Settling into School Life

I have taught at Namak High School for nearly two months.  Like any new job, there are exciting new things to learn, obstacles to navigate, and growing pains to endure.  Overall, however, my work adjustment has been very positive.

Despite a mostly positive adjustment, I occasionally have workplace gaffes.  Moreover, the language barrier makes it difficult to explain these gaffes.  One day, I brushed my teeth in the office following another delicious school lunch.

“Ian,” said the woman who sat beside me.

“Yeah,” I replied, walking to her desk.

She pointed to her computer screen.  A Google Translate window sat open on her monitor.

You should brush your teeth in the bathroom.

I let out a now rehearsed “Ohhh!” and followed it up with, “Mi-an-hae-yo” (I’m sorry.)  She just nodded and smiled.  I’m not sure if it was genuine or just like a “wow, who hired this guy?” kind of smile.  Regardless, she is as sweet as can be.  Sometimes she offers me saltine crackers or dried squid.  I accept the squid graciously and the crackers reluctantly.

Another day, I learned that my classroom (English Lab 4), was closed for two days due to cleaning.  My co-teacher said I should hold my lesson in another English room.  I went to that room and began my lesson.  The students seemed surprised to see me.  However, I wasn’t alarmed as it was my first week.  Most students were surprised by my presence in general.  

Two minutes into my introduction, another teacher entered the room and asked me if I was taking over (or something like that).  I just nodded and said, “Nay.”  He left the room and I continued.

Seven minutes later, my co-teacher walks into the classroom.

“Ian, why are you here?”

“I’m teaching a class.”

“This isn’t your class.  Your class is waiting for you.”

“Oh,” I said with a staccato choked with embarrassment.  “Sorry class!”

“No, let him stay!” several students cheered.

I was already out the door, mentally preparing my apology for being late to class (again).

One of my biggest challenges is names.  I have nearly 500 students, all of whom have Korean names.  I love language, but it takes time to learn the sound system of a disparate language.  

Moreover, in a new culture, I do not understand the context behind names.  In other words, I can guess the (binary) gender of most English names I hear.  Most Michaels are men and most Lindas are women.  However, when I read Korean names,  I have no idea.  Everyone might as well be named Jordan and Taylor.

Korean names are typically three syllables with a single-syllable family name followed by a two-syllable given name.  For example, “Kwon Ha-na” in Korea would be read as “Ha-na Kwon” in the U.S.  One struggle is that many of my students’ given names consist of the same syllables in different positions (e.g. “Hyeon-Min” and “Soo-Hyeon”).  

In terms of family names, the statistically best guess is “Kim.”  Some of my co-workers even joke about the prevalence of “Kim” as a family name.  

Despite my early name difficulties, it gets easier each time.  I try to learn at least one student’s name per day.  To be fair, only a handful of students call me “Ian”.  Everyone else just yells “Teacher!  Hello!”.

In the office, everyone has a name tag next to their desk.  However, similar to reading prices in a store, it isn’t always easy to tell if the name is associated with the desk to the left or the right.  The led me to call a female Korean language teacher “Tae-Hwan” (a man’s name).  Of course, I had no idea it was a man’s name.  She just smiled either out of awkwardness or just happy that I make an effort to read Hangeul.  We don’t talk much anymore.  I don’t blame her.  If someone called me Tiffany I’d feel a little weird about it too.

Despite these occasional slip-ups, I slowly settled into a regular routine.  I learned Monday and Tuesday are my tough days, teaching eight classes, two workshops, and one after-school course in total.  Wednesday and Thursday are easy with only four classes and one workshop.  On Friday I have four classes again, but it’s Friday.  I can handle a lot if you promise me two full days off starting at 5:00 P.M.

Compared to my previous jobs, my workload is very manageable.  I prepare one lesson a week and teach it to both 1st grade (freshman) and 2nd grade (sophomore) students.  I also do small things like prepare discussion questions for workshops.  Other than that, my time is spent planning ahead, working on my online psychology courses, learning Korean, or (regrettably) roasting away the hours on Facebook and Kakao Talk.

The prevailing attitude seems to be, “if you are here, then you’re working.”  As long as I have lesson materials prepared, there is no supervisor to monitor my work habits.  I grind out my work and then get paid to sit around.

When I was a substitute teacher, my biggest lament was the lack of relationship with students.  I entered their class one day and was gone the next.  Here, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to build relationships with my students (especially at lunchtime).  That means saying “hello” when they say “hello” to me.  That means teaching them new handshakes that they can practice with me and then show their friends.  That means playing sports with them.

I like to play sports with students at lunch whenever possible.  Sometimes it is volleyball.  Other times it is basketball.  Every time, however, I enter the gym to several claps and cheers like a big-name free agent.  Then, several girls bust up laughing as I take off my dress pants and reveal my athletic shorts underneath.  (One day I played basketball with khakis and bare feet.  My feet hated me afterward.  I come prepared now).  I guess it’s normal to be taken aback when your English teacher starts stripping in the school gymnasium.  Whatever.  I refuse to play in dress pants.  I play to win.

Despite my height, I tend to blend into my surroundings back home.  I feel like a tree.  Yeah, people notice I exist, but they don’t pay me particular mind.  At school, I am getting used to being a topic of fascination wherever I go.  I swear I’m not being arrogant.  I can’t say or do anything around my students without inciting interest.

Me:  *Does burpees between classes*

Students:  “Whoa!  Good!”

Me:  *Points to a milk carton* “Oo-yoo.” (milk)

Students:  “Whoa!” *Laughs.*

Me:  “I like sam-gyap-sal (pork belly).”

Students:  “Whoa!  He likes Korean food!”

Teachers and students alike seem surprised by how much I like the cafeteria food.  I polish my tray each and every day.  One reason I eagerly eat all school food (besides my very nature) is because I skip breakfast.  By 1:00, I would welcome moldy bread like a delicacy.  Moreover, the cafeteria food blows American school food away.  The fish, meat, vegetables, and rice top whatever pizza, corn dogs, or mystery-meat nuggets I ever received in American public schools.

I also polish my tray because throwing food in the trash is a pet peeve.  I have a tough time leaving food on my plate when I know it is headed for a landfill.  In Korea, food waste is specially sorted.  Some say it is fed to pigs while others say it is used for composting.  I’m not sure why they separate the food scraps, but I am glad this country does something special with that richly organic matter.  For me, old habits die hard and I eat everything on my tray short of bones too tough to chew.

The teachers are much less impressed by my use of chopsticks.  Several tried to give me pointers, but after two weeks they all gave up on me.  It’s okay.  The food reaches my tummy either way.

At this point, the excitement and newness have faded  The grind of routine has slowly crept into its place.  I welcome this transition.  Things are starting to feel familiar and less alien.  My self-concept is shifting from a nervous neophyte to a capable instructor.  Challenges still arise from time to time.  Many more difficulties lurk in the future.  However, I feel very capable of managing those tests and trials.

Photo Corner



My school lies in the shadows of apartment buildings like this.  It blows my mind how tall and narrow these towers are, like toothpicks stuck into the ground.


My classroom has a computer, a television screen (connected to the computer), and tons of whiteboard space.  I feel spoiled.


I’m grateful for my spacious classroom.  I arranged the students into groups of six for group activities and easier classroom management.  The desks in the back go unused in my classes.


Oooh, baby, these skewers are so hot.  Seriously, if you eat them too fast you’ll start cooking your throat.


I’m slowly improving my selfie skills.

5 thoughts on “Settling into School Life

  1. Miss you. Love hearing about your life in South Korea. I bet you can count on your two hands the cafeteria food you ate here in 12 years.
    I always liked making your lunches.
    Love you.


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