Saturday, February 5, 2011

My first day of teaching

I had my first day as a teacher a little over a year ago.

I remember being completely terrified. I was still staying in a hotel in downtown Seoul with four of my co-workers. It was comfortable enough; we each had our own rooms with huge beds, TVs, and bathtubs*. The hotel itself was centrally located in a very ritzy part of town, Gangnam, and just down the street from the famed Coex Mall. Unfortunately, I had been placed in a suburb called Pyeongchon, about 45 minutes south of Seoul by subway. I ended up loving "PC" but for a little while it meant a long commute from my urban Seoul hotel.

The weekend before my first teaching week, I went to the school to meet with my bosses and supervisor. The school was located on a busy street literally bounding with academies. Looming snow-capped hills provided an interesting juxtaposition (and my first experience with the Korean love for the outdoors).

When I first visited PC, it took me a while before I found the academy I was looking for. Many of the them had signs written in both English and Korean, but mine did not. After a few wrong turns, I found it and walked up the five fights of stairs to the school (a restaurant was on one floor, a math academy on another, and I believe a bar was located in the basement). While there, I received my books and lessons plans, and had a quick look around. I remember being impressed with the classrooms. Many of them had projectors or large TVs, and one had a whiteboard that took up the entire wall.

The day before my first class, I tried to prep my lessons for the week. I was able to do some of the later lessons, but I couldn't access the mp3s for the first lesson, not knowing that the scripts were in the back of the book. I awoke the next morning to get to school as early as possible so that I could finish prepping. Class didn't start until 4, but I wanted to get there by noon so that I'd have plenty of time. It was painfully cold back then, and I hadn't brought enough warm clothes. I remember wearing tights under my slacks and two pairs of gloves to try to keep warm. I remember that not being helpful. I also wore boots, which I thought would get me through my first real winter but which turned out to be more aesthetic than practical. With no grip on my soles and ice covering the sidewalks, I slipped and slid my way to and from the subway. (Looking back on it, I should have been more grateful for the subway. It was extraordinarily easy to use and cheap. There was a station right outside the hotel and it happened to be the line that went to PC, so I didn't have to make any transfers. I could sit, close my eyes, and listen to music (or people watch)).

My supervisor met me at the school that morning and helped me get ready for class, but 4 o'clock approached and I hadn't finished prepping the lesson. It was touch-and-go during class. I remember trying to be friendly and cool while also trying to teach them something. I think I accomplished neither. I can't remember much from those first classes, but one thing I'll never forget was listening to the lectures during the class for the first time while the students were taking their exams and trying to answer the exam questions myself, while also monitoring them and looking teacher-ly. It was a train wreck. I was subbing for someone, and I remember thinking to myself,"Oh well, I'll never see these kids again." Of course, I ended up inheriting those classes for the rest of the term. (They didn't turn out to be so bad).

Class ended at 10 PM and I had about a 20-minute walk back to the subway station and then a 45-minute subway ride back to the hotel. I was exhausted, hungry, and cold. (Korea went on to have the coldest and snowiest winter on record.) Something I didn't realize back then (and another thing I should have been grateful for) was how teeming with life PC and Seoul were even at 11 PM on a weekday. The subways were always full of business people and students. There weren't really any thugs, now that I think about it. In many other cities, it would have been a very bad idea to take the subway or walk around at that time of night alone (I certainly would never do it in Chicago).

At the end of the day, I looked forward to meeting up with my co-workers and eating some junk food. We all had mini-fridges in our rooms, but with the exception of fruit or milk I didn't keep much in it. Lunch and dinner (and sometimes breakfast) was had at this tiny fast food Korean booth across the street from the hotel. I think I had chicken, rice, and kimchi twice a day for an entire week. J had started teaching the day before me and was also commuting every morning and coming home very late. It was nice to have someone with whom to commiserate and eat Korean fast food. I remember after his first day he came back grumpy and frustrated and told me that it went terribly. After my first day, I could see why. It was 6 hours straight of trying to keep students engaged. Back then, I would get extremely frustrated when they fell asleep or zoned out, but with time I realized that they were at school from 8 AM until 10 PM, and then went home and did homework until who-knows-when. They even went to school on Saturdays. I think that when I realized how over-worked they were I became a much better teacher.

Both J and I had better second days, and I believe on my third day and his fourth, we moved into our respective apartments.

*As I understand it, this is a rarity in Korean apartments.