Staying Late and Teaching Happiness

It used to be discouraging to be leaving school when it’s dark outside, but it’s something you adapt to. But one day I walked down the school steps to see my principal, still at school after 8pm! We were both surprised to see each other and had the same question – what are you still doing here? Actually, I settled for a very-Korean, indirect style of asking (a surprised, “You’re here so late!”) while he, being the principal, went for a blunt, “what are you doing here?” He had a company dinner (회식) with the Gyeongsangnam-do education office representative who had visited our school that day. I had just finished my night class.

Night class. After school class. Evening class. Club class. I still don’t know what to call it and I’ve used all of these names at one point. The only one that doesn’t work so well is “night club class,” because I guess it gives people the wrong idea.

Tuesday and Thursday evenings (6:50-8:10pm) I meet with thirteen students for our class, English Conversations about Happiness. Yes, the title is a little long and maybe cheesy, but it’s better than Happy English with Monica! (another teacher’s suggestion). The first time I tell another coworker my class title or topic – happiness – they’re skeptical and often poke fun at me. But the second week my class was held, I was pleased to hear a coteacher tell me, “Monica, your topic is kind of deep.” Thank you. And yes, it is.

Unfortunately, I can’t really take credit. I’m really just implementing the curriculum developed by Miranda Ravicz a researcher on fellowship in Seoul. I adjust the lessons to give students more chances to practice English and tailor them according to my students needs and the resources available to me – no internet in my night class classroom. (Nooooo!) Going by Happy Gyoshil/해피교실 (meaning classroom), this curriculum aims to get Korean students thinking about happiness (as something you can study, be deliberate about, pursue…) and gives them strategies from the field of positive psychology.

Given the stereotype of the typical Korean student, you can probably imagine why happiness might seem to be an important topic for students. I was shocked to have my stereotypes of the Korean education system confirmed during orientation (literally, they told us the preconceived notions we had were correct). Now I see there are a lot of nuances, but the Korean education system is a difficult one to be in, and many of my students openly criticize it. Regardless of their actual levels of happiness, a class on it couldn’t hurt, and I’ve actually learned a lot in teaching the class as well.

This is the only class where I am not assigned a coteacher, and this can result in some challenges as there’s no immediate Korean translation available if students are confused. However, it has also forced students to try harder and become teachers themselves to help peers who aren’t on the same page. The class started off with a bang (at least, in my opinion), with interesting icebreaker activities, a lot of speaking practice and me pumping them up for the class (but also trying to alleviate any anxiety about taking my class). The English teacher who is in charge of organizing these after-school classes also popped in, giving students a pep talk – things like you’re really lucky to be taking this class, if you can understand 70% of what Monica’s saying, you’re doing great! All of the hype worked, and this is my most motivated class – even more so than my evening class last semester, which at times, was honestly a bit of a train wreck.

Initially after-school classes were something I dreaded. My disappointment about having these classes was only reinforced by the surprised reactions I got whenever I told another ETA about my schedule. As Ms. Shim says, don’t compare. Don’t compare. Don’t compare.  But if I’m going to compare anyway, it helps to remember I’m definitely not the only one working long hours at my school. However, after teaching a night class last semester – only once a week and for a total of 9 times – I think I’ve stopped fumbling miserably and begun to find my feet.

That first day I started off right. Each of my students had multiple chances to speak in class. I encouraged and helped students who were hesitant to speak. As far as I could tell, everyone bought into the idea of studying happiness. And toward the end of class, a student turned to her friend and said, “Wow, this is interesting.”

It was all a baby teacher could ask for.

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