Despondency and Wasted Time

This week was supposed to be a short week, and it was – with a public holiday on Tuesday and a mini field trip on Thursday, we had far less classroom time than we would normally have. And yet, this week left both Kristen and myself feeling profoundly despondent with our time in Korea. While Kristen was limited to simply questioning the age and institution that she was teaching in, I once more questioned whether teaching as a career path is for me. All in all, we both left this week with doubts clawing at our brains like starved harpies, and this weekend did little to quell them, particularly with an unrelatedly frustrating experience at the train station today.

One thing that we can both agree on is that the hagwon model of teaching is largely broken, and in need of drastic reworking. Our school is not by any means a bad company – we are taken care of and the conditions are great – but it feels like it is simply that – a company. This is particularly evident in the elementary aspect of our teaching – children are faced with books that are often completely mismatched to them. The content and/or vocabulary is rarely perfectly matched for their level. It ranges from being profoundly too easy to frustratingly difficult for the children. As a result, they often find themselves bored by the easy work, or too frustrated to concentrate by the hard work. One gets the sense that children provide bums on seats, money in tills. The school tries its best to provide a nurturing environment for the children, but it is crippled by the misguided hagwon system. Children should be given time to be children, not sent to school for more than half of their waking life when they are 8 years old.

Kristen is also questioning whether kindergarten is an appropriate age group for her to teach. While she often enjoys fulfilling sessions with her older elementary school students, she feels like little more than a babysitter for most of her morning. She often is left with only two students by the end of the day, as mothers come to pick up their children before their education is finished. It is also not because of acclimatization to school – in the first few weeks, the children remained until the end of the day every day, no matter how many tantrums they threw. It seems like the parents want their children out of their hair for the morning, but come to pick them up when it is convenient for them. I have not had as much of this, but I find it puzzling – if a parent wants to send their child to school to learn English, they need to accept that it is a process, and if one removes a child from the environment where they are learning during the process, it is likely to be less effective. While I still believe that children should be children and be allowed to run around and play, if parents choose to try to educate them at such a young age, they need to stick with the program, however broken the hagwon system may be.

While Kristen may be questioning the hagwon system and the age that she would like to teach, my introspections run deeper. I have never been entirely sure what I would like to do with my life, as I have said in previous posts, and this year is yet to be any different. This week seems to be particularly bad. Even though it was an easier week, I found myself questioning my methods and worthiness as a teacher a great deal in the past few days. I debated whether a tape recording playing in the room while the children simply went about their business would provide a better English education than my fumbling attempts at helping my children acquire another language. If the year keeps up like this, I am not certain whether I will be trying for the same profession this time next year. But I am still keeping an open mind. No matter how wasted I feel my qualifications (however meagre they are in reality) may be, I do still find glimmers of hope when my students learn a phrase, or I prepare a lesson that they clearly enjoy. Maybe that will be enough.

All of this gloomy attitude was not helped today, when we attempted to pick up a 3-day pass for the train system for our coming weekend away to Busan (the beach town where we initially desired to be placed). We traveled an hour by bus to Suwon station, the location of the closest major rail station. We stood in a brisk line, and then stood hopefully before a well-meaning Korean teller, who asked us for our reference number. We had booked the pass online, but we had not received a reference number via email. Slightly frazzled, we attempted to re-book our pass. We filled out the online form, and were granted a reference number on the website, which we kept open. As an added measure, we wrote the number down, just in case our phone died. We stood in line once again. We came before another equally well-meaning teller, who took a look at the number. She winced slightly. She tried to speak to us in Korean, but it washed over us like strawberry-scented ink – it sounded lovely, but still completely stained our hopes of getting the pass today. Just in case it was not clear, she placed her arms in a big X and spoke some more apologetic Korean. Defeated, we walked slowly back to the bus stop for another hour of wasted travel.

Nevertheless, we will trudge through work tomorrow. We will do so because we are contractually-obligated to do so. We will do so because it’s only five days until Kristen’s birthday and our weekend holiday. We will do so because sometimes we actually feel like we are making a difference. Mostly, however, we will do it because regardless of how broken the system is, how wasted we may feel, or how much we don’t want to, we will do so because somewhere, there is a little home with our name on it, and each day we push through gets us one day closer to it.

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