Friday, 4 September 2009

First Day at Gucheon Middle School

Having successfully endured the first few days of teaching at my first school, I was confident that my first day at my second school was going to be even better. I had absolutely no idea where I was going, what the school would be like, what my classes would be like, what I would be teaching… But at this point, it didn’t matter.

My second co-teacher, Sunny, picked me up at 8:30. At first, we sat in silence as I stared at hills passing by. Having been thoroughly surprised at how few students there were at my first school, I broke the silence and asked,

“Sunny, Bunam Middle School doesn’t have many students. Is Gucheon any bigger?”

She looked at me and smiled. It was the same smile I saw on Mrs. Jeon’s face when she told me Bunam had a total of eighteen students.

“Yes,” she said. “Gucheon is much bigger. We have twenty-three students. Two in middle school one (grade 7), eleven in middle school two (grade 8), and ten in middle school three (grade 9)”.

I just sat there and smiled.

We pulled up to the school, drove across the dirt field, and pulled up to the main building. There, a line of teachers stood in silence, waiting for me to step out. I took a deep breath, and opened the door.

We went through the usual bow-and-handshake drill, followed by a few exchanges of words (I didn’t wait for “speech time” at this school. I just busted out the Korean right away). They led me inside, showed me my desk, and immediately returned back to work. No meetings, no tour, nothing. I could see right away that they wanted to talk to me, but it was obvious that they were nervous. In Korean culture, there is an unbelievable amount of emphasis on image and reputation. Therefore most people will choose to remain silent, rather than try to speak for fear of making a mistake. We had been warned about this type of anxiety during our orientation, so I tried my best to break them out of it.

“Um, sorry to disturb you,” I started (and immediately received the full attention of everyone in the room), “but I was wondering if someone could show me where the bathrooms are.”

Instantly, four of the male teachers got up and insisted on bringing me there together.

It was right next door.

Instead of going back to the teachers lounge, they waited for me outside of the bathroom. When I came out, they asked me to follow them on a walk. They showed me the classrooms, the physical education room (which had couches and a couple ping-pong tables), the library, and the science room. The bell rang as the tour came to an end, and I was escorted to my first class.

As I previously mentioned, my grade 7 class has only two students. I knew this as I walked up to their classroom, but what I didn’t expect was how funny it was going to look.

I walked into a full-sized classroom that was completely bare except for two desks side-by-side in the dead center of the room. The two students stood at attention beside their desks in silence and stared at me. I smiled at them, wished them good-morning, and they sat down in silence.

I knew right away that I wasn’t going to be able to teach them with this particular classroom layout, so I walked over to their desks and pulled them up to mine. At first, they looked a little stunned at what I did, but the fear quickly turned to excitement. I sat down at our newly formed group of desks, and opened up a discussion. It didn’t take long for them to realize that I wasn’t here to flunk them out of school; I just wanted to talk. The class flew by as we talked about my trip to Korea, my favourite foods so far, and of course, my favourite Korean pop artists (Jess knows all-too-well my love for K-Pop music).

Next class was a spare, so I returned back to the teachers lounge only to find it empty. I heard noises from outside, so I headed out to investigate. The teachers were sitting at a table, coffees in hand, watching the kids carrying huge bags over their shoulders towards the tennis court. It may sound like child labour, but the smiles on their faces said otherwise. The boys were trying to show off for the girls by carrying two bags at a time, and the gym teacher helped by piling the bags into the corner. Once they were all piled up, he pulled out a knife, slit them open, and poured the contents all over the ground. I turned to Sunny and asked what they were doing, and she told me that they were salting the court to harden it. Several times a semester, they order in huge bags of salt, pour it all over the dirt, spread it out with rakes, and water it down. When the court dries, they have a hard surface on which to play tennis. It was simple and effective; yet another example of Korean ingenuity.

The following two classes ran very smoothly using my PowerPoint introduction. I could see how excited they were to meet me, and I hoped that they understood just how excited I was to meet them. 

My day ended with a huge surprise. I walked to my “extra” class in the library (all levels participate) only to find my students smiling at me from behind snack-filled tables. Sunny told me that the students had each chipped in a bit of money, and during lunch time some of them had biked out to the store to pick up snacks for a welcoming party.

We ate, talked, ate some more, and before I knew it, the bell signaled the end of another awesome school day. 

- Ken

1 comment:

  1. I swear I'm there right beside you as you relay a play-by-play account of your day. Excellent job Ken!
    I LOVE these blogs so much, considering I didn't even know what a "blog" was till recently. I have my big "McGill Mom" mug filled hot tea (I was prepared since you warned me that you had another onslaught of entries coming) and I just relax and travel and experience through you and Jess. Thanks so much. You're writing styles are addictive and always leave us wanting more.
    Anxiously awaiting your next adventure - love you both!