I had to submit an essay about teaching in Korea to the local Ministry of Education and I though I would post it here because it also sums up the last half of the year which is when I totally neglected my blog. Among my New Year's resolutions (ha!) I plan on being more diligent with my updates.
2009 was once of the most exciting years in my life and one full of many exciting changes and profound personal developments. I decided to leave my home, family and friends behind in America and travel halfway around the world to begin my new career as an English teacher. I took the summer off to attend the London Rare Book School, conduct historical research in England and Scotland and to spend time with my extended family as part of the International Gathering of the Clans in Edinburgh. By the end of August I found myself in Youngyang, South Korea, eager to begin my new teaching assignment at Il-wol Elementary School.
Settling into my new life in a country where I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even understand the signs was a little overwhelming. I spent my first week in quarantine because of the H1N1 concerns so I spent most of my time walking around Yeongyang watching the farmers during the pepper harvest. Mrs. Park was very generous in setting up my apartment and escorting me around the first. She was also very helpful in navigating the paperwork, introducing me to the other teachers, and even helped me set up a bank account. In fact everyone that I met was very kind and helpful to this new stranger in their town and school.
I wasn’t really sure what was expected of me at first and as a new teacher I was very nervous about exactly how I would handle a class full of children who spoke little English. In particular I was scared about having to teach the after-school program at the two branch schools as I knew I wouldn’t have the safety of the textbook to use. With the encouragement of Miss Woo, I was able to think of the various themes that needed to be explored and also saw that I was worrying too much about details instead of just relaxing and enjoying the time with the children.
In September I started teaching at the YES Center and was grateful for the opportunity to meet English teachers from the other schools. They helped me understand the way things are done here and reassured me that they all went through the same awkward adjustments. They were also very helpful in showing me how to do things like paying bills, getting a taxi and taking a bus. Harry Tritt and his wife took me on one of their trips to Daegu and showed me how to get around by bus and subway.
In October, the teachers went on an overnight trip to southern coast and I was able to experience my first stay in a Korean hotel. In addition I joined in the hikes to visit some temples and traditional villages. I think American schools could learn a lot about team-building by such group excursions. We seemed to enjoy each others company and even though I really had no idea what was going on most of the time, everyone was very kind and made sure that I participated in all of the activities.
By the end of October I was feeling really confident in my teaching and found that the children responded well to the lessons that I had prepared. I spent many hours doing research online and gaining tips and lesson ideas from other English teachers. I learned how to create flashcards, games, and teaching tools joined several online teaching forums which helped me expand my basic skills. I think my hard work paid off as the children seemed to show more confidence in their use of English and were always glad to see me and try out their language skills. They particularly enjoyed the games and each week it became a challenge to find new activities to keep them interested. Students stretched their imaginations with role plays and my insistence on their talking English in the classroom. I stretched my imagination by using my inability to use Korean as a tool for teaching. Together we seemed to find a common ground that bridged any cultural divide.
One of the most exciting events at our school was the Book Festival. In my former life I was either a librarian or a bookseller and I was so excited to see so much time celebrating books and families.
It was thrilling to see such excitement surrounding reading and to see children enjoying themselves as they made bookmarks, created a newspaper or read books with their family members. Everyone made a leaf to go onto the book tree that celebrated their family. The evening culminated in a Golden Bell game and wonderful closing ceremony.
Because the school year is different in South Korea from anything that I knew in either America or England, I suddenly found that my school year was ending just as I was hitting my stride. December brought a flurry of activity around the end of the school year as sixth graders were preparing to finish their time at the elementary school. In fact our last week of school culminated in an overnight trip for all of the children to Gyeongju. Here we visited a museum and tombs which were very educational for me. I was particularly fascinated with prehistoric rock art on display and can’t wait to share them with one of my friends who is a scholar in this field. I think the children were more excited with our afternoon at the amusement park although they also enjoyed our evening visit to the jimjilbang.
As the year draws to a close, I am happy with my decision to change careers and experience a new culture. I have adjusted to the different foods, picked up a little vocabulary, and made many new friends.
Perhaps best of all, I begin every day at the school with young children squealing “Hello Fiona teacher” and grabbing my hand as I walk down the hallway.
It has given me a renewed sense of purpose and made me feel at home in “The Land of Morning Calm”.