Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Co-teaching in Korea

I work at three different middle schools and have a total of 4 co-teachers.

Ideally, these would be people who
a) meet with me on a regular basis to plan kick-ass lessons
b) share the role of teacher and facilitator in the classroom
c) enjoy speaking English and take joy in conversing with me
d) keep me informed of schedule changes and any other important school-related information that may impact my job

One of those co-teachers, my main co-teacher, would ideally be my go-to person for all things school and non-school related. Someone who could help me set up a bank account, fill out appropriate forms, perhaps make an appointment with a doctor.

I saw numerous video clips during training of the native English teacher and Korean co-teacher sitting side by side, smiling their way through nearly orgasmic team planning and then dancing their way across the classroom floor in perfect sync. The Ginger Rogers and Fred Astairs of teaching English in Korea, if you will.

My hopes weren't that high, but I didn't expect my co-teacher to sweat profusely around me in a nervous manner, dart out of the class as though it were aflame without saying a word to me, or read the word "irritated" from a ppt lesson as "EER-RISH-EEE-A-TED." This is my Thursday co-teacher. An otherwise very nice man who appears to be deathly afraid of having any contact with me.

I showed up on the first day at 8:30 a.m. which caused him, upon seeing me, to jump with a start and yell "Oh! You! Very EARRRRRRLY!" The next week I showed up at 8:45 to the same reaction. Lately it's been more like 9:30, trying to find that magic time that will keep him from going into cardiac arrest, but I'm beginning to think any time that includes me showing up is panic time for him.

He once asked if he could keep a particular class during my class time so he could help them prepare for an English test the following week. He did this by first asking me to sit down, and then letting bits of his request out of his trembling, sweaty lips while blinking his eyes and flinching as though I may go into a rage. I know what you're thinking. Maybe he's just a nervous dude. Maybe he does this around everyone. He does not. I've watched.

Either way, I agreed, of course, and then offered to go to his class and help out in any way he needed. I mean, his students were being tested on the language that is, I don't know...kind of...mine. I feel qualified to help. It seemed like he thought that was a good idea, too.

I went to the class as students were filing in. I stood at the back and waited for direction. The lesson began. As soon as my co-teacher looked up and saw me, he gasped. Loudly. "Auntie B!" he shouted, (most students call me "Auntie B") "Leave!"

Um. Come again?

"You...want...me....to.....leave?" I said, not sure I had heard him correctly.

"Yes," he said, this time waving one hand furiously as if to erase the very sight of me from his view. 

"Um. Okay. I'll just be...in my room...I guess. You know...if you need anything."

That's kind of how it goes every Thursday.

On Fridays I go to Yangbo, the school of butterflies fluttering around and kittens roaming the hallways and warm eggs for snacks on snowy days. My co-teacher here is amazing, of course, as are all things at Yangbo. But even in this ideal setting, real "co-teaching" can't and doesn't happen. I'm there once a week and besides the face-to-face time in the classroom with my co-teacher, we have no time to meet together and plan.

When she's in the classroom with me, she's a genius with assisting kids who need extra help. If I need something explained more fully to the students, she jumps in and does so. With tiny class sizes (10 at most), she and I are able to get each kid speaking English to us and no kid leaves without one-on-one attention from a teacher. Often, though, she goes to her office and gets things done while I handle the class alone. Again, not a problem in a dream school like Yangbo. But calling her my co-teacher is a bit of a misnomer.

Now on to my main school, the one I go to on Mondays-Wednesdays. Here I have two co-teachers. One is a hardcore veteran teacher who likes to say things to me like "Together we must help each other to kill the students," and "I will go to class and threaten the first year students while you are making copies." She has a delightful giggle and loves nothing more that when a troublesome student gets his/her just deserts. She sometimes carries a bamboo stick, but prefers to use her flat hand to whack a kid on the back of the head to using the old-school bamboo.

She warned me that the older lurking groundskeeper is "a little oily" and boasts that she's always happy "because I'm too stupid to be sad about anything." If this weren't enough to be totally taken by her character, she asks to be called "Princess." I'm not even really sure what her real name is. Princess is great. I thoroughly enjoy her. We aren't co-teachers, though, in the true sense of the word.

When I first arrived, I was given no curriculum materials. No books. No plans. No nothing. "What would you like me to focus on when I teach the students?" I asked. Princess giggled and responded, "As you wish."

Often she asks me with great excitement, "Will you show a movie next week?!" When I explain that I have an actual lesson to teach, she seems disappointed. Once before winter vacation I broke down and showed a little bit of "Mission Impossible." When I told Princess of my plans, she clapped and hopped in place like I told her she had just won the lottery. I could show movies all year and she'd be thrilled. Why don't I then? Right? Because I have teacher-blood and I get antsy if I don't teach for too long. Sorry to disappoint Princess, but I kind of have to.

That leaves my main co-teacher. She's the one that met me at the official education office and sat at the table while I signed my paperwork. She drove me to Hadong for the first time in what is known as one of the most silent 1-hour car rides I've ever had. After I ran out of typical get to know you questions, I let my gaze go out the window and prayed for a swift arrival to my new town.

Soft-spoken, sweet, slightly unsure of herself, and very fascinated in the tips of her hair. That's how I'd describe her. I imagine she'd describe me as overly enthusiastic, loud, and a bit strange. And I can also imagine that it was awkward for her to have someone nearly twice her age plopped into her life and told "You are in charge of this English-speaking person now." I tried to break the ice and take the role of loving older sister, since that's kind of the Korean way when presented with an age difference like this, but it didn't take.

Our co-teaching looked like me doing my thing at the front of the classroom while she found a blank patch of wall several feet from any student against which to lean her small frame and inspect the ends of her hair. I once observed her doing hair-inspection duty for the entirety of the class. 45 minutes of hair mesmerization. She must have really interesting hair up close. I should have taken a better look before she left for another school.

Her transfer left a hole to be filled, and I was asked to come in during break recently to interview three candidates. After being given a paper full of Korean writing and various boxes in which I think, as far as I can gather, I was supposed to take notes on the candidates (I wasn't really sure, and no one in my school building spoke enough English to be able to explain it to me), I was ushered to a room I'd never noticed before in the school and asked to sit at the only desk inside.

I sat there with my papers full of Korean and waited. And waited. I wasn't sure what I was really waiting for, and this is how pretty much everything goes due to my lack of understanding what in God's name is being asked of me at any given moment.

Soon, a man in his 50s, I'd say, came in and bowed to me while saying a greeting in the polite form. I stood up and bowed (should I have done that?) and also shook his hand to cover all greetings and I was familiar with. I mean, I guess I didn't bro-hug him or fist-bump him, but you get the point.

He sat down in the chair pulled up to my desk and looked like he was going to puke from nerves. I explained in the friendliest tone possible that I was going to ask a few questions and then if he had any, he could as me. Here's about how it went:

ME: So, are you currently teaching somewhere?

NERVOUS GUY: *blank stare*

ME: Um. Were you teaching in another school?


ME: Yes, a school. Are you a teacher?


ME: *Holy shit. I don't think this guy speaks English.*

NERVOUS GUY: *begins twitching*

ME: What qualities make you a good teacher?


ME: You *point at him* good *make smiley face* teacher....Yes? Why?

NERVOUS GUY: I go....university.

ME: Okay. Good! Great. Yes. Well....okay now. Um. Do you have any questions for me?

NERVOUS GUY: I work....here....you teach-uh me....Englisheee.

ME: *oh, boy*

The door opened and my next candidate was ushered in. Nervous guy left and in came a 30-something woman with a kind round face and shoulder-length hair that had been curled at the ends to flip out and up in an almost 1960s fashion. What transpired was the most satisfying English conversation that I've had with a Korean person here in my tiny town.

She was magical. Fluid in speech. Accurate in its use. Within a few moments I stopped grading my speech and entered a world of ease-of-communication. We were able to actually discuss teaching methods and the possibilities for co-teaching classes.

I was thrilled imagining the possibilities if she were to get hired. I might even have someone to talk to at the lunch table! Oh, man...

The third candidate was an older woman. Plump in all ways and wearing traditional quilted Korean clothing. Around her neck shone a gold crucifix which I looked at quizzically while she explained that she likes to hit students with a "love stick."

"Very hard," she added.

She also told me she would like to work with me so she could love me. I just wasn't sure what to make of that. In any language.


Imagine my glee when I got a call the night before last that candidate number two had been hired. I had to hold myself back from staying up to the wee hours of the morning making her a friendship bracelet and a mix-tape. I already had a playlist in my head:

-You've Got a Friend in Me (Randy Newman)
-You've Got a Friend (James Taylor)
-That's What Friends Are For (Dionne Warwick)
-We're Going to Be Friends (The White Stripes)
-Wind Beneath My Wings (Bette Midler)
-Thank You For Being a Friend (Golden Girls Theme)
-You're My Best Friend (Queen)

I've been starved for friendship on the job. For running ideas past another teacher and getting excited about it. For the community of practice that allows me to feel a part of a group of educators who use each others feedback and ideas to grow professionally. I've been starved for true co-teaching like I did with Aimee Snelling back at Wydown Middle School, running outdoors to grab clumps of dirt to throw on ourselves in preparation for a co-taught lesson on the Dust Bowl or enjoying lunch together with planners and materials scattered across the table while we come up with ways to make our two subjects, English and social studies, more of a fluid learning experience for students.

I miss that.

However, I feel the tides changing over here with the addition of my new co-teacher. We've worked together one day and already we sat down with her curriculum books and discussed how to make lessons when her students see me that could be more cohesive. We talked about co-teaching and admitted to each other that we have no idea what that looks like in our situation. We made plans to share materials, meet for coffee, run things by each other via email.

And I had someone to talk with during lunch. I mean, for REAL talk with. Not just me saying (in Korean) "I like rice. I like kimchi. Eat well! This is delicious. I ate well. I am from America." I forgot for a moment that my lack of Korean and my co-workers' lack of English keeps me from feeling truly part of a community. I was in a community of two for a brief period during lunch.

And that was delicious.

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