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Tell us your feelings meetings…

Last Thursday I left school at 2:30 with my Vice-principle to go to the Samcheok Office of Education. Kate had left earlier that day at around 1:30 for a volleyball game against some other local school teachers. The volleyball game happens about once a month and it’s usually a lot of fun. Picture 30 Korean teachers playing volleyball (surprisingly well) in a cold gymnasium with the office staff and other teachers (mostly the women) watching and cheering for their teem. It is always followed by a full out Korean meal experience, which we’ve grown to enjoy, with our school. Naturally I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to go play volleyball, no – scratch that – I was pretty darn upset that I didn’t get to. Not only did I not get to go and Kate did, but I had to go sit in a meeting at the office of education for some reason that I had yet to learn.

The drive to the meeting took abnormally long. Maybe Kyo Ka Sanseinim (VP) was driving extra slow because we had left a half hour early for a meeting that was at most 15 minutes away. Maybe it was his odd choice of music – a strange mix of teenybopper pop and 80s garage band… all in Korean except for one song with a chorus that went something like “Ooh I really want you, I really want you.” Or maybe he just loves awkwardness and driving around in silence. More likely, he’s an upper middle aged man who drives slow and it only felt longer than it actually was.

We arrived at the Office of Education – a stately new building situated near the Chungsol Apartments (high rises) on top of the hill in Samcheok. I had been to the building before so this wasn’t new, but it always means an adventure… Never quite sure who will be there, what the meeting will be for, or how long it will take.
We walked in and up the stairs to the Education offices. I was told to wait in the hallway as VP went in to take care of some sort of business before the meeting started. Meandering through the hallways I was struck by the long sterile hallways of white and grey. All the doors were closed – presumably to conserve heat (as each room is individually heated). I couldn’t help but equate the space to the bureaucracy and the false perception of efficiency that were the hallmarks of the education system in Korea. Everything here was clean and eerily tidy out here, but behind the doors. . .

Other Weigooks (foreigners) started to come up the stars with their administrators or co-teachers and we all exchanged glances of confusion and sympathy. It’s always amusing to see other foreigners at these meetings because we’re almost always in the same boat – we were told of the meeting either 5 minutes before or if we’re lucky the day before, none of us know what the meeting is really about, we’re all hoping there isn’t a dinner afterwards because it’s always just kind of awkward with the supervisors, we’re hoping the meeting will be short, and we hope we can understand at least part of it. We all entered the usual conference style room to see the tables and chairs arranged in a U pattern to facilitate conversation and debate. It looked like a council meeting in some small town in the states – except for the banners. Koreans are obsessed with banners. It’s really quite odd… Every event or meeting or activity is accented by a bright colorful banner. This meeting, of course, was no exception. A large banner across the front of the room displayed some Korean writing and the date and time of our “summit”, if you will. The head of EPIK in Samcheok was at his desk at the top of the U and would oversee the meeting (with his own banner/poster next to him – in case we couldn’t see the big one behind him :). After everyone was seated in their appropriate seat behind their colorful name plate, the meeting began. The opening ceremony was short for this one (luckily). We stood for the national anthem, did the usual introductions and listened to Korean for a while. William, one of the foreigners in the TaLK program (Teaching and Learning in Korea) translated parts of the meeting into English (usually this does not happen and we are left to decipher on our own…).

Now we know what the meeting is about – a forum to discuss our feelings about any issues/problems we’ve had or ideas we might have about how the EPIK program could be improved. Our schools would each present how they have decided to structure their English programs and then we would each speak about our experience so far and any suggestions we may have. We start the presentations and an hour and 15 minutes later (of solid Korean) we start the discussion.

Here is what I find so odd about the Education system here. The foreign teachers are told to come to this meeting with all of our bosses, with free treats and drinks, and fancy banners, and nameplates – and then we’re expected to tell them everything that we don’t like about our experience so far. ? Although all of us have some problems with our schools or problems with our apartments or problems with some students etc… we’re not going to say these things in this kind of meeting. So, instead, we all go around the circle and say the same thing – “I’m happy here. My school has been very gracious and I really appreciate it. It has been hard to adapt to some parts of the culture but overall it’s been a great experience so far. The kids are wonderful and I enjoy teaching.” Some people throw in a few legitimate suggestions like offering more substantial Korean language lessons to teachers, or teaching more sentence structure to the older students, but none of us really express what we are all thinking – Stop making us go to pointless meetings like this where we usually don’t understand anything – Teach your Korean teachers more English… it’s the only way this is really going to work in the long run – Standardize the experience between schools for foreign teachers by developing (or buying) a curriculum and teaching plan to be followed in after school and co-taught classes and by enforcing more structured standards for living and working environments – Require that the administrators in charge of English education have at least some grasp of the English Language and an even better understanding of Western Culture. All of these are legitimate concerns that should be dealt with but they won’t ever get heard in meetings like these. It’s frustrating more than anything. This byproduct of the Confucianism that is still a part of everything here (although less in the younger generations) is so backwards from the way most of us here think. We are do-ers, thinkers, debaters, and for the most part tolerant people. We like to be challenged and made to accept other views or ideas. We like to get things right by working with everyone involved to perfect the system. This is of course at the core of what the administrators are trying to do, but until they understand how foreigners react to these meetings and how much more could get done with smaller groups and conversations from the bottom up, not just from the bottom to the top, the system will remain as it is.

Now, this isn’t to say a lot of great steps aren’t being taken. This fall Korea increased funding for foreign language education in elementary schools by some amazing amount and started requiring that there be one or two full time teachers at almost every school (hence why we are here now). In recent years they’ve started teaching English to first and second graders (although I’m not sure if it’s mandatory) which is crucial and already obviously working. But at the same time, more teachers are here and more problems have arisen – like schools who have never had a foreign teacher not knowing how to deal with them and leaving basically on their own, or teachers having to travel an hour or more to get to their school everyday because there isn’t enough housing in the small town. Without all the pomp of these meetings maybe they could get down to fixing some of these issues too.

With all that said- Kate and I are truly happy with our school. The teachers are all amazing and open to trying to talk to us, the administrators are all friendly and really want to make sure we are comfortable, the students are amazing and inspiring, our commute is never more than 20 minutes, we are usually told when things change in the schedule or meetings/events are upcoming, and most of all we’re treated like part of the Geundeok Family. We are extremely lucky. Many others here have not been as fortunate as we have and we are thankful for our school. I just hope that the system can be fixed even just a little bit so that more people can have the experience we have had. After all, we’re here for the students and the happier we are the better teachers we’ll be. Kate always says – “If we can leave here in a year with the kids feeling more comfortable and excited about meeting foreigners and learning English, then we were successful.” That part is easy if we are happy to come to work everyday.

November 28, 2008   1 Comment

Adventure Fridays…

I’m writing this at my Friday school Kongcheun Elementary 공촌초교. Kate is sitting next to me after an unexpected trip here from her Friday school Jangho Elementary 장호초교. How did we arrive at this pleasant surprise? The story, I will tell…

This morning early, at about 8:20, Kate and I were picked up by Stephane (pronounced – [Stef-awn] – A 40 something single Korean man who enjoys going to singles night at his christian church. His nick-name is Stephane from the time he spent working as a missionary in a French speaking country. We drive the 25 minutes to my school Kongcheun listening to Korean Christian ballads and not really talking much at all. This is all part of the Friday Routine (if you can call it that). I get out at my school and walk up to find many extra cars in the parking lot. (No longer are we on a normal schedule – from here on out it gets more and more random). I walk in to find Principals from other schools, VP’s from other schools and other high up administrators from the ministry of education in Samcheok. This was somewhat expected because today I was teaching in a Demonstration Co-teaching class. We practiced for this last week so that students were well rehearsed. I walked around a met some of the “powerful people” and then we practiced a bit before the class at 10:10. The back of our classroom filled up with observers and we taught a most perfectly rehearsed class. Even the Korean teacher, who doesn’t speak much English, said most of her English directions without having to look at her script. We were all pleased. Then they started to move desks in for some bigger meeting, so I left and went back downstairs. One of the supervisors for Elementary Ed in Samcheok (who has introduced himself to me now, 3 – 5 times, he drinks a lot and already smelled of soju at 9am this morning) came into the office and asked me to come upstairs to discuss our lesson. I obliged and went to sit in on an hour meeting (ALL IN KOREAN) about my co-teacher’s and my class. It was very exciting. :( Then I waited another hour doing nothing but chatting with Kate on gmail about how confused we both were, then ate lunch – a sprawling traditional Korean meal (made by the school cafeteria) including raw octopus, wheh (raw fish), snails, Noodle soup with beef (all I ate) and of course – rice and kimchi. Everyone ate and was merry for 15 minutes and then left. Seriously, it was that fast.
After everyone left, I sat and started to write this post. Then I hear “Chad? ” Whoa it’s Kate!!

Kate’s day was less surprising in the morning. No large crowds of important people or raw Octopus. But, because her principal was at MY school, they had a very relaxed day and decided to out to eat and go fishing. Fishing however is MAN’s Activity, so she was banished to the joy of Kongcheun. Stephane wanted Kate to come fishing, but no one else did :) So they all went out to eat, then drove her to my school and said “Go find your boyfriend”. Then, “Hitting Bong” (seriously, that’s his nick name – his last name is bong) came in and told us we are going to dinner with him and his principal. Then we find out it’s the whole school in celebration of the morning. Now everyone is cleaning up the school, and we are sitting here bored and slightly confused. This is the tale of pretty much every Friday… It’s always an Adventure.

If anything else crazy happens we’ll be sure to update this post. But for now, wish us luck!

October 16, 2008   Comments Off

“We are the change we’ve been waiting for…” Part III

…But there is hope, and I’m thrilled…

Most of you know that I support Obama. I have from fairly early on in the race. I realize that I fall into the demographic of “young adult liberal” so why wouldn’t I support Obama? Good point, but there’s more to it than just that. I remember watching his speech in 2004 to the Democratic National Convention and saying to myself – why can’t every politician be like that? Precise, Hopeful, Genuine. Little did I know he would battle the Clinton machine and become the Democratic nominee only 4 years later. For the most part Obama also seems to abhor social conservatism as much as me and is taking that battle to the source (winning most of the time). He’s a masterful politician (and he’s only 47). He has been successfully running a campaign for the highest Washington office based on an anti-Washington platform (Clinton didn’t even try that… ). He actually seems to change his mind now and then when the circumstances require it after deliberating and consulting with his advisors. He’s willing to admit his faults and seems to be open to other options than just what he thinks is right. Most of all he brings dignity, change, and hope back to the table; three things that the country has needed and waited for, for the past 8 years. This notion that America could actually be proud of the way it conducts itself in the world again has gripped the nation. It’s sad that that’s even a necessary change, but no one will argue that it’s true. After the past 8 years of the politics of fear, the country is ready and in need of some hope. That’s why Obama routinely draws 40 thousand people to his rallies and amassed a crowd of over 200,000 people in Berlin, 99% of which can’t even help elect him. That’s why he has one of the largest ground campaigns in history with supporters flooding every state knocking on doors and hosting gatherings. Call it rhetoric, call it lofty, call him an “empty suit”, call him elite (and explain to me why that is bad?), but it’s caught on and gotten people excited about this year’s election. I have friends and family who never would have thought twice about politics normally, but Obama has made them feel like they can contribute and be a part of the process again. Granted much of this can be attributed to the disdain and unhappiness many feel with the current administration, but Obama is an exciting candidate and a great representative to seize the opportunity of change. For the first time in my brief political awareness I feel like what I stand for and believe in might be represented and fought for in Washington. And who knows, maybe in a few years it’ll be just a little bit easier to have health insurance, a little bit easier to buy gas, a little bit safer to travel abroad, a little bit easier to own a house, we’ll be a little bit closer to real energy independence, produce a little bit less pollution every day, and we’ll have a little bit more stable global economy.

Now I’m the first to admit that some of Obama’s proposals sound a little far-fetched and expensive, and that the challenges he faces are unmatched in history. Universal health care will be hard to make happen and may not work at first. Education in America needs a complete overhaul – good luck on that. Foreign policy needs to be redefined – We can’t continue to wage on war on states, when the enemy is a stateless entity. Social Security is disappearing – I’m not even expecting any money but my Parents still better get some. The Economy needs a good facelift – Please, make the korean Won go back up. The list goes on, but it is because Obama is ready and willing to try to change or fix even some of these problems that he gets my vote. When I hear Obama say we need to change Washington, I know (or hope) that it’s not just a political saying. When McCain says it, I feel like it’s only because he has to now, that’s the only thing this election can be about if you want to win. McCain might bring change to Washington, but more in the swift moving “Maverick” style of sudden jumps. I’d rather a steady swift overhaul – let’s step back and make sure this thing is right. Sitting here in Korea I can see that things are possible. I went to the Dentist today and only spent 5 dollars. I bought cold medicine last week for only 2. Universal health care can happen and it can work. Granted Korea got to restart and build up from scratch 60 years ago but it’s possible; and Korea is not the only one who’s gotten it right.

Obama wants to try to get it right…
…and that’s why I support him.

I’m not asking people to agree with me. I’m not asking people to say I’m right or wrong. I am asking for people to think. To research. To examine all the options and then make up your mind. I don’t care who you’re rooting for, as long as you take a second to think about why you support them, what one position makes you stay on one side or the other, what one quality has steered you that way? What quote or policy? Now – go research it – make sure it’s true, make sure the other guy doesn’t think the same thing and if they don’t – why? Once you sift through the rubble of American “journalism” make up your momentary mind. Then tomorrow – do it again. I’ll do the same. I’ll research both McCain and Obama, both Palin and Biden and everyone else on my ballot in an attempt to become better informed in the remaining days of the election. It’s the least we can do… Then, of course, go vote!

This manifesto of sorts is by no means an attack on anyone’s beliefs or political leanings. Only an attack on apathy. Only a rally of support for what I believe in and a call for awareness of what has been and could be, that I can’t let slide by as “policy” or “patriotism”. Not this time – the problems of the world have only been accentuated by seeing how the other half lives. And I’ll be coming home soon…

October 15, 2008   1 Comment