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Meeting in the Middle(2008 Essay Contest)
Meeting in the Middle(2008 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:03     View: 2097  

Meeting in the Middle


 삼성초등학교  David E. Burton

            I came to South Korea for some of the same reasons that many people come here:  seeking teaching experience, job markets drying up back home, an unfulfilled sense of adventure, and generally seeking a completely new experience that I could not achieve anywhere else in the States.  On top of that, I’ve always dreamed of traveling to Asia, and this way, I would be there, living, and understanding what day-to-day life is like, which is something almost impossible to attain during a normal vacation to a place.

             I originally got a job at a Hagwon, seeming like the most direct and easiest way of getting employed in Korea.  I left for Seoul on Feb. 20th of this year and worked for around 4 and a half months at the private language academy.  The job offered me a very intensive experience in teaching English.  However, I really found some things lacking.  For one, it was a business.  When the bottom line is involved, good and honest teaching is not the priority, but it really came down to keeping the parents happy.  Because they were, after all, the people paying my salary along with all the other teachers working there.  Also, most teachers were left unappreciated there, never did the owners and management ever acknowledge the fact that all the teachers there, myself included, traveled half way across the world, leaving our families to come here and teach English.  We are experts in our language after all, having been brought up and immersed in it.

             That, along with some other problems, led me finally to the realization that this was not the experience I signed up for.  I don’t feel like you can be a good teacher if you’re not happy in your life, because, as a teacher, no matter what subject you are teaching, it is your life that you are truly teaching.  The way you live, the way you speak, and the way you gesture, all rub off on your students.  They don’t just learn what you speak, they learn what you live.  They understand, just by a series a feelings, all sorts of things about you, including whether you actually want to be there standing in front of them or not.  And that is what I regret most for having to leave the Hagwon:  leaving my students behind.

             But I was fortunate enough to get a letter of release, and to seek other employment in Korea.  As I grew up in Los Angeles, and then Seoul for several months, I realized that I had spent my entire life up to that point living in big cities, sprawling, listless, chaotic, neon glowing, traffic filled cities.  I wanted an experience that would accommodate my initial desire for an entirely new experience.  So when I was given an offer by the Gangwon-do branch of EPIK, I didn’t take any time to accept.  I love the mountains, rivers, valleys, waterfalls and forests.  And this is exactly what Gangwon-do is filled with.

             Because I was starting in the middle of the summer, I arrived in the province a few months before the main orientation.  In this way, I was sort of just thrown into the mix.  I had a half day of orientation alone with Francesca Kim before Mr. Park, the vice-principal from 삼성 초등학교 at the time, picked me up with his wife and drove me to the school I currently teach at.  This was the first real interaction I had with the EPIK program and the school I was going to be working at, and I was thoroughly amazed that Mr. Park had driven all the way to 춘천from 태백 only to turn around and drive me all the way back.  I bought a Korean music CD at a rest stop and he even insisted on playing it all the way through, both CD’s for the rest of the trip.

             After this, there was a series of ceremonies, and dinner parties to celebrate my presence at the school.  There was even a moving-in party for me, where most of my co-teachers arrived bearing gifts and essential amenities for my new place.  I came to the understanding that I had begun living and mixing with a culture that was filled with more generosity than I could ever have imagined.  I was able to witness parts of Korean culture that were definitely absent from Seoul.

             I was apprehensive about where I was going at first because I realized that I would be living among and working with people that were all very distant from me culturally and linguistically.  It was a tough adjustment at the beginning.  I was used to hanging out with other westerners often, and at that time, there were no more than a dozen westerners living in the entire city.  But on the other hand, this new place and situation forced me to practice a new language, and to interact with the cultural idiosyncrasies of Korean culture.  I found that the EPIK program had afforded me an extremely deep and rich experience, and I cannot thank them enough.  There is not one moment in my life when I have felt as liberated and happy as I do here.

             I was even given the opportunity to attend the official EPIK orientation program in 양양, and to meet dozens of native English teachers spread out across the province.  And whenever I travel, I still see many familiar faces and have had a chance to interact with and meet many new friends.  Meeting up with all the new people I met at the orientation even gave me plenty of excuses to travel up and down Gangwon-do province, finding such beauty everywhere.  I have traveled across a good part of South Korea, and I must say that there’s no province that I would rather be in.

             The teaching and work hours that I am responsible for is the extreme reverse of what I experienced in Seoul.  Here I have time to prepare for almost three hours for one class if I needed to, and I feel like having this preparation time has really shown in my teaching.  This opportunity has made me feel extremely confident as an ESL teacher.  It is such a fascinating situation to learn to communicate through gestures and single word fragments.  When I know that at times, only a tiny portion of what I am saying in my directions are being understood, communication is stripped down to its bear essentials.  It has been an interesting challenge that has given me an excellent point of reference to take with me in any teaching situation in the future.  You really have to be an open person with an open mind to have a conversation with someone, when neither of you fully understand the other’s words.  It has made me understand myself and the world a lot better. 

             On the other hand, I have been lucky enough to have a group of amazing Korean co-teachers who have helped me along the way.  Even the teachers at the school who do not feel confident in their English skills have done their best to translate my directions to the students and collaborate with me on lesson plans and curriculum development.  I have never team-taught before this job, and I have to say that it presents a challenge because of the language and culture barriers, but also a very rich teaching experience that forces both teachers to think a lot more about themselves and about the art of teaching. 

             And the students?  Beautiful and innocent and intensely animated small human beings.  They are amazing, and it took some time to realize that they wave their arms frantically and say hello to me 5 times a day perhaps as a substitute for the fact that they can’t easily communicate to me their questions, their curiosities, and their conversation.  I can feel that the respect for teachers in this country still has a pervasive foothold, some of which has been lost in America, and specifically in a large metropolitan city where people sort of get lost in the works and the sprawling population. 

             Even with the challenges I faced with this job and working with the EPIK program, there is nerely nothing I would want changed.  One suggestion that I would make has to do with the inclusion of us native English teachers into the daily affairs and inner workings of the schools we are affiliated with.  One complaint that I share with other teachers that I have met in the EPIK program is that they face a certain spontaneity every day, because we are not informed of many of the goings on in the school.  Things are many times sprung upon us at the last minute, or we are just unaware of them.  I am convinced much of this problem stems from the language barrier.  We are all busy people, and it takes a great deal of effort sometimes to explain difficult or complex things in a secondary language.  Another part of it might just be simple differences in our cultures.  I teach a few English classes for the teachers at my school a week.  And as much as I feel them learning the language is essential for us to communicate, I try to include as much as I can of a cultural exchange venue.  Ideally, that is what I would want most:  a venue for cultural exchange between the teachers at my school and the native English teachers there.  That way, there would be time in place for rich communication to take place of two languages as well as two cultures.  Of course this venue would not solve all the language and culture obstacles in play, but with some time and a little effort, perhaps we could share our ideas and meet somewhere in the middle.



Thank you for the opportunity of teaching in South Korea.



David E. Burton




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