Teaching in Korea is an adventure. To my great luck I have been placed in a comfortable home and supportive school. However, I face a myriad of obstacles preventing the success of my students. These include (but certainly are not limited to):
1) average class sizes of 34 (about 28 for the very low level)
2) style of education
Ie, focused on grammar. Taught by Korean teachers in Korean.
3) focus on tests
This problem especially acute in high level classes. Is not on the test? Cool, time to tune out.
4) teaching style
Based on the fact that everything in class is geared to answer a multiple choice question, students expect to be told what the answer is, then they memorize it. Teacher, too, struggle with this.
Wait! John teacher!?!? What is THE answer? No no no, there can only be one correct answer? What do you mean it depends? Language isn’t a math problem? Language doesn’t fit into a neat little construction of black and white, right and wrong?
The first presents an immense obstacle when teaching students accustomed to learning everything, even English, in their mother tongue. These kids go to school (and after school academies) for so many hours of the day, getting them to want to use the energy it takes to focus on a teacher speaking another language is a challenge, to say the least. Add to that the number of students in each class that need to be corralled before proper instruction can begin, the time allotted to me (45 min once a week for each student), the age group, and the almost universal apathy that goes along with youngsters at such an age, life as a middle school teacher can be….frustrating.
The students are smart. They know the school system has been geared to tests. There is no room for teachers to give students rewards for participating in class (aside from candy), no punishment for disrupting class. The teachers just smack the kids on the back of the head and/or yell. Both routes which I refuse to go down.
The style also works to greatly hamper an aspiring teacher. The kids are spoon fed answers from the beginning of primary school. At least in English. (funnily enough I’ve heard this isn’t the case in other subject areas of school-which would account for Koreans consistently scoring high on tests focused on critical thinking.) the number of times I have been told. “John teacher, they can’t do it. It’s too difficult” I don’t care to relate.
Finally, making a connection with these kids (which every good piece of teaching advice advises) is near impossible considering one teacher sees nearly 500 of them a week with no time outside of class to interact in any meaningful way.
Which is where we get to the positive. This is my second year and, as with last year, I was asked to go on the class field trip. I leapt at the opportunity, knowing it would be a fantastic chance to get to know the kids outside of the classroom environment.
And so it was. On numerous occasions I was able to talk to some of the lowest level students, my most difficult students, and joke and laugh with them. The week following I found the same struggles as usual, but, this time, had a few on my team, which at least cut down some of the time wasted on classroom management (still far higher than I would like and higher than it would be if I had more experience on my side).
Public school teachers are certainly being handed lemons, and making that lemonade can sometimes be a torturous, laborious process, but it’s being made and is so worth the effort.