to have them again. The classes are easy and fun, and I’ve realised how good a teacher Lisa is.

Strangely enough, even though I’d seen my students at the beginning of February, when they were still technically grade 4s, they looked really different when the new school year started – not like little kids any more. They’re generally really good and I enjoy teaching them, even if the switch in levels (having spent Thursday teaching four grade 5 classes in the city) takes a little while to adjust to in the beginning. Plus our classroom totally has a sea view.

sea view 2

Of this rather delightful little island.

Before I left home, way back in 2011, I airily assured everyone who asked that “No, I don’t think I’ll be staying more than a year.” Well. Three months in and I knew I would be staying a second year. And the whole time I was living here last year, I never felt quite ready to leave; I knew I would be doing year three. Now…it’s different. I still love Jeju and Korea and life here (fast internet! reliable public transport! the ability to walk around in complete safety at 2am!) but I’m bored with the job; I need a change. But for now, I’m happy to be here, bringing good English (“one sandwich, many sandwichES! Do you like one sandwich or all of them? I like sandwiches!”) to the masses, enjoying (and surviving) the summer, hanging out with friends before they all leave. Stay tuned!

Coming up in My Life: 

– Mud Fest!

– Rock Fest!

– Trip home!

– KAP (BFF) leaves :(

– A good 70% of the awesome people on the island leave. Boo.

– Trip home #2 (sister’s wedding)!

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