Friday, July 5, 2013

Meeting Teachers

During finals week, the teachers at my school proctor exams for up to three hours every morning. Proctoring is something I'm quite thankful I was never asked to do, because the job entails literally standing up at the front or back of a classroom for the entire test period to watch the students take the test, finish the test, and nap. The proctor is not allowed to sit, sleep, or even bring a book. There are two teachers in every classroom to make sure no one teacher does anything illicit (i.e. help a student).

Understandably, the teachers have been unwinding from these daily tests of tenacity by going out to lunch together almost every day. When I'm invited, I feel just the tiniest bit guilty for going out with them on the school's dime without having done the work. (Although I've had no classes to teach and no tests to proctor this week, I've been staying busy at school by creating class awards, like "Most Improved Student", and preparing teaching materials for Taiwan.) But I enjoy the time I get to spend with my fellow teachers. I've been feeling lately that I don't fit in very well, and this is even taking the language barrier and cultural differences into account.

I guess that's why I baked all those cookies for the Fourth of July. Sharing food is a great way to build a relationship, and perhaps I was trying to curry favor in some way after a semester of very little communication with the non-English teachers. I might chat with a few of them for a couple of minutes every week, but that's hardly a connection. And it's fun to play volleyball or badminton with them at the weekly Teacher Sports Day, but on the other hand, I think that the competitive aspect of the sports day is really important to them, and since I'm really bad at sports, I'm still not scoring any points with them in this field, so to speak.

Anyway, shared meals are a good thing, especially if they're at the neighborhood barbecue restaurant instead of our school's dining hall. I've gotten opportunities to chat with teachers that I don't normally see at lunch, and it's been great. Even better was the time the English department went out to lunch at a great shabu shabu chain called 꽃마름 (Flower Hill). It's Vietnamese-styled hot pot, where you boil your meat in a delicious broth and then wrap it in Vietnamese rice paper to make a little spring roll. We ate a lot and chatted for hours over coffee about sweatpants, monpe (몸뻬), Islam, hallal and kosher, being full (strangely, there are very few different ways to say that you're full in English...), and veiled threats (은근한 협박).

Aside from the teachers at my school, I've had several interesting experiences with teachers at other schools this past week. On Tuesday, a group of teachers from Turkey and Kazakhstan visited our school. They were teachers from specialized science high schools in those countries, and they wanted to learn a bit more about the Korean education system. Since my fellow English teachers had to proctor exams, the task of interpreting for their campus tour actually fell to me. I was really nervous, because 1) I have never had to do this kind of simultaneous interpretation from Korean to English before and 2) my principal was joining the tour and 3) I never understand a word my principal says (his provincial accent is really strong).

Thankfully, the tour was very simple. I just had to point out the main buildings: gymnasium, auditorium, dormitory, dining hall, classrooms. When it came to the details, like the energy-saving measures in our architecture or the students' lifestyle, I did less literal translation and more "listen for a phrase the guide says that you understand, and then explain using your own words and what you already know." But I did successfully translate all the questions and answers in both directions, and although it was mentally tiring, I'm pretty proud of what I did. A year ago, that would have been flat-out impossible for me.

After about half an hour, my co-teacher finished proctoring and saved me from having to explain the technology in our school's physics and chemistry labs and research rooms. All in all, I think the Turkish teachers had a pleasant visit, even though lunch at our dining hall was not exactly to their taste (and also nearly impossible to eat without a fork). It seems like there's some sort of exchange program in the works for our students in the near future...

The following interesting encounter with a teacher was over the phone with the native English teacher at Ulsan Science High School. He's Australian, which I didn't expect, but we had a great chat about our experiences at science high schools, and he gave me the lowdown on an English conversation certificate program his schools does that mine wants to emulate. Even though his accent was really strong -- and it's been years since I've talked to anyone from Australia -- I understood almost everything he said. I feel kind of bad for his students, though. That accent takes some getting used to!

And lastly, an American gym teacher from New York came to visit our school yesterday for reasons still unbeknownst to me. I gave her a tour, as well as some Fourth of July cookies. She seemed to be experiencing a bit of culture shock, guilelessly asking me, "Do you think they ever get tired of eating rice?" and "Why is there never any soap?" but nevertheless, she approached everything with a disarmingly straightforward enthusiasm that belied the driving rain. From the golf driving range to the belt massager in the gym to the fact that our students clean their own classrooms regularly, everything was amazing and worth photographing. It was amusing, but on a more serious note, it made me realize that I've grown so accustomed to the way things work here in Korea that I'm no longer surprised, either pleasantly or not, by things I would have found odd a year ago. But explaining them to someone less familiar than I actually helps us both understand a little bit more about the nature of cultural difference.

That's a lot of teacher-teacher interaction for one week! But the great thing is that I learn a little something from every moment, and that alone makes it worthwhile.

P.S. Because I don't know where else to write this: At taekgyeon class earlier this week, I accidentally kneed my teacher (관장님) in the nose. It was a little bit too vigorous of an attempt to intercept a pass during indoor soccer. He started bleeding. I was really embarrassed and even did the down-on-your-knees bow in apology, but he was all right in the end. Now that's a teacher-teacher interaction you don't want to have.

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