Category Archives: Education

The Last Shot

For the final discussion I’d ever have with my co-teacher we decided to drink a little bit. Obviously. Already a few bottles of Cass littered the table and steam rose off the grill as we placed another slice of meat on the kalbi grill. She was telling me I did a good job.

“Foreign teachers need to be excited and happy to teach, you did that very much this year,” she told me.

I wonder, what sorts of teachers aren’t excited to teach? Teaching isn’t a profession that lends itself to large sums of money so it seems that the people who would do it would do it out of love. When I first decided to be a teacher, I told myself that if I ever felt bored with teaching that I should quit. Students deserve teachers who care.

“Yes, but I felt like I should have done more. I’m not sure the students learned that much from me.”

“No, you can not do more. Hey, you only have very little time to teach students and you have over 1000. You can not teach them everything. We need foreign teachers so students feel excited about English and so that they can get used to being around foreigners. You did this, even when you were tired you still acted excited”

“But couldn’t you hire any foreigner for that? Who cares if they’re qualified teachers?” I queried.

I was beginning to feel that my college degree was going to waste. You don’t need to be a real teacher to do this job. In fact, that’s one of the education systems favorite marketing points ‘Teach English in Korea! Travel the World! You don’t need a teaching degree!’ The only qualification we need is to be born in an English speaking country. I guess I’m qualified then, congratulations to me. I took another sip of the Cass and felt just a little bit more numb.

“Yes, but that is a difficult job. Hey, there are not many teachers who can keep attention of students for forty minutes.”

She was trying to make me feel better. I didn’t really need it, but I guess it was appreciated. Nickelodeon programming also does a decent job keeping a child’s attention for forty minutes to an hour.

She continued “The students liked you and I could see that they became very comfortable with you. Two years ago when we have no foreign teacher the students were very scared to speak English. Now they speak lots.”

“Yah, but only really easy sentences, and most of the time they don’t even do it correctly.”

For example, ‘hello, nice to meet you,’ when I’ve met them twenty times before. Another bottle of Cass down.

“But we are very poor school. Students are excited to have foreign teacher. Especially guy teacher, it makes us think we are very special. The students are more prideful of themselves and think English is fun.”

Some people talk about fighting the good fight. Sticking it out when times are tough. But if I wanted to fight the good fight I’d move to Africa, or New Orleans. Besides, the kids who are smart learn English by studying themselves and by attending hogwans and the lower level students don’t care…who exactly am I teaching then?

“The students are sad that you are leaving,” she said as she tried to grab one of the waitresses as she ran by. I guess she had a point. Maybe I was just trying to convince myself to the contrary.

“I still don’t think I did anything that special.”

And with that we ordered one last bottle of soju.



Filed under Culture, Education, Narratives, The foreigner experience

Korea Matters #2: A Tale of One Test

(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” Series, my general wrap up on Korean culture.  So far I’ve gone over superficial differences of Korea and cultural aspects that I think are over rated by foreigners.  In this part I talk about the things that I think make Korea unique and different to Western Culture)

Prior to the Japanese Colonization of Korea only the Korean elite were educated. The poor were left to roll mud into balls and then smash them up into mud over and over again. It was a redundant system.

One of the effects the Japanese Colonization had on Korea was that after it was over Korean society was effectively reset to ground zero. The class system was left in shambles and for the first time in its history Korea opened up education for the masses. Provided the masses had the money to pay for it, of course. Rolling of mud continued on a wide scale.

But something happened while traveling along the mud rolled path. Korea started to make some money. Many of those who had rolled mud switched to building things with steel. One of the benefits steel has over mud is that it can be used to build stairs which, by definition, can take you higher. Moving higher and higher, many people earned some money and suddenly the dream of sending your children to a university wasn’t so far off.

So there it was. An entire generation of Koreans who had the dream of educating their children and sending them to prestigious universities so that they might get good jobs and make even more money. Elevators would supplant stairs. Korea moved higher.

With education the key to a brighter future it became a fixture of Korean culture.

However, as with all societies, a class system again began to take hold. A system of University Patronage developed and those who went to the most prestigious of universities hired others from prestigious universities, regardless of qualifications.

At the end of the Japanese Colonization the University Entrance Exam was introduced, not much unlike our SAT. A person’s score on this exam fully determined what schools they were eligible to attend. With a person’s job future largely dependant on what university they went to the exam took on a new importance. Behold, the holy grail of Korean education. Everything that schools teach in Korea, everything students study, everything students think all leads to this exam.

Once the score is achieved and a position in a good university secured then many students no longer need to care about their education. Why should they? Provided they are not a complete idiot, their future is secured.

This system leads to an abundance of after school classes that many parents and students feel is more important than the government provided education. After school students go off to as many as four after school classes that gear them for this exam. Then they study till late at night. Then the next day at school they sleep and don’t listen to teachers and don’t care and there’s really no reason why they should. They already learned that day’s lesson in their private class 3 weeks ago.

I told my co-teacher, who admits to studying till 2 in the morning every night during high school and never during college, that I felt bad for the Korean students for the burden that is placed on them so early in life. She told me that Korea kids feel sorry for American kids who have to get after school jobs.

Touche’ co-teacher.


Filed under Culture, Education

Of Raisinets, Grudge Matches and a Moment Frozen in Time

The day was hot and the battlefield dusty. A white orb, a split second, a willingness to dive that extra inch is all that separated the winners from those who simply weren’t ready. Mother vs. Female Teacher Dodge Ball: 2008.

Why no Fathers vs. Male Teacher Dodge Ball: 2008? Because the fathers all have jobs. I like when things fall into place like that and I don’t have to participate.

This was entertainment that only a perfect window view and a bag of Raisinets could comprehend. Mothers and female teachers are to human relationships what peanut butter is to jelly.

It is a well known fact among food items and people paying enough attention that, despite appearances, peanut butter and jelly secretly hate one another. They are always wary, afraid that the other will steal the affections of the consumer. Bread is a pedestal built for one. Similarly, a child only has enough capacity for one female archetype in their life.

Jealousy is a ball best dodged…just not today.

A hoard of women weave together like a school of fish avoiding a predator, they duck and they dodge as the ball flies, carelessly in contrast, picking them out, one by one, from the crowd. The women push others in the way. They jump and dive. One falls on her ass and is left with a broken ego and a backside full of dust.

The ball does not differentiate between the classroom tested guile of elderly teachers and the youthful exhaustedness of a new mother any more than it differentiates between the sweetness of jelly and the saltiness of peanut butter. It is the ultimate arbitrator.

Apocalypse now! It screams as it weeds out the weak from the weaker. Teachers on the left, mothers on the right.

Then it is two. They are young and agile. Full of spirit when they began they are now battle tested and weary. I am running out of Raisinets.

A scream. A bounce. A wave of excitement. The ball floats through the air. The previous day one of the teachers at my school told me she used to love dodge ball as a kid. However, when she became older she didn’t like balls flying at her face.

Then it is over. A fallen victim dusts off her clothes and stares at the ground in futility. The war is not over, but for today the battle is decided.

Peanut Butter is queen.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Narratives, The foreigner experience, Videos

American Candy

A brief flash of puzzled astonishment crossed my face as 15 hands shot into the air out of nowhere. Behold, the power of a strawberry jolly rancher.

It was not but 10 seconds prior that a lone girl sheepishly raised her hand to tell me simply “I can swim.” No one else wanted to answer the question “what can you do?” As a prize for her bravery, against such odds, the girl was awarded a strawberry jolly rancher. It incited near pandemonium. The classroom tried to buzz with excitement. Except, the young Korean students could not pronounce Z’s, so instead they bujjed with excitement.

I never liked jolly ranchers. As a child, I wouldn’t have raised my hand for anything less than a Reeses Cup. These Korean Students are a different breed.

They fiend for candy the way a vampire fiends for blood. The way they barrage my desk at the end of class, hands outstretched repeating the phrase “candy, please!” borders less on desire than it does on an insatiable thirst. Something genetic perhaps?

A memory of a 10 year old me training my first puppy comes to mind. Dog treats to sit, stay and SPEAK on command. A sadistic thought. Could these kids potentially balance a jolly rancher on their nose?

Perhaps, I could throw it to them so that they could catch it in their mouths. Maybe I could tie their wrists together, with the candy between, and let them fight till the other is left in a heaping pile on the ground in a stupendous display of Darwinian justice. Classroom motivator or my own personal death match? What exactly is the best purpose of candy in the classroom, I wonder.

I remember a story, translated to me over soju and salted beef. It was told by one of the elderly male teachers at my school about his early life, when the Korean War was not yet in history books. As the Americans came to defend the South they brought with them guns, money, and candy. Werthers Originals, I imagine. The task of the boys old enough to leave home on their own, yet too young to have real responsibility, was to follow American jeeps, hands outstretched, and begging for candy. Little did they know Werthers Originals sucked.

As the brief flash of puzzled astonishment leaves my face at the 15 hands, I can’t help but laugh to myself. A metaphor lingers here, I just know it. Fifty years have passed and still Korean Kids are running after the Americans crying out “Candy, Please.”

A strange man dressed as manbearpig passes out candy to students during lunch.  Not a single teacher I asked knew who he was.  This was considrerd completely fine.

(A strange man dressed as manbearpig passes out candy to students during lunch. Not a single teacher I asked knew who he was. This was considererd completely fine.)


Filed under Culture, Education, Narratives, The foreigner experience, Videos

It’s smart being this hard…or something like that

It’s routine of every foreigner in Korea to make fun of the Korean way of speaking English.  The name of this speaking style is referred to as “Konglish.”  If you look it up on google you’ll get some fun examples.  I also suggest, although that is not strictly limited to the Korean language.

The reciprocal form of this I would call “Engilmal.”  It’s “English” + “Yongomal,” the Korean word for English.  It’s when I try to speak Korean, but screw up because the English language is based on over pronunciation of words, and Asian languages are based more on slight variations of sounds.

Example:  “Dahk Dahk Hae Yo” vs. “Dohk Dohk Hae Yo”

To read those in English, you won’t really get a sense of how they sound, because there exists no English letter that perfectly matches the pronunciation.  Let’s just say the pronunciations are really, really similar.

(I apologize for my computer not having Korean symbols…you couldn’t read them anyways)

Anyways, today in my class I tried to tell my class I was Dohk Dohk Hae Yo (smart).  Instead I mispronounced it Dahk Dahk Hae Yo (hard).

So, in my 3rd hour 6th grade class I told them, very boldly “Matthew teacher is very, very hard.”

Even 6th grader brought up in a society where sex is never taught or talked about (not even by parents) understood the unintended meaning of that sentence.

Classroom order was never restored.

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Filed under Education, Narratives, The foreigner experience, Things to Entertain You

Klogic Vs. Math

I thought math was supposed to be a strength of the Korean Education system.

I wondered what was taking her so long to put the students into pairs. Everything seemed so straight forward. But to my 5th grade co-teacher something just was not right.  Something needed to change.

So she moved a student here. She moved a student there, and still she couldn’t get the pairs correct. She rearranged pairs, looked at the class with her hands on her hips, sighed.

I was becoming tired of this.

Guess how long it took her to realize there were only 25 students in the class.


For more fun with Klogic check out

Debunking the klogic myth.

Amanda has a few good ones

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Filed under Culture, Education, Narratives, The foreigner experience

My friends wonder what I do with all my spare time

Sometimes I make up complex lesson plans.  Just like a real teacher.  I will never use these lesson plans here in Korea, but I at least like being reminded what a real teacher’s job is like.

 Like today, I stayed at school two hours after close to prepare for my 4th grade lesson tomorrow.  I set up the weather books they had begun their last lesson.  I shuffled through their name tags and got materials ready for them to maximize the class time I have with them.  I created a power point that gave students pictures and vocabulary that linked weather with activities.  I printed off hand outs with pictures that students could reference when making their weather book.  The students would connect knowledge across different lessons and grow in their English conversation skills. 

 I set up everything just the way I liked it.  Then a 4th grade student came in.  I asked him “so, how’s the weather today.”  “Um…Nice to meet you” was all it took and my head bowed.  My lesson was ruined.  If they don’t even remember the previous lesson about weather, how are we going to connect it to vocabulary they learned back in 3rd grade?  I suppose they might surprise me, but if history is a teacher then I have learned that they won’t.  “How’s the weather” bingo anyone?

 I walked into my apartment today, wondering what was the point of all this working?  Couldn’t I just skate by with minimal effort, it’s always seemed to work for me before.  What do I get out of this job?  I get an apartment and some money to spend. 

 I bet being a hermit is a pretty care free life…I think I’d want to be a hermit on some tropical island, at least it’s warm.  Or maybe San Francisco, they seem guilt ridden enough to spare some change.  Besides, they still have hippies, maybe I could be one of those.

 My friends wonder what I do with all my spare time.  Does trying to maintain a purpose in life count as an activity?


Filed under Education, Narratives