In late July, the Jeollanamdo Summer English Camp provided one of my most enjoyable weeks of teaching.
But those buttery-fluttery feelings did not emerge on Day 1.
As I offloaded my clothing into a double-dorm barely larger than a walk-in closet, Anxiety-Brain chirped with first-day nervous energy.
“You’ve never taught middle school students before.”
“The teaching schedule looks exhausting.”
“What if the students are unruly?”
“The cafeteria serves three-meals-a-day. Goodbye intermittent fasting.”
After smiling through a staff meeting, reacquainting with my co-teacher, rearranging our classroom, and sharing our prepared resources, Anxiety-Brain clocked out.
I gulped down a typical cafeteria dinner of rice, kimchi, bean soup, and assorted vegetables. The college cafeteria made me feel three years younger.
Next came a “staff ice-breaker activity.” Apparently Korean ice-breaking involves a second dinner of fried chicken, pizza, and beer – classic Korean fast food fare. I often opt for healthier cuisine, but I sacrificed calories for social cohesion that night – a worthy trade.
After deep sleep in spite chillingly powerful air-con, I awoke with ample time and energy to enjoy some outdoor calisthenics and meditation. By breakfast (which in Korea is basically dinner food eaten in the morning), I was as ready as ever.
Students betrayed tired and timid expressions as they exited buses in single-file like new inmate arrivals. My nerves relaxed. Anxiety-Brain took another vacation.
“Time for lesson one. Let’s get it!”
In the first lesson, students learned movie genre vocabulary and created movie posters. Eliciting speech felt like pulling teeth. At least pulling teeth produces sound and energy.
“It’s fine,” I thought. “They’ll exit their shells. Traveling and meeting strangers is exhausting.”
I should know. Orientation was a grind. And we didn’t have to practice a foreign language for five hours a day.
Fortunately, the evening activity breathed new life into zombie-like campers. I facilitated a circular tug-of-war game. Most memorable was the sheer number of students nursing cherry-red Indian sunburns.
Regardless, the energy elevated. I felt grateful and proud when my homeroom class went 3-1 in the evening games.
“Class 8! We are lions! We are great!”
On Tuesday, the camp’s energy settled. Students conversed freely. Friendships formed.
My teaching settled as well. Micro-adjustments produced refinement. I quicklyy acclimated to the demanding schedule. However, I did have one major errand.
Four of my homeroom students asked to play basketball with me.
“Maybe. Let me see what I can do.”
First I investigated the university gym. After a groundskeeper caught me trespassing, I used my ever-improving Korean to ask about borrowing a basketball.
Too committed to quit, I used my two-class-period break to taxi to Lotte Mart. I bought a basketball and a pump. The game was on…until dinnertime.
“Teacher said we can’t play.”
I vaguely anticipated this snag. Discipline teachers (non-English teachers tasked to ensure student safety and good behavior) were wary. I don’t blame them. Camper safety was paramount and I’m just some untrained foreigner with a kindergartner’s grasp of the local language.
However, I smiled and pledged responsibility for the students’ safety. The administrators relented. Playing basketball between dinner and evening activity became a daily event. I patted myself on the back for taking initiative.
That night students practiced their Spanish with Uno (one word – still counts). They also tested their body control with Twister and steadied their hands for Jenga. I smiled at students’ climbing level of comfort in camp. Only one student left on account of homesickness.
Afterward, I joined three other teachers for the first of three after-hours dance practices. I’ve participated in two prior surprise group dances, so I now relish supplementary surprise performances. One native teacher had extensive dancing experience, so we shook our booties to “Uptown Funk” all night long.
On Wednesday I segued into Lesson Two. This involved vocabulary like “addictive”, “pro”, and “con.” My co-teacher play-scolded me over my Facebook habits eight times. Who knew I had such a problem? Finally, class wrapped up with a debate over the benefits and problems of computer gaming.
It was far from a proper debate buttressed with arguments, counter-arguments, rebuttals, and cross-examinations. However, listening to students cheer their faces off after their team presented a point provided cathartic satisfaction.
“Computer games are fun to play with friends.”
“Oh yeah? Well, games are bad for your eyes.”
“Oooooooh! Take that!”
They spoke English and had fun. Ian Teacher was proud.
That night, campers played more team games. I oversaw a modified hockey game where students faced-off one-on-one to strike a lopsided ball through a chair-shaped “goal.” They loved it.
I also loved it because the coordinator gave me a whistle. I had authority. It was wonderful. The Lions went 2-2 finishing with a non-championship (but still respectable) 5-3 record in team play.
By Thursday, a sleep debt set in. This led to many exhausted, loopy smiles. Sleep deprivation is the sober path to drunken bliss.
Other times fatigue manifested sheer confusion. During dance practice, I wondered why we replaced the teacher’s lounge desks with rolling chairs. We were in a classroom the whole time. The teacher’s lounge was two floors below.
I taught my third and final lesson on Thursday – trivia. After I proctored a short computer game quiz, students wrote their own quiz questions and tested the class.
Initially, I projected this lesson as easy. However, proved to be the most time-crunched and demanding lesson of all. Many students struggled to write quiz questions in a timely manner. To be fair, that time was only ten minutes.
Whether it was my fatigue, the students’ fatigue, or a combination of both, I struggled through Thursday’s lessons.
My cadre of basketball players grew each day. From 8 on the first day to 15 on the final day, boys eagerly jumped at the chance to play sports after dinner. At one point, we had two groups – one split off to play soccer.
It was tiring to forgo rest for more exercise. However, it was insanely rewarding to see students having so much fun. The motto “do it for the kids” looped through my mind all week. I think those efforts paid off.
Next came the Golden Bell. This is a popular elimination-style quiz game. Students start by answering true/false questions. Get one wrong, sit down. Once the quiz winnowed 120 campers to 30, the survivors grabbed whiteboards and responded to short answer questions. By the end, two of my homeroom students survived to the final four. They won two fans. The first fits in your hand and keeps you cool. The second fan was me.
Lions are great. Lions love basketball. Lions are smart.
The final day – Friday – went as expected. Students who once wished to go home now looked sad to leave. We returned students’ cell phones and selfies proliferated. I posed for a plethora of pictures.
Our dance practice paid off handsomely. Students cheered, laughed, and cried (okay, maybe not cried) through our performance. It was a perfect punctuation to a wonderful week.
My last memory is four of my Lions looking back at me, making a heart with their arms over their head, and yelling “Entertainment!” I returned a finger-heart and smiled.
As I rested my tired head on the bus window riding from Naju back to Mokpo, a low-grade but pervasive sadness choked my mind. I never thought I could feel so attached to a group of children in as little as five days. I never thought I would enjoy teaching middle school students so much. I never thought I would feel such strong withdrawals after such hard work.
Leading up to camp, our regional coordinator stressed how special of an experience this was for so many students.
“I’ve been in Korea for a long time. I know current Korean English teachers who trace their career choice back to this English camp.”
Maybe some students I met will continue to study English and go on to teach one day. Sometimes one profound experience can alter our entire life trajectory. I feel humbled thinking that one grueling week of my life could change another person’s entire life.