Teaching at Yeongdo Girls High School

Last year I referred to my first week of teaching as a whirlwind. Everything was new, I’d only taught two lessons before then, and I was finally forced to live outside of the “American bubble” that was our orientation. I’m surprised at how different everything feels this year.

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Although I’ve been (and still am) adjusting to a new school, the feeling that “I really don’t know what I’m doing” is no longer the theme song to my life. There are still surprises, but I can honestly say I’ve felt ready enough to take on whatever comes my way. Which, during my first week, included evaluating student work for a writing contest, editing students’ presentation scripts and giving feedback to students practicing for a speech contest, on top of teaching regular classes. When I arrived, it was already one week into the semester. There were things to get done and my school didn’t hold back.

However, the semester began with a pleasant surprise. This year Fulbright reserved our first day at school for adjusting and observing. This requirement took me back to last August, when my Fulbright coteacher fervently promised me I wouldn’t have to teach on my first day. Yet, upon arriving at school, another teacher introduced herself and right away, asked what I was going to be teaching that day. Oops. I relied on the whiteboard a lot and borrowed sticky notes for students to use that day.

Needless to say, this time I came prepared to begin teaching immediately, but my new Fulbright coteacher insistently told everyone that today was my “orientation day.” I’m not sure if this speaks more to my coteacher’s place in the school hierarchy or my school’s relationship with Fulbright, but I was impressed.

In these first few weeks my brain has been constantly tallying up the differences between my previous and current school, getting a feel for how my year will be and what I need to adapt to. So without further ado, the differences at my new school are…

1. No Boys

The most obvious difference, of course, is that I teach no boys, although for a while I kept expecting to see them. Slowly but surely I’m learning to associate “school-age boy” with “no chance of being my student.” But at my desk, I do have a nice memento of my time teaching boys.

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2. Class Sizes

From here on out, the most notable differences at my new school are basically a slew of wonderful things. Things that perhaps you can’t fully appreciate unless you are, or have been, a teacher yourself. One of the most beautiful things at Yeongdo Girls’ High School is the class sizes. My classes range from 12 (!) to 26 students. Even when a class is super chatty and disengaged, they aren’t even loud enough to drown me out. Hah! Not that being disengaged is okay…

3. Levels

My classes at Yeongdo are leveled. Do you understand how much more effective this is? Actually, I’m still figuring out how much each class can accomplish in a day, how much scaffolding they need, and what other adjustments I should make. Leveled classes are like a gift that I need to learn how to use wisely. But with practice, I’ll be able to create lessons and materials that I always know are in the range of what a particular class can do.

Yet I’m finding that different levels have strange quirks, at least at Yeongdo Girls. Normally, you’d expect advanced students to participate the most in class, be more eager to engage with the foreign teacher, and probably be the easiest to teach, right? Instead, the participation rankings for each level have pretty consistently been: first place, beginner; second place, advanced; and in last place, intermediate.

Beginners
My beginner’s classes are the most active and although shy, the most willing to speak up. While introducing class rules, I would ask students, “How can you show respect in class? (Tell me in English.)” From my advanced and intermediate classes, I received a pregnant pause, which sometimes even gave birth to straight-up awkward silence. From a beginner’s class, one or two students chimed in immediately, with responses like  “no sleep” or “shut the mouth.”

So proud!

Advanced
It seems my coteachers agree that advanced students are usually afraid to speak up in class and feel pressure to speak perfectly. Their standards for their peers are higher, as are the social stakes. I’ve been told that at Yeongdo Girls, it’s not uncommon for students to move up or down a level after an exam, based on their scores. There’s no such pressure in the beginner classes.

Intermediate
You’d think that students in my intermediate classes would feel a little bit of that pressure, but it seems my most disengaged students are at this level. They’re extra chatty but shy, say they understand everything I’m saying but still sleep. I’ve rarely had students sleeping in my classes so far (wow!) (also an anomaly to my coteachers!), except in my intermediate classes. Of course, this isn’t representative of every student in my intermediate classes, but as a whole, bad behavior is concentrated in this level. Mysterious.

4. Coteachers

I have one coteacher for each level, and that consistency is really great. Naturally, the coteacher who teaches beginner classes with me is more involved and translates most frequently, but not overwhelmingly so. There are times when students are staring right at me, listening, but their eyes have begun to glaze over… time for a translation! So in beginner classes, my coteacher and I have a more collaborative class dynamic that makes both teaching and classroom management much easier. My other two coteachers are always willing to help, but they have a much more hands off approach. Their classroom placement choices make that apparent; the beginners’ coteacher stands next to me at the front of the room, while the intermediate and advanced coteachers sit in the back.

5. Teachers’ Conversation Class

This one isn’t new for me, but the difference is, perhaps this teachers’ class will meet consistently? The teachers at Gimhae were so busy, no one really wanted to have class with me. My class with English teachers only met because the principal kept checking up on us, but was often cancelled anyway. My class with non-English teachers was an English cafe type set-up during lunch. We met once.

At Yeongdo I’ll have a conversation class with non-English teachers. So far we’ve met once: two young female teachers who want to learn practical English they can use while travelling. It seems they kept meeting with Mimi (the previous ETA) even until the end of last semester, which gives me hope.

6. Light Teaching Workload

I also only teach 1st grade (the equivalent of 10th grade in the US), which is 12 classes, 4 in each level. Did you catch that? I only teach 12 classes! I felt a bit like a bum when I found out. While I’ll be involved in club activities (specifically the annual student-produced English magazine), I’m not responsible for teaching any of my own “club classes” either. Or supplementary classes. Or night classes. Or Saturday classes. Whatever will I do with all the the games I had prepared?

  1. All the Extracurriculars

However all the hours that my teaching schedule lacks, my school makes up for in extracurricular activities. While I don’t teach night classes, I have already worked overtime four times in the past two weeks. Yeongdo Girls High School is well-supported (aka well-funded) by their board of education, which means the school has students participate in a number of extracurricular programs. Just today a teacher arrived from China and will be staying at Yeongdo Girls for three months. I’m a little unclear on whether he’s a teacher, or some kind of representative here to provide more of a cultural exchange, but it’s still pretty cool. As my vice principal joked, wow, Yeongdo Girls is really international! In a few weeks they’ll also have a visitor from Japan.

Australia Videoconferencing Class

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The most notable extracurricular that I’m involved in though, is a virtual international exchange class with students in Australia. What this means is that every month a group of our students and a class in Australia meet through video and have class together! The class is intended to be student-run, so beforehand they prepare presentations on that month’s given topic and (ideally) prepare to respond to questions during the video class.

Yeongdo is partnered with Knox Grammar School, an all-boys middle school in Australia. You can imagine the excitement from our girls. I’ve only attended one class so far, but my second will be this week.

I leave you with a picture of our ample food supply in the office. I’ll never go hungry here.

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Korean Language Classes

This Thursday we began our Korean language classes. I started out in Beginner level D (with levels from A-C being absolute beginner, and D-E being more advanced). It was a little bit of an adjustment being taught in only Korean, but it was good to get me thinking in Korean again. Our class seemed to be badly placed; two people were very new beginners, but another ETA and myself breezed through the class. I have to say it was comfortable, but too easy. Although I was a little unsure about it, I asked to be placed in the intermediate class, and was allowed to switch.

The days here seem to move by very slowly – at this point one day feels like a week, since there’s so much stuff packed into each day. So for the next 24 hours, I became increasingly more stressed about language classes.

Was intermediate too high for me? I’ve never actually learned future tense, so would I be in trouble? Why can’t there be a level between “advanced” beginner and intermediate?

It didn’t help that the homework was tough, and the people in intermediate all seemed to be asking each other about very specific grammar points. I went into class today (Friday) extremely nervous.

But wow! I understood much more than I thought, although my head really hurt by the end of class. My skill level seemed to be right around the level of others in the class – there were people better than me, and fewer people that seemed worse, but I had been expecting to be the worst person in the class and was preparing myself to work extra hard the whole time. The class will still take a lot of work, but I’m excited to be learning at a much faster pace. (And I’ll keep studying future tense on my own.)

For the remainder of orientation, with few exceptions, I’ll be attending an intermediate Korean language class from 9am-1pm, Monday through Friday. We have a ten minute break every hour, and there are different teachers for the first and second half of the class. So far the teachers – well, university professors – have all been great, in both the beginner and intermediate classes. I had high expectations for language classes offered through Fulbright, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I realized while doing my TESOL certification in June that I’ve always disliked learning foreign languages (French) in school. While Korean is different, since I have such a personal connection to the language, the realization made me reflect on how I could reach students like me. It’s no accident that Fulbright has future English teachers taking Korean language classes. In the next five weeks, I’m going to try and be conscious of what is helpful for my language learning, and how I can apply this to my classroom in the near future.