“Now after learning about question-forming words, I want you to ask me three sentences about myself. It could be anything. Ask me about my family, my pets, my favorite food. Anything”.
“Class, don’t you have any questions for me? About America? About moving to Korea? I flew across the world to be here with you!”
Bora, a Korean teacher enters.
“Class… don’t you want to ask if Jenny Teacher has a boyfriend?” suggests Bora.
And with that, the five children get to it. This is my second “Junior Class” of the day, meeting up three days a week. They are my oldest students, at eight years Korean age (seven American age). With only five in the classroom I have more leverage over the students. A few understand most of what I’m saying, a few don’t understand much at all. And what I can’t understand is, why can’t these kids think of a better question than “does Jenny Teacher have a boyfriend?”
Well, asking “if” I have a boyfriend turns into “why doesn’t Jenny Teacher have a boyfriend?”
Apparently, Netflix isn’t trending in Korea.
I respond to their very personal question by asking; “Class, do you understand what ‘complicated’ means?”
So much for applying ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ into the assignment.
However, I only have myself to blame in this confusion. These children are just that, children. Korean children. With Korean parents. Speaking Korean. All day, everyday. Saying something louder and slower in English with hand gestures doesn’t help a six-year-old become fluent in a western language.
The next day the other English teacher, Nora, puts it this way: “English is their second language, Jenny. You have to think of them as two grades behind in terms of skill”. Nora has been living in Korea for over two years now. She joined my school when I did, working part-time with pre-school (bless her soul). She works with the toddlers with ease and confidence as I brace myself three times a day for the war-zone that is my five-year-old class.
“You’re not going to teach them how to read and write everything correctly, but you’re doing the best you can, and that’s all you need to do” reassures Nora.
With that advice, I take a moment to let it sink into the distressed state I’ve been in since day one. After a minute or so passes during our lunch break, Nora asks, “Jenny…are you thinking?”
I break out laughing from what possible facial expressions had been displaying across my face as I indeed was in deep contemplation. I lash out in hysteria: “Yes Nora! I was thinking! It’s a rarity but it happens time to time, so let me be!”
We laugh it off together, as we both understand the need for mental unwinding throughout the day. With a brief moment of comical relief, I sort through my flashcards of the alphabet and strap on my full metal jacket.
The next thirty minutes is a bloodshed. Between desk-slamming and name-calling, I am ready to wave my white flag. I persist, and after the fifth time I call out which color to fill in for “apple”, the clock hits 2PM. Only a few casualties today, mostly in the crayon department. I pile up the remains and brush off the wounds, breathing out a sigh of relief.
I retreat to my make-shift desk for some R&R, attempting to work on admin while periodically browsing through Skyskanner. I am torn between the crying toddler in the adjacent room and the incoming Junior student seeking out my attention during my precious half-hour break. The final two classes go by and I can feel my voice turning more coarse by the minute. As I patiently help an eight-year-old spell the word “children” for the third time, Bora enters the classroom at my aid, dismissing the students for the bus.
I sigh in relief, replaying the day through my head. Scenes of tantrums are overlapped with triumphant moments of reading the word “cat”. And despite the voice loss I’m pretty sure the kids enjoyed my impromptu alphabet game. I break a smile remembering asking my kindergartener’s, “How are you today?” and receive the response, “it’s sunny!”. Alas, I feel a sense of accomplishment knowing one of the preschooler’s is overcoming her separation anxiety.
This past month has been a challenge, but also a blessing. In no way do I love what I do, but there are moments where I really, really like it. As my favorite teacher-friend has advised me, “teaching is an art”. And from my last job I’ve learned that art is a skill, and skills are to be practiced. I’ve realized that I may not care to pursue myself as a ‘career woman’, but I will always care about my career.
So at the end of each day, I walk home in gratitude. I accomplished another day of being a patient, optimistic role model to these children. Or, who knows, they may just see me as a boyfriend-less white woman.