Vignettes from October: The Building Relationships Edition

A series of short happenings from the past month. Highlights include pranks, Korean surveys, Halloween, and Hagrid.

On playing pranks

I walked around the classroom as the students were finishing their textbook work. As I passed a group of girls sitting near the front, I heard one of them say in Korean, “Jaemi opsoyo.”

Unfortunately for them, that is a phrase I actually know. It translates as, “This is not fun,” or “This is boring.” Well, well, 학생, time to make things interesting.

Jaemi opsoyo?” I repeated, stopping in front of their desks and frowning deeply. “You don’t like my class?”

The students’ mouths dropped open and they began to protest vehemently. “Teacher, no!”

I smiled evilly. “My class is boring? My class is no jam?” (No jam is Korean slang for “not fun” or “not cool.”)

“Teacher, teacher…no!!!!!”

By this time, the rest of the class took notice. “Teacher knows no jam!” they laughed. “Teacher knows jaemi opsoyo! Teacher knows Korean!”

“Teacher…we talk about jam!” one of the girls in front said desperately. “She…she has no jam in home!”

“Oh, suuuuuuuure…”

They began speaking in Korean to my co-teacher, trying to convince her that it was a misunderstanding. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.

But at least the class wasn’t boring, anymore!


On filling out surveys

The best way to build relationships with students is to show that I am interested in learning about them and their culture. The second best way is to look foolish when I try to do anything in Korean.

Two weeks ago, I attended a gayageum concert with my second graders after school. A  gayageum is a traditional Korean string instrument that resembles a zither. As a violinist and classical music enthusiast, I was so excited to watch a traditional concert and also spend some time with my students outside of the classroom.

In addition to playing with my hair and trying to use conversational English, my students were eager to sit next to me during the concert. A few minutes before the concert started, the ushers handed out pieces of paper for us to fill out.

“What’s this?” I asked the student next to me.

She glanced at it and said, “Survey, Teacher!”

She must have seen the look of panic that crossed my face when I saw so much Korean writing, for she immediately said, “Teacher, I’ll help!”

She translated each question for me, as well as some of the answers. My co-teacher, who was sitting behind us, started laughing as I tried to translate some of the simpler words.

Yeoja! I’m a yeoja. I know that one!” I said as I figured out the “What is your gender?” question.

“Okay,” my student said after we finished the demographic information. “Now, this is rating the concert.” She pointed to a list of ten categories and a rating system. “This row says, ‘Very good’ and it goes down to ‘very bad.'”

“Okay. I’ll put ‘Very good’ for everything.”

“But Teacher, the concert didn’t start yet!”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s very good.”

After about a minute, I slammed my pen down with satisfaction. “There! Done!”


She picked up the survey and flipped it over. I groaned.

“There’s a back?!”


On being America

“Teacher,” my student said during the 1:1 conversation club, “you are like America.”

“Oh? Why do you think so?” I answered, expecting a response about the way I looked, dressed, or talked.

“Remember in class today when you said, ‘Pay attention’? That’s like America. When America says, ‘Pay attention!’, other countries listen. The students are the other countries. They have to listen to you.”

Well, THAT’S an analogy I didn’t expect to hear. Embarrassed, I could hardly think of an appropriate response. I think I said something about the importance of listening and mutual understanding, how I listened to them too. My student changed the subject, as if it had been just a random thought that had popped into his head.

Sometimes I forget just how astute my students are.


On being a friend


The door to the English office slowly opened and a boy’s head peeked in. “Teacher, do you have time to talk in English?”

I glanced at the clock on my computer. Students had another 20 minutes for their lunch break, so I was free until then.

“Yes, of course,” I answered, opening the door adjacent to my classroom. “Come inside.”

We sat across from each other at one of the desks. My student is very advanced in his English studies, and it is clear he practices a lot. He told me about how he wanted to be like a native speaker, how he wanted to study cybersecurity at an American college, and how he dreamed of going on a road trip across the U.S. He asked me a few questions about my college experiences and life in America, which I always answered enthusiastically.

After a few minutes of talking, the student paused. Then he explained that he was very shy and wanted to gain more confidence in his speaking. He said he really liked talking to native English speakers and that he often talked with some American friends over Skype so he could practice his English. I realized that I had never really seen him talk to the other students very much, so it seemed that his shyness was about more than a language barrier.

The twenty minutes had passed, and the fifth period bell was about to ring. The student asked if he could come talk to me again during lunch breaks, and I told him he was always welcome.

As he opened the door to leave, he stopped and turned around. “Teacher–thank you for speaking with me. I will…never forget.”


On comedy and tragedy

“Today it is very cold,” I observed, nursing a cup of hot chocolate.

Ye Bin and Su Bin sat across the kitchen table, bundled up in sweatshirts and warm pajama pants.

“Yes! 비극이다,” Ye Bin answered with an over-dramatic shiver.

비극이다?” I repeated. “What does that mean?”

“Tragic,” said Su Bin automatically. “비극이다 is tragic.”

Ye Bin and I looked at Su Bin with surprise. When I first came to Korea, Su Bin’s English was only a little better than my Korean. Now, her English is light-years ahead of my Korean.

“Su Bin is so smart today! Usually, not smart,” Ye Bin tapped her sister’s forehead. “Usually, she is Hagrid.”

I laughed as my host sisters playfully pushed each other in their chairs. With Su Bin’s schedule the way it is, they seem to have so few moments like this now. But they are so funny when they are together!


On Halloween

“Ooooh…trick or treat!”

The students clapped their hands, oohing and aahing over my Halloween costume.

“Teacher – so pretty today!” they exclaimed as excitedly as my first day at the school.

It’s red lipstick and a hat, I thought as they stormed the classroom to touch my costume and my hair. Calm yourselves.

I get so many stares as a foreigner that being the only person at school wearing a Halloween costume didn’t faze me one bit. I had taken one of my black dresses and bought a new belt, some stockings, makeup, and a black pointed hat. Voila! Instant witch.

Throughout the week, I had my students play Halloween games, draw masks, and use English to survive a Zombie Apocalypse (or, as they said, “Jombies! Raaaawr!”). By the end of the week, my classroom walls were papered with the gore of scary masks and the creativity of jack-o’-lanterns (at least three of which were student renditions of my face).

At the end of my last class for the week, one of my quietest students came up to the front of the room. She tore a piece of paper out of her notebook and asked me, “Halloween – spelling?”

I spelled it on the blackboard, and she dutifully copied. Then she handed me the piece of paper, whispered “Happy Halloween,” and hurried out the door. I looked down at what she worked on all throughout sixth period.

20151030_035926798_iOSMy first thought was: my students are so talented, and this is so sweet. My second thought was: I wish my legs were that long.


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