on the other side of the world….
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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.

1 comment

1 Michael Levy { 11.29.08 at 3:15 pm }

Great post, Chad.

I like Kate’s attitude. I think that’s right — if we can get the kids excited about English and life outside of Korea, we’re halfway there.

And I think you’re right that the only way this is going to work is if they let us take the reigns a little bit. It’s kind of funny, isn’t it… that for the students to learn the global language (and global culture that comes with it), the administrators and teachers will have to let go of doing it their Confucian, Korean way. It will happen eventually. We’re breaking trail up here in Gangwondo.

And you are very lucky with your school. Enjoy it!