Foreword - Do U English?
- The West Germanic language of England, now widely spoken used in many linguistic varieties throughout the world.
How does one define something as all-encompassing as English? The language defines so much of the world we live in today. It’s how we communicate, how we understand, and the way we do business. English has gone viral around the world, and it doesn’t even have a YouTube video. The world speaks English, reads English, writes English, and studies English. It has touched just about every square inch of this planet where the human race has inhabited. Yet how can we begin to define the scope of something without knowing how it’s used.
English can be used as a noun, there’s no doubt about it. I just did it. How about as an adjective? Can we use the English language as an adjective? Done! Supposedly, it can be used as a transitive verb if followed by an object, such as if you’re going to translate something. I’ve never heard this before but let’s try it. He’s going to English Don Quixote. To me, it just doesn’t sound right. And I imagine grammarians hate this argument – It doesn’t sound right! But why shouldn’t our ears be guidelines to linguistic acceptability? I for one would like to hear English used as an intransitive verb. Let’s give it some action. We were Englishing at the restaurant, when we overheard the people behind us Spanishing. I kind of like it! And why can’t we play English? We can speak it, write it, read it, and listen to it. I’d much rather play English than do any of those other things. I think it would also make a great adverb. If only something could sound, look, or feel Englishy. Like many things in this world, English has rules. Rules should be followed, but then again many times they are broken.
The beauty of the English language is that it’s adaptable. The more people try to learn English, especially as their second language, the greater variance we’ll see in the way it’s both spoken and written. Today, English is the most widely used second language in the world. According to estimates by the British Council, there’s somewhere around 750 million people that speak English as a foreign language. It’s also believed that over 1 billion people are currently learning English worldwide. Countries and empires will not conquer the world, but the English language just might.
So what other results have spawned from the proliferation of English study? Well, for starters it has generated an ever-growing inelastic demand for teachers. A language vortex that ensnares people from all walks of life. It caught me nearly six years ago, and has spit me out in obscure locations such as South Korea, Namibia, and the Dominican Republic. Looking back on these years I can honestly say that I have no regrets. If I could do it all over again I wouldn’t change a thing. To me, that’s the true benchmark of success. I’ve done my job, and I can confidently say I’ve done it – with a few minor exceptions – to the best of my ability. And that’s all one can ask for.
I truly believe that teaching, in any capacity, is a noble profession. I once heard that a great teacher always says things more than once. This is true. As it turns out I’ve repeated myself over a thousand times across three different continents and at times in languages other than English. Yet I still don’t know if I’d consider myself a great teacher. But that’s what all teachers should strive for, isn’t it? Teachers want to be – or at least want to view themselves as being – helpful, compassionate, and significant. Those are the great teachers. It’s the final destination.
Happy Time Go Fast is a book not about the destination, but the journey. I still don’t know where I’ve landed on the scale of teaching prowess. But what I do know is how I got there. The journey has changed me. What originally turned out as a way to subsidize an adventurous life overseas, has slowly become a passion. I thought I’d be the last person to say that a job would in fact be my calling. But up until I started teaching, I had never really been listening.
My teaching experience in Korea has taught me invaluable lessons. The beginning of my journey took me over some rough bumps, and I’ve highlighted those moments to illustrate some of the challenges that I faced when it came to discipline and classroom management. I think it’s important in understanding how I’ve ‘matured’ so to speak. Being new to the ESL profession, I was no more susceptible to making mistakes than the students. I realize this doesn’t always paint me in a very favorable light, but I’m not writing this to tell you how wonderful I am. Although at other times I may seem pompous with self praise. But that’s what teaching is. You have good days, and you have bad days. That’s life!
Happy Time Go Fast is the first of a three book series called Do U English? These books capture my own personal experience of teaching English abroad, and should be viewed as being completely subjective. I’ve attempted to write about my experience openly, honestly, and to the best of my recollection. I’ve also tried to inject some humor when applicable. The purpose of this book is not to persuade people to teach, or even dissuade them from teaching. It’s not to criticize other cultures, nor promote living abroad. It’s simply to share my experience. More specifically, Happy Time Go Fast is meant to shed some light into the life of an ESL teacher in Korea.
The bell rang! It was time to get my game face on. At the beginning of class I was usually over exuberant, like a horse giving it a bit too much out of the starting gate. The teaching day was a marathon, not a sprint. This was the first thing I had to learn, because on some days it felt like I never even finished the race.
I had only been in South Korea for a couple of weeks, and still hadn’t adjusted to being stared at. The kids in class would give me bewildered looks, perhaps it was because I didn’t quite fit into my new role as teacher, and they could tell. Was I standing vertically enough? Should I be holding a book to authenticate my position? Of course it didn’t help that my voice occasionally cracked when I tried to project it throughout the room. I was a newbie in the ESL (English as a Second Language) profession. There was no secret about it.
Sticking to the game plan, the first thing I did was take attendance. With only nine kids in the class it would have been easy to do a head count, but calling out their names became a way to engage the class.
“Tarzan!” I said loudly. A lanky little boy with glasses raised his hand. He didn’t look like any ‘Lord of the Jungle,’ more like ‘Lord of the Rings’ since he was the size of a hobbit. However, he was sitting next to his counterpart.
“Here,” replied the squeaky voice of a small girl whose feet didn’t quite manage to reach the floor. In order to make it easier to remember names, I asked that all students assume an English name. This is very common in Korea, perhaps part of the subculture of their English education. Most of the kids already had a name, such as Jane. If they didn’t have one, I helped them chose a name of their liking and got to be creative in the process. Tarzan was very proud of the name I gave him, though I don’t think he knew he was part of a couple.
“Jennifer!” – “Here!”
“Tom!” – “Here!”
“Jerry! – “Yes!” They were another dynamic duo, and would even chase each other around just like the cartoon.
“Angella!” – “Here!”
“Harry!” – “Yes!”
“Gina!” – “Here!”
“DY – NO – MITE!” I bellowed in a loud silly voice. The little boy just raised his hand without acknowledging my antics. I think he found the joke to be getting old, though I still got smiles from some of the other kids. Dynomite chose his own name, believe it or not, even if he did spell it wrong. I asked him if he wanted to switch out the O for an A, but he adamantly refused.
After checking off that everyone was present, class began. Of all my classes, this was probably the worst in terms of effort and behavior. This group of elementary school students could be a bit rambunctious. Perhaps they were a little too comfortable with each other. But it was only our fifth class together so it was too early to tell how our teacher-student relationship would unfold.
On this fateful October evening we were doing a lesson on comparative adjectives. The pre-packaged lesson plan – I didn’t make it – was mapped out for me on two sheets of paper. Specifically, the material focused on the endings that adjectives receive when comparing two or more things. The lesson plan showed that for short, one-syllable words like tall, fast, and smart, adjectives will get an –er ending: taller, faster, smarter. For larger words, with two or more syllables, we place the word ‘more’ before the adjective: more handsome, more beautiful, more interesting. This was simple enough. However, I mildly veered off course with some of my own example sentences. In orientation we learned that it’s beneficial to use contextual things – stuff they know – when providing examples for the kids. Therefore, I used myself and the other students as examples. I wrote a sentence on the board and underlined the adjective, as well as the word ‘than’ to reinforce that it always follows the comparative form.
Wes Teacher is taller than Harry.
The students usually called me Wes Teacher. Sometimes they’d just say, “Teacher,” but when they’d pronounce it the R was often dropped so it sounded like, “Teacha!” I read the sentence out loud and then had the kids repeat it a couple times to check pronunciation. Next, I told Harry to come to the front of the class so that everyone could see I was taller. He ambled over next to me, barely coming up over my waist, and stood there with a big smile. I then asked for other adjectives that could be used to describe me or Harry in order to make more sentences.
“You…ugly!” shouted Jerry, and everyone laughed, myself included. Not sure which one of us he was talking about.
“Smelly,” replied Jane.
“Te-ree-bal,” said Tom with such stereotypical Asian pronunciation. I knew he was trying to say ‘terrible.’ “Ha-ree…te-ree-bal!” he repeated for good measure.
When you’re a small child learning another language, for some reason insults are learned quickly and not easily forgotten. I thanked the kids for the kind words and let Harry sit back down since the others were getting him riled. None of the adjectives we elicited were very flattering. Though I anticipated this, and actually got one of the words I was looking for. I wrote the next sentence on the board.
Wes Teacher is smellier than dong.
Again, I underlined the comparative. With this sentence I got a thunderous laugh from the kids, not only because of what it said but also because I had made a spelling mistake. Dong is the Korean word for pooh, however the kids were quick to point out that the English Romanization is spelled with two D’s, ddong, since dong with only one D means ‘town.’ Of course, how stupid of me!
Dynomite quickly ran to the front and grabbed a marker to correct the spelling. There was more laughter from the kids. Ddong was a joke in and of itself since children are obsessed with the word ‘pooh.’ At the very mention of the word I’d get a smile. I figured that I could use this sentence two-fold. I’d retain their attention because it’s silly, and I could segue into the fact that adjectives ending in –y, such as smelly, will receive an –ier ending in the comparative form. Wow, what an incredible teacher these kids had. I was well on my way to becoming Educator of the Year.
After the sentence had been corrected, I figured the laughter would eventually subside. However, some of the kids began to repeat the word and continue laughing. Then a couple of them harmoniously said it at the same time, “DDONG!”
“Ok, that’s enough.” I tried to regain control of the class but the ruckus continued. More kids joined in the chanting. “DDONG!”
“Come on…guys….HEY!” I implored to no avail. The students drowned out my pleas. All of them were shouting in unison, some pounding their tiny little fists on the desk.
“DDONG – DDONG – DDONG!” Just like that, with six words, I had incited a ‘POOH’ riot. I stood there dumbfounded, feeling reduced in size with each time they bellowed the word. I didn’t know what to do. I felt a head rush of emotion and thought my eyes might well up with tears.
Quickly, I went to the door and stepped out of the classroom. When I left I could hear cheers of jubilation from inside as if they had just toppled some vicious dictator. Their freedom chant, ‘POOH,’ carried on. I tried to compose myself, and took several deep, deliberate breaths. It would have made sense to go get one of the Korean administrators but I was too proud to think that I couldn’t handle the situation myself. I was clearly in denial.
When faced with tragedy – illness, addiction, etc. – psychiatrists say people are likely to endure five different stages of grief. My own vociferous tragedy remained just several feet away on the other side of a wooden door. In the empty hallway I calmly breathed my way through the first stage of denial. As I began to regain my composure more resentful thoughts crossed my mind. You are the authority figure, and these kids are clearly not showing you any respect. How could they treat you like this? They don’t do this with the other Korean teachers. I abruptly moved on to stage two – ANGER.
Moments later I walked back into the classroom and shut the door behind me. As I entered the little monsters raised the volume of their chant. Perhaps they wanted me to crack. At this point I was livid and an empty desk next to me took the brunt of my fury. I grabbed the desk with one hand and flipped it over. It crashed onto the floor with a loud thud. The noise diminished, as well as my chances of winning that self-nomination as Educator of the Year.
“QUIET!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. The room was silent. All the kids stared at me with alarming eyes, their jaws dropped. I had seized control once again.
“NOBODY…SAY…A WORD!” I held my index finger to my mouth indicating I wanted silence. I don’t know if they understood, but intonation and gestures go a long way, especially when conveying anger.
Corporal punishment is illegal in the Korean education system, even though you still hear about isolated incidences. Of course it was strictly forbidden at the academy and hitting the kids was the furthest thing from my mind. Yet after the desk got thrown onto its side, the kids probably wondered where I was heading with this reaction. Frankly, I didn’t know either. There was no phase two of this plan. I had acted impulsively and now I needed to think of something fast. Suddenly, I had an idea. I walked over the board and wrote:
I will always respect my teacher.
I turned back to the kids and snapped, “WRITE IT!” Slowly, they began to take out a piece of paper. Some began writing immediately while a few boys looked at one another to see if their friend would comply. Dynomite hesitantly raised his hand. “WHAT?” I said and glared at him intently.
“Teacha, how many write?” he asked.
“Write!” I exclaimed and pointed to the board. Everyone started jotting away. I stood at the front of the classroom with my hands behind my back counting down the minutes. The silence that now engulfed the room was serene.
As the minutes ticked away my anger subsided, and I thought of ways in which the class might end. Should we leave angry at each other? What should you tell them? Will they even understand? With only a couple minutes left in class I told the kids to put their pencils down so I could explain my position.
“Look, guys. All I want is for you to learn something while you’re here.” By the look on their faces this clearly didn’t register. I continued anyway, “That’s why your parents pay for these lessons. I want to have fun in class, I really do. But there’s a difference between having fun and being out of control.” Still – nothing. These kids had a basic level of English and clearly couldn’t follow my speech. Suddenly, and without knowing, I found myself in the third stage of bargaining.
“I tell you what, next class if you WORK HARD and BEHAVE,” I made sure to emphasize those words, “I’ll bring some CANDY.” Finally, I hit on a word they understood and their interest perked. I don’t know where such an offer came from. It just spilled out of my mouth. Surely, incentive-based bad behavior wasn’t an effective method of classroom management. Sometimes teachers may offer rewards on the merit of good behavior, but I was essentially trying to buy them off. I knew it was a mistake, but the offer was already on the table. I had to purchase some candy.
I progressed through the last two stages of grief at a slower pace. After I bargained terribly with the kids, I felt a bit depressed. Thus far, the kids were able to run all over me. How could I possibly be an educator if nobody would listen to me? I was also disappointed in the way I handled the situation. Throwing the desk was unnecessary, since maintaining order shouldn’t entail hurling heavy objects across the room. Each day I was learning a little more about the do’s and don’ts of teaching. I just thought I wasn’t learning quickly enough. In many ways I was an ineffectual teacher. It made me realize that being just a teacher is not that difficult. But being an effective teacher is extremely difficult.
The next morning I woke up in the final stage of acceptance. I reassured myself that it’s going to be ok. I was new at this, so of course there are going to be some hiccups in the beginning. I just needed time to acclimate. I was living in a foreign country, working in a new environment, and teaching kids from a different culture. Thus far the entire experience had been surreal. I couldn’t believe I was actually living in South Korea. It made me wonder how I got here in the first place.
South Korea, also known by its much cooler name, ‘the ROK,’ (Republic of Korea) is a small East Asian country nestled between the two global powers of China and Japan. In actual size Korea is quite small, with a land area roughly the same size as the state of Kentucky. Yet the country boasts a population of over 50 million people, which means it’s awfully crowded. South Korea has never been a premiere tourist destination, and staying off the beaten path can be advantageous. The country has retained a cultural homogeny that’s profoundly unique, and as a foreigner it’s nice to go places where you look around and not feel like there are more tourists than locals. This doesn’t mean there aren’t many foreigners living in South Korea. Since the country is vastly developing there are many opportunities, which translate into jobs. And like every other country around the world that faces certain immigration challenges: If you employ them, they will come.
Korea is one of the Four Asian Tigers, along with Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. The term represents the highly industrialized development that transpired in these countries during the second half of the 20th century. During this time South Korea achieved unprecedented economic growth. However, it’s hard to understand the impetus behind such development without knowing a little bit about the country’s modern history.
After World War II ended in 1945, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel of latitude in accordance with a UN mandate. This led to the establishment of two Korean governments, which some on the peninsula – I don’t want to name names, ahem…North Korea – were not thrilled with. In 1950, the North invaded the South, sparking the Korean War. After three years of fighting the war ended in a stalemate, claiming the lives of roughly 2.5 million people. In 1953 the peninsula was split near the original demarcation line of the 38th parallel and a demilitarized zone was established.
The war had left the country in shambles, and South Korea was economically devastated and politically vulnerable. For the next few decades the government came under the auspices of a military regime, most notably under General Park Jeong-Hee. During his tenure, from 1963 to 1979, the country utilized its cheap labor to boost the economy. Korea slowly transformed itself into an exporting nation and its economy developed significantly.
Today, the accelerated growth South Korea underwent during the last half of the 20th century is referred to as the Han River Miracle. To give you an idea, from 1953 to 2008, the country’s GDP sustained an average economic growth of 7.8 percent per year. That’s a lot by the way. Such progress put South Korea on the global map. In 1988 the country played host to the Summer Olympics, around which time the military began to lose its political hegemony. Eventually a more transparent and democratic government evolved. South Korea was then chosen to co-host the FIFA World Cup in 2002 with Japan. The proliferation of South Korea’s economy ushered it straight onto the fast track of globalization and today the country has over a trillion dollar economy, the 4th largest in East Asia.
Flowing right along with the Han River Miracle was an increased level of foreign investment. With this investment came an influx of foreigners. According to Korea’s National Statistical Office, the number of registered foreigners has more than quadrupled in the past decade and there are now over one million foreigners living in South Korea. Foreigners that reside in Korea encompass a diverse group of military, businessmen, laborers, and English teachers. I was just one of thousands of foreign English teachers living in South Korea, a small part of a $15 billion industry. In order to gain employment, foreign teachers are required to obtain an E-2 work visa before starting their jobs. Once this visa is issued, they go to work at public schools and universities, but most end up teaching at academies, which in Korea are known as hagwons.
There are all sorts of hagwons in Korea – language, computer, music, exam prep – and they are found in just about every square inch of the country. Their numbers are superfluous, and according to an article in the JoongAng Daily, as of 2009 there were over 70,000 hagwons in Korea. For anyone looking to receive supplementary education in any subject or field, you better believe there’s a hagwon for it. If you want your kid to learn how to play the violin, you can enroll them in a violin hagwon. If you’re a female whose passion is to become a flight attendant, you can go to a flight attendant hagwon. If your dream is to learn how to juggle chopsticks while riding a unicycle, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a hagwon for it. There’s something for everyone. However, these days the most prevalent subject academy is the English hagwon. In Korea, the English craze is uncanny. Ultimately this meant people like me were in demand, and as fate would have it, Korea and I found each other.
My illustrious search to become an educator didn’t bear much fruit at the start. After completing a year of volunteer service in Costa Rica I returned to America decisively set on finding an international teaching job. Korea wasn’t my first choice. My primary focus was the JET Program, which stands for Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. It’s affiliated with the government and has a solid reputation, whereby international teachers are placed in public schools throughout Japan. Hiring takes place once every year and unfortunately for me the timing wasn’t right. The backup plan was to apply for a leadership position with an organization called LeapNOW, which offers semester-abroad programs for university students. This also ended up being a dead end.
I then turned my attention back to East Asia. There were two aspects that were pivotal in me settling on Korea. The pay was good, which is significant for someone that had absolutely no money, and there was no teaching experience necessary. Korea became a logical choice for getting my foot in the door, so I began scouring the internet for teaching positions. This is where the search became a bit convoluted since I wasn’t quite sure what to look for. There were so many different types of teaching positions. Compound this with the recruiting industry and finding the right job becomes even more onerous.
There are many different recruiting agencies in Korea that find teachers for their clients. They all claim to have a screening process for deciding which schools to work with. However, their revenues are derived from how many teachers they place so there’s very little incentive for them NOT to help a school find teachers. I figured it wouldn’t hurt my chances of getting a job so I contacted a couple of agencies. I submitted their online form that asked basic questions dealing with teaching, location, and compensation preferences. Within a day I received a call from both agencies. The recruiters spoke English well enough, and answered my questions – to the best of their ability – about school schedules, classroom sizes, and locations. They also assured me that they only work with schools that have established programs and a trustworthy record. Overall, the conversation was encouraging. They also asked if it’d be okay to email me about jobs that fit my preferences. I naturally concurred and the next day I found a barrage of messages in my inbox. The emails subject lines read something like, ‘Reputable school, Great location, Perfect fit for you.’ It was flattering that they had managed to find my dream job within hours, but the fact that I received numerous offers from both agencies made me skeptical. For the meantime, I put all their offers on hold in order to continue my own research.
The best place I found to look for jobs was a website called Daves ESL Café. It has postings for jobs worldwide but the primary focus seems to be ESL jobs in East Asia. Each day I checked the Korean Job Board and found a multitude of new postings. Most were from recruiting agencies so I skimmed over those. Several postings were through a program called EPIK (English Program in Korea), which is the Korean government’s version of the JET Program. Other teaching opportunities were at hagwons and public schools that hired internally. Even though there were some horror stories out there, my preference was to work at a hagwon since I felt there’d be less bureaucracy. However, I wanted to find a private institution and not just a franchise school, since I thought they might run a better program. I also wanted to find a hagwon that had several different schools, which to me entailed a level of success. When I found an academy that fit these criteria, I cross-referenced it with other sources such as a website called the Hagwon Blacklist. I’d also search for individual blogs of teachers that may already be working at the hagwon. I found blogs to be especially useful since most people are fairly candid about their experience. Just one week after starting my Korean job search, I found what I was looking for. I came across a posting for the MoonKkang Academy in the city of Daegu.
I immediately submitted my resume and a cover letter. MoonKkang promptly responded and we set up a time for a phone interview. As it turns out, the person interviewing me was a girl from Canada that had been in Korea for three years. We had a good talk and it was nice getting her perspective since she was a foreigner working in Korea. A few days after my phone interview, MoonKkang offered me a teaching position. I accepted the offer and was emailed a contract, which was pretty standard for first time teachers. It was a 12 month contract offering a salary of 2.2 million Won per month (roughly $2,200 US). MoonKkang would pay for my airfare as well as set me up with an apartment, which dramatically decreased my cost of living. I was covered medically, allowed two weeks of paid vacation, and would receive one month’s severance pay upon completion. Not a bad deal for someone that had been uninsured, and living pay-check to pay-check for the past two years.
By law I was required to obtain an E-2 work visa, which is specifically for foreign English teachers. This was the fall of 2006, and visa requirements were not as stringent as they are nowadays. All I had to have was a copy of my passport, official university transcripts, and my original diploma which had to be notarized. I mailed all of these documents, along with the signed contract, to the MoonKkang office in Daegu. MoonKkang took these papers and presented them to the Korean immigration office. Immigration then issued me a visa number, which MoonKkang emailed to me. Once I had this number I could fill out a Korean visa application form using the visa number I had been issued. I sent that, along with my passport, to the closest Korean Embassy. The embassy put the visa in my passport and I could legally work in Korea. The entire process took less than a month, but again, much has changed and obtaining an E-2 visa can no longer be expedited in such a manner (more on that later).
During the visa process MoonKkang scheduled a date for me to start work. I purchased a ticket to Korea and was told I’d be reimbursed when I got in-country. I was set to arrive at the end of September, which is also when several other new employees would start. I just had one small concern. I had NEVER taught before. In fact, I had NEVER been around children. I knew this was going to be a baptism by fire, yet I was told that MoonKkang would do a thorough four-day orientation. This did little to calm my nerves. But perhaps an orientation would provide me with some much needed confidence. Because confidence is exactly what I needed before stepping my foot into that blazing fire.
How would you rate the first 500 words?