My Last Two Jobs

My last job before this one in Shanghai was bartender. I worked in a very busy London bar, which this time last year started to approach critical mass as the days got darker and colder, obviously requiring more beer. It was great work, and I miss it (except for the night bus commute).

Approaching six months in China, I’m thinking more about the similar skills one needs to be a bartender and a teacher. To be either is relatively easy, but to be a truly great one is very hard.

First, you have to be prepared to sweat. You will burn more calories behind a bar (and especially in the cellar) than in any office job. Teaching is physical work, too. Some teachers sit down a lot during class. Lame! I bounce around, spin in place, pretend to sleep on the floor, put chairs on my head…I dance, sing, and act all at once. A teaching triple threat.

Another similarity is here: bartenders and teachers both have to put on a certain stage presence. There is a definite demarcation between ‘backstage’ and front of house in both positions. Kitchen and teacher’s room? Swears, copious caffeinated beverages, and quick changes of clothing.

The skill of setting boundaries, and following through on them with consequences, is key to teaching. It’s key to bartending.

‘What can I get you, ma’am?’

‘Ggginnn. And tonic. Slim tonic.’

‘Single or double?’

‘Double or nothing!!’

Maybe serve, anticipating the need to cut her off next time before she climbs onto a table. In the classroom, anticipation of bad behaviour goes a long way. I have to know what four year olds’ tells are for naughtiness, just as I had to know the common signs of over-drunkeness in the bar. Incidentally, in both cases people think they can get away with a lot more than they can. Everyone sees you picking your nose. Everyone. In the classroom or the bar. And yes, this happens every single day in both. People forget that the bartender and teacher has eyes!

Bizarrely, art skills are key to both jobs. Good handwriting is key for signs and menus. The ability to write on a board is up there. Witty ways to get attention are every day, every hour skills in bars and classrooms. Less known skills, like how to wipe a toilet seat covered in pee without touching anything germy (four year olds and drunks both miss the mark consistently!), come up and get honed through daily practice.

Perhaps the closest resemblance? Sidework. For every hour you put on the ‘show,’ you’ll spend another hour folding napkins, organising flash cards, polishing silverware, marking tests, or kicking the dishwasher/printer/laminator while swearing under your breath. The sidework is the real work, and you’ll stuff your face during breaks while trying to get it all done as a teacher or a bartender.

At at the end of the shift, you’ll be craving a cold one and covered in ink, chalk, germs, food, and general mess. A full-blown, Ebola-level hand scrub will be necessary. Two repetitions of Happy Birthday To You, with soap and hot water. Your feet will ache, and you’ll have another long day to come. ‘Clopen’ shifts where you have less than twelve hours to go home and sleep are common for both.

And if you aren’t careful as either a bartender or a teacher, someone might puke on the floor at the end of the night.

The Board Is My Canvas

I use an interactive whiteboard for my classes. The majority of the time, this is a bit frustrating. They turn off at random. The software we use to write on the board is buggy. At times, the videos and audio I want to play just won’t do it.

But occasionally, the board becomes the tool it is supposed to be. Two hours of work transforms my class into abstract modern art.

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Phonics, Friday 9-12

The classes are of various levels. I don’t know if my best artwork comes from the high-level classes or the lowest level ones. The hight level classes are amalgamations of words that seem random, but are all held together by a common thread. Like this class, about Artificial Intelligence.

High School Level Class, Saturday Afternoon

High School Level Class, Saturday Afternoon

The class zooms in and out like a Prezi, but with the board and my messy handwriting.

Same class about A.I.

Same class about A.I.

I often have random words on the board, because someone has asked me to spell it.

Intensive Writing Course, Mondays

Intensive Writing Course, Mondays

Some low-level classes are clean and don’t require much in the way of spelling or scribbling ‘ICMBs’ on the corner of a discussion.

Kindergarten Class, Wednesday Afternoons

Kindergarten Class, Wednesday Afternoons

I have a rule in my elementary class. Three stars = one sticker. Six stars = two stickers. Fifteen stars = five stickers. And the one with the most stickers at the end of two months is the winner of a prize. Stars are awarded for answering questions, finishing work, getting the most points of a group quiz, or following the class rules during a test. It works pretty well!

Elementary test rules

Elementary test rules

Some classes get messy for this, when the students are especially keen.

Second-grade level class, Friday afternoons

Second-grade level class, Friday afternoons

And of course, there is the occasional cameo appearance for Jack Sparrow during a pronunciation exercise.

The Chaos, a poem I force my high-level students to read

The Chaos, a poem I force my high-level students to read

I Hate TOEFL

My students in the TOEFL writing class mostly bombed their test this semester. Bombed it. Fours and eights out of thirty, where the same students got a 17 or more last time. The damn practice test on which so much is pinned in my hagwon gave them two “Integrated” questions, notoriously difficult conceptually and to execute. I hate TOEFL.

After forcing them to write yet another five-paragraph “Integrated” essay on a Tuesday morning at 10:30 AM (on the totally-irrelevant consequences of the Tire Reef in Fort Lauderdale),  I asked them to stop early and tell me what they thought about the whole idea of TOEFL essays, and why. What follows may be a snapshot of the struggle for English TOEFL competency (which I’m certain is not the same as simple English competency…in fact the two may even be at odds…).

” I think TOEFL integrated essays are complexed because they must have both reading and listening.”

” I think TOEFL integrated essay are hard becausing…it’s hard to find informations of the lecture”

“I think TOEFL integrated essays are so difficult. because it is hard to understand the reading and. also. it is hard to listen the listening section.”

“I think TOEFL integrated essays are hard because lecture is very hard.”

” I think TOEFL integrated essays are harder than independent because I don’t have to think my opinion If I didn’t listen my listening passage, I have get bad score.”

“I think TOEFL integrated essay are E.A.S.Y. kind of because Coleen Teacher held a lot and gave many tips for TOEFL integrated essay.”

“I think TOEFL integrated essays are easy but difficult ones are really difficult, because even though it gives reasons it’s hard to relate if difficult.”

Given the grammatical struggles, I’m not surprised that their scores. Yet some manage to communicate the idea behind the linguistic confusion, which surely must count for something. I don’t truly see the point of teaching a college entrance exam to children. I can’t blame them for hating TOEFL tooth and nail. I know I do.

19 days left of teaching in Korea!

Chile versus Korea: The TEFL Showdown

Unfortunately, this is what happens when I give my students a creative task. It's a blood zombie.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when I give my students a creative task. It’s a blood zombie.

An hour before the flight, I asked a South Korean how to open the triangle kimbap I had just purchased. In Spanish. My last act in the Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena, where I’d lived for six months teaching English in a public school, was to eat a Korean staple food. I didn’t know it as we drove a red pickup truck along the Strait of Magellan to the airport, but that kimbap had sealed my fate.

At this point in my life, I’ve taught English in three different ways and on three different continents. The experience of being a volunteer English tutor for a Saudi Arabian student in my final year of university was the precursor to two years spent chasing TEFL around the world. My walks through Chile and Korea were coupled together from their very beginnings. The visas for Chile and South Korea face one another in my passport, their validity overlapping by three months. Remarkably, given the 18,000 km distance between Puerto Natales and Suwon-si, similarities between the two wildly different experiences exist. The differences are far more apparent.

Don't be fooled, this was taken after school let out for winter break. These halls know true chaos.

Don’t be fooled, this was taken after school let out for winter break. These halls know true chaos.

My current school is literally a world away from the high-risk public school in which I worked in Chile, volunteering as a full-time English teacher through the English Opens Doors program. We were fighting every day to keep my students in school. The dropout rate was high, despite laws to the contrary. Students (and occasionally teachers) did not seem to see the point of being in school. After about two weeks, I abandoned the textbooks issued by the MINEDUC because they were far beyond the grasp of my students. I taught 27 contact hours and also managed an after school English Club.

They really do deserve those stickers!

They really do deserve those stickers!

Now I work in a private academy (hagwon) in South Korea. My students come to me after a full day in public school. The hagwon in which I work is definitely a business first, and an educational venture second. We’ve been told not to try to be “real teachers” during trainings, and while we struggle to keep students in classes it is not an attempt to keep them from a life without education but to keep the revenue stream going. On the upside, I have far fewer contact hours per week and a lot of downtime to plan lessons. The set curriculum is somewhat rigid but allows for my own interpretation. I teach TOEFL to ten year olds, whereas in Chile my students were learning weather and how to say, “How are you?” In Chile, I had a reputation as a hard-ass teacher. In Korea, I’ve been called a pushover.

The differences between teaching in Korea and teaching in Chile go deeper. In my school in Chile, many of the parents had never completed high school. Some had never completed 8th grade. A few were illiterate. There were students with developmental and intellectual disabilities in my classes, something that I had no experience with before I volunteered with the EOD program. Halfway through my time in Puerto Natales, nationwide protests over the cost and quality of education in Chile ripped through the country from tip to tip. I participated in two national strikes, although I would have prefered to be with my students in class. The current revolution that the Chilean educational system is undergoing in rooted in the massive educational gains in the last 20-30 years. Seven out of ten university students are the first in their families to reach higher education. In my town in Patagonia, the populace is going from barely-literate to college-educated in the span of two generations, sometimes one.

Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011

Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011

In Korea, education is a central focus. Children are in school from morning until night from a very young age. The implementation of the hagwon system has a lot to do with this, but the intense competition for perfect grades is more likely the true root. I’ve had students tell me that if they miss even one question on their elementary school finals, they will have failed. 100% or nothing. The pressure causes more than a few to crack, and South Korea currently has the highest youth suicide rate in the world (340 in 2011, or nearly one per day *every day*). It is impossible not to see the ways that education culture affects my students. They are often exhausted and hungry, with little family time and not a lot of direct parental supervision. I can happily say that I never once had a parent in Chile complain that their child did not have enough homework.

Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher, Halloween 2012

Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher, Halloween 2012

And yet with all these differences and their depth, there are remarkable similarities between teaching in Chile and in South Korea. In terms of history, both countries are in the process of recovering from decades of rule by leaders that I would call dictators (even though some still consider Pinochet and Park Chun-He to be beloved presidents). Chile is currently the fastest-developing country in South America, and Korea has outpaced most of its neighbors for years to become the 11th largest world economy. Both governments have put a huge emphasis on the acquisition of English in their young people, through government programs like EOD and EPIK (public school placements in Korea). It is relatively easy to get a placement as an English teacher in both Korea and Chile, and the general requirements are the same: a degree from an university, a clean criminal record, HIV- status (despite the obvious discrimination), and the ability to move to another country and adapt to life there.

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures

Another striking similarity is the massive gap between the rich and the poor in terms of access to and quality of education in both South Korea and Chile. My students are almost all from highly-affluent families, and their lives are very different from my students in Chile who occasionally struggled to have enough to eat. They see their attendance at an English hagwon as a burden, but their classmates in public schools simply do not have the same chance on an exam if their families cannot afford the tuition. The hagwon system in Korea perpetuates educational inequality, but in Chile the private and semi-private schools do the same.

This is how we did parades in Chile. A favorite photo of mine.

This is how we did parades in Chile. A favorite photo of mine.

This is how they do parades in Korea.

This is how they do parades in Korea.

The behavior of students is relatively different, but in both countries I occasionally have problems because my students do not see me as a real teacher, or perhaps even as a real person, because I am neither Chilean nor Korean. In both countries, I had to assert my authority as a teacher and win over students in spite of my readily-apparent Otherness. It usually works, and in both Chile and Korea I’ve found students who are happy to see me each time I walk into a classroom.

I miss the outdoors desperately in Korea, but generally things are great in both countries!

I miss the outdoors desperately in Korea, but generally things are great in both countries!

That last one may reveal the biggest similarity between teaching English in South Korea and teaching it in Chilean Patagonia. The children are precious and mostly willing to learn in both countries. Despite all the major cultural and linguistic differences, the day-to-day experience in my classroom is largely the same. Perhaps the thing tying the two vastly different experiences is simply that I am in both places, and that my teaching style is similar in both. In Korea I have infinitely more resources than I did in Chile, but it’s not possible to decorate the classrooms the way that I did in Chile. I felt more like a teacher in Chile, but I believe that I teach more here in Korea. My day-to-day life was more rugged in Chile, but my attempts to broach the cultural and linguistic divides in Korea were less successful.

I highly recommend TEFL in Chile. I highly recommend TEFL in South Korea. The two countries and their mirrored experiences continue to shape me, and certainly will as the next steps of my life become less foggy. If you have to choose between the two, know this: you cannot make a bad choice!