This post has been a few weeks coming but I haven't really known what to say. It's hard for even me to put words to my thoughts and emotions. My teaching contract will be over at the end of May and just like that, my job title will be past tense and the memories will be just that - memories.
Some moments from the past year I'd like to forget, out of cultural annoyance or simple awkwardness. Things like my lunches when the principal would comment on my chopstick ability, or when a few older men would invite me for instant coffee during a break and I'd sit and "talk" to them about their kids and what I like about Korea.
But I'd like to always remember what my students were like.
Of course, these were the kids I got to know at my school and should not be taken as a overall rule for all high school students in Korea. My school is in a relatively small city and boards students from the surrounding cities to train for technical jobs. The students will spend their first and second years of high school taking regular classes and will spend their third and final year only training for their specific job and their specific company, which they hopefully had gotten hired for in the previous years. They will go directly into their jobs following graduation until doing their two years of mandatory military service. After their service, most will choose to go back to their jobs and a few have the desire to apply to a university, which the application process and selection is stressful and highly elitist. All other high schools that are not technical schools have students who apply while they are in high school for their follow-on education, so the pressure to learn English is much higher than at my technical school.
My job for the past year has been to get the students to practice speaking English, using as many games and interactive activities as possible. It didn't take long for me to refocus my goals to just keeping the students awake. And trying to keep 360 students each week awake and alert at the very least, having fun at best, was not always easy. My 20 minute drive home is always spent getting the short, concise sentences I to try and communicate with everyone I spend all day with out of my head and trying to transition to whatever English speaker I'd need to sound normal around whomever I would be seeing after work.
Each class period starts with the students either filing in separately to the English room or running because they're late coming from the snack shop or their homeroom. I try to talk for a couple minutes, which usually just means saying "Hello, how are you?" and the students replying with their phrase that has been ingrained in them since kindergarten: "I'm fine thank you, and you?" I try saying things like, "How was your weekend?" Or "What did you do this weekend?" Or "How do you like the weather?" But after blank stares and no responses, I end up saying, "Weekend? Good? Bad?" Or "Weekend? Movies? Sleep?" Or "Nice weather. Warm." One or two students reply with one word answers and to everyone's relief, I usually move on to the lesson.
My first impression of the kids were that they were shy, eager and easily awed. I'm not saying this because I'm a 6 foot tall woman with curly hair and blue eyes (all things that are literally unheard of in their entire country) but because I could play a music video like this one with a few tricks and dance moves and they would be enraptured the entire time, oohing and ahhing. It made me want to find the best videos out there and as a result, I have spent way too much time on youtube this past year.
These Korean students are extremely hard workers. To the point where I'm not sure they have a childhood. I tutored a woman who had a son in kindergarten and she told me that while the son's teacher was constantly reminding her he needed to practice his English and arithmetic, even staying up later than she would at night, the mother was mostly concerned that her son grow up to be a good person. The school day at my school starts at 9am, but the students are all in their classrooms before I show up at 8:40am for homeroom. The regular day ends at 4:40, where the students have "free time" before dinner before starting their night classes that go from 6:30-8:30pm. And as crazy as this sounds, I know other high schools have much longer hours, sometimes with night classes going until close to midnight. There are two hours every Wednesday during the school day for "club activities" which the students can choose where to go, either soccer club, badminton club, music club, or English conversation club (you can guess how many students I have there) This is the only sort of "extracurricular" I have found. We all get an hour lunch every day (a teacher's dream) and it usually means the students are playing soccer or basketball. Other than that, it is straight school from March-July and August until December. Even during school breaks in the summer and winter, the students are either going to different academic camps or doing internships at their future companies. It's exhausting just thinking about it, and has always given me a little sympathy when the kids nod off during my class.
For the most part, the kids are eager to learn or practice English. But they are still high school students at an elementary level, so the best lessons were always ones where I showed up with a wig on or had games and candy as a reward.
Once in a while, I had to make a speaking test where the kids would spend one class period practicing the test and the next time we'd meet, speaking for me while I graded. It took me one test to realize that the students were just going to memorize their answers. Sometimes I'd ask them a question ("how are you?") before starting the test and they'd look at me, clueless, and start talking like I'd asked the first question on the test. They were always very nervous during the speaking tests. Most kids would sit down, shaking, and barely make be able to make eye contact. They relaxed a bit after I smiled at them when they sat down and gave most of them A's.
It didn't take much time for the students to warm up to me, and it took even less time for them to wriggle their way in to my heart. Sometimes they were so messy and would leave the classroom a mess of candy wrappers and scribbles on the desks, other times they'd show up with candy or a drink for me after a trip to the snack shop. Sometimes I had to be stern and "teacher-y" with them, but 98% of the time, standing at the front of the class silently was all it took for them to quiet down. I'd never known any students to respond to verbal affirmation more than these kids. Both good and bad. I made the mistake only a couple times of telling a kid "wrong" before I realized how devastated they were at that response. Instead, I'd say "almost" and then after fixing their answer, they'd beam at my exuberant "perfect! good job!"
I've had to say goodbye to a couple classes already, since we will not have Monday class due to Buddha's birthday next week and it has broken my heart every time. Maybe it's how excited they get to see me and say, "hi teacher!" every time we pass each other in the hallways, or maybe it's the few kids who say, "hi sir" and I've never had the heart to correct them. Or maybe it's the other few who say "Teacher Danielle" or "hi, Brummer" when I walk by. I'm not sure.
It is very easy to say how lucky I've been to have a job in Korea, but it's a lot more work than just the teaching. Tyler works long and unpredictable hours. Having a regular "9-5" job has meant that many weeks when he flies nights, I simply don't see my husband from Sunday night until Friday evening. And if I don't cook/clean/do the laundry/walk the dog, it does not get done, not because my husband is lazy but because he is rarely home. It's frustrating to acknowledge that because I work, I don't get to see my husband. I'd obviously choose being able to see my husband as much as possible over working, but don't get me started on how unfair that is. I think that's why teaching in Korea this year has been so special to me. Thank God, our marriage hasn't suffered and I've grown and learned so much and literally had one of the best experiences of my life. That's why it breaks my heart that it's almost over. Of course, I can look for a teaching job in Germany or work part time but it's going to come at an even greater cost as his schedule will not slow down and there is no time limit of one year.
I will cherish the memories I've made and treasure everything the kids taught me about the English language, Korean culture and how opposite yet similar our lives can be. How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.