TESOL frustrations

Well. So all that stuff in the blog “VBA frustrations” reveals that I am still a programmer at times, even though I had worked my ass off to stop being a programmer by becoming a Mastered TESOL teacher. I waste hours of time and energy every day (it seems) head-talking about why teaching my kiddies here in NonHyun is not related to TESOL teaching. Yes, they are Korean kids who need to learn English as an Other Language, but they don’t really buy into that Need. At All.

Yesterday my last class was 2:50 to 3:40 with the Class 1 of Year 2, twenty-nine 11th grade boys and young men. A mix of the dull and placid and the sharp and angry with a soupcon of the curious and curiously willing. Friday afternoon, their dander was up.  I went from table to table, ignoring the din behind me and breaking the din in front of me one group at a time, asking kids questions ala the lesson for the day.

They respond if confronted, even the James Deans. In this class, the Jimmy Deans have an interpreter. I fire off a question at one. He scowls as dark as he can, and I repeat and smile as bright as I can. He hears this shot, but vaguely, having just had to break off his conversation or reverie. I fire it off a 4th time and rephrase for good measure. The interpreter finally catches it and softly and rapidly (as if I can’t hear his assistance) relays it in Korean. Jimmy Dean screws up his face rummaging around for a reply before giving up and handing me “Yeah, yeah”, hoping that affirmative will match. I repeat the question to see if he can work a bit deeper. His eyeballs cartwheel and I move across table to another one.

Yes, it’s the same table, but the next one has not halted his conversation but for a millisecond and so I engage him in the same prolonged routine to shake him loose from his conversation and bust into his consciousness. If I’m lucky, the interpreter hasn’t rejoined the din and gets the Korean to the new guinea pig more quickly. The prior Jimmy may still be smarting from my dismissal and be still listening.  If so, good. He may even be demanding that Mr. Interpreter give him the right reply. The present Jimmy Hardnuts may dial into the general meaning a bit more quickly, and even look at the whiteboard for a clue.

By the time I fire off my 3rd round, he may latch onto a piece of the proper reply, or at least a piece of some reply or even a totally off the wall chunk of English. Well, okay. Or we may even be lucky enough to extend it into the next part of the intended exchange. If not, I let it go, and I shift my sights to the next victim and begin again.

Behind me the din is growing stronger. I decide it ain’t too bad yet and continue with Hardnuts 4 and Hardnuts 5, finishing with Mr. Interpreter, the designated MVP, who by now knows exactly how it goes. They pay attention to his efforts and give him a ribbing for being able to do it. He’s such a nerd. This table has had some Contact With the Native Speaker. Mission accomplished.

On to the next table. Quick assessment. Din is still tolerable, I may finish this table without shouting my questions at my victims. Then I can make a quick round of shushing at each table, patting shoulders and maybe shouting a few times with aid from the Class Leader yelling “Be quiet” full throat in Korean.

A class with four tables, anywhere from 16 to 24 kids, usually coalesces into order by the fourth table, kids following my progress to see how the other tables fare. But a class with all seven full tables (45 girls) will never coalesce because they know I was outclassed before I started. It’s their space, not mine. They are nettled that I don’t know that and just let them talk, undisturbed by Stupid English Teacher who doesn’t have a clue.

There are other ways. The one that I leaned towards more often these last few weeks is to take their unspoken but demonstrated advice. I teach the front two tables and let the back five tables talk undisturbed. It’s a way. I have disrupted it recently by distributing smarties and dumbos across all tables. Now when I go to each table I talk to and through Miss Know-It-All. I call her my MVP. I entreat her to engage the others in the patterns we are working. Depending on which class it is, this is beginning to work. Some classes may take a few weeks. Or it may not work.

I kind of liked the old deal, working with the front tables as if the back tables weren’t there. Letting the Class Leader control the din by hollering “Be quiet!” every four or five minutes. This is their solution and they may know best. Still, I’ll play with the MVP idea for a while longer. It, too, is a way. Probably Quixotic, true, but worth trying.

A blog friend, KylaTeacher, recently wrote about Howler Monkeys. She attended my lecture at the EPIK Orientation several weeks ago [Aug 2009] and then started her teaching at a public middle school. She has a year of experience teaching in a Hagwon here. And her honeymoon with her kids just ran out. So she’s writing about the second loudest animal on the planet, the Howler Monkey. She’s meeting room after room full of Howler Monkeys and wondering what the hell happened. Honeymoon’s over, my friend.

Between the time I last taught English in Korea and this, about 10 years elapsed time, there has apparently been an education revolution here. The net effect for teachers is to have lost all respect, all control, all hope. What the hell happened? Don’t know, though I’ve heard and thought of several causes. And it’s not universal; there are schools, I hear, upper income neighborhoods perhaps, where teaching is still possible.

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One comment on “TESOL frustrations
  1. Gail Thorell Schilling says:

    Gorgeous description of a grueling teaching assignment. “Howler Monkeys” says it all…and here I thought that the Asian students were creme de la creme in terms of respect and motivation. Thanks for the unvarnished truth, Larry. After just 3 posts, I’m a huge fan of your blog –and will not apply for a teaching position over there just yet…

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