This past Wednesday morning I go to my classroom to set up for my introduction lesson a few minutes early.  This is the first week for me teaching the second grade high school boys classes (I’d been teaching the senior grades in a Suneung (“Korean SATs”) listening prep class for September and October).

I turn on the computer, the touch-screen TV, and set up my power point presentation that I use in my introduction lesson.  I put on some Hip Hop music (to wake up the guys as they walk in), and write a few things on the white board like “Classroom Rules” and the 10 Xs system (I erase one X each time a rule is broken, all 10 get erased and there’s a consequence for the whole class) that I use for classroom behavior management.

I finish setting up, check my watch, and have a minute or so to wait before the boys should begin arriving . . .

No early arrivals . . . okay.  Usually at least a few guys show up early to get first pick of where they want to sit, check out the alien teacher–err, foreign English teacher, and chill out while waiting for the class to begin.

The class bell goes off, and I’m standing in the doorway.  I see another young Korean English teacher, and he asks me, “Are you teaching now?” I respond, “Yes, but I have no students” and begin laughing.

He seems astounded by this, and I tell him that it’s a pretty common experience for native English teachers that an entire class just doesn’t show up, and nobody tells you anything about why . . . sometimes this happens for legitimate reasons and other times it’s just plain poor communication and a lack of professional courtesy to make sure the native English teacher is informed about a schedule change, cancellation, or whatever the case may be.

I wait two more minutes, and then decide I’m going to do something I rarely do anymore.

After completing my first semester of teaching Korean public middle school back in 2005, and after experiencing NUMEROUS classes where nobody showed up and I wasn’t informed about whatever was going on, I stopped searching and hunting down the class and teacher that was supposed to be in my classroom . . . I decided that after asking Korean English teachers politely, several times, to talk to me about schedule changes that if the teacher scheduled to work with me didn’t tell me about a change (for whatever reason) that I’d wait 15 minutes, and then shut everything down and return to my desk.

(Bear in mind that sometimes the Korean English teacher is NOT told by the person who changed the schedule.  I used to assume that the Korean teachers always told each other about schedule changes and important info but now I know that’s NOT true.  I have to remind myself that in Korea you need to be really cautious about assuming it’s your co-teacher’s fault when something goes wrong–often there’s a long line of other people who did something or didn’t do something that caused the break in communication or problem situation to occur.)

In 2005, when I was just a newbie teacher fresh off the plane , I’d get really upset and stressed out when a class didn’t show up, and nobody bothered to tell me about it.  After gaining some time and experience in Korea I re-framed my perspective on the issue so that I’d be able to keep my sanity.  I told myself that as long as I had done everything within my power to prepare to teach a class that if nobody showed up the smartest thing to do would be to wait 15 minutes and then pack up and go back to my desk.  Trying to chase down missing classes and the Korean English teachers all too often ends up with just making the situation more stressful for myself; especially when the lost lesson plan time is factored in because getting a whole class to uproot themselves from their desk-cocoons (really, you should see them in the fall with the blankets, mitts/gloves, scarves, and other creature comforts students surround themselves with, lol) and then move their tired bodies over to the English classroom usually requires a lot more time than you’d think it does–I’m pretty sure the students use this kind of event as a work stoppage or slowdown to give themselves a break too.

(I will complicate this a bit by saying don’t let classes get canceled too often without saying something about this because you may give the impression that you don’t care, and that may tarnish your reputation as a teacher at your school.)

Getting back to 2009 and Wednesday’s missing class . . . I decided to actually go and find the missing class because the co-teacher is a good person and we work well together.  There have been no mis-communications or problems and I wanted to get more time in the classroom teaching with her because this was also our first week co-teaching together with the 2nd grade classes.  In addition, if I didn’t do my ice breaking activity and introduction lesson this week I’d have to do some kind of reduced mini ice breaking activity next week before actually trying to get into a conversation lesson with the guys.  Losing the class time this week would create a potential domino-effect of small difficulties for myself in the classroom and I wanted to avoid that if possible.

So I walk to the building where I know my co-teacher’s desk is–she’s not there.  I ask another teacher where she is and he tells me she’s in another building with my missing class in their homeroom.

Arriving at the door of the classroom she sees me and kind of does a collapse-in-embarrassment-pose because she instantly knows what has happened and why I’m there.

The guys all start slagging her for making a mistake and I tell them to be quiet, that they’re lucky to have a good teacher with great English.   They seem surprised and lighten up the slagging a little.

I guess I’m writing about all of this to close with the following suggestions for new foreign English teachers when they run into this type of situation in their first year in Korea.

1.  Be polite and professional no matter how frustrated, irritated, angry, outraged, infuriated you might get for whatever reasons (legitimate or not) when speaking to the co-teacher about a class not showing up.

2.  Ask the co-teacher politely to make sure they tell you about schedule changes, class cancellations, and any other info you need to know about your classes on a DAILY basis.  Make it YOUR habit to ask EVERY morning before the school day starts whether there have been any schedule changes for the day that you need to know about.  Be proactive and take the initiative with this issue and you’ll likely reduce the number of times it happens to you.

3.  Make sure ALL co-teachers have your contact info: email and cell phone.  Ask them to put your cell phone number into their phone WHILE YOU WATCH.  Unfortunately, for good or bad reasons, contact info can be lost or forgotten.  You can also tape/pin up your contact info somewhere on their desk–maybe on the side of the hard drive.

4.  Send your co-teacher an email reinforcing and repeating what you have said to them about communication.  Sometimes the cultural barriers, tension, personality conflict, emotions, and other factors can cause breakdowns in communication.  A co-teacher can later read your email, and if necessary look up in a dictionary words they don’t understand, or look up phrases they know don’t know in English, and this helps them understand what you’re asking them to do.

Assuming a co-teacher understands you, even after you’ve explicitly asked them if they understand you and they say “Yes,” unfortunately cannot be relied on and assumed to be the truth.  In Korean culture, if a person doesn’t understand something to admit that is a loss of face and social rank status; it’s far more likely that you’ll hear a “Yes, I understand you” even if they don’t understand ANYTHING you’ve said because all the person wants is for the confrontation/awkward situation/unpleasant conversation to end.

Another reason to send an email is to give you a record of the communication, and if this is an ongoing problem you can show that you’ve been making professional and courteous attempts to improve the situation.

5.  Do not talk to the co-teacher with a critical tone in the teachers office.  Try to go to another room where there is no audience.  If the co-teacher’s English ability is very poor consider getting another co-teacher to help you but also weigh the pros and cons of doing that as it may cause another kind of loss of face in terms of gender/age/social rank power, or even just the implicit message that you think the co-teacher’s English is poor and you brought in a witness to your implied criticism of the teacher’s language ability (meanwhile the real reason is just to help with communication, but that’s besides the point).

I’m sure there are a few more things that need to be put here and if anyone has suggestions on how to deal with this situation please add them in the comments for this post.

Oh yeah, (as I finish writing this up it’s Saturday night) on Friday guess what happened again? Yep, I went to my classroom, set up, and waited for the bell to ring . . . and NO CLASS! LOL!

My co-teacher comes to the classroom and asks me where the students are–I look at her, smile, and say I have no idea. She says, “I told them to come here.”  I shrug my shoulders and ask her to find out where they are (for me to do so is much more difficult because I don’t know where all the homerooms are, and the second grade classes are in TWO different buildings).

The guys finally arrive about 10 minutes late.  I assume a stern look and ask them why they are late–and they immediately begin slagging the Korean English teacher . . . at first I begin trying to defend the teacher, but then she admits that she forgot to tell them . . .

I let the slagging continue for 10 seconds, and then stop the guys, lol.

Anyways, the most important thing I want to point out here is that getting all bent out of shape, and confrontational and hyper-critical of this co-teacher (and yes, it was the SAME co-teacher as the Wednesday class) would be completely counter-productive to our co-teaching relationship and the long term co-teaching we do together.

When she saw that I was being calm about the whole thing she really appreciated it.  The other thing to add to everything discussed here is that nobody is perfect, and that when I screw up if I don’t want to be treated harshly or critically the model I’ve set up for my co-teaching relationship and how we deal with problems could backfire and bite me in the ass if I’ve been hyper-critical and mean with my co-teachers . . . I certainly don’t want them to be jumping all over me when I screw up!

All too often there seems to be a double-standard for this type of situation though.  Native English teachers can be very critical of co-teachers but if and when the cross hairs of criticism are pointed back at them they cry foul, and that they’re being targeted unfairly . . . it’s something to think about the next time something happens and the critical comments begin flying through the air.

My co-teacher was definitely mortified that two classes had not come to my classroom twice, and apologized.  If her attitude had been one of complete indifference I would have spoken to her after class, NOT in front of the students or other teachers in the office, and tried to convey the idea that it’s important to make sure students know where to go for my classes and what time, etc.

Now some native English teachers are probably thinking right now about the particular type of co-teacher who has a completely indifferent attitude towards the co-teaching classes–basically they don’t give a shit about the class, the quality of teaching, the learning experience of the students, or how the relationship between Korean English teacher and native English teacher is effected by lack of communication about class schedule changes and cancellations . . .

I’ll write about this particular insanely complicated and tangled co-teaching issue in another post.

Anyways, for now suffice it to say that I don’t anticipate anymore problems with no-show classes during November and December.  And even if it does happen I know that my co-teachers will help me to deal with the situation the best we can while still maintaining a good working friendship.