Week One, Take Three

Eight days ago, I started my new contract in Seoul, after the chaos that was packing up our Wonju house and leaving for the big city. Some of the few things that I knew about the job included that I would be teaching five different levels of kids for at most five hours per day, and that I would have a Korean teacher to assist me for the first time. Although this meant many more working hours per week than 2016, it was a far better arrangement (time-wise, at least), than the nine-hour-per-day academy job I held in 2015. I didn’t know what the five different levels would mean – would they range from never-exposed-to-English-before to virtually fluent? I was also wary of the effect of a Korean co-teacher on the class – would they be helpful and make my life easier, or were they simply a set of eyes and ears that the school would use to keep tabs on me? In the first week, my work would go from the chaotic fog of the unknown into the comfortable familiarity of another year of teaching kids in Korea.

The first aspect of my work that I explored was the commute. Every day, I have a painless, four-subway-stop trip from our home, with a brief walk from the station to the school. Leaving the door of our apartment to reaching my classroom takes only thirty minutes – a brief commute for a city as vast as Seoul.

Upon reaching my class, I met my co-teacher. She is a lovely lady who is very capable at communicating in English. I was worried that I would constantly be piecing together what the school wanted to me, but my co-teacher instantly filled me in on the exact situation. I was relieved. The only unfortunate part is that I do not have her in my class for the whole day.

The kids came next, in five waves. Each class was more advanced than the last, although not by as much as I was hoping. Level 1 kids have had little to no exposure to English, whilst Level 5 kids are on about the same level as the mid-tier children I taught last year. My dreams of a purely conversational class where I would be exploring complex issues and fiddling with grammatical minutiae were dashed. At least they were all relatively well-behaved. The only times that I struggled were during the Level 1 and Level 2 classes. My co-teacher is not present in these classes, and they were not able to understand most of my instructions, and this frustrated both the children and myself. Of all of the levels, I’d rather have a co-teacher in lower levels (at least for the beginning), but we can’t always get what we want.

Despite some small niggles, I can see myself being comfortable at the new school. The first week was mostly spent giving children books, learning names, and playing games. Only towards the end of last week did we actually start to do any book work. Once that started, the teaching rhythm came easily. Another year, here I come!

New Blood

Today, we met the newest member of our school’s collective. Her arrival had been expected for a while now, and had been delayed several times due to struggles with the application process. Nevertheless, today, she arrived. Her presence signaled both a new chapter in our time at our first school and a wave of reminiscing to our early days in Korea.

This morning, I realised completely that we have passed the half-way point of our first contract in Korea. I had thought about it before, but only for brief moments. During our 15-minute walk to work, I considered the notion in more depth than I had done before. The thought filled me with not dread, not regret, but hope and surprise. A few months ago, we were wallowing in the depths of the three-month-slump – something that all teachers in Korea report experiencing. The combination of homesickness, confusion, and the thought of settling more deeply into Korea is a scary one, and Kris and I both felt down in the deepest of dumps. We wanted to go home. We wanted to go home every day. We were looking for flights during our afternoon preparation time. And yet, here we are, three months later, considering our options for next year. And all of the major ones lie in Korea.

At this point of enlightenment, our friendly new co-worker appeared, mostly bright-eyed and enthusiastic, but also overwhelmed and exhausted from her journey. She was eager to find out the day-to-day workings of the school, and we were all eager to share them with her. In her, I saw a lot of myself in my first few days in the country. Everything was new. Everything was a change, and one that needed to be made quickly in order to properly do my job. Thinking back to my earliest days built upon my already-significant feelings of pride at coming so far. A little over six months ago, I was unemployed, living in my parent’s house, and awaiting with fear and excitement for a new part of my life to start.

I am glad to say that the reasons for fear have reared their head only briefly in our time here, and every day brings new sources of excitement and joy. While Korea may not be the pure wonderland we initially thought it was, Kris and I have learned to appreciate the little sources of happiness in our day. Walking to and from work together. Eating our favourite Korean foods when we feel comfortable enough with our saving pattern for the month. Spending our evenings doing as much or as little as we want. Seeing our new friends. Our work may be mundane and unfulfilling, but the rest of Korea more than makes up for it. And I can only hope that our new colleague will have the same feeling in six months’ time.