Hello Friends and Visitors!
I've officially been living in Korea for just under a week now and thought I would take some time to debrief my experience here so far. I am currently living in Seoul where I will be teaching science at an international school for the next ten months.
So I might not look like a super model, but I am slowly beginning to understand why backpackers spend so much money on their gear. The act of travelling itself is not as glorious as it seems - just imagine being sticky with sweat, fully aware that the guy who was standing next to you a second ago has moved away because of that ungodly odor coming from your body, and then really wanting to quench your thirst on the plane but worried that you might get stuck going to the toilet after somebody's just taken a big dump. When it comes down to it, making your travel experience as comfortable as possible is well worth the extra effort. When I traveled to Kazakhstan last year, I was too cheap to spend money on a good travel pillow and took the "memory foam" one we had lying around at home. You ask, how can you ever go wrong with memory foam? Let me tell you... not all memory foams are created equal! There is real memory foam, and then there are the posers. I ended up spending eighteen hours on the plane trying to sleep with a lump of coal on the back of my neck.
Despite my somewhat unkempt appearance, I managed to sleep in relative comfort during my 14 hour flight to Hong Kong from Toronto, and 3 hours from Hong Kong to Seoul, Korea. Here are a list of five things I learned while in Korea thus far:
#1. A little preparation goes a long way. Last year, I picked up some survival Russian phrases (i.e. hello, nice to meet you, goodbye, and thank you) before heading out to KZ, but did not bother to learn Cyrillic until much later on. This year, I decided to learn Hangul (Korean alphabet) before my arrival in Korea, and BOY, WHAT A DIFFERENCE IT MADE! Rather than having to devote extra attention to learning the language in addition to getting settled, I've been able to do the latter in a relatively care-free way. It also helps that Korea is very English-friendly; street names and subway stops are translated into English, and I have ran into quite a few English speakers on occasion in shops and restaurants.
#2. Expect to be surprised. People generally have a very romantic view of life in the big city, but it definitely has its own drawbacks. To be sure, I'm loving the convenience of living next to a subway station, being able to hop out on the street and pick up free wi-fi at any one of the nearby cafes, and having easy access to all the goods and necessities I need. However, my apartment is basically one room with no clear or distinguishable bedroom, living space, or kitchen; it's sort of all just blended together. Same goes for the bathroom, the floor of the bathroom serves as the floor of the shower. This style of bathroom is actually pretty common to Korea and China, so if you've never experienced anything like this before, it might take a while to get used to.
#3. Expect to have your mind blown. As in, elevator buttons that you can un-press, diagonal crosswalks, key-less door locks, and little foam pads for your car door. Honestly, Korean people think of everything.
#4. Be grateful for the little things, like being able to unlock the main door to your apartment. So my first day here I was given a sheet of paper with a map and the pass-codes for the main door and my apartment door. On some locks, there is a special combination of keys you must press in addition to entering the code, I did not know this, so I figured I would just keep trying different combinations until I found one that worked. Well, my landlady caught me in the act of struggling and I guess I looked like I was trying to break in. She sat me down in her little lookout area while I attempted to explain that I was a teacher who had just moved in and that I was just trying to get back into my apartment.
There are many other little things that I never thought twice about in Canada and had to re-learn while in Korea. Like, figuring how to get hot water for a shower, turning on the gas so I can use the stove, setting up password protected wi-fi on a Korean-only site, and learning how to properly sort my garbage (they take this very seriously in Korea) to name a few. I spent the first night showering in cold water because I didn't know how to turn on the boiler. I spent the second night showering in cold water because I didn't realize the hot and cold symbols were mixed up! Don't worry, this story has a happy ending: I am now able to take hot showers. =D
#5. Watch your spending, because temptation is everywhere! 1000 won here, 2000 won there, and pretty soon you'd have spent a good chunk of your money on a) food, and b) things you never knew you needed, like that cool organizational storage unit designed specifically for your bras.
"All the vacations!"
"Only work 10 months of the year."
Anyone who's ever cited the above reasons for why they became a teacher is a liar, and anyone who assumes the above is actually true has clearly never lived with a teacher. While I can confidently dispel the myth that teachers do not live at school, I cannot say that the dwelling of a teacher (or any educator, for that matter) has not effectively become a school, in the sense that the "teacher hat" rarely ever (truly) comes off.
While I'm sad to say that my year of teaching mathematics to a brilliant group of students in Kazakhstan is now over, I am happy to report that I will be working as a science teacher at a Canadian international school in Seoul, Korea come Fall. Currently unemployed, I have been spending my summer months contemplating the new school year to come. As a new teacher, I get thrown with a lot of advice:
"Make learning interesting"
"Don't just lecture"
"Let your students have FUN!"
"Whatever you do, don't smile until December"
"Whoever said not to smile until December is throwing out a bunch of bull-crap"
I mean, all this advice is helpful in some way, but mostly, I worry. I worry because I know that the advice usually stems from some past experience; perhaps my adviser has had a brilliant teacher in the past and wants to give me some insight on best practices, or maybe the experience was so traumatic that it is a warning against what I might become. I know, and am reminded every day, that teachers have a tremendous opportunity to influence the lives of their students, whether its for better or for worse. I would be lying if I said that thought has never kept me up at night.
So what does a young, novice teacher like me do during their free time? Well, this summer (like the last, and probably for many summers to come) has been filled with a lot of reading; books about science education, classroom management, cognitive psychology, teaching and learning . . . you name it. Books, and also a lot of web-surfing in search of inspiration and ideas for the next school year. The great thing about being a teacher today, versus 50 years ago even, is the incredible, vast, and extensive amount of information available literally (excuse the cliche) at our fingertips. With the advent of online textbooks, YouTube, massive open online courses (MOOCs), I really have no excuse for not knowing better. The issue now becomes knowing how to efficiently and effectively conduct searches, filter out the big ideas, and not get caught in fun yet unproductive Pintrest spirals, or the ever-so-looming YouTube vortex.
I find myself constantly striving to be perfect. I work, rework, and surgically remove minute details in my lesson plans until I am convinced they are just so. Then along will come some new insight I've read in a book or online article and I will repeat the process all over again. I worry about many things:
Will my students find this topic interesting? Can they relate this to their own lives?
What will they remember 10 years from now?
Is this an example of content-based, activity-based, or inquiry based teaching?
How can I work towards developing lessons that are more minds-on rather than hands-on?
How can I better scaffold this project to ensure top-quality work?
. . . and so on.
The result of all this worrying is twofold: 1) my brain is now attempting to process more information than it can actually take on, and 2) very, very slow progress with my unit planning. I realize that I need to just give myself permission to just be okay with being a novice. I mean, there really is nothing more liberating than knowing you are not the best and that it is okay (splendid, even) to keep learning - that is a belief I want to instill in my students too! Of course, knowing all this, it is still a constant struggle to be mindful of it, and I am sure I will be reminding myself (and my students) of this more than once.
So here's to wanting to be a great teacher, but okay with being good (modest?) one (for now).
International math educator who writes, occasionally.