About a week ago I sat down to plan out the lessons I would do over the course of November and December at the boys high school where I teach.  I looked over all the lessons I’ve designed and chose my ‘Greatest Hits’ . . .

I also sat down with my co-teacher and went over all the dates on which I’d have no classes due to tests, field trips, and any other of the myriad reasons that classes get canceled.  I thought that my semi-long term planning would not be screwed up and that I’d anticipated everything I could that might effect my lesson planning . . . boy was I wrong.

During the last week of October I began teaching my Halloween culture and craft activity lesson.  I put quite a bit of time, effort, and energy into preparing this lesson.  I went shopping with my girlfriend on my own personal time to get supplies for the craft activity, and also for decorating the classroom.  I don’t mind putting in personal unpaid time when it’s for a great lesson, and one that I know the students will really enjoy.

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But the Halloween lesson was sabotaged by the H1N1/Swine Flu situation in Korea.  On the last Wednesday of October, around 11am, I found out that ALL first grade classes would be sent home Wednesday afternoon and that they wouldn’t be returning until Monday of the next week.  I didn’t think that this would be a problem for my curriculum schedule as I would just bump everything back a week, and only lose one of the lessons I had scheduled.

I failed to consider that the students had all just done a round of English tests, and that my school organizes the students in each class by test score and the ability that the score supposedly illustrates (I have some issues with the accuracy of said evaluation methods).

This past Monday I came to school and was told by one of my co-teachers that today I was going to lose the first 15-20 minutes of each of my classes to the Korean English teacher telling the students their test scores, and then informing the low-scoring students that they’d be transferred into a lower level class . . . this is something that I abhor in the Korean education system, and have a really hard time trying to find anything positive about the way in which students scores are given openly and the manner in which the other students can openly make comments about the scores and students without being told to stop by the teacher.  It’s a public shaming of awful proportions especially for a teenager, I think, and I wish this practice would stop.

Another consequence of this practice is that it really messes with the teaching plans and goals–it makes long term planning nearly impossible because when you combine this education cultural practice with all the other cancellations and schedule changes for the myriad reasons and non-reasons that are thrown at a native English teacher’s schedule . . . well, you either end up going nuts from banging your head against the wall of education cultural differences, or you go through a metamorphosis as a teacher and learn to adapt your expectations and ideals to the realities of the education system and environment you find yourself within . . .

So I finally got to see the extremely open practice of giving back test score info to students for the first time in person, and I stood there in disbelief (even after having taught in Korea for nearly five years) as I watched the whole process . . .

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The teacher seems to start out with the high scoring students first.  He then goes on to read out the low scores and student names.  These students have to stand up and wait as he reads through the entire list . . .

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This practice is not only detrimental to the students’ self-esteem but it also royally screws up the curriculum design and teaching of the native English teacher. How can a native teacher possibly plan a syllabus wherein developmental language learning takes place with all of the cancellations and changes and random cultural events (like how many days a school will be on vacation during Chuseok, medical checks for students, field trips, national listening tests, and so on and so forth) that destroy the application of a well planned syllabus, teaching methods, and learning goals that can reliably be taught consistently to a class on a week by week basis–the answer is you generally can’t do it, and need to stick to isolated lessons that are not dependent on students learning a series of interconnected language goals in order to progress and develop their English language ability . . .

As for my Halloween Culture lesson . . .

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. . . my original adaptation to the ‘random acts of syllabu-cide’ was to just shrug and move the dates of the lesson to the next week–and teach it then.  The lesson gets delayed but not lost; the teaching prep and time and energy get delayed but not lost; the students get to experience a fun cultural lesson and activity a little later but don’t lose the opportunity . . . but then the testing culture of Korea’s education system stomps into my classroom and begins annihilating the teaching and learning goals by moving students into classes on other days of the week that have already taken the Halloween class . . . alright, yes I’m being a wee bit melodramatic here and exaggerating to a degree–but in some ways this is how I feel after having put special prep, time, and energy into a lesson and then having a large number of my weekly classes miss experiencing the lesson due to seemingly anarchical education and school culture . . . but then, I’m looking at this from my own cultural bias . . . I don’t know, I can’t bend my mind around how this makes any kind of educational language learning professional teaching kind of sense . . . I’m trying, but I can’t . . .

When I initially found out that my English classes were going to lose 15-20 minutes for telling students their test scores and then re-organizing the class lists based on the new test scores I asked, “Why can’t this be done during homeroom time? Why do I have to lose lesson time when this is an ADMINISTRATIVE task?”  The look I got was basically “Why are you asking why? This is the way it is and it ain’t gonna change” . . . sigh.

I then asked why this couldn’t be done in the 10 minute break between classes–again, I got the Why are you asking why? This is the way it is and it ain’t gonna change” look . . .

Taking a deep breath, I just let it go.  There are some battles that are not even worth stepping onto the battlefield and entering into a conflict over . . . especially when it is one of the ‘native English teacher NEMEMIS issues’ that cannot be overcome.

The unfortunate truth for who knows how many foreign English teachers is that these ‘nemesis issues’ have a cumulative impact on teaching motivation, lesson prep motivation, and one’s general passion for teaching English in Korea.  It becomes increasingly harder and harder to maintain the teaching standards each teacher has for themselves in terms of their teaching performance and lesson prep as they experience their lesson plans and teaching time being hit by little things and big things throughout the course of a semester . . .

Anyways . . . to try and put a ‘glass is half full’ spin on this I do like being able to choose what I teach and how.  Not being chained to a textbook is very liberating if you enjoy making lesson plans.  Not being chained to worries about covering tested content within class time is also a wonderful freedom.

It will be VERY interesting to see what kind of changes take place within the Korean public education system if and more likely WHEN English speaking skills and ability begin to be tested.

I have to wonder how this will impact native English teachers because the test design will immediately dictate to a large degree what kind of teaching method and lesson content is approved of by Korean English teachers and language learners . . .

I also suspect that this will lead to a reduction in the cancellations of native English speaker classes because the students will want that precious ONE CLASS PER WEEK time with us wherein they can have access to all the things we bring to the classroom that most Korean English teachers cannot.

Finally, I do have to say that while I’m a bit down because my Halloween culture lesson with craft activity didn’t get taught to about half of my classes my current school situation is still the best I’ve ever had in Korea.  I think that what’s really happened here for me is that the problems with scheduling and my Halloween lesson reminded me of what used to happen at other schools I taught at in 2005 and 2006.  The current situation is NOTHING like what I went through then, and thinking about this now is helping me stay positive and motivated.

I will say, though, that when one of my co-teachers came to me Friday morning 10 minutes before our class began to suggest that I could teach my Halloween culture lesson to the next class because none of the students in it had been in other classes that did experience it—well, let’s just say I was a little frustrated.  I looked at her and said, “I don’t have any candy here for the power point and trick or treat content; I’ve prepared a substitute lesson to use instead” . . .

It’s hard for me to consider but looking back at this situation now I failed to realize that she was really taking the initiative in coming to me and pointing out that I could still salvage one of the classes that missed my Halloween culture lesson.  I failed to acknowledge that she was taking a VERY active interest in my classes and the content, and that she really cares about helping me co-teach my classes and problem solving when things happen.

Next week I’m going to tell her that I really appreciated her taking the time and effort to try and reduce the damage that was done to the prep time I’d put into my lesson.

I also gave up way too quickly when I realized that many of my classes would not be able to do the Halloween lesson because of students being moved around.  If I’d taken the time there might have been a few other classes that also could have done the lesson–but I just wrote the whole thing off as not doable.  I think I also might have unconsciously not wanted to investigate this problem solving method, though, because it would have meant a second kind of disappointment if all of the classes had been changed.

Oh well.  Writing about this has given me a few ideas about how I can deal with it better next time, and hopefully it won’t happen too many times this year.

Like I said, my school situation this year is VERY different, and I should add that the set of Korean English co-teachers I’m working with are fantastic.

Here’s hoping that November and December go well.

J

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