Sunday, July 29, 2012

어디에 가요? Where are you going?

Where am I going? 모라요. I don't know. It's kind of embarrassing when people ask me (again and again) where exactly in Korea I am teaching, and the answer is that I haven't found out yet. However! I'm one step closer to finding out!

A few days ago, all the ETAs had to fill out a very long survey that would help Fulbright determine where we are going to be teaching for the coming school year. It was called a "placement form", but it wasn't as simple as checking boxes next to what city we wanted to live in.

The schools to which Fulbright sends its ETAs change a little bit every year; there is no comprehensive list of schools such that we can simply point to one and go. Most of these schools are average high schools and middle schools in rural or suburban areas. But some ETAs are placed in bigger cities, like Daegu, Busan, or Gwangju (no one is placed in Seoul, excepting special circumstances), and some are placed at advanced high schools (for example, the 과학고등학교 - science high schools).

On the placement form, we had to rank our preferences for all sorts of criteria, including: being in a rural area (which doesn't mean farmland, but more like small town), suburban, or urban; the size and gender makeup of our school; the geographic location, like mountainous or coastal; and access to extracurricular activities. It was long and very thorough; despite not explicitly asking if we wanted any particular cities or schools, it was designed to shape the range of possible environments in which each individual ETA would thrive as a teacher and cultural ambassador.

I might have discussed this before, but I would like to teach students of a higher English level who are already motivated to learn in the classroom. When I visited the Chungnam Science High School in Daejeon, the classroom that I observed seemed perfect for me, even before I had any experience teaching. (After one day of teaching, I guess I could see myself adapting to a lower level, though.)

Thus, in my placement form I indicated that I wanted high-level students in an urban environment. Thinking about Busan, where the weather is supposedly similar to that of San Francisco and where my good friend Hae-in lives, I also wrote that I'd like to be placed in a coastal region. And in the box for listing extracurricular activities to which I'd appreciate easy access, I wrote taking Korean classes, continuing taekwondo, volunteering at a Hana Center (tutoring and English education for North Korean defectors), and attending a church with a service in English.

(When I say the placement form was thorough, I mean it: there was even a section where you could indicate if there were any other ETAs, specifically, near to or far from whom you'd like to be placed. I left that section blank!)

Finally, after all of these preference rankings, there was a section to rank the rankings themselves. For example, I prefer a Protestant-affiliated school over a Buddhist-affiliated school, and I also prefer high school over middle school, but my preference for the age level is much more important to me than my preference for religious affiliation. So, I gave "School Type" a "1" and Religious Affiliation a "9" (out of twelve total criteria).

Before I submitted my placement form, I had a long conversation with Anthony, one of the Orientation Coordinators, to bounce my thoughts and ideas around. I told him about why I wanted higher-level students, students who were on track to actually use English in their futures. I talked about how I didn't want to feel like I was wasting my time teaching tons of kids who had no discernible future with this language aside from memorizing how to do well on the English section of the 수능 (suneung - the infamous college placement exam). Anthony is a cool guy. He understood perfectly what I was feeling, but also helped me put things into perspective and plan more realistically for the year. Anthony taught at a rural high school, relatively far from the cities and relatively lacking in brilliant English prodigies. The advice he gave me was to expect all kinds of students and not limit yourself with my own expectations. With average class sizes of forty, it would be impossible for all of my students to care as much as I want them to. Every class will have its stars and its slackers, and most of the rest will fall scattered in between. And I can't necessarily motivate them to learn English, but I can at least show them that English is more than a grammar book and a section of a test. As for the bright students, there are extracurricular "club classes" at which I can really reach out to them and help them get further in English if they want to.

That was Anthony's goal as a teacher: not to try to defy the structure (or confines) of the Korean education system and blaze his own trail, but to work within it and still introduce a different kind of English education, one that entertains and inspires. I should make it a priority to show my students that I care about them and their education -- even love them, if love can be defined as an inexplicable, deep concern for another's well-being. In the end, that is enough.

I really appreciated Anthony's advice. In my form, I still expressed my strong desire to teach at a higher-level school, and wrote what amounted to a small essay in the "Final Comments" section explaining exactly why. But, I also wrote that I will be flexible and can adapt to any school given to me, which is also true. And I'm realizing more and more how crucial it is to be flexible as a teacher. The chances of my getting what I want most are fairly slim. But in the classroom, when does anything go exactly the way you wanted? (I'm teaching again tomorrow; I hope all goes well, if not according to plan!)

When I find out where I'm placed, I will let you all know, and I'll start getting ready for my future students with plenty of gusto.


  1. Busan weather is not "similar to San Francisco." When I went there last year in January, I had never felt so cold in my entire life. Thank God for those sweet heated floors they have in Korean houses.

    1. Haha, oh really? Well, in my defense (but not to SF's credit), the Bay Area can get pretty cold in January, too. Usually because of rain. Will it snow on the coast in southern Korea and Japan, though?