An epic post about EPIK teaching

The first thing I ever heard about the EPIK program (from a couple of Australians who had just completed three years of EPIK teaching) was how easy it was to be an EPIK teacher – you hardly had to do any teaching, they told me, and the students were little English-loving angels, who couldn’t wait to come to your class every day. Ha! Boy were they wrong! It’s not like I was actually expecting to find classrooms full of angels when I got here, but I also didn’t expect to find the exact opposite…

Asian discipline? What discipline?

It certainly doesn’t exist in my school in Korea! Although apparently my sixth graders are renowned in Ulsan for being especially loud, rude, and low-level. It’s pretty much a constant struggle to try to get them to pay attention, stop throwing things, and stop punching/kicking/slapping/strangling their desk partner. They also curse (in Korean and English), and make each other cry. Little angels, indeed. A lot of the time, when they do actually pay attention, they tend to be incredibly whiny, and can find no shortage of things to complain about – even when I’m giving them specially imported candy corn for Halloween.

But before I sound too whiny (too late?), I should probably say that I do really like my students. A lot of them are absolutely wonderful! And adorable! And the “bad” ones aren’t all bad, obviously. Some of my classes are totally great! It’s just been surprising how much of this job is just disciplining and classroom control. Really, I should have known better. But my view of how classes should behave is certainly skewed, as the only schools I know are the ones I went through growing up, which were very good public schools in some of the nicest suburbs in one of the nicest areas of Michigan. So I wasn’t really prepared through prior experience or anything.

Interesting fact about disciplining in Korea: corporal punishment isn’t illegal! It’s illegal in Seoul, but not here in Ulsan, according to my co-teachers. One of the fifth grade homeroom teachers walks around with a cracked bamboo rod! I haven’t seen him use it, but I think I can probably assume what he uses it for…One of my co-teacher’s frequently has the students hold their hands over their heads for uncomfortable periods of time, but that’s (thankfully) the worst I’ve seen.

So I don’t know what kind of Utopian Korea these Australians had been teaching in, but it’s hard to believe they were in the same place I am!

Lucky for me, the severest disciplining is usually left up to my co-teachers.

What’s a co-teacher?

As an EPIK native-teacher, I’m legally required to work with a Korean co-teacher. I guess I lucked out, because I ended up with three of the nicest co-teachers possible! They were extremely helpful in getting me set-up in the country when I first arrived, and helped me set up a bank account, internet, a cell phone, go through the immigration process, etc. It would probably be impossible to do all of that without the help of a native Korean speaker,

I’m pretty sure this country has a shortage of English teachers. Two of my co-teachers told me they were randomly assigned to teach English by the principal when they transferred to Samil (teachers switch schools ever four years in Korea). I don’t think they had any previous English training or education, beyond what they studied in school. Their English is good enough that we can communicate most of our ideas about lessons, although I don’t think either of us comes across as clear as we’d like. So there’s a bit of a communication barrier, but nothing too bad.

Working with a Korean co-teacher means I’m never entirely in charge of the classes I teach, although I am mostly responsible for lesson planning and running the classes. My co-teachers are relatively open to my ideas for classroom activities, but seem to feel really bound to teaching from the government-mandated textbook. This textbook is very unfortunately lacking (the students’ books have probably 3-7 English words in them per unit, for starters). Any students that don’t study English privately and have been learning solely in these classes, out of this book, have essentially no English skills.

Many of the students do study English privately after school, at “hagwons”. A lot of parents start sending their students to hagwons as early as kindergarten or first grade! My students that study at hagwons know most everything I teach in class already, while the other students seem to hardly know the alphabet! It’s pretty difficult to try to teach to both levels.
I think a lot of my students would benefit from going back and studying phonics and extremely basic reading, but there isn’t really time for that when they’re racing to finish the books.

Another interesting thing about Korean education: Parents have a huuuuuuuge say in what goes on. Much more so than in the US. At our orientation, it was described to us like this: in the US, the parents are on the side of the teachers in getting their kids to do the work the teachers assign. In Korea, the parents are on their kid’s side, and if their kid isn’t learning it’s the teachers fault. Last week I got in trouble because parents had been complaining that we weren’t doing every activity out of the book in class. As if their students would learn anything working just out of the text book! sigh…

Anyways, a lot of my lessons present new information using PowerPoint presentations. This is what those look like:

Teaching weather and clothing

Teaching weather and clothing

This was my accidentally too-graphic Halloween game for 5th grade.
Zombie game that was too scary for my fifth graders

Sorry, kiddies.
Zombie game that was too scary for my fifth graders
There’s a head in/on/under/above the sink.

I taught 5th grade Thanksgiving to tie-in with Chuseok, a Korean holiday that happened at the end of September.
Teaching Thanksgiving

I need to get more acquainted with Korean culture. My cartoon references are a bit dated…
Teching with Pinky and the Brain

I like that this job involves drawing pictures and being creative. I get to play a version of pictionary at least once a week! Last week I even made a tiny animation for third grade.

Ultimately, I find teaching to be infinitely challenging and infinitely interesting. I hope that I’m an effective teacher, although sometimes it’s hard to know for sure. I get absolutely no feedback from my co-teachers, which I think is rather unfortunate, and perhaps partly tied into cultural differences. I’m learning quite a bit just by teaching and messing up, seeing what works and what doesn’t. As the year progresses, I hope that I find new ways to be creative and continuously challenge what I think I know. Some of the teachers I’ve met that have been here for a while seem pretty bored with teaching, and are just here to fulfill their contracts or because they’re not sure of what they want to do next. It’s almost like they’re stuck.

I’d really like to avoid this stuckiness, and so far, I think I’m doing a pretty good job. When we first got here, a fellow new teacher told me that the more you put into your job, the “more they expect from you.” She said it like it was a warning – don’t try too hard! I thought that was an interesting take on things, because I feel like the more you put into something, the more you get out of it. But to each their own.

And finally…

The day I realized I would be really unhappy if my job were just being a human tape-recorder:

The first weekend I was here, I worked at an English Festival put on by the school district. Please note the impressive balloon art.
'English Together' festival

My school’s booth was a ‘Food Market,’ lovingly decorated by myself and my two co-teachers. That’s 400,000 won (almost $400) worth of decorations and cookies/candy!
My School's Food Market booth

Ballin’ student volunteers:
My School's Food Market Booth

And this is how I spent most of that Saturday, running hundreds of kids through the silly ‘food market’ dialogue so they could get their cookie. It was pretty draining, and made me realize that despite the difficulties, I’m really glad I’m not just a human tape recorder in my classes.
My School's Food Market Booth


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Danielle
    Nov 12, 2010 @ 12:29:46

    The differences in schooling sound really interesting. I do see a lot of teacher-blaming here in the U.S. too, although I’m sure it’s not as bad and slightly different. In the “push” for education reformation, the teachers get the crap end of the stick. But that’s not really a big surprise. Part of me kind of figured about the discipline, because I was always hard-pressed to believe that American kids were the only ones making a ruckus in the classroom. The corporal punishment bit is certainly strange to me – how do the students react to that sort of thing?

    The disparity in your students’ English skills seems frustrating. Have you tried differentiated instruction for them at all? For example, I had about 20 students that failed my last test about nouns (something they should have mastered at least two year ago). I made up a small “program” for them to complete at home and working with me at lunch. I created a set of worksheets and graphic instructions that focused intensively on the most basic concepts in our unit. Students were able to use it to catch up with the rest of the class. Obviously, catching up for your students who are behind in English would take WAY longer, and I don’t know what your situation is/how parents would feel about it. Creating these materials for students takes time, and getting them to do it takes time, but has been ultimately effective for me. It works the other way around too – for students who need an extra challenge, you could give them more complex material.

    Sorry you aren’t getting much feedback from your co-teachers, but it seems like you are doing a great job. If it makes you feel any better, classroom management seems like a HUGE part of my job, too (bigger than I thought it’d be). I’ve started to think less in terms of “discipline” and more in terms of changing my instruction to fit my students’ needs. By doing this, I’ve cut down on my stress level because everything just seems to work a little better.

    Also, I’m with you on the jaded part and the “don’t do too much” thing. People say the exact same things here. To me, the question then becomes: “who are you doing this for?” The answer SHOULD be: “the students.” From there, I only feel like I have one option, and that is to try my damned hardest every day, because that is what my students ultimately deserve.


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