First Year in Korea: Part 2

Earlier this week I had to say goodbye to my sixth-grade students as they graduated onto middle school. We’re also saying goodbye to 2019 and welcoming in a new decade. 

A year ago I was getting ready to move to Korea to teach English, and it’s an understatement to say that this year went by too fast. I wanted to take some time to reflect on the past year to talk about what I’ve learned from teaching and living here. 

When I first arrived in Boryeong I didn’t know what to expect. I was in a new city away from the friends I made during orientation.

The first week involved meeting the different classes and introducing myself to the students.. they were really curious to know about life back home in the US along with the questions that usually get asked when you’re in Korea.

How old are you? Where are you from? Do you have a girlfriend/wife? If we hadn’t discussed this during orientation it probably would have caught me off guard. 

I didn’t have any issues with sharing personal information with my students and the other teachers. and it led to some funny situations during the first semester on one occasion some of the sixth graders thought that they would be helpful and try to set me up on a date with one of the other new teachers. 

They were very direct about it. These students walked up to a group of teachers included me leaving lunch stop the other teacher and asked her if she was single preceded the point to me and state it so matter-of-factly he’s single to you guys should get together. 

Mind you the other teacher was completely shocked and this is sad entirely in Korean. My mentor teacher was trying to figure out how best to tell me while also finding the situation humorous. Through understanding and some of the conversation and their hand gestures of pointing to the two of us and doing a heart shape, I felt like I was going to die right there.

It was moments like these that made me feel like a part of the school. The other teachers were really friendly towards me the first semester and usually, my mentor teacher would try to translate between the two of us. During the second-semester pictures of tried to talk with me even more in English. 

In 2020 I really want to get more focus on learning Korean more intensively so that I can better communicate with the other teachers. While many of them have taken English classes in school and university they don’t need to use it in their day-to-day lives. 

Pride is a big part of being Korean and it’s not that they don’t want to talk to you. most of the time they want to have a conversation but they’re afraid of messing up. If you can present yourself it’s just an ordinary person and makes some attempts to learn the language and culture you’d find that many of them are very welcoming. 

That’s not to say that you won’t ever meet a rude person in Korea or a Korean person that dislikes foreigners. Similarly to back home in the US, people tend to be more friendly and smaller cities than the larger metropolitan areas from my experience. Places like all have a lot to offer in terms of things to do and places to see but you don’t have to live there to enjoy all of those things.

My sister said that I tend to wander sometimes in my writing and I guess I did in this one. Going back to my teaching experience this year

With these first few months, I learned that lessons didn’t always go according to plan. Some activities would be too short or long. Some classes would love a particular activity while other times I would just have to move on to the next activity. 

Gradually I started to learn about the interests that my individual students had. Some students were really into the K-Pop group BTS, while others were more fans of a group called Wanna One. Some of my students were really good at drawing or liked to make crafts, and I tried to find different ways to implement their interests in the lessons and try to make the classes enjoyable. 

That was my primary goal for this first year; I wanted to get the students interested in learning English, while also making it fun for them as well. For many of these students, it was their first time meeting a person from a different country. 

My Korean language skills even now aren’t great but through translator apps, lots of hand motions and demonstrations, and even some Korean we managed to communicate in our own way. I wanted to make sure that they had a positive interaction with someone from another country. my students were curious to hear me say different Korean words. 

Some of the older kids will try to get me to say some bad words in Korean or would ask me if I liked to eat gaegogi (개고기) ie dog meat as a prank but luckily I was at least familiar with those words. Some of my 6th-grade students even created homework assignments for me when they found out I was taking Korean classes.

They took this role as a teacher very seriously and one Monday morning I completely forgot to do the homework they assigned me. They scolded me semi-jokingly about not finishing the homework and from then on I tried to finish it before the class was over. 

Did my students learn anything? I asked my self this question many times throughout the school year. sometimes the younger students would go off on their own and not want to participate. At times I started to feel frustrated or unsure if I was teaching the right way. 

But there would also be moments where I could see a lightbulb just click inside their head and they understood what I was trying to teach them. Even with these ups and downs throughout the year and being away from my family I’ve learned to treasure these moments and relationships that I’ve dealt with the students and other teachers and look forward to what the new year and decade has in store. 

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