Monday, April 28, 2014

A Small Story That Illustrates Why I Love My Job

Flexibility is a must when you teach in South Korea. Schedules change as the wind blows, and random responsibilities are dropped into your lap as often as random snacks and gifts from the main gyomushil are. Today I was gifted a package of rice cakes in celebration of a co-worker's new baby boy (yay!) and an entire unexpected evening of English presentation coaching (boo!).

On the bright side, the nearly three hours I spent with just two students turned out to be some of my most productive hours so far this semester. In fact, I didn't regret a single minute.

Here's what happened. After my last class ended at 4:30 today, I was chilling at my desk, doing mindless computer things until 5pm rolled around so I could hit the gym. But at about a quarter 'til, my two co-workers stood up and said, "It's time to go." They told me that two students were going to participate in an international science competition and needed to practice the ten-minute presentation they were going to give in English. It was assumed that I would drop into rehearsal to give feedback. I nodded and joined them. See you later, treadmill; hello, science seminar room.

To make a long story short, my students' presentation was a mess. Poor YJ and DH had hardly caught up on work after last week's midterms; it was obvious that they hadn't prepared very well. Their script had quite a few grammatical errors -- for not having ever given it to me to proofread, it was passable, but still -- and DH hadn't memorized his part completely. Even worse, their presentation style had nothing going for it: butchered pronunciation, no eye contact, no gestures, no intonation whatsoever. It was like two robots reciting a Google translated research paper. And they droned like this for a minute over the time limit about a new kind of anode material for lithium ion batteries. Not the most scintillating subject, to boot.

I felt bad for my students because it was obvious even to their research adviser, who hardly understands English, that they had a lot of fixing to do. My co-teachers excoriated them as kindly as they could: you should have given us your script to proofread weeks ago, you should have practiced making eye contact, you should have added some sort of interesting introduction, but it's pretty late for that. Why? It was then that I learned that the competition is this weekend, and my students are leaving the day after tomorrow for Houston, Texas!

As excited as I was that they were going to visit the US, I realized to my sudden dismay that they had less than 48 hours to get their beached whale of a presentation back into the ocean. We all realized time was short, and my co-teachers turned to me to ask the inevitable: "Could you stay a bit later tonight?"

Now, I routinely stay at school for dinner and work late, sometimes until 8pm or later. This is for a variety of reasons: I don't like to take work home, so if I'm correcting a big batch of student journals, I don't mind staying at my desk to finish them even after everyone else has left the office. Also, during the winter, my office was much warmer than my apartment... But tonight, I was planning to get home early, maybe catch up on some TV, take care of miscellaneous chores... Nope. I calculated how much my students needed my help, weighed it against how much I needed to watch the next episode of Glee, and chose to stay.

I spent the first hour giving feedback on their first presentation and editing their script. After dinner, I met with YJ and DH in my classroom and coached them for another hour on pronunciation and intonation. It was especially funny trying to get YJ, who is naturally extremely quiet, to exaggerate the stress and enunciation in phrases like, "in other words" (in UHHH-ther worrRRDS!) or "as a result" (AS a reSUL-lll-LT!).

I also made them use their hands to indicate relevant charts and graphs on their poster, remembering how their adviser had berated them: "What's the point of having a poster if you never give your audience a reason to look at it?" They had to move their heads with their eyes while making eye contact, keep their bodies pointed toward the audience, and, most of all, smile! Smile at the audience! Smile at their partner! Smiling makes you calmer and more confident, but I don't think they realized how true that really is until I forced them to smile until they laughed.

After an hour and a half, my co-teacher came back to evaluate their progress. They were visibly nervous, and I was nervous for them. (And also for my own sake, I'll admit: what if my coaching hadn't been helpful?) But as my students presented for the third or fourth time that day, a wondrous change took place. YJ smiled. DH looked calm and composed. Both of them were miles more interesting this time around. And best of all, my co-teacher clapped enthusiastically for them as soon as they'd finished, exclaiming with genuine surprise that their presentation had improved dramatically. She praised YJ and DH; I think the solid ninety minutes they spent focused 100% on their goal paid off tremendously. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Now, YJ and DH still have quite a bit of work to do, particularly preparing for the Q&A and maybe tightening up the speech so that it falls under the allotted time frame, just to be safe. But I'm relieved. I'm happy that even though my evening was unexpectedly snatched away from me, I was productive and helped two students make visible progress in their language skills. I love coaching presentations; it's fun to work with small, focused groups and gratifying to be the cheerleader tossing confetti when all the other teachers hurl criticism.

I'm wishing YJ and DH the best of luck when they go to Houston. It'll be the first time in the States for both of them. During tonight's coaching session, I stopped for a bit to ask DH if he was excited about his trip. "Not really," he said, "because this -- because English is so difficult!" Sympathy for the kid whose nervousness about language is clouding the awesomeness that is international travel, please! I told him that no matter how well or how badly he does in the competition, he should relax and try his best to enjoy being in the US, since even just going there is an opportunity most people his age don't get.

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