What’s Going On?: A New School Year

Sometimes you just have to figure things out for yourself. Other times, you just have to accept that you’re going in blind.

March 2nd was the beginning of the new school year. After a futile Kakao message to my former Fulbright coteacher the night before – she didn’t know the schedule – I arrived at school armed with a first day lesson plan and the knowledge that I could be teaching double the classes I had last semester.

A lot at my school has changed. Many English teachers left the school – Korean public school teachers can typically only stay at a school four years – including two out of my three coteachers, four teachers from my office, and my department chair, who has the power to make your school life wonderful…or less than wonderful. My previous department chair was of the wonderful variety. Without her, the office atmosphere definitely wouldn’t have been as fun or light-hearted. And while my Fulbright coteacher wasn’t moving schools, she was becoming a third grade (12th grade) homeroom teacher, which meant she moved offices and I wouldn’t be seeing much of her this year. Her Fulbright responsibilities would go to one of the new teachers. In a nutshell, the Fulbright coteacher’s role is to take care of me. To make sure I know what’s going on in the school and to be the contact between my school and the Fulbright office. She’s my direct superior. Which means I was nervous about having no idea of who this person was.

I came prepared to teach class, but for the first two periods, I had no idea what was going on. As I realized that nearly all the teachers in my office were new, I began to feel lonely, sitting at my desk with nothing but my thoughts. I really miss the group of teachers who were in my office last year and fortunately, when a couple days later I ran into my former Fulbright coteacher in the bathroom, I was comforted hearing that she missed me too.

Pulling myself out of my head, I google-translated some of the messages sent out through our school’s messaging system and found the day’s schedule. Usually my Fulbright coteacher lets me know what is going on, but at this point I still didn’t know who she was. There was also a document attached with class schedules for every teacher in the school. Except me. So I waited. And waited. And when new teachers trickled in and we introduced ourselves to each other, I asked the new teacher next to me – she seemed friendly enough – about today’s schedule. I found out regular classes would start 4th period, but not having my schedule, I didn’t know I would be expected to teach 4th period until the bell rang and my new coteacher – the same teacher sitting next to me – said we should go to class. Surprise!

Last semester I taught only first graders (10th grade). This time I had been notified in advance through text that I would be teaching first and second graders. This is why I was worried about potentially double the classes, but it turns out  my classes have been completely restructured. Instead being split into three levels, I now just teach homerooms – both good and not so good. On the one hand, I can’t cater as well to students’ levels and class sizes are larger. On the other hand, the difference in students’ English levels wasn’t that wide to begin with and more advanced students can help others in the class.

Now that things are starting to settle down, I can say…

The first graders have been really fun! They’re energetic and fascinated by me, and I’ve been trying to harness that energy during this first week of classes. It’s seemed to work so far. Another English teacher came up to me one day and said she’d taught the students who just came from my class. She was wondering what I’d done to them because they’d been completely exhausted. Hehe. We hadn’t done anything particularly tiring, but I can guess that it was trying to listen to and understand English for a full 50 minutes that wore them out. They really were listening!

With first grade, I can set up class the way I want to and they don’t have any preconceived expectations about what class should be like, or what they can or can’t do in my class. (Second graders were notorious for this.) A coteacher told me that was typical; that first graders are easier to teach because they’re still nervous about being in high school, are more willing to listen and more motivated. It’s definitely true. Second graders, this coteacher explained, are more comfortable at school and think they know what’s up. They don’t want to do as much in class; they just want to sit and listen, not participate.

Second grade is more of a challenge, but my new coteacher for second grade is young, easy to talk with and more engaged. She’s also my new Fulbright coteacher! I think she doesn’t want me to lose face in front of students, so she doesn’t just jump into the class whenever. But when we talk individually, she gives me advice and we share teaching woes. After our first class together, I admitted to her my struggle teaching the current second graders last semester and in a way giving up on them sometimes. Inadvertently I opened the door for us to talk more openly about our teaching approaches. She’s reminded me of some strategies that I know but forget to do, like giving students time limits to keep them on track. It’s amazing how many little things there are to think about when teaching and lesson planning. Other pieces of advice she’s offered are new to me and are perhaps only learned through experience, rather than classes or articles.

It’s humbling and very helpful to be getting this advice. I think it’ll be great co-teach with her, and we could do a lot more with the class simply because she’s willing to. She has higher standards and seems often disappointed and surprised by students’ abilities – not being able to spell “health” or “pencil.” But I think the mindset and expectations she brings are good for the students, as long as she doesn’t become discouraged by them. It’s a good reminder for me too, to push my students and hold them to realistic standards.

So far my first grade coteacher has been great too. She asked beforehand what she should do in my class, an encouraging sign, whereas a new male teacher in a conversation I overheard was talking about how he didn’t need to go to my class. But it turns out I won’t be teaching classes with him after all! (I think.) I seem to have gotten lucky with coteachers this semester.

Although so much has changed, I’m feeling much better about teaching after a week and a half of classes. I have more work, classes, lesson planning and grading (ew) but I’m gradually working up my motivation after a lengthy winter + spring break. Some things are still in flux – for example, will I have to give speaking tests this year? – but finally, I feel like I’m at a comfortable amount of uncertainty.

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