1. Which student has had the most impact on you and why?
One of the awesome things about teaching in a high school is that I can actually communicate with many of my students, something that is nearly impossible at elementary schools and rare at middle schools. A good percentage of what I know about Korea comes from conversations with students, both in depth and in passing. The other thing about teaching at a high school is that they are very smart, tech-savvy teenagers, and it’s quite possible that some of them are reading my blog right now! So, I’m not going to pick just one student. I think there are 2 types of students who have taught me the most about Korea, and have thus made the biggest impact on me.
These are the kids that have a genuine interest in learning. They understand the advantages of English fluency for their future careers, and love the challenge of expressing real, discussion-provoking thoughts in English. One notable student told me her role model was Ban Ki Moon (the UN Secretary General, who happens to be Korean) and that she’d like to have a job like his some day. I have another student who wants to be an English teacher when he grows up (Sidenote: being a teacher in Korea is a highly respected profession, on par with being a lawyer or a doctor in America. This says something to me about the reverence for education Koreans have, versus that of Americans.)and comes 10 minutes early to class every day, just so that we can chat. He always brings up interesting topics, without any provocation from me.
A few days ago he expressed that he thinks, “there are many problems in the Korean education system. We don’t have enough time for free thought or creative thought.” He said he thinks Obama is wrong to praise Korean schools, and that Korea should instead look to America for educational advice. From my intellectual, English-proficient students, I have learned that many of these kids are seeing flaws in their own society–a rarity in Korea, a country that is typically boasting of its healthy diet or powerful history and rarely self-critical.
I’ve heard approximately 60% of South Korean women get plastic surgery. However exaggerated or unexaggerated this statistic may be, it is certainly representative of the majority of my female students’ self-image. Whenever I take their photos, most usually find a way to cover their face, either with a “V” for victory (an American peace sign) or blatantly covering their cheeks with their hands. I had never seen anything like this before Korea, and was very shocked the first time I tried to take pictures of my students. People in Korea (usually women but sometimes men as well) are constantly looking at themselves in the mirror, fixing the most miniscule hair mishap or batting their eyes ferociously.
At school, girls are constantly whipping out mirrors from thin air, big and small, to see just who’s the fairest one of all. They’ll just sit there for quite long moments, staring at their faces, mentally ridiculing every imperfection. They are the same ones, I’ve noticed, who love to tell me how small my face is, how big my eyes are, and shake their heads in disbelief at my naturally dark eyebrows and curly hair. The constant obsessing over beauty, appearance, and aesthetic in general, of my students, has been the most fascinating exposure to this well-known facet of Korean society, and has had a profound impact on my experience here.
2. Do you think you are making an impact on the students’ English ability?
Short answer, yes. But is it an impact that can be measured in test scores? No. I think I’m helping their ears understand what English actually sounds like, and in the long run I think I’m making an impact on their xenophobia. I don’t think I alone have the power to make a big impact on their English abilities, but I do consider myself to be a cog in the machine of foreign native English teachers, and with every year of hearing from us they are getting a better sense of the language. I also think that every new exposure to a foreign teacher changes their worldview. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, South Korea is the 2nd most homogenous country in the world. After North Korea. When I walk down the street, old people stare at me. Middle-aged people are too busy to notice me. And the kids almost always say hello. Or “HIIIIIIIII!!!!!!!!!!” This country is changing, bit by bit, generation at a time, and I think that myself and my fellow native English teachers are playing a huge part in that.