I had no idea what I was doing on my first day of teaching classes in Korea. I was given nothing more than a book of illustrations that told the story of Little Red Riding Hood. There was a total of ten lines of English in it. And simple lines at that. I was expected to use if for the week. I hadn’t been given any training either, aside from the brief introduction I was given to the students the day before. I was completely clueless as to how to begin.
My first class was a “higher” English class. That meant the students could speak English better than the class I would teach next lesson (which I was to find out didn’t even know the alphabet). There were five five-year old girls in the class. One was named Beauty.
I had no idea that some Korean students would call themselves by things that we didn’t consider names. I had a Tiger and a Lion. Years later, I’d meet a Blood and a Happy. I had asked Happy what he’d think if I told him my Korean name was Kimchi. He loved it. So there wasn’t much I was going to be able to do other than accept calling them what they wanted.
But, names aside, I still had no idea how to teach.
I had no training. Up until that point, I had been working as a waiter at my friend’s restaurant. I had graduated university with Honours Sociology and had written a book. But that didn’t mean I could explain why we spoke the way we did or get a bunch of children to try to do it.
I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I let the students ask me a bunch of questions that first class (which didn’t work for the second class because, like I had said, they didn’t even know the alphabet). Then I must have played a few games of hangman (a go-to for most newbie teachers).
I probably asked them a few questions of my own. Though I doubt five-year olds with a very limited understanding of English gave me too many answers.
And it went that way for class after class after class.
The owner of my school wasn’t very helpful, either. Her specialty was Math (which was what she taught on the upper floor of the school). Her English was even less than the some of the students. From what I had heard about her husband, he was a “gangster”. I don’t know if that was because he always wore black mock-neck sweaters or because he actually had ties to the underground. But he rarely spoke to me so he wasn’t any help at all.
I used the Internet to look up games. There weren’t as many resources back then as there are now, but there were some. I did some research on the best way to get children to understand English in a way that didn’t use rote memorization (which was a KEY method of teaching in Korea). I looked up stories I could read and had my mother and father send me some text books.
But for the most part, I played UNO.
I’m embarrassed about that now. I should have done a lot more than I did. But there was so much going on at the time, I didn’t have the energy to do anything more than that.
The city I was in (Yeosu) was small. There weren’t any of the restaurants I was used to. They didn’t even have peanut butter at the supermarket (though they did get it later).
There were a few teachers there (around twenty), but they all lived in different parts of the city than myself. Yeosu was divided into three parts (that I knew of): Yeosu-shi, Yeosu-dong, and Yeochun. Yeosu-shi is where I lived. I was surrounded by nothing more than bars and restaurants, norebangs (singing rooms for Karaoke), and Love Motels (I think you can figure out what they’re for).
So, in addition to dealing with a new country, a new culture, new food, a new profession (if you could call it that at the time), I struggled with loneliness. It was a lot to take.
Yes, I played UNO. I figured it would help the students with their numbers (at least up to 10). It was also the only thing they seemed to enjoy doing. They liked a few of the other games I played with them. But they hated doing any type of lesson I had planned. None of them wanted to write or read anything.
This went on for around five months. No, I didn’t play UNO with them that whole time. After a month or so, I got a better hang of how to teach. I was still nothing where I am today, but it was a lot better than when I had started out.
It was only when my boss said that she didn’t have enough money to pay for me anymore that it all came to an end.
I was thankful for that, honestly. I didn’t enjoy my time in Yeosu as much as I had hoped. I can see now how much better it could have been if I had done things differently. But I hadn’t done things differently, so I was ready to leave.
My boss had said that she could set me up at another school, but I wasn’t interested. I had no idea what I was going to do.
In the end, I jumped on a plane and went to South East Asia for two months. And, after that, I went back to Korea. I had realized that I hadn’t given it as good as a shot as I should have and wanted to try it again.
This time, though, I’d go to a bigger city. In fact, the biggest city they had. I went to Seoul. Gangnam, actually. The neighbourhood made famous by the Gangnam Style song.
But I’ll save that part of the story for another time.