Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

Two of my 5th graders. Rambunctious to say the least

Let's begin this update by answering the obvious question that arises from my current location. My first Christmas away from home wasn't as rough as i expected. A bunch of us expats got together and hung out most of the day and kept things pleasant and light. That combined with the facts that I got to talk to a few friends back home and I was able to join the family Christmas via skype made the day a good one (though i am looking forward to being back in Texas for it next year)

A Christmas card that 3 of my 4th graders made for me in another class :D It made my day

This week I've been teaching a winter English camp. It's been easy and quite enjoyable. The kids are well behaved, the activities are interesting and i get home by 2 instead of 5. :)

On a random note, it's been snowing shockingly heavily the last two days here. To commemorate this, we had a massive 40 minute snowball fight with all the kids before beginning the final day of camp. To call it absurdly fun would be a gross understatement. I absolutely loved it and couldn't stop smiling the rest of the day (neither could the children).

For the next week I have a light schedule and the week after that, another English camp (for a different school). Then I'm heading to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia for my 3 week winter vacation!! This will be my first time exploring Asia and I'm enormously excited! I'll have more details in my next update (by then i might even have figured them out) :)

PS. Happy New Year!!!!!

Right before the school play began

Several of my students acting out a local Jeju legend about how a terrible plague was stopped by a courageous villager

School plays are the same everywhere :)

My kids were very excited for our final day snack party, as their work on the blackboard clearly demonstrates

I know its blurry but its the best picture i've got for size comparison. These are not big kids

Saturday, December 11, 2010

We interrupt this class for a .... war drill???

Any time a camera comes out, the peace signs go up

It happened Wednesday in the middle of a perfectly normal class (ie the kids were running across the room playing the game "what time is it mr. wolf"). So clearly we were busy learning when suddenly a siren sounded and a stern voice erupted from the loudspeaker. Fire drills are easy to recognize regardless of where you live so i sent the kids straight outside. As I was heading out myself, I asked one of my Korean co-teachers if fire drills were common here. She said, "oh no. Is not fire drill. Is war drill." Such is life when you live next door to a tiny, spittle-emitting dictator.

This was our "Market Day". It's when students get to use the stickers they earned for being good and/or smart to buy fun little things

On a related note, my kids are adorable. Today a group of my 3rd grade girls came up and asked if I was a Christian. I smiled and said yes. They became very excited by this, explaining that they were too (ok explaining may be too strong a word. more like saying "me christian too" with a big smile). Regardless I couldn't help grinning at their enthusiasm as they led me off to play games with them until the next class.

Clearly Market Day requires difficult choices

I also found out today that I am now the tech support guy for all the English speakers in our building. I was asked in one evening to
1) help someone figure out how to download movies from the internet
2) setup a guy's computer so he can call the US for free
3) help find korean subtitles for christmas movies.

It finally dawned on me that I had become our resident Tech when a friend asked me why his program for calling home wasn't working. As I started to head 3 floors down to his place I realized: there is an insanely obvious thing that must be turned on for this to work (a red light that has to be turned to green to work) and I didn't ask him about it on the phone. Anyone who's done this type of work before knows what came next. I was proven clairvoyant.

But once they make up their minds, they can't wait to buy!

Oh and ps, my tropical island is apparently only tropical 7 months out of the year. Today it snowed lightly for most of the day. Fortunately after adjusting to average temps in the lower teens last year, upper 30s aren't so bad. Maybe we'll even get a white christmas :)

The toughest part of the event was crowd control

Friday, December 10, 2010

Korean culture: private time = community time

An interesting aspect of Korean culture popped up this weekend. The Office of Education(POE) is having a traditional Korean games event Saturday from 10am-3pm. Its not mandatory but it is being treated like it was by the administrators. I had to remind myself that this is a different culture with different rules. In the US, non-work time is your private time to be used for whatever you like. Here your non-work time still belongs to the communities you are a part of. As a teacher, my communities are my two schools and the office of education. Therefore, when my school or the POE sets up something after hours, they expect me to always attend.

This can obviously create a conflict when something is planned that I don't particularly want to attend. Like say the occasional friday night round of dinner, drinks and korean karyoke that schools arrange. After a long week, the last thing I want to do is spend 5 hours having extremely broken conversations with my increasingly drunk vice-principle. This would be quite a problem if I was more accommodating. Fortunately, I'm not :) In a trait no doubt inherited from my grandfather Earl, I do what I want to do, when I want to do it and I don't give a damn what people think of me for it. It may not make me the life of the party but it does make me happy!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

(*singing) I'll be home for ..... no wait

I may only have 1 string of Christmas lights but I use it well. And for those of you who have never lived somewhere where Christmas isn't celebrated, its almost impossible for me to explain just how much I value these simple lights

In case you haven't guessed, I won't be coming home for Christmas this year. In fact I work both Christmas eve and the week after Christmas. This is definitely sad but its part of living abroad.

My consolation is that I get to take a 3 week trip to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia from late January to early February. This visit promises to be full of tropical weather, spicy food, cheap prices and gorgeous beaches. I am definitely excited. I absolutely love the kids I teach but it'll be nice to get away from school for a couple weeks. My loose plan right now is to fly into Bangkok, look around for a couple days, then fly to Singapore. I'll explore a bit there, then take the train through Malaysia, stopping whenever I feel like it. After that, I'll head up to a couple of the many Thai islands and spend a week or so relaxing and hopefully learning to scuba dive. Finally i'll take the train up to Bangkok and fly back to Jeju. The relaxed pace of this trip should give me plenty of opportunities to explore my chosen destinations.

The view from my apartment building down to the ocean

Other than travel planning my week had 2 small highlights. The first was that I got the entire day off Tuesday to go to a 90 minute meeting :) The second was that I played the boardgame Risk for the first time in my life on Saturday and I managed to completely conquer Asia. Apparently that's not easy to do :) Neither of these sound very important (because they aren't) but I always try to live by Zombieland rule #32: "Enjoy the little things"

Asia conquered!

Monday, November 22, 2010

How to mess up a good bad mood

Halla Mountain in the center of Jeju

I swear Christmas music is cheating. I got back late tonight because I had an after-school english camp in the middle of nowhere. I was tired, cold, grumpy and working on a pretty solid bad mood (waiting for a bus for 30 minutes in a cold north wind will do that to you). But then I made a mistake. I thought "It's after thanksgiving. Time for me to listen to Christmas music." So I put some Trans-Siberian Orchestra on my mp3 player. Instantly, my bad mood was ruined. Suddenly the cold felt refreshing. Even without Christmas lights, the city looked prettier. The hill to my house looked like an invigorating walk. As the Grinch once said "Blast this Christmas music!! It's joyful AND triumphant!"

Hereafter follows a few of my random musing from the week. And yes I'm safe. The bombs you may (or may not) have heard about that hit South Korea were far far away from me. Look at the map.

Monday my Korean lunch and I had issues. I was still recovering from being sick the previous week and my stomach had been bothering me most of the morning. Lunch was not contrived to help this problem. A strange combination of tentacles and unpleasant sauces greeted me on my tray. Upon receiving the reports of first contact from my eyes and mouth, my stomach decided to take unilateral action. It climbed up my chest, through my throat and took my brain hostage. It forced my body to walk to the nearest trash can and empty the contents of my tray so that I wouldn’t be forced to empty the contents of my stomach. After explaining that my stomach was upset and I wasn’t hungry, I returned to my desk and promptly ate a snickers bar. My tummy was appeased.

Late Tuesday night I discovered an interest fact about chocolate. It's a good cough suppressant. It stopped my chronic coughing and allowed me to get a good night's sleep. And I just know that upon reading this, all of my female friends suddenly developed terrible coughs that need immediate treatment.

Thursday the expats of Jeju had a party to celebrate Thanksgiving. Since I don't cook well to begin with (and the limited kitchen facilities here don't help) I decided to attend and assist by providing some drinks and ice cream. Just call me chef. Fortunately, some of the girls here possess excellent culinary skills and a feast was enjoyed by all. Friendly conversation and even a couple fireworks added to the pleasant atmosphere. Its one nice thing about Jeju. The English level of the locals is so bad and there are so few expats here, that any time I meet another foreigner we're immediately friends. Just having the ability to talk to them at all produces an instant camaraderie. More diversity would be nice (and good for the people here) but I'm helping provide some of that just by living here. Hopefully it will continue to increase over time.

For now time to get some sleep before part two of my English camp Saturday morning. TTFN

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What an elementary school teacher in Korea actually does

Thanks to a conversation I had with a friend recently, I realized I haven't really explained what teaching elementary school here entails. Since teaching occupies the vast majority of my time here, I thought I'd take a moment and explain what it is I do and why I am so lacking in free time.

First you need a little background on schools here. Korean children go to 2 schools each day. They start the day in public school. That lasts from 8am-1pm. There are after school activities which keep them busy until about 4pm. After that, they go to private schools called Hagwons that last until around 8 or 9pm. If this sounds like overkill to you ..... well it does to me too.

Some of my oldest students

My job is in the public school system. I teach K-6 each week. Because of all the school they have, there are no quizzes, homework assignments or tests in English class. Also because they are only exposed to English in schools, my student's English abilities are quite poor. As a result my job is to teach them something simple, make it fun and play lots of games with them. And thanks to the fact that every classroom has a projector hooked up to the computer, I can and do use internet resources and games for pretty much every class. For my morning classes there are books we are supposed to work out of (though I don't always because they're really pretty bad), which definitely makes planning for those classes simpler.

Some of my youngest students

Sounds easy so far right? Here's where the difficulty comes in. Over half of my classes are of the after school variety with no textbook and no guidance. As my Korean co-teacher told me "you can do anything you want." A double-edged sword. While I am given a great deal of freedom to teach what and how I choose, these classes require significantly more planning and preparation time than normal classes do.

I also teach six more classes each week than a normal teacher (I do get paid extra for this). This doesn't sound like much until you put it in perspective. A normal teacher here teaches for 22 of the 40 hours they work each week. That gives them about one hours prep time for each class (which is about right). I teach 28 of my 40 hours each week which is not nearly enough time to prepare for that many classes. Especially since the majority of them are unstructured. And because I teach such a wide range of ages, reusing lessons is difficult.

Thus I often work all day at school, only to find my evenings filled with lesson planning and my weekends full of backlogged chores. I admit this is a hard adjustment for me after teaching an average of 3-4 days each week in Prague.

My situations clearly has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side I make a good bit more money that most of the teachers here. On the downside my free-time is practically nil. Maybe I'll try to get my schedule lightened in the Spring. With a lighter schedule, I'd have more time and energy to really enjoy the island. For now I'll smile and try to think about how that extra work will soon be translated directly into time on a tropical beach.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A normal week

Jeju countryside

"Luka teacha, game!" -my students every day

This week has been my easiest and most fun so far. I'm getting used to the hours and energy demands of the job and prep continues to become easier. Monday started things off right. The funniest part was when I was asked to read to the 6th graders for 30 minutes. Read to 6th graders?!?! Are you kidding?? To keep them from being bored out of their minds, i decided to read in every strange voice and accent I know. It worked amazingly well and one of my co-teachers even decided to take pictures. :)

Reading to 6th Grade

Tuesday followed with a couple out-of-control classes. Fortunately, a Modern Jazz festival was in town that night and I was able to attend with a couple friends. It provided a nice contrast to the chaos of the morning.

The rest of the week featured an evening birthday part for one of my friends, a bible study with the christians in my apartment building and some fun with my camera during one of my 4th grade classes.

Before class started

This girl stood on her desk and proclaimed that she would grow up to be a popstar. And I believe her.

Now that the weekend has arrived i've shifted my focus to exploring, lesson planning, vacation planning, grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry and all the other things that I have neither the time nor energy to do during the week. But its not exclusively a working weekend. I also met up with a friend for dinner, got plenty of sleep and bought a TV (I need it to play xbox). And now to end on a pretty note, I leave you with a panorama of the entrance to one of my two schools.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Considering teaching English overseas? Ask yourself these questions

"It's never too early to start beefing up your obituary" - The Most Interesting Man in the World

Since i've been traveling, i've had quite a few people ask me how they can get into teaching overseas. I'd like to take a few minutes here to at least begin to answer that question.

Consider these questions.

1) What country or area appeals to you? (do you like Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, etc. You can even teach english in Australia)

2) What are your chosen area's visa and work permit requirements?
For example, getting a work permit in Italy is almost impossible unless you have an EU passport. But getting one in the nearby Czech Republic or Poland is much easier.

3) What are your chosen area's qualification requirements?
Qualification requirements can range from some college (parts of Asia) to Bachelors degree (many places) to an ESL teaching certificate and Bachelors degree to a Masters degree with experience. Obviously the more desirable locations and jobs will require better qualifications. To improve your chances in this area, consider doing a 1 month ESL teacher training course (note: the CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL are the only two courses i would recommend). These will teach you how to be a good teacher. They cover everything from grammar to lesson planning to real in-class practice. And as an added bonus you can often do them in your destination country and get a month to familiarize yourself with everything before your work begins.

4) What is your current financial situation?
Moving is always expensive and moving overseas, doubly so. Europe is a fantastic place to live but if you don't have any money in the bank to travel and explore, you'll miss out on much of what the continent has to offer. As a general guideline, most places in Europe pay about break-even money (you won't be saving). Asia is generally much better for saving money and definitely has a lot to offer an interested teacher. Africa offers satisfying work but poor conditions and pay. It is best suited to those who want to volunteer, not travel around. South America is great but you make so little that you'll usually have to dip into savings to support yourself while there. Of course these are general guidelines and specific countries can vary greatly.

5) When can you leave?
Generally most places begin school in September and/or January so the months leading up to these times are prime hiring season. Finding a job outside of these times is certainly possible but not quite as easy.

6) Do you know anyone else who has done this?
Talking to someone who has been there and done that (or is there and is doing it) is invaluable both before and during your travels. Find someone who can help you and then ask every question you can think of. It's amazing how much smoother this can make your transition. And if you don't know anyone, message me. I'll be happy to help everyone who asks.

I won't lie to you and say living abroad is always easy. I will say that it is easily worth any difficulty you encounter. If you have even the slightest desire to teach, travel or just experience more of what life has to offer, I can't recommend this highly enough. Mark Twain said it best

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Note: - Easily the best site for information on all things ESL. Their forums are packed with useful information on nearly every country and topic you can think of.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Busy week

Two of my 5th grade students

"Rule #32: Enjoy the little things" -Columbus (not the explorer)

My life is slowly starting to find a rhythm here. Work keeps me busy but that's normal. At a taco dinner party my neighbor hosted I learned that nothing happens here during the week. Everyone works all day, then plan lessons and relaxs at night. Its only on weekends when this place comes alive. It certainly made me feel better about my situation.

School picture on the field trip

One of the hills near the top

Got to partially climb Mount Halla (the only mountain here) thursday. It was a blast. A moderate climb made more interesting by the company of my oldest students and some gorgeous fall foliage. We get about halfway to the top before we ran out of time and had to head back down. At the bottom I played games outside with the kids for a while after lunch and then we headed home. As a bonus, they dropped me off on the way back. So i got home 2 hours early :D

On the way down

Not camera shy

Friday I had my first kid that refused to behave and had to have his teacher called in to deal with him. Wasn't fun but it was definitely necessary. The class behaved well after that.

Saturday I was required to work at the International Fair on the south side of the island. In the Australia/New Zealand booth. Probably because I can do a funny sounding accent and the kids don't know the difference. Fortunately my "work" consisted of playing rugby and football with kids for several hours and talking to other expats the rest of the time. Overall it was a fun day and as an added bonus I got 2 extra days of vacation for doing it :D

The leaves were lovely on Halla

Today has been about simple pleasures. Watching the Rangers win game 3 in the morning. Having lunch with a fellow christian. And best of all, finding a source of Dr. Pepper!!!!!! Its the real stuff and its fantastic. One of my rules for life is enjoy the little things and that certainly applies here. My present joy knows no bounds!!!!

Two of my favorite nature pictures from the trip