I did it. I officially survived my first week of teaching middle school in South Korea.
Luckily for me that week was only two full days, but regardless I survived.
I’m sitting here on Friday night writing this, thoroughly exhausted, and feeling very happy. I’m not on a mountain top, and I’m not in a valley. I feel really normal. Excited about the year ahead of me, but also just very normal. And I am so incredibly thankful for that. I think that’s even better than coming off the first week on a crazy high, because this way I don’t need to come crashing down at some point.
But anyway. Let me walk you through how my first two days of teaching went.
It all began at 6:45 Thursday morning. I wanted to give myself plenty of time to get ready because I feel like here, more than many places, first impressions matter.
I dressed up as well as I could, however I’m realizing that despite my two overweight suitcases I still don’t have as many clothes as I’d like it. I’m feeling like there’s a shopping spree coming once I get my first pay check. I haven’t had the time to do any proper grocery shopping yet so I had a very delicious breakfast of plain white rice and black coffee. But of course I was so nervous that I could hardly eat any of it.
At 8:10 I was out the door. The walk to my school is basically a very short very steep hill and then I arrive at the cross walk to head across the street to the school. The moment I got to the top of the hill is when it really started.
And by it I mean the gasping, shouting “너무 예뻐요” (which is like “too beautiful”), and general hysteria at the sight of me. Walking into school was when it started and it still hasn’t stopped. And at this point I imagine that it won’t until I finished giving my introductory lesson to all 700 of my students.
I’ll go ahead and put my little disclaimer here before we go any further. Never in my life have I had people stop dead in their tracks at the sight of me, nor have I ever been told that I’m beautiful so many times in my entire life. Anyway my disclaimer is to say that I think the reaction would be the same to any other new young American teacher. It just happens to currently be me. And also the last foreign english teacher here was a man, so maybe they’re just adjusting. Or maybe it’s a cultural difference. No, it’s definitely a cultural difference. And it is something else, let me tell you.
So there I was walking in a sea of green and black uniforms with every student absolutely gawking at me. When I finally got into the school I went over to take my shoes off where I had been shown the old teachers cubby, but when I got there his name had been removed and I’m not sure who replaced it, but it wasn’t my name. So I ended up just putting my boots on top of the cubbies and putting on the guest slippers. (Which are way the heck too big for me and always fall off my feet while I’m walking. Which is super embarrassing when everyone is watching your every move. And unfortunately I know the word for shoe in Korean so I can hear it being muttered occasionally.)
Anyway, I got my slippers on and successfully made it into the teacher’s office and to my desk. Upon meeting all the other teachers for the first time they also made sure to repeat “So beautiful!!” several times for good measure. Luckily my main co-teacher sits at the desk right across from me, so I finally got to see one familiar face after having several hundred new pairs of eyes staring at me.
But apart from the initial introduction to the other teachers, everyone in the office pretty much just left me alone and acted like I was supposed to be there. And I’m really grateful for that. Of course there are some things I still need help with, like I haven’t quite figured out who takes lunch when. But they aren’t babying me. They’re acting like I’m just a regular teacher and that’s helping me to feel a lot more like just a regular teacher here.
And once the novelty of me, and the constant screaming stops, I’m sure the behavior problems will start as well and then I will really be just a normal teacher.
I had three free periods in the morning which I used to go through all the material that they gave us during EPIK orientation. At some point during the morning and entire class of grade 3 boys came into the office to visit me and they all collectively gasped and there were lots of, “Teacher I love you! Teacher you’re so pretty!” accompanied by hand hearts and some bowing. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience.
I still haven’t really figured out how I’m supposed to respond to this. Because in a way it’s nice and I should probably just say thank you or something. But I’m also starting to feel a bit like an animal on display. An apparently beautiful or exotic animal, but something to be objectified nonetheless.
I suppose this is my first real instance of culture shock here. I was expecting the staring, because I do look completely different from every single one of the other 700+ people in this school, but the “wow so pretty” and the literal screaming has caught me a little off guard.
And now I sound like I’m complaining about being told I’m beautiful 5 million times a day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s flattering. But in a super bizarre way.
Anyyyyyyway. I looked over my lesson a few more times and when 10:30 rolled around I found the co-teacher I would have for that period (I have a total of 5) and we walked over to the classroom.
The classes are called Grade 1, 2, and 3 but that’s equivalent to our 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. And the classes at my school are also split by boys and girls.
My first class was grade 3 boys. Arguably the most difficult crowd to please, however my co-teacher told me, “No no the boys will love you. It’s the grade 3 girls that are difficult.” And while I have yet to teach grade 3 girls, I think she might be right.
The classrooms have tempered glass windows on the outside so you can kind of see anyone who is passing by. So as my co-teacher and I walked up I could hear a muffled, “Whoaaaaaaaaa” and when we walked in there was a literal eruption of cheering and screams. I tried my best to greet them formally and appropriately but given the situation I pretty much just laughed. We spent a bit of time trying to get the power point to work but eventually it did.
And then there it was. The moment that a whole year of preparing had led up to. With 30 pairs of openly curious and expectant eyes staring back at me, I started teaching.
I have worried that I wouldn’t feel like a teacher, I have worried that it has been too long since I last taught, that I wouldn’t be able to find my voice again. But it was there. It just took those 30 boys with wide eyes to make me find it.
The lesson was just me introducing myself through a game, and then a few activities to get them moving, speaking English, and introducing themselves. At one point I ask them if they have any questions for me, and without fail every single class has gone like this.
A few seconds of silence, a lot of looking around, some mumbling in Korean and then one brave soul has the nerve to stick up their hand and ask, “Teacher, do you have a boyfriend.”
That has been the first question from all 6 of the classes that I have seen so far.
And then the questions vary from there. The boys have tended to keep the questions headed in that direction. “Teacher what’s your ideal type? Teacher who’s the most handsome boy in the class?”
(To which I responded whoever speaks English the most, and I think that line worked on exactly 1 of the students.)
And the girls want to know which Kpop idols I know, going so far as to start just listing groups to see if I’ve ever heard of them. I know a lot more about Kpop then I generally like to admit, but let me tell you what. All those hours I thought I was wasting on Youtube accumulating a wealth of entirely useless information about BTS, (they’re my favorite) was not in vain. I cashed in big time with that knowledge. They absolutely lost their minds when I told them that I not only know AgustD (the rapper stage name of one member in BTS) but also had a favorite song from his mixtape.
I finished my presentation about 5 minutes early, which is my eternal problem with teaching. But all in all I think my very first class went as well as it could have.
I chatted with my co-teacher a bit at the end of class as we had literally just met moments before walking into the classroom and she seems really lovely. And also able to control grade 3 boys pretty well which is some kind of magic that I’d like to learn.
After that class I had another free period and then lunch. I went down to the teachers cafeteria with my main co-teacher and had my first school lunch. It was bulgogi with rice cake and lots of yummy side dishes.
After lunch we went back up to the office and I had another free period. Then my next class was grade 1 girls.
A similar situation of screams and cheers ensued when I walked in. But oh my word they are so cute.
I had another free period and then we all left together to go to a teachers welcome dinner.
Work dinners are a massive part of Korean culture and something that I was both excited for and worried about. Going along with the incredible number of table manners that exist, there are an equal number of rules as to how you are supposed to act in relation to your superiors while you’re eating. And as it has been determined that I am the youngest person in the entire staff that puts me on the bottom of every social/hierarchical ladder that exists. However I’m also a foreigner, and so in the event that I break one of those rules I can always pull my 외국 “sorry I don’t understand” card.
But once we sat down everyone was perfectly lovely and didn’t seem to expect too much from me. At one point the principal came around pouring each person a drink and then we would pour one back for him also. For some reason that interaction was kind of awkward but when I did the same for a group of the older male teachers, and tried to speak Korean a bit, the loved it.
The food was really yummy and a lot of the other teachers made a point to come over and say hello to me. And they also loved it when I could understand anything in Korean or respond to them.
After dinner one of the head teachers came over to my co-teacher and I to say she wanted to take us out for coffee. We left the restaurant and walked over to a nearby coffee shop and she bought us all coffee which was so lovely of her. The head teacher and the 2 other teachers there tried to ask me a little bit about my self and were very interested in my pervious teaching experience. I think they requested someone who had taught before so they wanted to know about what I had done. Then at some point they started gossiping about the male teachers and I stopped being able to understand anything. But it was okay. I was sitting with my lovely new co-workers, who were treating me as if I was just one of them, doing the same thing that they usually do. I felt really happy to have been included. Even if it was just me listening to Korean for 2 hours without any translation. It was worth it.
After that my co-teacher dropped me back off at my place and I called some people back home to update about my first day.
I was so tired and so happy that I fell asleep right away.