Korean Contradictions: Discipline

It’s midway through the week. As I enter our cubicle he’s blasting heartfelt opera and whistling along with the accuracy of a Disney songbird. Standing barely more than 5 feet tall, he pops his head just above the divider with a cheerful “good mawning” and a deep, whimsical laugh. His eyes simultaneously hold the wisdom of an aged wizard and the shiny joy of a youthful sprite. But don’t be fooled, within seconds the stick of order and the booming voice of justice will emerge. Meet Mr. Kim, the disciplinarian.

My desk just happens to be the center stage for all the comings and goings of disciplinary action. On a daily basis I witness my middle school students being punished and scolded in a variety of ways. And each day I am left even more confused. True, the language barrier leaves big gaps in the story, but a slap on the head or whack with the stick needs little to no translation.

To be clear, my school is a somewhat private middle school that has strict dress codes. The students all wear uniforms and the girls cannot have nail polish, make up, or curly hair (what?!), while the boys must maintain a certain bowl cut that is neither too long nor too short. Within the past week alone I witnessed a girl’s face being forcefully scrubbed to rid herself of make up, a boy planking face down on arms and legs in the hall for who knows what, and another girl wiping away tears as her hair was clutched and gestured at.

To my Western teacher trained eyes, where we’re taught to overly pamper and not lay even a finger on students, these scenes are horrifying. But here’s the rub- half of the time the students are laughing. I have witnessed them smiling as they are yelled at, giggling as their hair is balled in a fist, or receiving a slap to the face with a bracing cringe and a knowing laugh. It’s as if they know the error of their ways and accept their punishment. But does that stop them from doing it again? Nine times out of ten, no. Do they actually have respect for the rules and or the teacher? Debatable. They take their beating and go on with their lives, rather than understanding why what they did was wrong. There’s not enough time or space for emotions or feelings talk here, so a slap on the wrist, or head…or face….seems to be the simplest solution.

But as far as middle schools go, I have to say that this one is a fairly well oiled machine. I have yet to witness a fight (although I’m sure it happens), and attendance is high while drama is relatively low. Meanwhile I’m breaking up weekly fights, attempted pencil stabbings, and stopping children from running on tables or jumping out windows at my elementary school…but that’s another story. 

I’ve learned in my time here that Korea (as with many countries in this day and age) is a place full of contradictions. But whacking a laughing, cringing child is a contradiction that continues to confuse me.

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Sometimes I think they treat their dogs better than their students. 

South Korea: The Good, the bad and the ugly

Six months. How am I already at the halfway point? There are far too many experiences to recount, so in an effort to reflect upon and consolidate the past few months, I present Korea: The good, the bad and the ugly.

But let’s mix things up and get the bad out of the way first.

The Bad:

Rude after teaching in the land of smiles (Thailand), the levels of rude in Korea shocked my system. True, I’d gotten used to the n’importe quoi rudeness of France, but it was a laissez faire rude of simply not caring. Korean rude, especially Pohang rude, is in your face and impossible to ignore. Some days it is literally in your face as people stare inches from your cheek with a fiery, unmovable gaze. Other days people yell what one can only assume are Korean expletives and spit in your path. The most common rude though is the push. Oh the push. It doesn’t matter where you are or how much room there is, at some point in your day, you will get bumped or pushed past with such force that it makes you question your own existence. Am I really even here? To be fair it’s mostly the ajummas and ajusshis (old people) who barrel through you. And they’ve seen and been through some shit in their lives here in Korea, so I can’t really blame them. Most days.

Staring-  Over the past 5 years, I’ve been an étranger, a farang and now a wagook. You’d think by now I’d get used to the staring that comes with being a foreigner living abroad; it’s part of the territory. But Korea’s staring game is strong. In other countries people usually look away after a while, especially if you make eye contact. Not in Korea. Quite the contrary, people stare for long, intense sessions, as if bigfoot has just stepped onto the bus. And making eye contact only intensifies the stare, transforming it into a glare that grows with increasingly obvious dislike for your face. Word of advice, don’t even try a staring contest. You will always lose.

Crowds-  With over 50 million people living in only 30% of the country (as 70% of it is covered in mountains), it’s no wonder people can be a bit rude. Korea is densely populated and if you live in a city, or even a semblance of one, you’re bound to be packed onto a bus, subway or even sidewalk at some point. If you’re agoraphobic, stick to the countryside.

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To be fair this was Halloween.

Corporal punishment- The first time I heard the tapping sound I thought something had fallen on a desk. The next time I thought surely my eyes were deceiving my ears as the angry flood of fast Korean was interrupted by the whisking sound of wood on skull. Naively, I initially thought that those wooden sticks were used to gesture and aid in my colleague’s’ classroom instruction. Having my desk nestled next to the disciplinarian’s cubicle taught me otherwise. As the months went on I witnessed students being smacked upside the head, slapped in the face, hit with sticks, and forced to sit on their knees with their hands above their heads in the cold hallways. It was shocking. Even worse, it was the norm. Supposedly this is more common in middle schools and private schools, as I have yet to witness this at my elementary school. And while this form of discipline continues to shock me, I must admit that there were almost times when I felt my unruly elementary hellions could’ve benefited from some swift, hard justice. Almost.

But let’s move to The Good:

Healthcare- As an American, it is easy to impress me with healthcare. Americans are so royally screwed when it comes to dealing with, waiting on, and paying for their health. Ask my sister who recently had surgery, to fix a toe tendon severed by a freak knife falling accident, and paid over $5,000- with insurance! Who can afford that?! Cut to Korea where I had my first gynecology, dentist, and eye doctor’s appointments in years and paid under $150 for all three- and that’s including my first cavity filling! Not only are appointments and medicine ridiculously cheap here, but they are fast, efficient and walk-in friendly. I almost never need to make an appointment and I’m usually in and out in under 20 minutes- including my first cavity filling! Sometimes this speed comes with the downside of wondering how in depth your medical provider actually is, but I’ll take $20 over $5,000 any day! 

Transportation- Even in the “boonies” (as I so affectionately refer to my area), there is still usually one local bus that can connect to the terminal within a decent amount of time. Intercity buses are wonderfully cheap and (depending on the destination) run so frequently that you can show up on a whim and hop on the next available bus. I can do roundtrip to Daegu (about an hour away) for under $13. The KTX train is a more expensive, but smooth, clean and fast alternative for further destinations, like Seoul. And then there are the Taxis. Taxis are a double edged sword as they are so, very, cheap. And plentiful. Which means that I’m constantly tempted to take them and that can quickly add up. In my experience taxi drivers range from hating foreigners, to pulling out every semblance of  conversational English they know. Most remain silent and jam their old school tunes, appreciative if you know some basic Korean such as:

hello 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo)

goodbye 안녕히 계세요 (an-nyeong-hi gye-se-yo)

thank you 고맙습니다 (gomabseubnida)

straight 직진 (jigjin)

and here 여기에 (yeogie)

Quirky Korean weirdness Cat cafe? That’s old news. How about a rabbit, raccoon, or goat cafe? Or better yet a poop or princess cafe? Yep. Korea can offer you all of the above. How about a penis park or a love land dedicated to gargantuan sex statues? If you need to escape try one of the many themed escape rooms or belt your heart out under disco lights at one of the always available norebangs (don’t call it karaoke here). Or try a mall with a fantastical playland on the rooftop, a ball pit adorned with giant silverware, and a toy store dedicated entirely to phone service characters. In almost every downtown, you can hop into an arcade, blow of steam in a batting cage, go on a 4D ride, or try your plushie winning luck with the claw. Want zombie or cat eyes? Or want to keep it simple and make them a more natural shade of purple or grey? Step into any lens shop that will fit you within minutes. Even if you want just regular prescription lenses, they’ll throw in a fun pair of socks- just because. Or try a toy store that blasts hip hop and vaguely resembles a taxidermy shop with it’s giant furry friends on display. The list goes on. There is no shortage of colorful, comical, and whimsically weird when it comes to Korea. Quite frankly, I love it.

Community- As a foreigner, I have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Korean community. But in my mere six months, I have been amazed by all that comes with a society operating with the community in mind. That is why Korean crime rate is so low, and I can experience the freedom that comes with feeling safe in the streets at night, or the security of leaving my bag while I grab my order. That is why education is so strongly emphasized, resulting in a 98% national literacy rate. When the country faced a major financial crisis in 1998, Koreans, young and old, formed lines spilling outside of banks to give up their personal gold trinkets, statues, jewelry, and bars to get the country out of deficit. And it worked. That is why Korea became the first country to go from an aid receiving country to an aid donor- the power of community. I have personally experienced the office snacks celebrating a colleague’s new daughter in law, welcome dinners, work retreats, and random trinkets on my desk. My favorite experience has been the communal dining as people dig into the array of 반찬 (banchan, or side dishes), passing around bowls or bottles of alcohol, and digging into big pots with chopsticks. It’s hard not to smile as people sit crossed legged, elbow to elbow, slurping, sharing, passing plates, and laughing with alcohol infused red cheeks.

And finally, The Ugly:

I’ll be blunt, it’s you. It’s always you. If you’re a foreigner, you can expect insults about appearance quite frequently. Sometimes it comes from a more subtle place of, “Oh you look tired”, amps up to a,“Are you sure you’re not sick??”, and gets really obvious with hand-to-chest-clutching, bug- eyed gasps of “Oh my gosh! You look horrible!” To be fair I was really sick that day. My friends have gotten their own charmers such as, “Have you been eating well?”, “You have hollow eyes.” And my personal favorite, “You can take a sick day” (because she wasn’t wearing mascara).  

Let’s face it, if you’re a foreigner, you ugly.

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I need a face filter at all times.

So there you have it, The good, the bad and the ugly. I obviously need to write much more frequently as I haven’t even touched upon a day in the life of teaching, being a woman in a hierarchical society, the culture of alcohol, the pros and cons of EPIK, or my induction into K-pop, but those are future posts to come.

The Camp Diaries: Weeks 2-3

Bonjour from camp land!

Where to begin? Unfortunately I fell a bit short on the blog updating front as I got pretty sick (still have yet to regain my voice to its full potential), and as a result have far too many stories to tell from the past two weeks. BUT I shall use my notes in an effort to convey the gist of camp craziness.

End of Week 1- The Weekend Adventure:

Saturday marked the first venturing beyond the walls of the chateau with fellow counselor, Olive. It felt strange to leave the premises and see a space outside of a camp-covered chateau. At first sight only Normandy countryside-a.k.a. flat farmland as far as the eye could see- surrounded us. But 30 minutes later Olive and I arrived in a tiny town filled with old people gambling, smoking and sipping on coffees at a miniscule cafe, and bored teenagers hanging out in front of the small highschool. We walked back and forth searching for a semblance of food and sticking out like bright, awkward tourists. Finally the boulangerie opened and we feasted on bread, cheese, and cider in the shade of a chapel as Frenchies walked past with smiles or stares plastered to their faces. We didn’t care. We were content with our picinic….and tipsy off cider.

Week 2- Monday Madness:

Change is the theme of this week. Two new counselors arrived last night full of energy and excitmement.

The day started with a relatively calm atmosphere- we were efficient and even finished the set up with extra time on our hands. We had a week under our belts and figured we had it in the bag. Bring on the kids! …That is until a storm of 50 tiny kids poured off the bus. Not teenagers, not adolescents- kids. At first I thought the perspective was making them tinier than expected. But it was actually their age. Not 10 and 11 year olds but tiny, hyper, first-time-away-from-home 8 year olds.

The rest of the day was chaos. The teachers came over-prepared and messed with the money system (which I was conveniently in charge of) and the kids were confused, hyper, scared, shy, and unable to comprehend the situation (aka English). Olive and I’s window was apparently not fully shut and our room flooded with the afternoon rain that decided to contribute to the chaos. Our evening campfire was canceled and dividing up ESL classes was quite the confusing effort. This week is already so different.

Bank of America time

Bank of America time

Tuesday and Wednesday It’s a love/hate game I’m playing: 

We divided the ESL classes and I got the lower level hyperactive kids, as well as the one student with autism who is not taking kindly to our new camp names. So now he has two names- French+ American Camp name. So far, so good.

Well, I faced my fear of teaching elementary frenchies. I first faced my fear of highschool students in Montbeliard, and now the part of me perpetually terrified of teaching such small non-native speakers is calm. All things considered, the class went really well today and they kids are pretty damn cute with their tiny French voices. I miss working with little kids. It’s nice to be reminded of the work I love.

Wed…
The days are getting longer. And more chaotic. Last night a kid peed himself and another one cried for home. Today several cried from dodgeball. And yelled. So. Much. Yelling. What a horrible game. I only have one more full day, but it seems like an eternity. My throat is sore from all the yelling over excited voices. All. The. Time.

I find it funny that instead of yelling “you can’t do that” to one another, the kids say, “tu n’as pas le droite” (aka ‘you don’t have the right!’). I’m glad I understand French.

All in all I’ve enjoyed this week- which is a testament to how much I love working with elementary kids. True they’re hyperactive little shits for a large portion of the time, but they’re also adorable little beings with giant smiles, and a genuine curiosity for learning about this world they’re in.

The day is done and all I want is silence. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Even laughing feels like effort. My throat hurts. My ears are buzzing. I fall asleep with tiny French voices in my head.

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ESL madness

Thursday- New Theme Day- Hit Music:

What am I supposed to do with this theme? These are kids not teenagers! We’ve been reviewing colors, shapes, and the alphabet. Oy vey this week is long.

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I’ve been working general store for the week- the place where we sell kid crack (candy and soda) and souvenirs for mom and dad. First thought- this is tedious and horrible and I really don’t see the point. But two days later and I see the benefit. It’s a good experience for the kids to be in charge of money, and have a real life situation of making transactions in another language. Well done AMVIL.

I feel like a goblin counting gold. I was locked away in General Store for over an hour on a beautiful day counting inventory and doing far too much math. I regret working General Store this week. Who knew little kids would buy so much more than teenagers?

Dancing with kids is golden. I love their energy and excitement (some of the times), but most of all their smiles. Compared to the teenagers last week, it was refreshing to open the doors and have the kids not awkwardly stand in corners, but descend on the dance floor in a sea of spastic and enthusiastic movement. One little elf (no really, that was her camp name), all round and ‘typically nerdy looking’, broke out of her shell and boldly asked the boys to dance. At the end of the night she gave me an impish smile as she held up her count of four fingers (four boys).

Friday-

We said goodbye to one of our new counselors today and it felt oddly sad. He was only here for a week, but you bond quickly in the trenches.

The sentiment was different for the departure of the kids. Some counselors literally did cartwheels as the bus full of kids pulled away.

Two more weeks.

End of Week 2- Weekend Adventure:

I hate the world. I’m sick. At least it took effect when the kids left. But I wish I could just not be sick at all! Going into town for some meds.

We stopped at bakery where Olive got a macaroon. It was quite the process as the baker walked around the counter and used little tongs to carefully pull the bright yellow pastry out of the fridge and place it on silver platter. Then she instructed us in French that we needed to wait 10 min for it too cool down in order for the flavor to be ‘top’. I love France.

At least sick meds, sun, swans, and tiny dogs that think they’re the swan commander, help with sickness.

Week 3- “Santa brought condoms to camp”

I had to work customs this week (confiscating snacks and electronics) and I was not a fan. Neither were the kids. They were pretty good sports, but it’s not the ideal first impression I’d like to make on kids.

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Also an 11-year-old camper, Santa Claus, brought condoms to camp. According to the teachers they’re probably his dad’s, but still…Santa brought condoms to camp.

The difference in their level is like night and day. This age is so interesting as they are on the precipice of teenagedom- but not too cool yet. 

As we sat around the campfire singing songs and roasting marshmallows, I realized how funny it is to teach almost teenagers how to roast marshmallows. Sharing my childhood past time of s’mores, something so normalized for me, and so bizarre to them was amusing as they quizzically looked at eachother and whispered, “c’est trop bon!” 

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Tuesday-Thursday: Activities

This is my first week working on Activities instead of ESL. It’s a lot of physical work but maybe beats lesson planning at 11 at night.

First time in two weeks getting a break- 40 glorious minutes and all I could do was try to sleep. My sickness wants me to sleep, but my brain is too wired from my internal camp clock. Eff. 

survival essentials

survival essentials

Being on activities means teaching a bunch of frenchies how to play baseball. Objectively this sport is pretty weird. Fortunately these kids were really excited about learning and got pretty invested in the game. Only one student cried- great success! 

Two camp essentials- hot water and health. When you don’t have either things get dicey. I’m getting real tired of Normandy. 

Spectacle
This is the worst thing ever. Being sick and in charge of the same kids all day is brutal. How can I get them to focus, write a script, memorize lines and block out a scene if I don’t have a voice? I want this day to end. 

Ok so spectacle felt brutal, but was ultimately worth it to see the smiles at the end of the night. My kids were so proud of their performances and said goodnight with giant, beaming, smiles. I’m such a sucker. 

It also didn’t hurt to have amusing counselor interludes. Laughing at your coworkers as they try to do tricks as an awkward caterpillar, and smashing shaving cream into your coworker’s faces as you imitate their arms and laugh cry into their backs is really quite wonderful. Laughter is indeed the best medicine. 

Friday-Saturday: “Day Release”

The kids left crying (some even sobbing). I guess that means we’ve done our job well. It’s always a mixed feeling saying goodbye. We want them to go, so we can have some quiet and enjoy our one day off, but it’s strange to think that we’ll never see them again.


But tonight we’re actually going to a real city! The counselors are trekking to Rouen for a night on the town. I’m excited to speak French again. Being surrounded by French every day, but not being allowed to speak it has been a bit torturous. I never thought I’d say this, but my mouth misses French.

Rouen is a really cool city. It was so strange to see night life, and restaurants, and so many people. The counselors didn’t know what to do with themselves. So they got drunk. 

As my fellow coworker Buzz said of the night, “it’s like day release from prison”. 

I think that about sums it up.

One more week.

The Camp Diaries: Week 1

Catnip here- yes we get camp names, and yes, long story short, my name is Catnip.

Whew. What a week it’s been (or actually more like a week in a half- time is completely warped here). I am bruised, muddy, sore, smelly, sleep deprived, on the verge of sickness, and so very happy. Yes, happy. Camp life is intense but so very rewarding.

Where do I begin? I tried to take notes as every day was adventure packed, and filled with events, characters, and experiences perfect for humourous short stories. And every day felt like five days rolled into one. But seeing as how today is my one day off, and my first day of nothing but blue skies in Normandy, I will try to keep this short and sweet:

Days 1-3: The Beginning/Set Up

Well I got placed in Normandy. The furthest site from Grenoble and one of the colder and more rainy areas of France. My room is a camp room- sparse, cold, (freezing at night), with nothing but beds and broken dressers (but I have it all to myself for the week!). The showers come in 20 second bursts, but at least the pressure is decent and the water is warm.

But all in all, I can’t complain. I’m placed at an old Chateau in FRANCE- the stuff of fairytales…or murder mysteries. There are so many birds singing and chatting in the morning, and fat rabbits running around at night. And a cherry blossom tree is starting to bloom right outside of my room. I think I can stay here a while.

 

What do you get when you put 2 Americans, 1 Canadian, 1 Irishman, and a Brit together? Don’t know, but we’re gonna find out! The counselors are finally all together and setting up the site. It’s a lot of work for 5 people (I set up an entire computer lab!), but I think we’re ready for the kids.

1st day with Kids: Immigration

This was only a half day, but man was it busy. I worked on passport duty (checking them in and helping them select wacky names), and then assisted with customs. It was pretty intense to search for and confiscate teenager’s phones and snacks. Most of them were good sports. It doesn’t hurt that their level is very advanced!

We divided into families and had one of the most polite dinners I’d experienced in some time. Not only did they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but ‘may I please have’ or ‘may I serve you’. Some even got into it and started serving food like fancy waiters. I like these kids already. Continue reading

Enfin, Je suis employé!

I must share my happiness today because the long wait is OFFICIALLY over!! I have a job! True, it’s only a temporary one as it’s a camp, but it’s not only a source of income, but a job that I am excited about!!

I got hired to work as a counselor at American Village, a program that organizes English immersion language camps throughout France. This is a great program for Americans who want to get paid to be in France. It is a rare thing to find, and I couldn’t be happier I got it! I’ll be teaching English and art, playing and creating games, frolicking in the sun (hopefully), and who knows what else!

Today marked the start of a new chapter as the long drought of unemployment finished, and I received a tiny book of hope in the mail, aka my paperwork. At first I felt daunted by the plethora of paper (I mean come on camp- this is temporary employment after all), but as I continued to read, my stomach filled with butterflies of excitement and happiness. This camp means business. Business I’m thrilled to be a part of.

I particularly relished the program’s goals, as they discussed providing a culture of awareness and global understanding/respect. Initially I was worried when I signed up for American Village Camps, but smiled with relief to know that not only are we on the same page, but my multicultural training can not only be utilized here, but could even thrive!

It’s nice to be reminded that sometimes having patience can pan out.

Needless to say, I’m feeling good (cue Bublé) -today and about the future.

Countdown to camp tales: One month.

Happy Thursday all!!

C’est Terminé

I suck at goodbyes. I prolong them. I avoid them. I pretty much live in denial until the last possible moment where I am forced to face them. I have friends who choose to deal with each moment as if it’s our last, getting all sappy and sentimental about how this is our last brunch together, our last baguette, our last tooth-brushing session…This in turn makes me  awkwardly clam up as they blatantly penetrate the denial walls I have so craftily built. The result usually consists of me blurting something like, “No! We still have time!!” and shaming them for their raw sentiment. Like I said, I suck at goodbyes.

But is there ever a good way to do it? Are there people who actually like goodbyes? Does it get easier the more you have to do it?

At this point I’ve said my fair share of goodbyes- family, community and childhood friends for college, my Grecian union of lovely ladies during my study abroad, my college community, my Boston kin, students -so many students- and now my international clan. And for me it never gets easier. I leave a little piece of my heart in each place. And even if giving a minuscule sliver of your heart makes it that much more painful when you go, I think it’s worth it. But it doesn’t mean goodbyes are easy. 

It’s especially hard as a teacher. You’re in a constant state of goodbyes. And with foreign students there really is a finality to the farewell. As I prepared for my final classes this morning I was surprised to feel slightly anxious. Would they care? Would I be memorable? They’ll have other English assistants next year. I’m just one of many, but they will forever be imprinted in my memory.

It was helpful to remember the questions they asked what feels like forever ago and remember how we’d grown as a group. How I’d gained (and earned!) their respect, their trust and their laughter. 

Looking at things in retrospect is surreal. The places and people that once seemed intimidating, and so foreign (in my case literally), have become a part of you and will forever make up an aspect of your identity.

I was relieved to finish my day with a smile on my face and reinforcement on my walls of denial (my students did a damn good job of breaking them down). We laughed, we drew, we learned and we said farewells. At the end of the day I was left speechless by one of my favorite classes who presented me with a beautiful card.

Some of my favorite “words”:

“I will miss you very, I like you so much”.

“I will miss your lessons…they were interesting, captivating, various and so fun! I hope you’ll keep a good memory of your stay and job here. Good continuation.”

“Anna, I’m really happy about the moments we spent together! I was really enjoying your knowledge. If you liked your journey, you can always come back!”

“Thanks for your amazing lessons!”

“Dear Anna, your lesson was very nice and I enjoyed it. I’ll miss you alot…Your Florian. P.S. I love you”.

“Thank you for everythinks. 🙂 You’ll miss us.”

Don’t know if that’s what she meant to say, but it’s true. I will miss them. And I’m going to miss teaching.

So Montbeliard, it’s time I bid you adieu. As much as we’ve had our ups and downs, and as much as I have trash-talked you when we weren’t together, Montbeliard you were my home. And today a little piece of my heart will remain with you.

Perks of being a Teaching Assistant

Being appreciated.

…REALLY appreciated…

Wined and dined by my teachers tonight for a farewell dinner and then received this!

But seriously- WTF?!

But seriously- WTF?!

Never in my life have I received a necklace in a box! -or such schmancy bling. Best date ever! I was pretty much left blushing and speechless. Jewelry doesn’t make me do that! I’m pretty sure it was the surprise of their overwhelming kindness. Next set of co-workers are going to have some big shoes to fill…

But seriously. After 7 months of hot and cold co-worker relations (though in their defense I recently discovered that past assistants were horrible and thus they were keeping their distance)- it’s nice to know that my hard work was noticed and appreciated!

So many mixed feelings are whirling throughout my mind as the end of this program draws near and yet another chapter of my life comes to a close. But exciting prospects are on the horizon and today I’m really feeling the love and support! I truly am lucky.

A Day in the Life of a Teaching Assistant

After today’s frustrating (but some how still semi-successful) lesson, I thought I should provide a small window into the life of a teaching assistant.

Every day, every class and every teacher brings a new experience- especially when you work with 12 different teachers at 2 different schools with 12 varying class by class numbers and schedules. While some days it’s quite refreshing to have variety, other days it’s down right frustrating to have inconsistency. Take last week, when I discovered that I would be grading a student (which we’re actually not allowed to do) for his Mock Bac (or as the French call it, the Bac Blanc) 15 minutes before actually doing so. No prior explanation from the teacher, no down low of the French grading system, just instructions in my mailbox.

My 15 minute break consisted of google translating Degrés 1-4 and typing my own English rubric of what each category actually meant. All things considered, the Mock Bac went pretty well- it was the aftermath where I suffered. I took the rubric back to my desk, equipped with my notes and google translate and attempted to number each category. I don’t even like grading in the U.S. (and luckily as an elementary art teacher I don’t really have to- if you try, you pass)! But to tackle a foreign system and write an evaluation in a foreign language was quite the daunting task to say the least. I finally broke down and sought text advice from a native (Antoine). Luckily he responded in time. “33/40 is very good. Basically: under 10 is miserable, between 10 and 20 is under average, 20-30 is average to good, 30-40 is good to excellent!” I nervously turned in the final results, hoping that I didn’t tamper with some student’s esteem. 

Today was not much different. After pestering the teacher all week about his expectations, I was surprised to find nothing in my mail box prior to class. Each teacher varies with their agenda- some let me plan my own lessons, others provide me with specific frameworks, and then there are those that have it all planned out. This particular teacher usually wants me to follow his specific (and boring) curriculum with no personal touches of my own. I’m happy to comply- when there is a lesson in the mail box! After receiving nothing, I fell back on my go to lesson of speed dating. I waited 15 minutes for Group #1 to show- nothing. So after deciding that maybe I’d misunderstood something, I headed for the exit only to run into three of my students. Three out of nine. The confusion went a little something like this:

“Oh. Hi. Are you guys with me today?”

“Bah…oui!”

-Confused Stares-

“Well where are the others?”

“Avec Monsieur.”

“Really? Are they coming?”

“Non.”

“Did he give you anything to work on?”

“Non.”

“Do you have anything you want to work on with me?”

-Confused whispering-

“Bahhh…maybeee?”

-Sigh-

“Ok. Let’s go. We’ll figure something out.”

I was furious. That they were so late. That I was so out of the loop. That the class had completely changed. That I had nothing prepared as speeding dating with three was a no go, but ultimately that this was a class I was responsible for without having a say in what happens. My anger was getting me nowhere, so I decided to improvise and use the knowledge I had of preparing for the Bac. We covered some helpful reviews of summarizing texts and articulating opinions. Fortunately I came prepared and rewarded them at the end with worksheets of dating vocabulary. At least they left laughing.

These experiences reminded me of what it takes to be a teacher- especially when you’re a teaching assistant.

  • Be patient
  • Be flexible
  • Be ready to improvise and think quickly on your feet
  • And come equipped with a Plan B because you never know when you’ll be out of the loop
  • But also- don’t forget to find the humor- if you’re miserable, they’re miserable…which in turn makes you even more miserable. If you can leave a frustrating situation laughing, your off to a good start.

Happy Valentines Day!

ImageWow. Time really is flying! Again, it’s been WAY too long since my last post and here we are already- Mardi Gras has passed, it’s Valentines day, and Saturday marks the 2nd to last holiday. After that I have 6 weeks left of teaching!

That being said, Happy Valentines a tous! Unlike many I know, I’ve always loved this holiday. Not because of the commercialism and candy and consumerist driven love (ok. candy has always been a major plus to any holiday), but because it’s an excuse to be creative and let people you care about know that you do. The holiday was never about having that “special someone”, but rather a reminder of all the special people in my life. I blame my parents for my valentines enthusiasm- they would kidnap us from school and take us to a secret location or event (ex: the circus). Or the neighborhood valentines decorating parties my mom would host, or the late nights hand crafting class cards could also be to blame. But honestly, I’ve always enjoyed creative crafts and been a bit of a hopeless romantic, so call me corny, but Valentines is an excellent outlet.

I’ve had quite an interesting and entertaining time with my students surrounding Valentines. Over the past 2 weeks, I used the holiday to talk about love and dating- topics that of course grabbed highschooler’s attention. I held a speed dating session in one class which proved to be not only hilarious, but wonderfully effective in getting them to speak. They were having real conversations!! (Even if they were pretending to be characters from Titanic…). I made other students laugh with cheesy pick-up lines and cliche break-up excuses, and got them to learn new vocabulary with Valentines Bingo. I love it when I’m not the only one leaving with a smile on my face.

Today was particularly entertaining as it is actually Valentines day. I only got in a few words on how I usually celebrate it, when one student interrupted to see if I had a boyfriend and if said boyfriend had gotten me a present. He then offered to be my valentine for the day and to go into town and buy me a present. I laughed, told him that wasn’t necessary and then moved on to the personal ad portion of the lesson where they have to use adjectives to describe their looks, personality, interests and what they look for in a guy/or girl. However, I should have known better as the very same student described what he’s interested in- “a girl who az ze red hairs, ze average height, iz nice, beautiful, iz uh assistant”. Yeah. I pretty much walked right into that one.

In other news- we had a wonderful Valentines fete this past weekend, complete with a pink pinata, over the top cake and lots of candy. Sadly, we were apparently too loud and can no longer have soirees there. Dommage! Since when did breaking pinatas at 1:30 in the morning become problematic? :{ At least it was a good way to go out…

The Pinata

The Pinata

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Happy Valentines!

When good classes go…Great!

It’s funny to look back and think about my teachers. I can’t imagine any of them getting nervous before a class, but I do. Just about every time I teach a new lesson, I get nervous. Because I care. Will they participate? What will they have to say about this? Will they grasp the concept, understand what I’m teaching, walk away having learned something? Some days I wish I didn’t care- I think that teaching these little shits would be much easier if I didn’t care. But then I remember that I do (and I don’t know if it’s possible for me to stop) and when I look back at my favorite teachers, they did too. And I loved them not because their lessons were easy or fun or because they themselves were super cool- it was because they cared (and yes that usually resulted in their classes being fun and engaging and them being pretty cool, but that was a byproduct of their passion).

Post New Years Resolutions, my teachers have had a bizarre bevy of lesson requests. Currently I am teaching lessons ranging from the psychology of vampires, to murder mysteries, to environmental issues, to how the US political system works and the complexity of US gun culture. Sometimes it’s frustrating having a predetermined plan chosen for me, while other times I welcome the simplified springboard.

The days where the students participate, the time flies from engagement, and I feel as though my being here actually matters, are the days when I feel elated to have this profession. True, I am only a part-time assistant in a foreign country (and many days I am disrespectfully reminded of that fact), but to have the students get as involved in a lesson as I am, for them to yell I love you in the hallway (in a genuine and not hitting on me kind of way), for them to express actual sadness at the knowledge that I will only be here a for a few more months, and for them to yell at incoming classes that they are not ready to stop my lessons- those moments are priceless.

And I am grateful for these moments. For the time that the confused student who constantly blurts “what do you speak??” actually learned ‘I don’t understand’, or the time I teared up (just a little) from a student’s perfect synthesis of what I had just taught on gay marriage, or that I could trust my students enough to blindfold me and prove their knowledge of verbal directions as they led me through a classroom maze, or for the knowledge that came with mock mystery investigations- that it’s possible to play and teach at the same time. I appreciate even the bizarre little moments, when one student oh so earnestly asked, ““uh madame…can you ear zat I ave uh accente?”, or when a peculiar student insistently declared that she “was batman”. These good and…weird moments make those days when I wonder “why do teachers do this to themselves!?” fade away.

Fortunately today was one of those days and I’m so happy it was. As I start to see the finish line of the TAPIF program and waiver back and forth between “dear god let’s speed up to the end already!” and “but I’m not ready to go!!”, it’s nice to have days like today where I’m happy to be here now. Here’s hoping these moments continue to stay strongly in the forefront of my memory.

To expel or not to expel…

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From Friday…

Out of all my classes, the only class that I see every week (it never changes) happens to be my last class on a Friday and consequently- my hardest. When my lesson finished last week, I left foul and disappointed. Why was it so damn hard for them to listen? Why was there so much disrespect? I worked hard to make my lessons fun and engaging. Shouldn’t that be enough? But as most people who studied education, or have any experience working with children, will tell you, the answer is no. An engaging lesson is never quite enough.

Feeling lost and seeing as how I am not the actual teacher (but rather a mere assistant), I e-mailed my professor for help. His response- “Kick them out. Too bad. They had the chance. Give me their names and I will kick them out.”

Maybe it’s the sappy teacher in me that sees the potential in all my students, but I just couldn’t bring myself to hand over the names. True, as a whole, the class can be unfocused, rambunctious and as of late, disrespectful, but when it comes to each student, they’ve all had their shining moments. I wasn’t ready to just expel a big bunch of them and be done with it. Maybe if I didn’t have a passion for teaching, my life could be a little easier.  I could say fuck em. If those little shits can’t be respectful, then they can leave. But I’m not just an assistant. I like to teach and *nerd alert* I leave elated when I know that they’ve learned something. So even though I wasn’t ready to expel them, the question became- What should I do now?

Many conversations and even a little research later, I devised a solid plan. I would come in firm but somehow still leave as the “good guy”.

My plan of attack was this.

1. Come in early. Open the door by myself. I have had the hardest time with my keys and have never actually been able to open room 129 on my own. One student has somehow mastered this skill. How can I have respect, if I can’t even open the damn door?

2. Change their seats. I conveniently had slips of paper with their names on them and arranged them around the room so that 1. they were no longer by their friends and 2. were closer to me.

When they entered the room and sighed in disappointment, I asked, “Do you know why I did this?” to which one student replied, “Because you hate us?” Oh how wrong she was. If only they knew…

3. Have clear classroom expectations. This was linked to the be early part of the plan. I wrote my expectations on the board.

1. Come in, sit down and wait for your name to be called

2. Respect- do not talk while I am talking and do not talk while your peers are talking

3. If you have questions or problems, raise your hands. I am here to help

4. Listen to your classmates and participate. TRY

5. 3 strikes and you’re out.

The last one particularly amuses me as it is a policy I use with my elementary kids. Normally I wouldn’t think such a thing would be necessary with high schoolers, but with this class it seemed to resonate. Especially after I told them their professor wanted to kick them out.

4. Be Reasonable. Give them some input- Seeing as how the professor presented this class to me as “make it fun for them. make it fun for you” I didn’t want to leave as the crazy strict American Assistant. So I wrote some questions on the board for them:

1. What makes a classroom work?

2. What do you expect from your teachers?

3. What do you want from this class?

Their answers impressed and amused me:

“Funny works”

“The teacher speak with a student and joke with us”

“I would like to learn English in a good ambiance”

“A teacher who is interesting and learning us”

“A good ambiance, a good and nice teacher, students who participate”

“A class works because we have an exam to pass at the end of the year and for our personal culture. This exam and the marks you have can give you a school and also a work”

“Pupils have to be nice and respect the teacher. A classroom works when there is an exchange between pupils and teacher”.

It’s so wonderful when they get it. ‘Good ambiance’ was a common theme in their responses and by the end of the lesson, I’m happy to say that good ambiance was achieved. The class ran smoothly and we even had time (and focus) to try the adjective game I’d invented. I regained respect. I established my expectations and we still managed to have fun at the end. Teacher 101: It’s always good to shake things up and amazing to see what happens when you stick to your guns.

But we’ll see what next week brings….

Overachiever

I overwork things. Always have and I’m afraid always will. My parents often laugh as they tell stories of how in middle school I’d be up until 1 or 2 in the morning, panicked and frazzled as I worked on a project or paper that just had to be perfected. My dad would often tell me that it didn’t need to be perfect, “just good enough”, as he fixed the computer malfunctions that were sparking my meltdowns, while my mom would often suffer through the nights with me, lending editing skills or conceptual advice. I used to think that it was just me, but as I’ve gotten older, I blame both of my parents. Each of their own neurotic and anal tendencies (and maybe even genetics) have combined into a full fledged type A mutant. I found a picture of me not too long ago that pretty much sums it up- a picture of four year old little Anna bearing a big, proud smile as she stands surrounded by shoes organized in concentric semi-circles. My parents tell me that I had been quiet for so long that they decided to check on me, only to discover that I had not in fact died, but instead had anally organized the shoe closet. I’m afraid there’s no hope.

I am reminded of all this as I dive into the teaching process. Or assistant process. Except that it’s really more like teaching. Here begins the start of my confliction. I’m technically a teaching assistant, here to add extra help, support, and native information. However there are 12 different teachers with 12 differing ideas of what that means.

The overall idea is that I get them to speak. That’s great in theory, but I’m learning that in practice it’s a whole different ball game. So even though, yes, technically I work 12 hours, I find myself turning into that overachiever Anna-spending hours looking up interesting videos and games to engage them, reading articles on the most effective ways to teach ESL, meticulously crafting Plan B strategies, all the while feeling overwhelmed with where exactly to start. The French professors on the other hand, simply seem to have the oh so typical laissez faire mentality of do the bare minimum and ‘just get them to speak’. But when you have 14 students at varying levels, too shy to talk for an entire hour, you know it’s time to have some structure. I’m at a cross roads. I want students to be engaged and interested, but not at the cost of my own sanity. How can I take laissez-faire and overachiever and meet somewhere in the middle? It’s a learning process I guess. For now I’m thankful that I can fall back on the excitement and intrigue of being the ‘new assistant’, ‘the American’, ‘the Texas girl’. But we’ll see what happens when the novelty of that wears off…

Was I this bad?
                                              ….debateable

“What do you want??”

Today marks the end of my observation period- or at least according to technicalities. For the past two weeks I’ve been thinking about how to summarize the French school system, the teachers, the classrooms, what highschool in France is like, but ultimately I cannot actually make sweeping statements about such things. All I can do is note what I’ve observed.

The jury’s still weighing the pros and cons of these particular high schools, but so far I’ve noted a few key things. High schools here, at least the two I’ve witnessed, are treated almost like college in America. The rooms are bare and decoration is sparse because no room is for one teacher. Instead the rooms are rotated on a daily basis, leaving no teacher ownership of any particular space. On the one hand I got tired of teachers being so possessive of what could be utilized as a community space in the states, but on the other hand, there is something to creating a unique environment designated for your own particular class.

Teachers are more like college professors here. They take their breaks seriously- this is time for coffee and chatting. They will vent about their classes and then move on to other topics. They do not cram in grading or last minute lesson planning. They leave right when it’s time to leave, not 10 minutes prior to the start of class for prep, so that by the time they come to their room, the students are waiting outside. Once invited in to the room, students must stand until they are told to sit, at which point they talk and gossip while the teacher scans the room for a quick attendance check. The lessons vary from teacher to teacher but are generally more laid back than the lessons I received in high school. However, they’re more multicultural than the ones I received, and I felt like I had a fairly multicultural education… It’s fascinating to watch a language course delve into green energy, stereotypes and bias, the history of the Aboriginal culture and the oppression in Australia, the caste system in India, and the fractioning of the English language into a family of dialects like Spanglish and Singlish (in Singapore) and Taglish (in the Philippines). I’m excited to come up with my own lessons.

Of course there are many more observations I have noted, but for now I will share a few of the common questions that students love to ask.

Common Questions I’ve Received:

1. What’s your name/Where do you come from? I usually get gasps of excitement and hand gestures that resemble pistols in the air, or what I can only assume are gestures that only cowboys would do, when I say that I’m from Texas. This is then followed by heightened excitement when I tell them I was born in Los Angeles, but only leads to disappointment when I say that I’ve never actually been there aside from the 9 months or so of my infancy, and ultimately leads to confusion when I say that I’ve been living in Massachusetts for the past 6 years. I think I should just stick to Texas. But even then, one student asked me “Do they speak English in Texas?”, at which point I knew it was time to get out a map.

2. Why did you come here (To France)? No why did you come here (To Montbeliard)?? There is usually a common interest as to why I came to France but an even greater interest in why the hell I came to Montbeliard. It’s a bit of a let down to tell them that I didn’t in fact choose it, but was instead placed here (and I don’t dare tell them that it was definitely not my first pick). I started off with some BS answers but then realized there was actually some truth to the fact that I never previously visited the Franche-Comte region, that I am intrigued about the proximity to Germany and Switzerland and the accent that ensues, and that I’ve been dying to live in a small French town ever since I biked around on my own along the tiny roads of St. Cast 12 years ago. Of course all of this is said with much more simplicity.

3. What’s your favorite French food? This is always a tricky one to answer because I have to first break the news that, “Sorry guys. I’m vegetarian”, which usually creates a room full of “ohhhhsss” as if to say “c’nest pas possible!”, “how can this be?!”. But I usually redeem myself when I say cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. Especially because this region is known for their Comte. But it takes a while for them to grasp the concept. “So chicken?” “No chicken.” “Fish?” “No. No fish”. “Nothing? No beef? No sausage? No bacon? No sausage???” “No. No meat. Nothing that had eyes. But I do eat eggs.” “Ok…” The fact that I consume dairy gives me some credit. I can’t imagine if I was vegan.

4. Do you have a boyfriend? This one is always asked by the boys and always starts off somewhere in the back as a quiet question. Then the surrounding group starts laughing and he gets up the courage to ask it so that I and the whole class can hear. The first time, I moved on to another question because I wasn’t really sure about the appropriateness or what the policy was like, but then I wised up to the laid back frenchness and tried to answer with a simple “Yes.” This however, usually leads to more questions, disappointment (feigned by most I assume) and giggles at which point I moved on to other questions. Lycee Viette is particularly interesting when it comes to this topic as it is a vocational school comprised almost entirely of boys who apparently don’t see many younger women on a daily basis. I’m hoping the ‘I love yous’ and ‘beautiful’s were just a way of practicing the limited vocabulary they know, but needless to say, this is definitely new territory. When I told them I was 24, I heard one whisper in the back (in french) “Awww. She’s too old for us”, at which point I chuckled and another student noted “Elle comprend!” Damn right I understand. I just hope I can keep on understanding…

5. Are American highschools like the movies? This one amuses me as students seem to have a romantic notion of American high schools. One student even asked, “Were you a cheerleader?” It was hard for me not to respond, “Ha! Cheerleader? If only you knew…” but instead I managed a simple, “No.” I tried to explain that every high school is different, that not all high schools are obsessed with football and that there are actually quite a few similarities to the ones I’ve seen so far in France. They seemed disappointed until one asked, “Do they have lockers?”. “Well yes. Most of them I think. Mine did at least.” She gave me a large smile and proceeded to excitedly talk with her friends. At least I could give them lockers…

6. And finally my personal favorite, What do you want? Ok. So this one wasn’t a common question, but rather one from a particular student who seemed to only know how to ask, “What do you want?” At first I laughed and tried to guess “what am I doing here?” “what do I want to do in France?” , but he kept repeating “What do you want?”. And while I think ultimately, he wanted to know something else, I felt it was a valid question. Especially right now in my life. And while I don’t have the time to delve into the quarter life crisis questions that ultimately translate to “What do I want”, it was interesting to be asked by someone other than myself. I quickly came up with an answer about wanting to learn french, wanting to teach in another country, wanting to see how English is taught, wanting to travel and to learn. Ultimately I guess those things speak to some deeper desires of wanting to see, to explore, to challenge, to questions, to stop, to think, to play, to create, to grow and hopefully to learn- about France, people, different places and hopefully myself.

But enough metacognitive ranting. It’s Friday, most of my paperwork is done and a group of assistants and I are going to Besancon tomorrow for some good ol’ fashion exploring and boite de nuit (night box= night club) dancing. So right now, it’s pretty safe to say that what I want is to start the weekend!