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That Other Job (2009 Essay Contest)
That Other Job (2009 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-11-24 01:29     View: 2363  


That Other Job

                                                                                    Anna Orr

Keumo Elementary School(Gyeongbuk)

English with a Twist

Anyone who spends a modest amount of time with the foreigner community in Korea will be quick to tell you that we have our own specialized vocabulary ?one which might not always be intelligible to new arrivals. In any given group of foreigners, whether in Seoul or Mokpo or Gumi or anywhere else, there are people who substitute "bali"for fast, who try to hurry their friends along with "Kaja!", or who refer to their school principal as "the gyojang." Elementary schools become "chodongs." Stations of any kind turn into "yuks." The word foreigners is itself replaced by "waegooks." And, almost inevitably, "my students" quickly gives way to the more personal "my kids."

In my experience, this last bit of shared foreigner vocabulary is the one that tends to throw people off. I’ve had friends in both Korea and my native America look at me strangely when I talk about things "my kids" did ?my kids were well-behaved today, my kids just finished their exams, my kids wouldn’t stop talking during my lesson, I was late because my kids tried to follow me home. After all, they aren’t my children. I don’t teach them very often; my school is so bigthat I see each grade every other week. I can't even remember all their names despite both my best efforts and their patient coaching, and I doubt I’d be able to even if I shared their language and cultural background, because there are simply too many ofthem. Yet if I were offered a position at a different elementary school with higher pay and smaller classes, I’d turn it down in an instant.

Why? Because that would mean I wouldn’t be able to continue teaching my kids, and I know for a fact that many of my foreigner friends in Gyeongbuk feel exactly the same way.

That sense of attachment doesn’t come from contracts, textbooks, or lesson plans, although it can be helped by and in turn enhance all of these things. It requires an effort on the part of theGuest English Teacher to not only teach their students, but to communicate with them. It means being willing to be ambushed in the mart, introduced to grandfathers, mothers, and younger siblings when you least expect it, and chattered at in nonstop Koreaneven when you don't understand a word. It means not hiding from the students or chasing them away when they stop you in the hallways, but instead being willing to take the time and talk to them. Most of all, it means maintaining what I like to think of as flexible boundaries. There are times when I’m unavailable for the students and places where I don’t allow them to tag along after me - namely anywhere near my apartment - but I try to make it clear to them that for the most part, I’m happy to talk to them, however limited their English may be.

Thinking Outside the Contract

I consider all of this a part of my other job - the one that's just as important as the one in my contract, except for the part where no one told me about it beforehand.

I'm an unofficial ambassador, just like every other GET in Korea.

Even here in Gumi, which has enough self-titled waegooks to populate a small town, the odds are that I'm one of the only non-Koreans that my students interact with on a regular basis. That goes doubly so if they don't take foreign language classes at a hogwon. While it's egotistical to suggest that GETs wholly or even mostly inform a student's opinions about both English and our various countries of origin, we're inevitably going to have some impact. If you come scowling into school from day one, stagger in late every morning drunk, hungover, or unprepared, shout at the students for bothering you, or constantly gripe about how terrible the school is and how much you'd rather be in Seoul, the students are going to pick up on that. They won't want to learn English with you. They won't want to talk to you outside of class, in any language. They will perceive (correctly) that you're not putting any effort into teaching them or engaging them, and in turn they'll stop attempting to interact with you. Just because your students are young doesn't mean they're stupid or unobservant, or that you can treat your jobs - either of them - with anything less than complete seriousness. Even if you stop short of hating your job and merely treat it as something that begins and ends in the classroom, it won't matter how great your lesson plans are on paper. You're still not doing what you're supposed to.

So how do you do that all-important second job?


Talk to the Students

My first couple days at my elementary school taught me a couple of important things:

First, Korean kids are pretty much the most adorable children in the world. Second, they all really, really want to talk to me.

Going into an elementary school for the first time can be a culture shock all by itself, between the constant chorus of hellos and the fact that the students will spend the first couple weeks assuming your name is Waegook Sunsangnim. All my introduction classes quickly turned intoquestion-and-answer sessions. Yes, I love kimchi, but no, my favorite Korean food is actually yukgaejang. No, I don't know if I like the Giants or the Lions better. Yes, I really am from Chicago. No, I’ve never met President Obama. No, I'm not married. Yes, I like Boys Over Flowers. (Cue squealing.) Yes, I really do love it here in Korea.


Any GET can tell you that Korean students are incredibly smart and extremely driven. They want to learn. They like English, albeit they sometimes only like English outside the classroom. Given the chance, they’ll plop down next to you in the cafeteria, hover outside your classroom after the last bell rings, or ambush you in the street to ask where you're going. In other words, they will talk your ears off ? if you let them.

Should you?

Yes, of course.

No, you’re not going to get perfect grammar, complex thoughts, or maybe even anything beyond "How are you?" and "I like baseball."Yes, most of your conversation is going to be simple sentences and pantomime. The students won’t care about that. Responding to them ? supplying the words they’re miming, referencing something they told you before, even just saying "I like baseball, too" ? is more than fostering an interest in and enthusiasm for English. You’re indicating that you’re willing to take an interest in their lives. It’s personally rewarding for you, it's good practice for the students, and it’s definitely easier to teach children who are happy to see you.

I can think of a particular fifth-grader who wrote a note on one of his tests early in the school year, saying that he's very bad at English. When I graded the tests, I wrote back that I'm very bad at Korean too and that we should both study hard. I'm not sure if he took my advice or is just more willing to talk to me now, but instead of sitting quietly in the back, now he chats with me before class and in the hallways. His English isn't the best - although it's unquestionably better than my Korean - but he's applying the grammar and vocabulary he's learned to communicate with me and creating sentences he didn't learn from a textbook, and that's what any language teacher wants, no matter what they're teaching or what country they're in.

None of this means you're obligated to be cheerful all the time or available to the students whenever they want to pester you. It does mean that you should make a good-faith effort to talk to them outside of class. They'll appreciate you for it, and you'll get to know them a lot better.

That said, how do you do that all-important second job inside the classroom?


Make English Culturally Relevant

One of the first things I did with my summer class - after explaining the classroom rules and settling a couple squabbles about seating arrangements - was teach them how to write Romanized versions of their Korean names. Some of them already had English names, but none of them had a clue how to write out 민수 or 세희 using the English alphabet. It was difficult to explain at first, but once I’d managed to communicate the idea, they absolutely loved it. My summer class has been over for months, but those students will still write their names in English on their worksheets and quizzes and will always proudly point this out to me when I walk around the classroom.


There’s plenty of debate about whether or not asking a student to use an English name is good or bad. Teaching your students how to Romanize their Korean names is a kind of middle ground; it requires knowledge of the English alphabet and its sounds, and if you teach first name-last name order it can be used as a tool to introduce aspects of Western culture, but it allows students a say in how they want to present themselves to an audience that can’t read hangul. This doesn’t mean you should discourage students from using an English name if that’s what they prefer, but making them aware that there’s an option has, in my experience, engaged students who had previously shown minimal interest in English.

It’s possible to use the same idea with more advanced students. Introduce them to different Romanization styles and discuss them. Ask them to explain food, holidays, entertainment, or some other aspect of Korean culture ? in English.Tell them to give you a Korean name and to detail the reasoning behind it or to tell you about the best sites in their home city or province. If they’re mostly interested in contemporary culture, tell them you want to know whether Girls Generation or Big Bang is better, and that they had better be prepared to elaborate on their answer. (Warning: this can get contentious.)

All of these things engage the students much more than any textbook or rote grammar drill ever could. The catch is that they require more work on your part. In much the same way that you can't slap together a grammar or vocabulary lesson as you teach, you can't walk into a classroom expecting to ask about Korea without having informed questions prepared. Read up on what you’re going to ask the students. Learn about Korean history, music, and art. Listen to k-pop. Watch the dramas your students watch. Know the significance of different holidays. It doesn't matter that you'll be discussing all of these things in English or just using them as a springboard to introduce English vocabulary. Korean students like to talk about their interests, culture, and country, and odds are that no matter what level they are, they'll be happy to explain something to you, especially if you've already done your homework.

If you're never planning to incorporate Korea into your lessons at all, it doesn't matter. Do all of the above anyway. Not only is it respectful to the people you're living with and the country you're living in, it's simple common sense.

Your Kids

Your first and most important job is, obviously, the one that brought you here. You're supposed to teach your students English, and you're doing yourself and them a disservice if you don't try your best to do exactly that. That other job is the one you don't plan for, the one you're not paid for and are never really off-duty from, and the one that can positively affect your time in Korea. You just have to look at it the right way.

Much like any other job that involves working with children, teaching Korean elementary-schoolers is not a job for someone who wants deep philosophical conversation, complete seriousness, or even an absolute guarantee that a little kid isn't going to put their pet snail in your pocket. The students have their own ideas of acceptable behavior and their own sense of humor. They're born mimics and will copy everything you say, whether you want them to do or not. (Which is why a handful of my fifth-graders can now say "Whatcha doin'?" with a perfect Chicago accent, much to my dismay.) They're going to get markers and cafeteria jajangmyun all over themselves, and sometimes you're going to be collateral damage. They jump on tables. They try to put their numbers in your cell phone. They will never, ever stop talking.

They're your kids, and for some reason they think you're amazing.

How cool is that?

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