My Way

In my first few months as a teacher in Korea, I had the privilege unspeakable nightmare of training the children to perform in an English Show for their parents. It was somewhat stressful. Even now, two years later, there is a children’s song that I absolutely categorically refuse to sing ever again in my entire life, because the memories associated with it make every muscle in my body go nervously taut while my brain screams “Yaaaaaaarrrrrrrghhhhhh!!!” and tries to climb out through my left ear.

The next year, the powers that be opted not to undergo this traumatic ordeal again, possibly fearing a mass mental breakdown of the staff. Instead, it was decided that we would have Open House – quite a normal practice in Korea, where the parents get to come along and sit in on an “ordinary day” of school to see how their money is being spent. I was relieved, obviously. No rehearsing until students and teachers alike were drained of enthusiasm! No mindless chanting! How wonderful it would be!

Of course, it took me approximately 30 minutes after submitting my soon-to-be-edited-beyond-recognition lesson plan to discover that that’s just not how it’s done here. It is all about performance. I mean, incomprehensibly so. I butted heads with Korean colleagues – including the director – many times as we wrestled for control over the Open House format, because we simply could not understand each other’s point of view. The idea is to show the parents some real classes, let them see how we teach their children, show them how they can speak spontaneously in natural English and use it for communication! I repeated in decreasingly patient tones through increasingly clenched teeth.

The director would agree with me and then the principal would watch one of our practice run-throughs and complain to her that the children weren’t “speaking out” enough (read: “shouting at the top of their lungs”) or chanting in perfect unison. Cue the director to come back to me and us to have the whole argument over again. In the meantime, my Korean colleagues were choreographing utterly ridiculous dances to accompany the ‘language function songs’, to the extent where the children were so focused on twirling and making cutesy waves with their hands that they couldn’t remember the words, thus totally defeating the purpose.

By the time we got to the actual performance (for it was a performance – the idea that it was a normal class was completely misleading), everyone was sick of the material, all enthusiasm and interest from both teachers and students had disappeared completely, everything short of respiration was scripted, questions and answers were recited in robotic voices at the volume you might use to speak with a semi-deaf person, and everybody was irritated with everybody else. Not only that, but we had wasted weeks – actual, whole weeks – of valuable teaching and learning time, instead drilling the children into memorising this whole farcical routine which was of absolutely no educational value to them. This was my major bugbear. In fact, it probably had a negative impact on their learning, since it taught them nothing other than “English is boring and pointless”.

And now my third year is rolling around and the dates for Open House next month have been announced. I have set aside my feelings of impending doom in favour of being positive and hopeful that I can change the world, or at least my tiny, classroom-sized area of it. For the first time, I am “teaching” my “classes” alone instead of sharing the “teaching” with a Korean colleague. It is the chance I’ve been longing for! I am determined – oh, so determined! – to implement my own ideas and show the scary parents what I really teach their children. Natural, unscripted communication. No scripted, flat, memorised monologues completely lacking in intonation. No silly, unnecessary dance routines, but instead useful action activities demonstrating their understanding of spoken commands.

I am aware that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but let me have my 3 or 4 days of joyful enthusiasm at the prospect of changing the way of thinking of an entire national education system, alright? ;)

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