I remember the first time I walked by an ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom in high school, thinking to myself: "Wow, here I am reading Aeschylus and these students, in my very same grade, are learning the names of the days of the week........ What idiots!" Of course I'm kidding, but I was indeed a little bit jealous of the kids who had, from my perspective, a job much easier than mine. In fact, the only job I thought was easier was that of their teacher. What a trade that would be! (And this was before I knew it could involve travel) How nice it would be to get paid to teach Basic English, or something I had just as thoroughly mastered, like eating or playing Super Mario World. These were skills that after years of vigilant practice and constant use came effortlessly, abilities that I would have used anyway, even if nobody paid me. These were jobs I was qualified for. Yet, I was wrong. The ability to speak English, it turns out, only qualifies one to be a subpar ESL teacher. To be a good teacher in any subject, the instructor must make a real and concerted effort to get into the shoes of his or her students and try to understand the wondrous, spongelike minds of these little fuckers.
I happen to now be an ESL (or EFL if you want to be overly technical) teacher in South Korea, at a private language academy for upper-class-middle-schoolers. It's actually a very high quality institution where students go to get additional English assistance after regular school, but before math academy, science academy, and binary code academy. You see, in Korea parents care so deeply about educating their children that many students often seem not to be enjoying their childhood half as much as I'm currently enjoying mine. And while my students are generally smart and hardworking, even by Asian standards, (It's not racist if it's a good thing... I hope) it's often important to remind myself that the reason they might not be as enthusiastic as I am about adverbs is probably that while I work from 3PM to 10PM, their hours are closer to 9AM to 10PM, at which time it's illegal to further educate them. They are, after all, still children and not Intel Pentium Processors. Many of these children are tired. Many are thirsty, bored, or harboring dark disturbing secrets. The bottom line is that most students want to be in bonus school no more than I used to want to go to Hebrew School instead of going home after school, eating cereal, and watching X-Men reruns, followed by Spiderman. As I've come to understand this, I've become a little more lenient with these kiddos if they don't project proper pep.
In most ways Korean tweens are usually just like American tweens... pubescent. While the differences are manifold and to explain them all would involve me delving into a book-length shpiel about the differences between Eastern and Western attitudes, there are a few pointers I would like to give to any would-be English Teacher in Korea. I've constructed a top ten list, in no particular order.
1) Some of the kids are really funny, which I imagine is quite difficult to pull off in a foreign language. Just the other day, I asked a kid what she wanted to do for a living when she got older. "seliar kirrer" (serial killer) she said. I tried to explain that this isn't an occupation, asking "Who would pay you money to kill people?" to which she replied "My boss."
10) Koreans of all ages laugh bravely in the face of death. Or at least they seem comfortable joking about it. If a student is absent, don't put it past his friends to tell you that he's dead, and possibly give you a confession. In fact, a beloved expression here is "Jugaley" meaning, "Do you want to DIE?!?" It sounds pretty threatening to Westerners, but it's my understanding that asking someone this is the equivalent of calling them a rascal. If your student asks you if you want to die, you needn't worry that you have the next Columbine on your hands. Personally, it fits my morbid sense of humor perfectly.
8) Korea is unfortunately in the middle of their own boy group/girl group revolution. The pop charts here are dominated by groups such as Big Bang, Girls Generation, T-ara, 2NE1, 2AM, 2PM and other "bands" with English names who sing in Korean. It's called K-pop and it calls to mind the likes of N'Sync and BSB. If you want to get in good with a female student, ask her which musical artists she's currently way too obsessed with.
5) If you want to find common ground with a male student, talk to him about computer games. Odds are he will spend his infrequent spare time at a PC room playing Starcraft. Once this generation comes of age, South Korea will be so well trained in military strategy that they will never have to worry about the North again. Or aliens.
9) It's not cut and dried. Many boys like boy bands and many girls play Starcraft. While often times gender roles are more strongly pronounced in Korea, sometimes they aren't at all. For instance, straight men will sometimes walk down the street holding hands. No, I'm not joking.
6) They have real trouble with L's and R's. You probably knew this. I can't blame them because their language has its own plethora of impossible sounds that they execute flawlessly. The awesome part about the L and R problem that you might not have known is that if you're a teacher, you can openly joke about this with them without them knowing you're a racist! I personally enjoy having them repeat: Sibling rivalry, serial killer, purple turtle (pulper tulter), and Laurel Harold. They call me Joer.
3) A rare student here and there will be super into Hitler (especially if they can pronounce it!) I'll get into this more later.
7) It can be really difficult for a Western-wired mind to remember Korean names. The vast majority of them have mono-syllabic family names and bi-syllabic first names (which are actually their last names chronologically. ChanHo Park is actually named Park ChanHo, just as Yuna Kim is actually Kim Yuna.) which often use different combinations of similar if not identical syllables. It's confusing when you have about a hundred students total. Especially because Kim, Park, and Lee combine to make up about 2/3 of family names. That's an honest estimate. I just give them all English names.
11) They seem to have certain favorite English words and catchphrases, such as "Teachaaa, because of you!" or "He is crazy!" They love calling each other crazy. Can't get enough of it. If you ask how they are doing, 60% will respond "I'm fine thank you, and you?" even if they don't entirely grasp what that means. Of course there is the proud yet ironic "I am genius!" and the declaration "finishee" (meaning "I am finished") but my all time favorite is "just." Just "just. If you ask them to explain themselves, instead of "just because", they say "just." It works on so many levels, and gets funnier every time I think about it.
4) If you ever have to really scold your students, they won't look you in the eye. Not because they're not listening to you or because like Sylvester Stalone's hired help their contract forbids eye contact, but because this is their way of showing that they acknowledge that they've done wrong. It's strange watching 14 heads look down at their desks simultaneously like that, but kind of interesting. In fact, now that I've discovered this, I scream at my students all day long for absolutely no reason.
2) Some classes will be so quiet and shy that they need participation electro-shocked out them. With other groups, you'll need to be Professor Snape to calm their rowdiness. But when the class has a perfect balance between these two extremes, it won't feel like work at all. It'll feel more like teaching them how to play Super Mario World.