Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Review of 전남 제일 고등학교

This past year I was an English Native Speaker at 전남 제일 고등학교 (aka Jeonnam Jeil Godeung Hakkyo). The school is one of Mokpo's language school and specializes in English, Chinese and Japanese. Funny enough the Japanese course is taught by a Japanese native speaker although since she administers the exam (let alone creates it) I suspect that she is more qualified than a native speaker like me.

My contract looks similar to this one. I didn't post it but feel free to compare it to other contracts.

The staff is at the school is friendly and professional and it's safer to have my care packages delivered to the main secretary than to my apartment. I would even use the word warm despite the fact that my only communication consisted of brief nods and 안녕하세요's as I pass each member in the hall. Even the principal is a kind and friendly man (I am allowed to skip teacher meetings) but smart enough to use the vice principal as his enforcer. The English department consist of eight English teachers placed at two per grade level. Despite the horror stories from other schools, the English teachers here have a decent understanding of English. They all have various degrees of proficiency but decent English is the rule not the exception at Jeonnam Jeil; if you were to dropped the entire English department in Big City America most if them would thrive while only one or two of them would die of starvation.

For ₩50,000 per month you can purchase meal tickets redeemable at the school cafeteria. The food is unfortunately not very vegetarian or vegan friendly and sometimes you really lose out with the only edible things being rice and kimchi. The past native speakers was also a vegan so I know that the school understands the concept but the cafeteria has never offered me a vegan alternative, even if it was rice without the sprinkled chunks of ham. My predecessor soon opted to go home for lunch but I've kept going since it works with my schedule. In protest I've supplemented my lunch from the local Kimbap Nara place just beside the school and stopped paying for meal tickets. Cashing in the meal tickets is done so on the honor system so surprisingly nobody really noticed or really cared when I pick up a tray without putting a ticket into the bowl. I'm not really proud of this fact, it's just the system that evolved over the year.

My school did not pay for my apartment so there's nothing really to review about it.

I was a supplementary teacher and taught, according to the confusion between my contract and my main co-teacher, either English culture or conversational English. Regardless, each week I taught 50 minutes of something to 8 classes of Grade 1 and 8 classes of Grade 2. I used an online calendar to manage my teaching schedule and vacation times.
Since the only one who really looked at the calendar was me there may be some mistakes, but for the curious it gives you an idea as to what my schedule was and how my year was structured.
There are some notes to my schedule:

  • My predecessor and I never taught any winter or summer camps.
  • You will be required to supervise English exams with the co-teacher.
  • The high school semester is different than elementary and middle school semesters; the starting and end dates of the summer vacation was slightly off by a week so vacationing with a friend may cause some problems.
  • The principal requires that you be at school at 8:30. If you don't you will be invited into his office for a discussion about your problems. So I have interpreted this to mean that I leave when I am finished my classes, even if that means at 2pm. Since I have yet to be brought before him for a second time I gather that this is not a problem. Actually as long as you walk out with purpose and greet all teachers in the hall, they won't even think twice.
  • You are required to be in school during 3 days in February for Graduation Week. You will not teach during these days so as along as you make announcement your arrival at 8:30 am you're free to vanish. Although I didn't, feel free to negotiate a removal from these days by way of a family wedding or two; nothing is going to happen during this week.
As to what I taught I was given absolutely free reign, something that I think is a bad idea and have posted about it before. I was expected to make my own lesson from scratch with no connection to the students' actual proper English education; my work is stored at waygook.org and the lessons are indexed on the side bar.

I started (as do other native speakers) a few months into the school term. This means who ever is going to replace me in the upcoming month should know that I've basically gone through the entire lesson collection with the Grade 2's but since I've only had the grade 1's for a couple of months. I've only done:
Now people like using my lessons but if my replacements are better than me (i.e. know what they're doing) then they should probably do their own thing. The only things that I introduced to the students were the concepts of a themed lesson, powerpoint games, and South Park. This is an education program with no measurement or accountability; no one will care what you do.

Classroom Management
Classroom management is something that I learned on the spot while teaching in Korea. All native speakers have these problems and they vary according to school and teacher. For my replacement here are the class rules that each student should and does know:
  • Students are required to bring their pen and dictionary to class. If they forget they are sent out of the class room to get them.
  • I do not allow food or drink in my class room. If they are eating or drinking I tell them to go outside in hall with the garbage can and do not come back until they are finished. I continue the lesson without them.
  • If students are misbehaving I kick them out in the hall where vice principal or co-teacher will deal with them privately. I continue on with my lesson trying not to skip a beat.
  • Students do not touch the air condition or heating machine. If they are cold or hot they have one opportunity to ask me to turn the heater or air condition on during the ritual "Hello. How are you?' If they respond 'Fine thank you and you," they've lost it and they'll suffer. Usually one student will pipe up saying "Teacher! Cold!" I stop class to explain that when I asked 'how are you' they replied 'fine.' I'll repeat the exercise, writing down on the board what they should say to me, until I get a clear majority rule of what they want. Having spent summer and winter with me the the grade 2 students know this all too well and they'll usually ask the smart kids in the class to help them with the words.
  • There are student mug shots files that list the students, their photos, and their student numbers, organized by class. I use these for attendance and have arrange the student's in-class sitting chart based on this list. I.e. in table 1, I have student 1 through 6, in team 2 I have 7 through 12, and so on.
  • Volunteering is sometimes painful for my students but they know to expect it. My classes are usually full with 30 students so I'll never get to all of the kids. Instead I take advantage of the team tables and ask each team to choose a captain of the team. If they gang up and choose the quiet kid then I give the quiet kid captain the choice to choose the volunteer. If they squabble I give them the option of kai-bai-bo while I count down to five on my hand. If they're still squabbling at the end of five I randomly choose one kid and give him the option of front of the class or in the hall. Fortunately I have never had to give this option since my counting down to five, in conjunction with the rest of the class counting down to five, encourages one of the team members to step up.
  • I keep cell phones and do not give them back after class. I don't pretend that I'm calling Canada or pretend that I'm calling their mothers, I just keep them, ignore whatever pleas the students have. I'll usually give them to co-teacher during the day and let them deal with it but I show no sympathy to the kids.
  • I do not and have never done candy. I have started giving them titles of Genius Team and if the students themselves introduce this concept in class, Rock Head team.
While my rules maybe strict I can pull it off though my patented friendly way of mocking the students and feigning surprise when they say something intelligent. On my first class I got many "Teacher, smile?" But on my last class I got many "I love you, angry teacher."

Jeonnam Jeil has some great co-teachers but that doesn't mean that I've been free of problems. Co-teachers know and understand that they are required to supervise my class. And by know, I mean that I have no problem of making misbehaving kids the vice principal's problem; the vice principal in turn will openly wonder why I am dumping misbehaving kids in his office by way of yelling at the English department. I had eight co-teachers who were responsible for co-teaching 2 classes with me this year. That sums up to two hours out of their week and, in comparison, lunch took up five hours out of their week.

But on average most of the teachers were excellent, arriving and even participating as a co-teacher in my class. The process to get the problematic co-teachers to come to class evolved through the year and ended up in this format: Before each class I would fire off an instant message (my school has an in-house instant messenger system, aptly name School Messenger) to the specific co-teacher, reminding them to come to class through a "Could you help me teach this class?" This was the best Korean way of handling this since I was explicitly asking for help in a documented way (school messenger keeps chat histories) that would be readily available come the next meeting of the vice-principal and the English department. Now in exchange for coming to my class, if they came to me and asked me to be excused from this lesson because of work, then I granted immediately. Or if I knew I was having a easy lesson I told them to not worry about coming to class.

The most productive way that my class ran was when the co-teachers acknowledged me as the dominant teacher but supplemented my explanations (on games, vocabulary, etc.) with Korean while keeping the kids in the back row from misbehaving. Again I've talked about this before, but a good example of this relationship happened when a student stood up in class one day. I stopped whatever I was doing and watched, along with the other students, as she walked over to the co-teacher and asked her something in Korea. The whole class looked on as the co-teacher gestured towards me and replied 'Did you ask Native Speaker?' She sulked back to her seat and we all waited while she said in broken English 'Teacher may I go to the bathroom?" I did and class resumed. Going back to classroom management, I have a rule that I will let students do whatever they want, provided they ask me in English. They're not allowed to open the window or go to the bathroom without first asking me first; nobody has realized that if they asked me 'Teacher, I am feeling sick, may I go home," I wouldn't hesitate.

Teacher X.
While I can safely say that I had a perfectly professional relationships with all of my co-teachers my only real negative opinion of working at Jeonam Jeil came from working with the one teacher who was assigned to be my handler. On paperwork each native speaker has one co-teacher and Teacher X was mine; in addition to being one of my eight co-teachers the teacher also had to file the paper work for my airplane ticket reimbursement, etc. Looking back on the year I realized that X was a classic example of a person with the largest ego with the least ability. Now it would be unfair to paint the teacher as a one dimensional cartoon character but at certain times X acted like something lifted out of TV.

The teacher had applied for and received the job of handler not because of X's experience, but explicitly for her lack of experience. X (and I guess the school agreed) that this would be an excellent attempt for the teacher's English to improve by way of a personal tutor. Any consideration for my well being was obviously not a part of the decision process.

In the classroom Teacher X was my worst teacher. X would try to come across as an English expert in front of the kids but both the students and I could see that X wasn't. For example X was the only teacher who was afraid to ask me a question about English in front of the class. All of the other teachers both male and female, older and younger, would never hesitate to ask me the difference between two words or ask me to explain or the clarify something I had said in class. Instead X would vanish into the back office and research the word on Naver. This process took five minutes so that when X decided to return both I and the class had moved on to another part of the lesson. And this happened many times during a class.

Another example of this teacher disrupting my class was the way X helped the students. Most teachers understood that when I asked a question to the students I expected the students to respond in English. If they didn't know the answer the students knew full well how to say 'I don't know' so that I could re-ask the question and I could keep the class going. The most annoying thing that a teacher could do was to tell the students the answer. Teacher X would do this and usually it was the wrong answer. This infuriated me to the point that when I saw this in class I pointed to the whispering teacher and scolded X in front of the whole with 'Cheater! Cunning!' The students laughed and so did Teacher X, unaware whom the students who laughing at. I've talked to X many times about this counterproductive behavior but the teacher refused to see it as such, under the belief that the students needed the opportunity to practice English. It was through these experiences with Teacher X I've learned that for some Koreans age caries more weight than anything, including common sense.

Now if the problem with Teacher X was limited to just the classroom I could deal with since I would only have this particular teacher twice every week. But outside of the classroom it was worse and I should have recognized it immediately but assumed that it was the culture shock that everybody was telling me about. For instance on my first day X told me that I must write an introduction, memorize it and give back to the teacher. I did learned that the X's real intention was to memorize whatever I wrote and present Xself as translating 'on the fly' to the rest of the staff while I introduced myself during the morning meeting. I have had so many of these moments that I'm going to limit them to my top five incidents with Teacher X.

Incident 1
Last year all native speakers had to deal with the new security requirements. This included a verification of our university transcripts and our criminal background check; however since many of us had submitted them through the provincial office they had already been verified and processed and we were exempt from process, as told by our liaison at the provincial office of education.

Despite my insistence that X should call the office of education for clarification Teacher X refused to believe me when I said that I was exempt from this process. We danced around this issue for a couple of weeks and in the end I had to get the provincial office to call the teacher. To Teacher X this was an act of rudeness since I was bypassing the school's authority and embarrassing my co-teacher and the school. I know this because X felt like giving me a lecture afterwards. The incident launched a couple of rants performed in front of friends but the important point to learn is that this kind of thinking is detrimental to the well being of a native speaker or the image of the Jeollanam-do Education Program; basically if the native speakers are not allowed to phone the board of education during matters like these then they are isolated and open to abuse. I tried to argue my case but again you do not win arguments with Teacher X.

Incident 2
X was sent to a teacher camp for a month and I thought that I would receive a little time off from dealing with her. Unfortunately X telephoned me constantly with English questions and sent me essays to correct. I wouldn't have minded except for X's special instructions that I should not tell anybody and it should be secret. Well, naturally I did tell somebody, one of my friends who had been a native speaker at a workshop before she told me that this kind of thing is all too common. So I politely refused citing my fears about it being illegal, and while this was something that X denied, X did stop sending me request for corrections.

Incident 3
I was constantly used as a novelty (and this sums up X's view of our relationship) pet. This is one of the most insulting aspects working at Jeonnam Jeil. X would introduce me to Koreans who were X's friends but couldn't speak English, in effect making me wait a hour or so while X sat and gossiped. The awkwardness was compounded when X, in X's most perfect example of uncomfortable vainness would ask, 'how do you think about figure?" implying the friend, acquaintance, or whoever's appearance. X expected me to say 'she is beautiful' or 'he is handsome' or something like so that X would laugh and clap her hands as if I had just yipped and yapped for a treat. It was a suffocating relationship. In the school I had to eat my cafeteria meals with this teacher, alway sit beside X in meetings and assemblies, and always include X when I talked to the other teachers. Somewhere along the lines of 'taking care of me' X automatically assumed a relationship level of intimacy that stepped over many professional boundaries. The other co-teachers labeled X as my 'mother.'

Incident 4
One week X happened to overhear a student asking me about teaching extra English classes. X immediately jumped into this and told the student something to the effect of no, it is illegal. That same week X asked me to help the gym teacher (who was also the coach for the national gymnastic team -- well, maybe, I couldn't understand what X was trying to convey). The students were so busy training that they were unable to attend school and they needed an English teacher and my co-teacher volunteered me. I didn't quite understand this situation but it was completely outside of my contract and I politely refused. X kept on countering my refusal with words like 'duty as native speaker in this country' by this time I had become wise to X's ways and the insistence of reinforced my refusal. X left visibly disappointed.

Incident 5
Early on in the term X came to me and asked me a favor and feeling sorry for her, I ended up loaning X ₩2,000,000. X wouldn't tell me what the money was for and to this day I still don't know. This was the most stupid thing that I would ever do in Korea, but I was still under the impression that X was in control of my winter and summer camps, those little bits of extra work in your summer and winter breaks that stop you from month long vacations. Two weeks later I got the money back and everything was fine. But as a note to my replacements it is important that you do not do this and do not feel pressured into doing this--even if X tells you that he or she knows how much money you have.

(Incidentally I have heard many stories about Koreans lending money that they do not have. In Korean society it seems that people have yet to learn financial responsibility and will go into debt to preserve the image that they are visibly affluent.)

Bonus Incident
X made me 'correct' my comments during the exit interview (i.e. teacher feedback form) and I was not allowed to see what other teachers wrote about my performance.

So after these incidents (and more) I developed a unfortunate habit of immediately being filled with dread every time X wanted to talk to me in private. These incidents do create a harsh impression of X and some part of me wants to believe that there are some redeeming qualities about this teacher. After all it would be unfair to describe X as evil, but X's way of thinking is so far removed from my own--and my other Korean teachers--that working with the teacher proved to be one of the challenging aspect of my time here. I don't know what kind of paperwork X has to deal with concerning me (X will not let me know, informing me that I should not worry about it) but during my term with X I learned to become as independent as I could. The result is this blog and the information that is gathered by learning Korean, asking questions to other Koreans and other native speakers in Mokpo.

And it has to be noted that I was the first foreigner that X had to deal with and I hope that X has mellowed a little thanks our interactions. But, again, I found X to be the kind of person who is insulting without intention and unable to recognize discomfort in other people. While crazy is a word that may be better on the flip side, lack of patience may be equally applied to me. Throughout this year correcting Teacher X's social faux-pas all the time became too exhausting and in the end I gave up and started to avoid the teacher as much as possible, wishing that X magically would 'get a clue.' This is not the best way to handle this situation, but I lacked the drive and ambition; the effort involved in proper mediation was too much for me and my one year in Mokpo.

Out of Five Stars
While Teacher X was the main problem at 전남 제일 고등학교 it would be unfair to the other members of the school, most notable the other members of English department, to simply say 'avoid this school.' The English department and it's members keep the school from failing my (one and only) school review.

Working at 전남 제일 고등학교 gets a 3.5/5 rating. It's an acceptable rating that acknowledges the staff, the students, the teaching resources and even the teaching environment while noting that there are still some areas in need of major improvement. Of course there are schools worse than mine, schools that are more strict and are more antagonistic towards their native speakers. And of course then there are those schools that will make you join the volleyball team.

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