Friday, March 23, 2012

The Last Picture Show

Back to the grind. The new school year has started and we’re now three weeks in. I was dreading getting back in front of students again before the year started, but I feel kind of silly about that now. This year feels a lot different from the first two. The biggest difference is that almost every week I’m presenting a lesson that I’ve done before – about half the time, one that I’ve done twice before – so I’ve ironed out most of the bugs (now there’s a colorful mixed metaphor for you) and in some cases made some major improvements, which means that I’m rarely in danger of having a lesson bomb completely. So that’s a confidence booster.

I have two new co-teachers, in addition to three co-teachers I’ve worked with before. I’m really happy with the new teachers so far. I was kind of worried about one because we’ve worked at the same school for two full years and in that time I don’t think we had ever really spoken together in English. Fortunately he’s very engaged in running the class and ensuring that the students are involved in the lesson, even if he isn’t very vociferous during class.
As a teacher who’s starting his third year as an EPIK teacher, the co-teaching dimension of the job has taken on some interesting new challenges. Since I’ve already put together my lessons and done them with other co-teachers (or in some cases, virtually by myself) for one or two years, I think it’s been difficult for me to adapt to the new co-teachers, and for my new co-teachers to figure out how to take on their roles in co-teaching the lesson. I made the effort to talk about it with one of my new teachers, who’s new to the school as well as being new to my classes, but I still think she’s a little intimidated by the idea of jumping into the lesson to do things since I usually have most of it under control on my own. It’s a lot different from the relationship I have with the two teachers I’ve been working with closely for the past two years, who have no problems jumping in to explain things or add their thoughts whenever they can. I never thought my level of experience might actually make some things more difficult… Well, I’m sure the new teachers will discover how they can contribute to the class more as the year wears on.
I like the EPIK program and I appreciate the fact that Korea is trying something so ambitious in bringing so many untested foreign teachers into the school system to co-teach, but sometimes I feel like the co-teaching arrangement is one of the biggest weak points in the program. Effective co-teaching is something that’s probably difficult for most experienced teachers who share the same background, primary language and level of expertise to manage, yet it seems like the EPIK program expects to send guest English teachers out into the world with a few basic instructions and have effective co-teaching arrangements miraculously take root and grow. (Plant metaphor aside: I brought some cilantro seeds back from the States. They just sprouted. I’m pretty excited. I think this is my first ever attempt to grow plants from seeds, apart from a grade school science fair project about acid rain that I did with bean plants.) In my first semester here, EPIK paid to bring me and my main co-teacher to Gyeongju for a co-teaching workshop, which I felt was actually really effective at getting the two of us to sit down and take the time to talk about how we could work together more effectively. Unfortunately, I think that was the last time that I got any really effective advice regarding co-teaching, and it’s definitely the last time I got to have a really meaningful conversation about it with an actual co-teacher. And some foreign teachers even ended up at the conference by themselves because their co-teachers couldn’t make it for some reason. In the two years since then I’ve had seven other co-teachers at my school. One of them consistently sits in the very back of the classroom staring at a computer for my whole class, or leaves after taking attendance. Another one (who was a really nice guy, by the way) was a substitute who had studied German rather than English in college and really didn’t have any idea what he was doing. None of my co-teachers have the time to talk about co-teaching outside class – teachers in Korea have a lot of duties outside class in addition to planning lessons, although I don’t really have any idea what most of them are – and there’s no way our schedules would ever allow me to gather all three or four co-teachers I work with in a semester together at the same time to do lesson planning. So since the first day I’ve been here I’ve basically done all the lesson planning myself and my co-teachers have participated in a sort of “teach and drift” configuration where they help to translate or explain activity instructions when necessary, and assist the students with completing activities when we do group work. In my best classes I’d say that it’s probably the ideal configuration, actually, but it’s one that was born of necessity more than a conscious choice to work together in that manner.
EPIK hasn’t been completely silent regarding training – this past winter they made all the returning teachers participate in an online video instructional course that included some material about co-teaching, in addition to other topics. The co-teaching demos mostly involved those Fred-Astaire-and-Ginger-Rodgers-perfect co-teaching partnerships that only exist in instructional videos and only teach you that you’re inferior to the bosses’ ideals. Honestly I don’t know how effective those lessons were – I watched all the videos before completing the required quizzes, but I was frustrated that there wasn’t a forum provided to share feedback or exchange ideas with other teachers, who probably would have been able to provide a lot more feedback about methods that had proved effective or ineffective in real classroom environments with realistic co-teaching arrangements. Other teachers I know just started the videos, let them run in the background for the minimum required amount of time without watching them, and finished the online quizzes using the provided notes and guesswork (either because they didn’t have time, couldn’t get the videos to work on their computers or just plain didn’t see a reason to bother). The Korean teachers do training and workshops all the time – in fact, once a year the county sends a group of them to San Diego to experience life in an English-speaking country first-hand – but I don’t know how much of their continuing education has to do with co-teaching for conversation classes. I doubt much of it does. Regular English classes in Korean high schools seem to be 100% focused on teaching students to pass the national exam, and until recently there’s been no conversation element to the national exam, just “monkey puzzle” (my South African colleague’s euphemism for multiple choice) comprehension and grammar problems. I hear they’re instituting some sort of conversation element into the exam this year, but nobody’s told me anything specific about it. It’s fun to do your job in the dark, isn’t it?
                In addition to the lack of more substantial training, there are a couple other problems I see with the co-teaching model as it’s practiced by EPIK. One is that the EPIK program is consistently pitched to the Korean public as a temporary program – in theory, once Korean English teachers and the Korean public reach a certain level of English proficiency, foreign teachers won’t be necessary anymore. (In practice I find that theory about as likely as that old Communist chestnut about how the government will eventually melt away as the proletariat takes control of the means of production. Sure, it will. If you believe that, I’ve got a collective-labor-produced bridge to magically materialize for you.) Sometimes I think a few Korean teachers (a certain subset of the older Korean teachers, in particular) aren’t that engaged with co-teaching because they’re just hoping that the whole EPIK program will go away sooner than later – or, alternately, that they’ll only have to deal with it for a few more years before they retire. The other problem is that it can be just plain difficult, if not impossible, to forge successful working relationships across the cultural barriers that exist between Koreans and Westerners. EPIK teachers are mostly young and inexperienced. Korean culture, on the other hand, places a high value on age and social rank. Expecting an older, experienced teacher to be open to creating a successful, collaborative working relationship with a younger and less experienced Westerner runs directly counter to a couple thousand years of Confucian cultural influence. That said, I’ve worked well with most of the older teachers I’ve worked with, and they seemed very open to being collaborative to the extent that they were confident that they could manage it. However, I think it takes a special level of openness for a more experienced teacher to be mentally prepared to approach that sort of honest working relationship, and I’m not sure that a lot of teachers are motivated to make the effort. Not to mention that trying to address problems with a recalcitrant or dissatisfied co-teacher can be an exercise in futility. It’s difficult enough to coax a disagreeable co-worker into an effective working relationship when you share the same culture and primary language – now imagine trying to do it when you have to re-learn how to metaphorically kowtow in a completely different context.
                I should probably add an additional difficulty presented by the EPIK program here that’s no fault of the Korean teachers – it’s extremely difficult to work with a teacher who’s a supposed expert in English but may have no idea how to teach. A lot of Korean teachers are clearly intimidated by the prospect of working with their co-teachers, and I think it’s very clear why. I mean, imagine being a high school chemistry teacher and suddenly being asked to teach a lab with a PhD chemical engineer coming directly from the industry, who has no teaching experience to boot. Better yet, imagine trying to teach a high school biology class with a live bear in the room. Students can smell fear and uncertainty, and even though there’s no way for most Korean teachers to perform in the same manner as a native speaker in the classroom, that’s what students subconsciously or consciously expect from them. It takes a tremendous leap of faith for most Korean English teachers to speak English with an actual native speaker in the room and not worry about making an obvious mistake, or inadvertently getting thrown under the bus by their co-teacher. The Korean cultural emphases on perfection and the maintenance of an image of authority don’t help matters much, either.
                I should reiterate that almost all of my co-teachers (all but the one, basically... grr) have bent over backwards to make my experience here a good one, and the one positive that exists in every working relationship in Korean schools is that all the teachers are really dedicated to the betterment of their students and are willing to do whatever they feel it takes to achieve that goal. (Well, at least all the Korean teachers feel that way. Some of the Westerners show up expecting a vacation, or they get bitter and cynical and decide to just do whatever it takes to collect a paycheck until they can take their next vacation or get the fuck out of Korea.) But after two years teaching here, it's the persistent problems that seem like they should be easily remedied that bother me the most. Nothing’s quite as irritating than a problem that you feel like you could solve if you had the right tools or if you were just a little better at something. I learned a very important lesson when I was younger from a very important philosopher – Bo the Sheep on the U.S. Acres cartoon. “There’s two types of problems in the world,” he opined: “the ones you can solve, and the ones you can’t. So there’s no use worrying about the ones you can solve, and there’s no use worrying about the ones you can’t.” The real difficulty comes when you find that unique problem that you’re certain you could solve, but you just lack the capacity to do it.
Maybe I need to get away from all this Confucianism for a while and get back to some good ol’ Taoism. Wu wei, bitches. Go with the flow. Be the branch that bends in the breeze. Ahh. That’s better.
                The other thing I should tag on to the end of this rant is that I know my situation is pretty close to ideal, but I also know that a lot of EPIK teachers in Korea don’t have nearly as good a situation as I do. A fair number of teachers I meet at events, meet socially or hear from on Facebook have co-teachers and schools that don’t do anything for them, and don’t have anything like the support network that I have here. I think if EPIK and the larger Korean school system addressed some of these problems head-on – making Korean co-teachers take co-teaching seriously at every school and at every experience level; providing more effective training; and giving the EPIK program a permanent place in the Korean educational system – I think the program would be much more effective for students and much more pleasant for guest English teachers. I think foreign English instructors fulfill a lot of fundamentally irreplaceable needs in the Korean educational system, exposing Koreans to foreign cultures not least among them, and I don’t think it would take anything approaching a radical shift from EPIK and the larger Korean educational system to implement some of these changes, if there were just a little more willingness from the top brass.
                I never intended for this post to become a four-page rant about the minor shortcomings of EPIK when I started. Really I thought I would breeze through my complaints, move on to a summary of my brief trip back to the States, lay out some good intentions for the coming semester and go back to not carrying through with those intentions and playing obsessive amounts of Civ 4 instead. (It never ends!) So let’s talk about the vacation. In a nutshell, it was too short. It was made shorter by the efforts of the American airline that flew me out of Korea, who will remain nameless due to a timely outpouring of bonus frequent flyer miles. We all got onto the plane at Incheon, the departure time passed, and the pilot announced that we had a mechanical problem of an enigmatic nature and he would update us in approximately half an hour. At the appropriate time the pilot announced that the mechanics were in need of a part that might or might not be available (“These things happen here,” says the pilot) and that they would have a definite answer regarding the future of the flight within another half hour. I begin to picture comical scenes of confused Korean airplane mechanics dealing with a plane somehow inscrutable to them because it arrived from the mysterious West. (“이게 뭐예요? , 시발!”) Five minutes later the pilot comes back one and tells us that the airline is flying in a new plane from Beijing, which will result in a delay of approximately twenty hours. , 시발 indeed. This was followed by two hours of not exiting the plane, which was apparently caused by the good folks at Incheon International Airport – consistently rated among the world’s best airports – not being able to arrange for us to come back through customs so that they could cancel our departure stamps. (They probably had to ask the older, most respected immigration officer to make the arrangements and he just plain didn’t feel like doing it or something. Or they ran into the Korean equivalent of a bunch of stuffy bureaucrats with inexplicable upper-class British accents muttering, “This is highly irregular!”) There was also a notable lack of food for most of this period, which coincided with a regular meal time. The airline did, once they finally got us off our stricken plane and through immigration, put us up in a pretty nice hotel in Incheon for the night, provided us with dinner, breakfast, connecting flights, apologies, and reparations, and offered us free booze on the flight to San Francisco the next day. (I really need to get a hat or T-shirt before my next flight that says, “Yes, I can be bribed with free hooch!”) They also managed to get me in a line for arranging connecting flights with a very nice teacher from Daejeon who was heading to Chicago, whom I was of course too socially retarded to actually ask for her number, but she should definitely call me at that number on the business card I gave her if she’s reading this, because we should totally hang out. So, in short, my thirty-six hour trip to New York City to see my friends got trimmed to something more like a twelve hour trip, but I still got to see most of my friends on a compressed schedule, and got an incredibly fatty pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli, so it wasn’t really any kind of disaster. After that I got to spend three and two half days in Buffalo with my family, and about fourteen hours in LA with my friends there. The LA part of the trip felt the most regrettably truncated. I’ve got a lot of great, very special friends in LA and I wish I could have spent a lot more time with them. Plus I’m a lot less drunk, broke and angry now than I was when I left, so spending time with them is actually a lot more enjoyable. But it’s too late now. So I guess I’ll just have to tough it out until I come back to the States in another year. Speaking of…
                So this, unless I suddenly get a bitch pregnant,* is going to be my last year in Korea. My goat-tending days are reaching the end of the goat-tending season, and it’s about time for me to get back to my life and my friends and my family in the US. Who knows, maybe the economy will actually be better when I get back. I’ll definitely be in a better state of mind. And thinner. And less indebted to several major banks. There’s a strange finality to each week’s lessons this year, though, since I know it’ll be the last time I present that lesson. Each Friday afternoon after seventh period there’s a sudden realization of, “Oh, I guess won’t have to replace these dead dry erase markers, or use these intricate laminated flags from different nations again, since that lesson’s done,” or, “Hmm, guess I should throw away all these extra worksheets that I printed, since I’ll definitely never need them again,” or “Well, there was a minor problem with that lesson but I guess there’s no reason to fix it since in a year I’ll never be doing this again.” It’s weird to work on something so intensely for three years and then just walk away from it afterward. But I just don’t see myself as an ESL teacher in the long-term. I spent a lot of time and money on those accounting courses I just completed, not to mention all the goddamn schooling and sacrifices I invested into that jaunt into the film business I walked away from in LA. Teaching in Korea has been great but I just don’t trust that I could replicate the experience in the United States, and I miss my old friends and old haunts too damn much to consider trying to pursue a permanent life on the road as an ESL teacher. It’s possible that I might take on some online instruction work while I’m transitioning back into life in the US, but otherwise I don’t see myself doing all that much with this ESL teaching experience, other than taking away a lot of good memories and a lot of new perspective. And leaving behind a significant slag pile of pointless fat, debt and anger. It’s funny because I feel like the one thing I’ve learned most acutely in my adult life experience is that, in this modern world, it’s important to take full advantage of every opportunity you’re given in life. Things are just too competitive to exchange a competitive advantage for comfort and familiarity these days. That might not be a pretty or romantic sentiment, but I don’t know of another way for anyone other than a silver spoon one-percenter to live in this world these days. (I miss the days when “one percenter” only referred to bikers, don’t you? That wistfulness also extends, by the way, to the use of the abbreviation “FTW.”) But it’s strange that I’ve spent two years, and plan to complete a third year, honing my teaching skills and developing all these lesson plans, and next February I’ll be leaving the primary product of all that work behind in Korea. So it goes, I guess. You can’t take everything with you. Too much excess baggage. And the airlines are allowing less and less these days. Everybody’s gotta cut costs somewhere.
Oh, right, those aspirations I mentioned. I’m trying to make a concerted effort again to learn Korean. Remember what I said about taking advantage of your opportunities? Seems like I shouldn’t lose out on this chance to add “Korean – Conversant” to my résumé, and possibly even make some new friends in the process. (Nothing teaches you how valuable real friends are like leaving them all behind for a while.) I’m planning to restart classes at the YMCA in April, and I’ve gotten in touch with a charitable organization that’s organizing conversation classes, as well as a guy who wants to meet with me to do a language exchange. So far, so good. A few of the other plans, like buying a guitar or buying a DVD player because I’m too lazy to hook my computer up to the TV, seem to be falling by the wayside for now. Spring festival season in Korea is starting soon but I don’t think I’m going to be doing that much travelling since I’ve seen most of the most interesting festivals in the last two years and I’d rather save the money for other things. I’m starting to make summer and winter vacation plans – winter is definitely going to involve a trip to Thailand, but I’m not so sure about summer yet. I was originally planning to use my frequent flyer miles to get a flight to Tokyo and see Japan, but my little incident on the way back to the States garnered me enough miles to use them for the flight to Bangkok instead, and I’m discovering that travelling around Japan is no small endeavor, financially speaking. I still might get crazy and spring for a Japan Rail Pass and see a good portion of the country, but I haven’t crunched the numbers yet and I need to consider if I might be missing out on some other travel opportunities by doing so. For example, I still need to see Hong Kong and Angkor Wat to complete the “In the Mood for Love” trifecta (Singapore was the first step). A long time ago I fantasized about renting a bike and taking it around Jeju, so that could be a possibility as well. (And of course the peak of summer heat would be the best time to do that…) Anyway, I’m sure I’ll collect a fair number of additional adventures before I return permanently to the US. And who knows, if I crash and burn in the US again, I can always come back to EPIK, right? Right? Right?

*Don’t mean to offend anyone or unnecessarily exacerbate the current war on women with that invective, just seemed comedically appropriate to the situation. Bill Maher would defend me. Probably.

PS Reading that post I linked to reminds me that I should brag: I officially completed my accounting certificate “with distinction”! Clearly all the mental anguish over the format of that statistics course was worth it…

PPS A while ago I blogged about the pet fish I left in LA, Mr. Blue. Sadly, only a few days after I left LA and saw Mr. Blue for one last time, he died of apparently natural causes after a brief illness. Goodbye, Mr. Blue, and sorry I couldn't be there for you more. You're my boy, Blue!

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