Now that my first month as an EPIK teacher has come and gone (actually my first month and a half — I’ve been procrastinating with this post!), I figured I should jot down a few notes about how things have been going so far. Read on to find out how life as a middle school teacher is treating me in Daegu, South Korea.
Firstly, I have to admit that when I found out on the last day of EPIK Orientation that I would be teaching at a middle school, I was a little disappointed. I had been hoping and expecting to be placed in an elementary school, as most EPIK teachers are. However, looking back now, I’m so thankful that I was assigned to middle school instead. I have very little experience working with kids, and I really don’t know how well I would have handled being in charge of a room full of 30+ elementary schoolchildren. Besides, teaching a language to someone completely from scratch seems like an incredibly daunting task. Most middle school students already have basic English skills, so I can communicate with them much more easily than I would be able to do with younger children. I haven’t completely ruled out trying my hand at teaching elementary school one day, but for now I’m perfectly happy in my role as a middle school teacher.
In fact, I think I really lucked out with my position. I like my school, I like my students (well, most of them), and I like my co-teachers. I teach students in first and second grade, which is the equivalent of Grade 7 and 8 in Canada. I only teach 18 classes (plus one after-school class) a week, which is less than many other EPIK teachers’ workloads. Moreover, I was quite pleasantly surprised at how quickly I adjusted to my new job. Having had zero previous teaching experience — and not having done any public speaking since graduating university seven years ago — I expected to be super awkward my first time standing in front of a room full of 30-odd teenage faces staring expectantly at me. I assumed it would take me several weeks to find my groove and start feeling comfortable teaching a class. Honestly, I thought I was going to be so nervous on my first day that I wouldn’t even be able to eat breakfast. But the whole experience turned out to be so much less scary than I thought it would be. I was a little nervous on my first day, of course, but the nerves were nowhere near as bad as I thought they would be. (And I ate my breakfast just fine.) It definitely helped that I didn’t start teaching until my third day of work. During my first two days, I simply sat in the 2nd-grade teachers’ lounge working on lesson planning. That was nice because it allowed me to get accustomed to the school, to learn where things were and how things were run there, instead of just being handed a textbook and thrown headfirst into teaching on Day One.
Of course, as with just about any job, there are certain aspects of being an EPIK teacher that are less than perfect. I think what’s been the most disappointing aspect of the job for me is how much difficulty I have had learning students’ names. I’ve always kind of flattered myself that I’m good with names, but trying to learn my Korean students’ names has proven an impossible task. At this point, I’m pretty sure that the vast majority (as in 99%) of their names will forever remain unknown to me. In my first week, I had the students make nametags for themselves, with the hope that they would bring their nametags to every class and place them on their desks facing me. In my overly ambitious mind, I thought it would be easy for me to pick up their names after glancing a few times at the nametag sitting in front of them. Ohhhh boy, how wrong I was! It’s one thing to remember someone’s name if that name is common in your native language, but quite another thing to learn roughly 540 Korean names that all sound completely foreign to your English-speaking mind. After a month of teaching, I think there are exactly five students in the whole school whose names I know (and two of them are not even the students’ real names but only their English names: Sally and Stella). By the time my third week of teaching began, none of the students were even bringing their nametags to class anymore. I guess they knew as well as I did that my learning their names was a hopelessly lost cause.
Anyways, enough about the job. How have I been adjusting to life in Korea? Swimmingly! In fact, adjusting to life in this country was even easier than adjusting to my new job as a teacher. As far as “culture shock” goes, I can’t say I have really felt it at all. Korea is a modern, wealthy, first-world country, and things run pretty much the same way here as they do in other modern, wealthy, first-world countries. Of course there are little differences, like how students bow to teachers (including me sometimes) in the hallways at school, and how all the teachers are constantly bestowing gifts of rice cakes and oranges on each other. But for the most part, daily life unfolds in Korea in much the same way that it does in Canada. I should probably point out that the exorbitant price of groceries here caught me a little off-guard at first, since nobody had warned me about it beforehand. However, pretty much everything else is cheaper here than in Canada, so things balance out moneywise.
As for Daegu, it’s a great city to live in. There’s so much to see and do here. The job has been keeping me pretty busy from Monday to Friday, but I always have plenty of time on the weekends to get out and explore. I keep telling myself that one of these days I’m going to actually get out of Daegu and explore other parts of Korea, but I still have tons of things to check off my Daegu bucket list first.
On the whole, my transition to life in Korea has gone just about as smoothly as I could have hoped. I enjoy teaching middle school, I love living in Daegu, and I can’t wait for all the adventures I expect to have in the next 10.5 months. Stay tuned!