A day in the life – Seohae Elementary School

I (meaning Mike) teach at Seohae Elementary School, which is just a few blocks from our apartment building, so the walk is pretty short. But the path leads past another school, Yeonsan Elementary, so the sidewalks are pretty full of kids most mornings. And it’s now the rainy season, so the sidewalks are full of umbrellas held at my chest level, which is amusing, as though I’m walking through a field of giant, Oz-bright mushrooms.

The side entrance of Seohae Elementary School

So this morning I got to school around 8:30 and barely had time to put my hat and umbrella away before one of my speech students came in looking for practice. There’s a citywide speech competition on July 9, and we’re sending two students. Each of them has chosen a speech to memorize and answer questions about. My student this morning was telling me about Susan Boyle, and how she never gave up on her dream to be a real singer, even though everyone laughed at her. I helped her with her sentence cadences, pronunciation, then asked her a few questions the judges might ask her. We finished up around 8:55, meaning I had to get ready for my nine-o’clock class.

Usually I teach five classes of fifth grade on Friday, but today, two classes have been canceled for memorial services in remembrance of the Korean war. There’s a lot of fluidity to the schedule here – I’ve been teaching about six weeks now, and there hasn’t been a week yet that has stuck to the schedule. There’s always some reason to shift things around, like field trips, or sports day, or the homeroom teacher wants to finish up a lesson. You learn not to mind, and to roll with the flow.

I taught the fifth graders a lesson on how to propose an activity. You know, “Let’s play baseball” or “How about swimming!” Then they learn phrases like “Sorry, I can’t.” Or, oddly enough, “No Problem” or “Why not? I can swim well.” You’d think they’d learn, “Okay, let’s do it.” I could go on and on about the phrases they choose to teach, but won’t. It’s a whole other post.

That’s fifth grade, which I teach pretty much alone. Sometimes the homeroom teacher sticks around, grading papers in the back, but usually they leave the room, and I’m at the mercy of the fifth graders. It’s not like sixth grade, which I teach on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I have a co-teacher who goes in with me then, and we trade parts of the lesson. I try to speak to them as much as I can, and hope they pick up a few things here and there. It’s funny when I think about how little English they hear in their lives – they get three forty minute classes a week, and I’m only there for one of those hours, so they maybe hear a native speaker for twenty minutes a week (unless they go to Hagwon, which most of them do, and that’s another post entirely).

For some reason, I think you’ll find the slipper situation interesting, so here I go.

My work shoes

When we get to work, we all change out of our street shoes and put on ‘slippers.’ I don’t know why I say slippers, they’re more like sandals – hard-soled sandals with a strap over the top. Mine are ten dollars, black, with cheap fake leather. Some of the guy teachers wear what you’d call beach shoes, of even cheaper plastic, like you’d wear in the dorms on the way to the shower. They’re sold on the street for three bucks. Even the principal and all the support staff, every morning they come into the entryway, put their regular shoes into a cubby and take out their sandals for the day. The women wear what wouldn’t even be called sandals – many of them wear 3-inch block soled mules with a strap and little flowers pasted on. Very stylish. I’ve yet to notice anyone having different sandals for different outfits, but it may or may not happen.

The kids all have sandals, too, but they’re more like shoes. They’re white, with pink soles and trim for the girls and blue soles and trim for the boys. Every morning they come in and take their shoes off at the door, then carry the shoes up to homeroom, where they swap them out for their sandals. Elementary kids don’t wear uniforms, but they all wear the same shoes.


Mmm... lunch

Lunch here is pretty fantastic, tell the truth. It’s all made from fresh ingredients in the kitchen on the second floor by a staff of about ten lunch ladies and the head nutritionist. You can look into the kitchen and see huge drums where they mix the food. All the lunch ladies wear white coats with pink collars, pink aprons, pink caps, and pink rubber boots. They also wear masks, but don’t think it’s necessary that the masks cover their noses, which is both amusing and disturbing. Kids help with the food service, too, putting on masks and hats and strawberry-print aprons to hand out fruit, or take your tray at the station in the back.

Wow I didn’t mean to go so long here, and I only got through half the day. So, let me sign off now and continue some other time.

Sports Day!

Last Friday was elementary school Sports Day all across Mokpo city. I’m not sure how often the schools have sports day, and I don’t remember anything exactly like it growing up in America. I remember physical fitness test days, which were afternoons on the playground and gym, feeling miserable about being able to do only three or four pullups before falling to the ground in a sobbing mess, but what happens here is nothing like that. The point of sports day isn’t really to find out who’s the fastest, or the strongest – to the best of my deductive ability, the point is to match two arbitrary groups of students against each other in the name of school unity. My (Mike’s) school did it this way:

Assembling on the field

In the morning, all the kindergartners, 1st, 3rd, and 5th graders went out to the field and lined up for a half day of physical activity and healthy competition. They were divided into two teams, the white and the blue, and marched out to the field for opening ceremonies. The national anthem was played over the loudspeakers, then the school song, then a song of memorial. After this, they were led in a pledge I can only assume was for sportsmanship and school spirit. Then, calishtenics. Semi-marshall music was played as the students marched in place, swung their arms, then went through stretches until they were ready for the competition.

Warming up!

I watched most of this from the stands. Seohae’s field has a great astroturf field and seating for a few hundred people, but we’re pretty lucky. Akasha’s school has a dirt field, and she tells me by the time lunch came, they’d eaten too much dirt to be very hungry for food. The stands were mostly empty at nine am, but as the morning went on, parents and other spectators began to fill the stands. A small cart selling ice cream stood not far from the entrance to the cafeteria. The school photographer, also the school’s “computer girl” as my co-teacher calls her, strolled around taking pictures.

First up was the forty meter dash. Easy enough. Then the strangeness and fun began. Students were lined up around the edge of the field, and as I watched, one student was lifted onto the back of each group, and as the other students bent over, she walked on their backs around the edge of the field. It’s something you wouldn’t see in the States due to safety reasons, and this is one of the things I love about Korea – the amount of things that happen that are just plain unsafe.

The "Let's crawl through a tube" Relay.

For the next game, teachers scattered bean bags around the field, then carried out a basket on a pole for each team. At the whistle, a crowd of second graders swarmed the field and started chucking the bean bags at the basket for about 30 seconds; then the whistle blew. The teachers counted back the number of bean bags in each basket, and one team was announced as the winner. Games went on like this all morning – students crawled through tubes, did jumps in hula hoops, and turned somersaults on mattresses. One favorite was the students coming in to a circle four at a time and kicking their shoes into big plastic baskets. Then it all ended with a tug of war. First, the fifth graders.

Tug of War

I was standing next to the school nurse, who speaks some English. I said, Oh, it’s a tug of war. She said Yes it is, then informed me that tug of war was a traditional Korean sport. I nodded politely. The tug of war ended with the parents who had come down to support their children having their own tug of war. This was another thing you wouldn’t see in America – I don’t want to spread malicious stereotypes, but most American parents are either too obese or too competitive for a tug of war to end without a lawsuit and/or death.

2nd, 4th and 6th graders came out for the afternoon session, which had a different set of wacky sports. Somewhere along the line, my students pressured me to join the tug of war. I resisted at first, but being human, I succumbed to peer pressure and ran out to the field and took my position at the end of the rope. I gave all I had, and my team was triumphant! Hurrah! I felt a rush of joy as I returned to my students and gave them all high fives.

A few minutes later, my co-teacher asked me to get my picture with the students, and I agreed. Everyone was happy as I moved down the classes till I got to the white team, where I was met with unhappy frowns. It was then I realized my mistake: I’d gone to pull for the blue team, and my victory for them was seen as a crushing betrayal of the other side. I sat down for pictures with some unhappy fifth graders, which I imagine are of me in a sea of stink-eyes, then went back to class. One other real lesson of Sports day: It’s all in fun, until it isn’t.

First week teaching in Korea- a reflection

There are so many things to tell you about our new city, I thought it would make sense to start thematically.  This entry school, another for home, shopping, pets etc.

It is 7:45 Friday night as I write this, 5:45 a.m. in MN

Overall, we are very happy here. Teaching here is very similar to teaching at home, yet a little different.

On Monday our co-teachers were given a 2 hour orientation on what they need to do to help us.  We were then loaded into Ji Yeon’s, Mike’s co-teacher, car.   She drove my co-teacher, Mike, Remi, Ching, Clark, and me 1 hour to Mike’s school.  Mike then toured his school and gave presents to school administration.  Next, we went to my school and I did the same. We were introduced to the principal, vice principal, and administrators.  There was a lot of bowing involved.    Then we went home, dropped off the animals, inspected the apt, and made a shopping list.  From there we went to the immigration office and applied for our alien residency  cards.  Then off to the mega-mart, Home Plus, for our starter needs. 

While we were shopping Benji, my co-teacher, leaned over and said “Akasha, we need to hurry.  Teacher’s dinner is at 6 p.m.”  We ran home, left Mike and Ji Yeon with the unpacking and went to dinner.  Dinner was amazing.  We had Korean bbq’ed pork, blue crabs, and a million amazing things.  They ordered cheap beer for me!  I poured shots for my superiors, was fawned over, and fed amazing food, all while Mike had tofu soup and unpacked.  It was a little intimidating, but fabulous.

Tuesday morning Mike and I went to school.  We are specialists in our building and since Monday classes were cancelled so that we could be transferred, we had to make up for Monday.  We taught 6/6 classes.  We teach 22 classes (40 minutes each) a week.  While there is a schedule, it changes constantly.  This drives other foreign teachers  crazy, but reminds me of home.  🙂

I have the coolest, most  enormous and hi-tech classroom I’ve ever seen.  VMS people, please show this to Dave so he knows what an ESL classroom should look like jk) My class has 5 tables for 30 children.  I have a huge touch screen tv, a bluescreen stage for student presentions, and a mini-English lab with a model stations for play acting.

I walk 15 minutes to work every day.  Since non- Korean people are super rare here, everybody says hello to me.  Some over react when I respond in Korean.  I get to school at 8:30, take off my shoes and put on my slippers.  Then I go to the teacher’s office with my department and bow to everyone, then I walk to the administrator’s office and bow to the three admins.  Next we open our office and get ready.  I teach a different schedule every day.  I teach 5th and 6th grades.  I see each class twice a week.  My co-teacher and I teach 50/50 (this is rare.)  I also teach Kindergarteners the alphabet and greetings once a week.  They are super-duper cute.

At lunch time we all go to the caf, get lunch, and sit at the teachers table.  Lunch is super good and I can never finish it all.  We are served on metal trays with chop-sticks and bowls.  After eating we clean up, drink a cup of tea in  one shot, clean our faces in the mirror, and return to the office.  We then all go to the bathroom to brush teeth.  ( I like this tradition)

In addition to regular teaching I am coaching the English speech competition for half an hour after lunch and 20 minutes after school.  The competitors are the top five EFLs in the 5th grade.   I also give a 10 minute broadcast every Thursday where I make chit-chat and give a riddle each to the primary and intermediate students.  This is super fun and I love the students I broadcast with.

top row left to right: media board, cameraman, media board, bottom row: controls, me, co-host.

My schedule will be shifting all week as my  students are pre-paring for their athletic competitions.  They have been doing drills all week.  The competition is on a Saturday and I think I will go cheer.

I forgot to mention how much they love sports.  When I arrived at the dinner I was told that a recent CNN report said that “All Americans are fat, but you look physically fit.”  The principal plays ping-pong every day in the ping- pong room next to my room.  The important people in school play volley ball from 5-7 every school day.  Wednesday we had a city-wide elementary school volleyball tournament.  The championship is next month in preparation for teacher’s day.     A friend is being forced to do calisthenics with his principal for 40 minutes a day.

My facilities are very different from any school I’ve known before. My building houses admin, grades 1-6, English, and broadcasting.  There is a seperate kinder building, and a seperate cafeteria/ gym building.  The gym is on the second floor and doubles as the auditorium.  My school has an outdoor Koi pond and a model of the local eco-system that also shows the layers of the earth’s surface and the formation of volcanos.  a little too zen for k-6

Enough about me.  Mike’s school is very different, so I’ll let him tell about his school:

Hello. I’m teaching at Seohae Elementary school, just a few blocks from our apartment. My walk is only about five minutes from my building, barely enough time to break a sweat. Seohae isn’t as fancy-pants techno-geek as Akasha’s school, but we work just as hard to get the students learning English.

Unlike Akasha, I’m not working side-by side with any teacher to deliver lessons. I haven’t actually taught any lesson yet – my assignment his week was to deliver a 15 minute talk on my life in Minnesota, then answer questions from the kids. I taught the kids the proper pronunciation of our State’s name (long OOO, please!) and also told them all about my dog Remi. Many of the students live in our neighborhood, and we’ve been stopped several times by my students, who tell me they heard about Remi in school, and are happy to see him in person. (Well, that’s what I imaging them saying – their English isn’t that good yet.)

Typical questions from 4th, 5th, and 6th grade Korean students are (in order of popularity): How old are you?, Do you like Korean food? Do you have son? (sic) Do you speak Korean? and What’s your favorite color? Contrary to what I’ve been told to expect, no one has yet asked my my blood type (it’s a common indicator of personality types.)

I’m going to be teaching 4th, 5th and 6th grades, for a total of about 19 hours week; a workshop for teacher in the school and a ‘special class’ on Monday evenings will fill out my teaching time. I teach 4th grade with my co-teacher, Ji-yeon, in the English lab, which is also my office. I teach 6th grade with the other English teacher, Mrs. Ok, in the homerooms of each class. For fifth grade, I head out to the teacher’s various home rooms all by myself, and teach all by myself like a real teacher.

Unlike Akasha, I’m not expected to bow to the principal every morning, though if I see them, or pretty much any other adult in the halls, I am quick to bow. Bowing, I’ve discovered, is habit forming in this country.

The kids are well-behaved, and very curious. I’m often stopped in the halls with calls of “How are You?” and other basic English expressions, and several classes have asked me if I’m related to English soccer star Wayne Rooney.

So my days, after giving my introductions, have been filled with lesson planning and trying to fit into a school where I don’t know the language. Everyone has been very helpful so far, and we’re gradually settling in.

Well that’s about it for now – thanks for sticking with us to the end of this long, rambling post. We’re thinking about all of you, miss you, and hope you’ll comment, email, Facebook, or Skype us often to keep us in the loop on the happenings of Minnesota, USA, and the rest of the world outside the Korean peninsula.

Me again (Akasha) we wake up listening to the evening braodcast of 91.1 MPR and chill out at night while listening to the morning commute music on 89.3 the current.  It is funny, except for the Trump politics stuff.