For the past week the administrative staff at my school have been slowly and methodically bringing a new trainee up to speed. I’ve seen her sitting next to various staff members being shown the computer system and the minutia of what they do everyday. This is abundantly more training than any of the foreign teachers at the school will ever get.
My training consisted of watching two teachers run three classes while I was insanely jet lagged. One of the three classes I viewed consisted almost entirely of the students playing Simon Says and Hangman because it was the teacher’s last day and he didn’t give a shit. It’s my understanding that most foreign teachers in most schools here in Korea don’t get any more training than I did, but I find it kind of laughable that admin staff get more training than we do.
Before I get any deeper into this, I should explain the structure of the school a little bit. There are three of us foreign teachers at the moment (more coming I’ve heard) and eleven Korean teachers, including two department heads. While we foreign teachers do our classes entirely in English, the Korean staff teach English, but almost entirely in Korean. Also, the Korean teachers really only have passable English. And the divide between the Korean and foreign teachers in the office is so great that they don’t get any better from practicing with us. They barely speak to me and tend to only speak to my colleagues in Korean. At some point I may try to bridge the gap, but for now, I’m just getting through the day.
I have to start giving people pseudonyms now, for the sake of keeping the stories easy. So the cast of characters in this vignette: Mike, the lead foreign teacher, who is also one of my kindly neighbours; Sam, Mike’s roommate and the other foreign teacher at school; and Debbie, my department head.
As of yesterday I finished teaching a full week of my schedule. In about 85% of my classes, I’ve prepared for what the curriculum says I should be doing, only to walk in and have the kids tell me they’re on a completely different unit. I’m taking over for Mike who is moving to the other department. In some cases he’s let me know what the kids are doing, but in other cases he hasn’t. I’m loathe to bug him because I know he’s been recently “blessed” with a lot more responsibility sans the commensurate bump in pay. I’ve just sort of considered this week the time I need to figure out what in hell I’m doing, and I sort of assumed everyone else would treat it as such. It’s not like they didn’t know this was my first time teaching when they hired me.
Yesterday afternoon, Debbie, my department head, came and told me that the parents like how I’m teaching the kids (unclear how they’ve determined this) but some of the kids in the two lower proficiency levels of the three I teach, are finding me hard to understand and feel that I speak too quickly. The feedback seemed reasonable to me and I pledged to slow it down. Then an hour later, Mike caught up with me between classes needing to speak with me. He hemmed and hawed a bit before saying, “So this happens with all the the new teachers, but the kids are complaining that you’re going too fast and they aren’t understanding the material. So I have to sit in on some of your classes and critique.” Besides the fact that this news was a bit of a surprise, given the way my conversation with Debbie had ended, it was also a bit ouchy for the ego. But I sucked it up and told him that he should probably plan to sit in on a class in one of my two lower proficiency levels, since that’s likely where the problem lay.
I figured the issue was done with for the moment and kind of started to think that having someone sit in on a class and give me some pointers wouldn’t be all bad. There are definitely classes where I feel like I’m having a very hard time assimilating the material into a coherent lesson. I had managed to kind of stop worrying about it when, an hour later, I sat down at my desk and Sam, who has no say in any of this, turned to me and said “Hey did the Mike talk to you?” I almost lost it and snarked at him “Wow, so it takes three people to tell me one piece of information?!”
At that point, I headed to the bathroom to have a wee cry only to find the bathroom door completely stuck in some bizarre half closed position, making it impossible for me to get in. By the time I jimmied it open I realized I didn’t want some other Korean teacher finding me in the common bathroom crying. I had a break between classes so I headed to a nearby restaurant where I cried into my spicy pork and rice instead.
We’ll get to my neuroses in a moment, but seriously, there are at least three things wrong with that situation. Firstly, instead of Debbie, to whom I directly report, just telling me “I’m going to have the Mike sit in on some of your classes to give you some pointers” she sees the fact that I’m doing something wrong in my first week as this big issue, avoids the conflict and passes the buck. Secondly, though there’s no reason for him to have this information, Sam also knows that Mike needs to sit in on my classes. That information may have come from Mike (bad), but it may also have come from Debbie telling the other Korean teachers, who repeated it to Sam (not implausible and also bad). Lastly, the fact that I’m not a perfect teacher in a week should not surprise anyone. But everyone reacts like it’s a surprise and then it becomes talk of the office for some reason. In my humble opinion, I think it’d be much more encouraging and empowering if someone just sat in on a new teacher’s first week of classes and made suggestions rather than having it come up in this way that feels completely punitive. It’s like being critiqued on something you never learned.
Admittedly Mike and Sam warned me about this, but you know how it is with warnings–you don’t really heed them until you get hit in the face with them. They warned me that the Korean teachers (especially Debbie, not so much the other department head) would avoid having any kind of conflict with me directly and instead tell one of the foreign teachers to come and tell me something, thereby immediately blowing it out of proportion.
I’m a total perfectionist, so even though I know it’s not logical to think I was going to do it all right in the first week of teaching, I still felt like a total loser for not doing it all right in the first week of teaching. Thankfully I was able to parse that out pretty quickly and ended up having a very pleasant evening with Mike and Sam. As for Debbie, I didn’t think particularly highly of her before this and, really, she’s not winning any points with me (more on her shenanigans in another post).
As fate would have it though, I was reminded today that this sort of foolishness is par for the course. On our way home tonight, I realized Sam was pretty pissed off. After a lot of mumbling, it came to light that something really insignificant that he’d done two weeks ago finally came up today, but not even from the horse’s mouth (that’d be Debbie’s mouth…again). It’s something that should have been addressed and resolved immediately, but instead, much like I’ve experienced, it’s being treated like some enormous, shameful secret. It seems to me that I’m getting a very quick education in the politics of this office. And I’m realizing they are much like the ones you find most everywhere.
And so it was, my first week of teaching. Next time I post about teaching, the kids might even get more than an honourable mention!