This past Tuesday and Wednesday, our third and fourth days in Korea, we went on school visits. It was rough getting on a bus first thing in the morning again, for two days in a row, but I loved seeing the schools and students. Since we’ve been holed up in 중원/Jungwon University, visiting schools wasn’t just about observing classes, it was a taste of Korea outside our American bubble. From wearing slippers inside to meeting and properly greeting principals, vice principals and teachers, there was something to take in every second of the visits.
I visited a rural elementary school in 김천(Gimchun) and a suburban, co-ed middle school in 천안 (Cheonan). Some middle and high schools are all-boys or all-girls, and even co-ed schools sometimes separate classes by gender.
On the Fulbright application, I was required to choose either primary school (for which they recommended an education background) or secondary school, which I chose to avoid limiting my chances. Because of this, I’ve been mentally preparing myself to teach middle or high school, but it turns out there are EETA (elementary English teaching assistantship) positions available to anyone interested. So I became undecided and decided to visit one elementary school and one middle school.
My elementary school visit was first. I kept hearing that elementary school students were adorable, but I didn’t truly understand the extremity of this cuteness until then. English teachers only teach 3rd grade and up, but on our tour, the ETA brought us to the kindergarten classroom. Apparently she stops by to de-stress sometimes. And I think I would too. Despite all the cuteness, I wasn’t convinced. There was nothing about elementary school that really made me want to teach there.
The ETA, Jessica, taught four short (40 minute, I think) classes back-to-back, with almost identical lessons. It was useful to see the same lesson taught more than once, but it seems exhausting to repeat a lesson 4+ times in a day. There were songs, games, videos, and read aloud exercises, which were fun but obviously required a lot of energy from the teacher.
I regretfully have no photos from the elementary school because I forgot my phone.
At the middle school the next day, my group had an incredible experience. We visited용국중학교(Yonggok Middle School). I’m not sure exactly how to describe our visit, but maybe “extraordinary hospitality” would start to do the school justice.
Being foreigners in Korea, all the Fulbright ETAs receive a kind of celebrity status. Especially when walking in large groups. In school, all the students would stop and stare (except for the elementary school class I observed that was incredibly well-behaved). Bold students ventured a “hi/hello”, “how are you?” or “nice to meet you”. On the street, in our little town of Goesan, it’s common for people to stare and even try to start conversation (in Korean). I’ll probably go into “celebrity status” more in a later post.
Regardless of this, our treatment at Yonggok was on a whole new level. We were, at the least, very honored guests. While our group was worried about being respectful enough – doing a proper 인사, or greeting – the school seemed just as worried about being gracious hosts. They turned on AC in the English classroom just for us, and brought out refreshments. (None of this at the elementary school.) The AC broke down, so they moved us to the library, which was wonderfully cool. This also meant that students couldn’t visit the library during the time we were there, and remained in the sweltering heat. We met the principal, who served us (iced) tea and more refreshments. He used to be an English teacher, so he personally said hello to all 14 of us and gave us each his card. He sat in a class with us, later led us to lunch, and ate with us. We alternatively made small talk, until he asked a peculiar question – do you play saxophone? The principal asked everyone, the answer always being no, and finally informed us he played the saxophone; he had learned two years ago. And then he promised to play for us.
The principal of Yonggok Middle School played saxophone for us. How many principals played have played saxophone for you? That’s what I thought.
We were all amused and amazed, least of all by the song line-up he wrote on the board.
The whole experience, while it may sound silly, was so much fun. In Korea, people talk a lot about jung /정, which roughly translated means something like the connection or sincerity of relationship between people. It’s good to establish a lot of정. So while I doubt impromptu saxophone concerts are a common occurrence in Korea, this was a very strong and sincere effort to build정. Of course, we had a goodbye cup of tea before leaving, and received gifts – not brochures or small souvenirs, but two beautiful, Christmas-present-worthy mugs. I think I can say that we were all very touched. When we said our goodbyes, after the principal walked us to our bus, he patted me on the back, and wished me luck in going to Busan (to meet my family).
And on top of it all? This school won’t even be renewing to have Fulbright ETA next year. All of their efforts weren’t to convince us to come to their school, and honestly, I don’t quite know why they made so much effort. But I think this will remain a highlight of my time in Korea.