All this week I’m doing a speaking test preparation and review class at the boys high school where I teach.  This afternoon on my schedule I had what is probably the lowest level class . . . and it was ‘interesting.’

One of the reasons I chose a one-on-one interview testing format is because any other format would almost guarantee that half of the entire 2nd grade fails–perhaps even more.  Doing a teacher-student interview style test allows me to create as relaxed an atmosphere as is possible, and to prompt the student if necessary; if I were to pair the students up the number of possible problems that might occur are just too large to warrant the risk.  One on one interviews also allow an easier and clearer understanding for the students in terms of what their role is during test, and places 100% of their scores on themselves.

At the start of the class I explained once more the basic testing procedure, and had it written out on the white board behind me so students could read the information too.  In addition to this, I had my co-teacher translate the information to avoid any possibilities of students not understanding what is expected of them.

Students then wrote their names and numbers on little pieces of paper, folded them, and then placed them into a mop bucket (hey, whatever works right?) with a spinning basket (it’s supposed to dry the mop).  The guys are fascinated with the whole spinning the basket with their names in it–I imagine because gambling culture in boys’ high schools is pretty widespread, and they think they’re somehow ‘winning’ something, lol.

I asked two students to help me out: one is the secretary and types out the names and student numbers on the computer, and the other draws the names out of the basket.  In the first speaking test prep and review class I had my co-teacher do this task, but it ended up taking three times longer than it really needed to, and I wanted to avoid that this time.

After organizing the class into two testing groups, and determining the order of testing, we then moved on to going over the test prep handout I’d made.  The handout has four warm-up questions to allow the guys time at the start of the test to remember to breathe and calm down a little, and then there is a list of questions they would have to ask and answer during the test.  Some teachers might question why I am giving them the questions for the test but this is a common practice in Korea, from what I’ve heard, in public schools (the small numbers that actually give speaking tests), universities, and teacher training programs.  It allows motivated students to practice and prepare in a much more focused manner than if I were to just say please study and practice lessons 1-6.  This is especially important for high school boys because their language learning skills and habits are not the best too much of the time.

On the right side of the handout I also included warnings for common errors the boys had made during actual class time.  One of the warnings, for example, was that the boys should be ready for me to ask one question at a very fast speed, and then they have to respond with the correct “If you don’t understand expression” that they learned from a lesson: “Sorry, could you repeat that again?” or, “Excuse me, I didn’t catch that.”  Along with the warning are examples of common expressions the boys use when hearing English spoken too fast: “Pardon?”, “What?”, “One more time.”, and ” . . . ” are explicitly stated as not acceptable responses during the test.

On a side note, in the coming week or two I’m hoping to finally publish a post I’ve been writing on and off for about two months detailing every facet of making speaking tests in a public high school . . . but for now I’m going to keep my descriptions and explanations in this post brief.

After going over the test questions, and telling the guys that they needed to write out their responses and if necessary use the lesson handouts to help them, I went over the rubric with the help of my co-teacher who again translated to make sure nothing was missed.

The remaining 30 minutes of the 50 minute period were then to be used for the guys to look over the test questions and ask for help if they needed it . . . instead, 60% or so thought it was ‘free time’ and sat around hitting each other, joking, chatting, drawing pictures on each other’s hands with their pens, rolling around on the chairs (they have wheels–BAD IDEA), and other generally non-studying related behaviors that boys do.  The other 40% spent time looking at the handout, asking questions, helping each other out, and asking myself and the Korean English teacher questions . . . I expect most of them will get A’s on their tests.

In spite of the majority of students trying to avoid prepping for the test, my co-teacher and I constantly circulated the room, going from table to table trying to coax and coerce the boys to prep while they had access to us for help.  Some of them listened, and made a little progress in getting ready for the test, while others mostly did the typical “Yes, teacher”-smile-and-nod, and looked busy for a second, and once we would move on to another table they’d be back to hitting each other, chatting, and doing nothing in general.  Oh, and my particular ‘favorite’ of the day was the two boys playing ‘Rock, Scissors, Paper’ and then the winner getting to hammer the other on the leg with a rolled up magazine–I put a stop to that . . . which lasted all of 2 minutes before they were back to just hitting each other with their hands and feet–yeah.

At the end of the class, my sense of things was that 30-40% would be prepared for the speaking tests which begin next week, and the remainder would be lucky if they are able to answer 25% of the questions before lapsing into the shoulder shrugging and “Sorry, sorry” responses they give when they don’t know what to say during the test.

While I really want to help the guys it’s pretty frustrating because for this particular class I’ve had FIVE classes canceled with no make up times for lesson content . . . add to the mix that 50% of them are false-beginners, 25% advanced-beginner, and 25% intermediate and things become VERY difficult.  I chose an EFL speaking text book for this semester that is intermediate level content, and while it works for the vast majority of the classes it is beyond the abilities of the majority of guys in this particular class–but I cannot change the lesson content because that would then skew the testing points . . . argh.

There comes a point where I think even my idealism and drive to get every student to learn ‘some’ English runs into too many obstacles that cannot be overcome no matter how creative and proactive I am–and for me, I’ve hit the wall.

If a student truly doesn’t want to learn there is a point where the teacher has to accept this reality, and as long as they have done everything within their power to help the student they then have to let it go.

I’m getting better at not beating myself up over this kind of thing, but when I first came to Korea it would really upset and frustrate me.  I guess that’s part and parcel of my personality and the kind of teacher I am.

But at the five years and change mark of my teaching career I think I’m getting better at constructing boundaries and reasonable expectations of myself as a teacher–and knowing when to let students take responsibility for their own lack of effort.

It’s a beautiful day outside, and it’s time to let my frustrations go, acknowledge that I’ve done everything I can to help the guys, and go enjoy the blue skies!