One of my friendliest students, a fifth grader who likes to be called the English name Tim (for some reason, that cracks me up. He is so not a Tim), raises his hand every time I ask a question in class. If I call on him, he gets a huge grin on his face, stands up carefully next to his desk at attention, opens his mouth, and...realizes he has no idea what the answer is. He looks around helplessly, mumbles questions in Korean to his classmates, then gives me a sheepish grin and sits back down. This happens once or twice every single time I teach his class...I don't understand why he doesn't learn.
Possibly the most frustrating thing about not speaking Korean is that when I intercept notes between sixth grade girls I can't read them.
This week I realized I had no idea what I was talking about back when I used to say it was cold. That was nothing. This is tooth-chattering, mucus-freezing, purple-fingers-too-numb-to-write, mind-shattering cold. There is actually heat of some kind in almost all of the classrooms now (although not in the cafeteria, gym, bathrooms, or hallways), but the space heater the vice principal kindly gave me for my music room is broken, so it's nothing but suffering for me.
We have tea time--an extra ten minute break after second period during which a select group of teachers sits together in a little room and eats snacks and drinks instant coffee and tea--at school almost every day. The group includes me, the sixth grade teachers, the second grade teachers, the fourth grade teachers, one of the fifth grade teachers, and the gym teachers. I have no idea why the first, third, and other two fifth grade teachers are not included...I asked my coteacher but she said,"I don't know." I love tea time because the room is heated and sometimes there is fruit and even bread. I usually sit ignored among the teachers, picking the Korean words I know out of their conversations and inventing contexts for them, or sometimes frantically putting together some kind of lesson in my head for the next class. I am often the topic of the other teachers' conversation, but I am almost NEVER included in any way. It's a little weird to have other people talk about you right in front of you (I know my Korean's not very good, but honestly do they think I can't hear my name? Or that I don't know the Korean word for English teacher?) but have no idea what's going on. In the beginning, I tried asking...but that caused a lot of discomfort and embarrassment for the teachers, so I mostly just imagine random conversations for myself. The other day though, I understood a whole story about me from the second grade teachers, and it absolutely made my day. The main teller of the story was the sort of odd, older second grade teacher--the one who interfered with my class and got them saying "Sseo-suh-dae-ee" instead of "Thursday"--and since she always speaks with a lot of charades and exaggerated facial expressions, it was actually quite easy to follow along. She told the other teachers all about how much her kids love my English class, and ask her every day when their next English class will be (the second grade classes get moved around a lot). Right before classes start, she said they all gather in the door and eagerly peek their little heads out to see if I'm coming. When they spot me they all start screaming and jumping around (the scene I always walk into in a second grade class), and after the class they all talk about how my class was "재미 있다" or fun/exciting. Then my favorite second grade teacher ("Clam your hands" lady) said something about how the kids have really learned a lot of English, they seem to remember it all, and they speak it to each other even when they're not in class (!). My coteacher, always a ray of sunshine, broke in saying "I don't think my students are learning much English at all" (Every time I think back to the coteacher workshop we had in Fulbright Orientation where they told us our coteachers would be our closest allies in the school, helping us out and protecting us, I can't decide whether I want to laugh, cry, or smack my coteacher in the face). This is when I entered the conversation, telling them that I love teaching second grade since the students are so intelligent and hard-working and enthusiastic, and it's fun and interesting for me since I get to make up the whole lesson without a book. I said that sixth grade is much more difficult for me to teach, because I am not smart enough and don't know enough Korean to understand the book and teach it in the correct way. Translated from polite-speech into regular English I basically just said, "English textbooks = sucky suck"--understood by all the teachers. So overall, three good things: my second graders like me, the second grade teachers think I'm a good teacher, and I got in another complaint against the textbooks (I'm campaigning for a textbook-less next semester), and only one bad: my coteacher sucks, and this I already knew.
The main reason teachers at my school think I'm a good teacher is not that the students like me, or even that the students seem to be learning a lot (which is really only true for second grade)...it's because I am "pretty." Whenever I'm talked about to teachers or administrators from other schools, the interaction usually goes something along the lines of "This is our native English speaking teacher." "Ohhh she is a good teacher!" "Yes, she is very pretty!" Then everyone beams and pats me vigorously. This is absolutely when I feel the most useless. I am really not exaggerating. Today at our volleyball invite, two women cornered me and talked to me nonstop for the first 2 hours (their major goals were to secure my phone number, my services for teaching their children, and my company at their church on Sunday). The first thing they said was, "Ee Sang Sook ["Clam your hands" lady] is a very nice teacher. She says she is proud of you because you are pretty. We want a pretty foreign teacher to teach our children. How long are you staying in Korea?" My eye color counts for so much more with my school's teachers and administration than anything I do in the classroom.
Randomly this week there have been mothers of students wandering the school throughout the day. They all wear beauty pageant contestant shoulder sashes and carry themselves like they are doing Very Important Things. No one can/will tell me what this is about.
It is impossible to tell what activities students will like or dislike. 4-1 will love a game that 4-2 hates. Often something I've scrabbled together at the last minute and am dreading teaching will go beautifully, while something I planned out days in advance will last 5 minutes. Just now, I had to teach class 5-1 a stupid song from the stupid book. Random Archery Dude teaches 5-1, and he gets very insufferable and condescending when I skip things from the book, so even though 5th grade usually barely participates in the songs, I put in the CD. The most horribly annoying, mangled 80's poplike song started playing (The words: "Come on everybody, let's make a snowman! Ohhhhhhh yeah! Can you join us? Can you, can you join us? Oh sure. Can you join us? Can you join us Jinho? Oh sure sure sure. How about you? Can you join us Nami? Mmmm. Oh sorry, I must go hooooome!). I groaned inwardly because it was so annoying and hard to sing, plus 5-1 is the lowest level fifth grade class and usually very difficult to please. I was sure the next ten minutes would be a mess...but they loved it! They were laughing and dancing and singing loudly. Random Archery Dude started dancing around in the front of the classroom, and this one boy who has always absolutely refused to speak English was jumping around in the back, waving his arms, and yelling (some of) the words. I put them in teams and they competed, singing the song and doing a dance along with it (although the dances were mostly just the boys), and then, even though class was already 5 minutes over, they kept begging for more.
At a teacher dinner last night my coteacher (in the only conversation she would willing have with me all night) leaned across the table and half-whispered conspiratorially, "It is very sad."
"What?" I asked. "Oh, 3-1 teacher, she can not eat anything." "Oh no!" I said, "What's wrong?" She told me that Kwon Yeong Lan (the 3-1 teacher) only drinks water, tea, and yogurt, and that she thinks it's due to "the shocking." I asked what was wrong again and she told me that Kwon Yeong Lan's mother died. When I asked when that happened, she told me six or eight years ago (I checked this fact in Korean to make sure she hadn't just gotten the English for "year" and "day" or "week" mixed up) and then proceeded to tell me this lengthy story about how Kwon Yeong Lan has brittle bones (although if she's only had milk and yogurt for the last 6-8 years, you'd think brittle bones would be the only thing she DOESN'T have to worry about) and has to wear a neck brace. Now, Kwon Yeong Lan just had a baby. She's definitely not fat, or even close to fat, but she's easily the biggest woman in the school. And her baby is roundest, fattest, most sluglike baby imaginable. Most importantly, she definitely does not wear any sort of neck brace. So where did that come from? It's not possible, right? I just do not understand my coteacher at all.