I welled up with gratitude as I strolled toward Namak High School on Tuesday morning. I was grateful to be teaching high school students, grateful that orientation armed me with some knowledge of Korean culture and educational systems, and grateful that my school was a five-minute walk from my apartment. Therefore, I was also grateful that my mid-commute ruminations would be minimal.
As I walked through the school gates, I received many stares. Some students smiled and waved. “Hello teacher,” was the greeting of choice. Others giggled. It felt flattering.
Suddenly, the 8:30 school bell snapped me from my brief ego trip. It was so unlike the clunky, drab monotone of American public school bells. The PA system projected a pleasant melody that sounded like the lovechild of a cartoon theme song and an 8-bit video game soundtrack. The tune buoyed my spirits. I chuckled.
I paced back and forth between entrances, searching in vain for my shoe locker. In Korea, students and teachers remove their outdoor shoes in the entryway, store them in lockers, and wear (somewhat) clean slippers and sandals around the school. My slippers proudly displayed the L.A. Dodgers logo. I am all sports, no style.
Finally, I noticed a student wearing what looked like a hall monitor sash. I assumed he knew stuff. I tried to ask him where to put my shoes. He proceeded to give me directions to my office. We miscommunicated, but I gave him props in the form of a high-five. At least he tried. Eventually, I found my locker, donned my Dodger duds, and proceeded to my office cubicle.
I slid the door open, bowed, and uttered a formal greeting.
I sat at my desk, opened my laptop, and searched for images to fill my introductory powerpoint lesson. Unfortunately, my apartment’s wifi was broken. Therefore, I made a pristine first impression by being ill-prepared on my first day of work.
At that moment, a man approached my desk and introduced himself as one of my co-teachers. He chatted with me and provided friendly advice on how to interact with students. I felt awful trying to multitask as I listened to him, but I had no choice. The class started in five minutes and my students would have a miserable time guessing my favorite food if my slideshow was a white space wasteland.
Ultimately, my multitasking failed. I walked into the English Lab five minutes late. Fortunately, my classroom is separate from the students’ homerooms, so students tend to be late as well.
As my first class entered, their expressions fell on a continuum between surprise and awe. “What are you looking at?” I thought. “There was a different American English teacher here not more than a week ago. You knew he was leaving. Stop looking so surprised.”
“Wow! You’re tall,” one student said.
“So handsome,” said another. They certainly knew how to prop up my ego. I didn’t mind. Other students stood next to me, then ran back to their friends giggling. I found this hilarious.
Fortunately, once the new teacher novelty subsided, they calmed down. My first class went surprisingly smoothly. My co-teacher complimented me, to which I could only muster a sheepish, “thank you.” My nerves about making solid first impressions were in overdrive. Like the first day of every job I’ve ever had, I had my personality on a tight leash.
Back in the office, I met up with my main co-teacher. She showed me CoolMessenger – the school’s intranet message service. When I saw it, I steeled myself for a steep learning curve. The interface was completely Korean. Messages, contact lists, and icons were all in Hangul. (Except for me. 김수민 and 권형아 conspicuously bookended Ian on the contact list). Later that day, I found an inbox message in English. I had no doubt who that message was for.
While I could easily use Google to translate the Korean messages into awkward, broken English, sending messages proved taxing. The staff’s names were written in Korean and ensconced within in a daunting nested list of folders. I sent many messages to wrong recipients.
Before coming to Korea (as well as in orientation), I learned to expect unexpected events and to embrace flexibility. My christening experience came soon after my CoolMessanger tutorial.
“Ian,” my co-teacher said, “we have a meeting.”
“Yes, and let’s go now,” I said, falling back on my improv training.
To be continued (Thursday).
I puzzled over my school’s logo for two weeks before I saw this sign. Now I think it’s pretty cool (even though I find the “K” questionable).
This is my favorite place to re-energize after sitting for too long. (I also gotta build up the back, bro).
I keep a subtle reminder of home everywhere I work. Whenever I feel discouraged, I look down at my feet. I then tend to smile.
A typical cafeteria lunch. We have all the major food groups covered – seaweed, soups, proteins, vegetables, kimchi, and crispy fish with the cutest little eyes I’ve ever seen.
I have a name tag. I later learned that the Korean word on the left (원어민) just means “native.” The last teacher also left me a fan. I feel blessed.