Thursday, 3 September 2009

First Impressions - Hyeondong Middle School

(Oh goodness…I’m going to have to teach these classes old school…)


Out in the parking lot of Andeok School, he was waiting for me. Mr. Yu, my Hyeondong co-teacher, was biding his time, slowly pacing, back and forth. If I hadn’t been walking towards him directly, I’m sure that he wouldn’t have noticed me…me being Korean and all.

The first thing I was told before meeting Mr. Yu was that Hyeondong was a hagwon – a private school. My first thought was, “Oh god, those kids are going to run my buzz right into the ground. My lessons are constantly going to be disrupted by the students... They’re not going to listen to me at all… I should’ve worn something else to make me look scarier. The gossip I had heard about hagwons was not at all encouraging. However, as was the case about much of the ‘water-cooler’ gossip I had heard many times before – I was dead wrong.

This school had the same appeal as the others when I first laid eyes on it…the same solid, dusty ground…the same neutral pastel coating its external walls. There were also some nice potholes spread out all around the field, which I thought would be a joy on which to play soccer.

I quickly made an impression with the ten teachers and administration at the school, and then Mr. Yu led me up to the English lab. My, my, my…where had I seen those posters, desks, textbooks and the tiled phrase ‘Practice Makes Perfect?’ All schools must’ve ordered from the same English Lab distributor. I recognized the rolling blinds with pictures of the Bukingham Palace guards, the Sydney Opera House and Niagara Falls, way too many times. The almost-untouched, cherry-wood-paneled room soon filled with students sporting baby-blue Hyeondong windbreakers. So, I began my day once again, introducing the class to Niagara Falls and Montreal.

When it came to my first scintillating question for the students – and this is the best part – about two-thirds of them pulled out electronic dictionaries/computers, taking about thirty seconds to type in unknown words, read descriptions, and provide me with an answer. Only as a teacher did I come to the realization of how annoying electronic dictionaries could be. The situation reminded me of my Calculus years in High School, where it was forbidden to use any calculators.

I didn’t want to pull their only comfort away from them on the first day. I stressed how much they’d learn in class, if only they would use their heads, rather than their glimmering, white-enameled magic boxes.

After a few more questions, the students seemed to get it into their heads how quickly they could understand my question with just a couple of hints in Korean. They were as bright and endearing as the darling students at my other two schools.


Lunch, again, was a little different. I was happily served by the students I had taught, and I comfortably sat across from Mr. Yu. I noticed almost immediately, that I was the only female teacher at my end of the table. The other ladies were seated at the opposite end, quietly chit-chatting, and giggling. Since I was with the male teachers, I had about three minutes to open my gullet wide and shovel-in my food. I didn’t move an inch…I thought I was butch enough to sit next to them.

After losing in the ‘Who Can Eat the Fastest?’ contest, Mr. Yu and I peacefully strolled back up to the school’s main building. On the way, he casually asked, “At your other schools, do teachers sit next to students during lunch?”

“Sometimes...” I replied. “Usually, there isn’t very much room, so the teachers will sit in a group, with the students seated next to them.”

“Strange. So the male and female teachers sit together?”

“Yes, they do.” I confirmed. Up until this point in the conversation, I thought his questions were merely in passing, but he continued.

“Wouldn’t you like to sit with the female teachers?”

“Oh. Of course I would like to sit with them.” I answered. I guess I really wasn’t man enough to join the male circle…yet.


The sun-kissed afternoon went by quickly as I taught my remaining classes, ending with a hilarious ‘Activities Class’ where students excitedly showed off their betting skills (They’re only 12-14 years old!).

At the close of my first day at Hyeondong, I headed out with Mr. Yu to the bus station, taking in the delicate breeze kissing my cheeks, and gently brushing my hand across the fuchsia, pink and pearly white Cosmos flowers. When we finally made it to the blushing red, apple-printed Cheongsong bus, he gave me a final farewell for the week, and I gracefully stepped onto the bus that was headed for home.

- Jess


  1. I love learning about all the little differences in our cultures, especially the dividing line between males and females. It's too bad that they don't appreciate your sense of humour. I know we do!

  2. Who wants to eat in a man circle anyway???