Now I understand why so many ESL teachers become alcoholics.
It was Wednesday and I was at Ara Primary, the larger of my two schools, teaching three classes of third graders and two classes of sixth graders. It’s a weird thing to be teaching all six grades, because you can see the children change from sweet little first graders to awkward, swarthy pre-teens in a matter of hours. It’s not pretty.
The classes are large at Big School, 30 to 40 students in each, with three classes per grade. With five classes a day, that’s upwards of 200 students passing through English class in a day; all operating at full speed and maximum volume. It seems to be the Korean way of teaching that louder is better – the class starts out loud and after a half hour your head is about to explode as their shrieked “answers” bounce off the floor and walls of your brain. The teachers are like cheerleaders, exhorting them to put more and more lung power into every response. But this day was the worst case scenario.
The first two classes of third graders howled their way through the “I like blah blah blah” exercise, with their teachers keeping a thin rein of control. I devised a simple game in which they divided into two teams and tossed a ball to each other, after naming something they liked, from the very short word list for the unit. “I like….apples.” Toss. “I like….chicken.” You get the idea. The team with the most words in one minute was declared the winner. Although I cringe at the winners and losers paradigm in children’s games, the kids are crazy about competition. It was incredibly simple, but they loved it. How it ranks on the language acquisition scale I don’t want to know. After that I finished off the class with songs from a Web site that the kids all know – timeless classics like “Head and Shoulders,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” They ate it up.
Things were going well, if volume was any indication, until the last group before lunch.
This class was led by Mr. E, a burnout who wanted nothing more than to dump the kids off on the stupid wayguk (foreign) teacher and go read for 40 minutes. And that’s what he proceeded to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if he charged them up on espresso and Red Bull first, they were so wired. I was faced with 40 members of the Wild Bunch who spoke maybe 10 words of English, and “QUIET” was not one of them. I’ve noticed the other Korean teachers have certain key words or gestures that the children recognize as meaning “knock it off and listen,” but here I was cast to the wolves, wearing, to quote Norm from Cheers, “Milkbone underwear.” How do you say “fucker” in Korean? I’m sorry, but that’s the only word for him.
I did my best to try to communicate to them the instructions to the game, which did not go as well as if they actually knew what they were doing, then gave up and let them sing songs for the last 15 minutes. Loudly. I was pissed that he had done that to me, but it’s also terribly unfair to the students. They learn little enough in this barest of bare bones curriculum, but these kids are learning nothing!
After school I told my co-teacher about his behavior and she said, “Oh he’s just old.” Um, he’s probably my age. She said he did the same thing to the teacher last semester. I suspect he is embarrassed that he doesn’t speak English and so is avoiding “losing face” in front of me and the students. Saving and losing face are huge cultural issues here. You might as well give someone a wedgie in public as call them out on a weakness. I will have to proceed with caution, but getting him to participate and help me is now my mission. Stay tuned.