Friday, October 19, 2012

A Long, Long Day

We interrupt the steady stream of pretty photos from Gyeongju with a special announcement: Andrew has finally discovered what his school's cafeteria serves for dinner!

It's 8:30pm and I have just returned from what is arguably the longest workday I've ever had. And, yes, I stayed at school through dinner time, using the opportunity to chat with students over a meal of udon, rice, banchan, and a wonderful, what-the-heck-is-this chicken mozzarella stew.

In case you're confused... I work at a boarding high school. My students go to class and study from morning until evening and take all three meals in the same small but airy cafeteria. For the past two months, I've eaten lunch with them and make it a point to chat with my students in English to encourage them and give them a chance to practice. But I always leave school at five or five-thirty and have dinner at home with 아버님 and 어머님.

Today, however, was a day of curveballs. I taught two classes and led one discussion class for teachers. After my last Friday class, my schedule has usually been to go to my school's gym and then work in my office to finalize next week's lesson plans. But I was told today that two of my first-year students were going to spend fifth period practicing a special presentation they were to give next Monday. The regional education office is sponsoring a group of Japanese students to come to CSHS for a kind of science research exchange, and my students, SH and SJ, will present their current Research Education group projects. The problem is that they haven't quite finished translating their work into English and need practice. Hence, I was asked to attend their rehearsal and take notes, give feedback, the things a native-speaking English teacher would be expected to do.

I gladly agreed. Only literally as soon as my co-teacher and I left our office to head down to the auditorium, we were told that the rehearsal had been moved to next Monday, the morning before the actual presentation. I shrugged and decided to go to the gym.

When I returned from my workout, my co-teacher announced that in fact, they decided to move the rehearsal back to today, and it had actually begun fifteen minutes ago, so could I please come to the auditorium? Cue the smile and sigh that comes with all sudden schedule changes at Korean schools!

While listening to SH's nervous speech given before a grim audience of five teachers, I realized that she really did need some help. I mean, my students are incredibly smart, and their research is very complex (one group made a fertilizer from discarded starfish and tested its effectiveness, and the other created different varieties of bio-degradable insulation). But I have to admit that all of that was lost completely in the presentation. Her delivery and the PowerPoint slideshow were just... really bad. There was a lot of work to be done, and she knew it. I actually pitied her, because the other supervising teachers at the rehearsal really didn't hold back in their criticism. Their science teacher doesn't even speak English and he could tell that it was a mess.

So I discarded my afternoon plans to work on my own things, and I went through SJ's script line by line with him, trying to fix its syntax and to create plausible sentences out of phrases like "it is arrangement of mini tomatoes vertical". I painstakingly broke down how to pronounce Asterina pectinifera. I double-checked my co-teachers translation of SH's script, too, which was some nice collaboration. Together, we realized that in order to do the best we could for our students, we'd have to stay late. "I think," ventured my co-teacher, "you should stay for dinner tonight."

By the time I had finished recording SJ's entire script so that he could practice correct pronunciation and intonation over the weekend, it was completely dark outside and all the other students had headed to the cafeteria for to eat. I sent a quick text to my host mother to tell her I wouldn't be home until late ("갑자기 저는 학교의 일은 많아서...").

I figured, after dinner, that as long as I was already here past sundown, I might as well stick around to get some more work done. So I went over my notes on SH's presentation with her and tried my best to be encouraging. I did some lesson planning. I made some suggestions to SH's research group as they gave their PowerPoints a complete makeover. I didn't leave until after 8:00pm, remarking that the school looked completely different at night, though not necessarily in a bad way.

So that makes twelve hours spent at school today! I wonder why I did that? I mean, of course, I was asked to help, and I wasn't about to half-ass a big favor asked of me by my co-teacher. But there's more. I really want to watch my students kick butt at their presentation on Monday. (They want to show up their Japanese visitors!) I know they can do it, but it makes me sad that they are so stressed out about this -- it's not even going to be graded, as far as I know -- and I want to help make it as comfortable and successful as possible. Also, now that I've gotten involved, my inner perfectionist wants it to be, well, perfect, too. This goes hand in hand with the realization that I actually feel comfortable being at school and interacting with my students outside of class, even on projects as spontaneous and hectic as this.

All throughout this long, long day, time paradoxically passed in the blink of an eye. Although I'm pretty exhausted now, I enjoyed the sort of bonding time I had with my students and with the other teachers at my school who stayed late to work with them, as well. I like the idea that my dedication to my students is leaving an impression. My co-teacher has informed me that students have recently been telling her that they like the effort I make to talk to them. Of course, they never tell me this to my face; I suppose it would be embarrassing.

As I left, I wished my co-teacher a nice weekend and told her not to stay too late -- the opposite of the traditional Korean valediction, "수고하세요!" (Work hard!) In reply, she told me that tonight was actually her shift to stay at school overnight and monitor the students in the dormitories. Now that's real dedication.

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