When Korean High School Students Give you Lemons…

So yesterday was my first day, and it was a 13 hour one. Luckily I was paid overtime, but it started with the worst class I could imagine, and ended with an annual English Competition consisting of skits, tongue twisters, and laughter. Here’s how it went:

In the first couple classes, the students were yelling, talking, sleeping, and not paying attention at all to my coteacher Nora and me (each of us English teachers have a Korean English teacher in the classroom assisting us. Her name is written노라 in Korean). The activity was for them to choose foods related to the upcoming holiday, Korean Thanksgiving, and act out the cooking process in front of the class. Needless to say, they tried harder to not do anything, than they did on their project.

After lunch, I felt like I was not going to make it through this year. I wanted to cry. I kept thinking about how awesome I had hoped this experience would be, and about how much of a let down these kids were. I’d hit a wall. 

Then… Without knowing what I was going to do, I walked into the next class, asked Nora to translate (these students’ English ability is much lower than average), and spoke my mind. I asked them, “Why am I here? Why did I fly all the way to the other side of the world to a country where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language?” Then, I asked them, “Why do you want to learn English?” The response was a step in the right direction. They started trying to communicate as best they could. I was getting somewhere.

There was one boy in the back of the class with a smug look on his face and a 45 degree slouch, doing nothing. We passed out the worksheet, a dialogue about what they did over the weekend, and asked them to practice a dialogue with their partners. I saw that that boy didn’t have a partner, so I walked back there, sat next to him and told him that I would be his partner for the day. He tried telling me his name, but I couldn’t understand it, so I asked him, “Can I call you Cool Guy instead?” His face lit up. In working with him I found out his favorite sport was cycling (big here in Korea) and that that’s what he did over the weekend. Then, he and I acted out our dialogue first in front of the class, the conclusion of which was a thunderous applause. The next groups that went up started trying to make their conversations funny! My favorite went, “Hello! How was your weekend? — It went quite well! — Really? What did you do? — Yes! I went out with your girlfriend!” Much laughter followed…

After the class, Nora came to me and said, “That boy… in the back of the class… He never does anything. Other teachers have tried to get him to do something… but he always has blank face.” Her English is very good, but fragmented sometimes. She continued, “Before today, I didn’t know if I wanted to work here anymore. I think you inspired me.”

Honestly, when the day started, I didn’t think I could make it. I wanted to go home. When it ended, I’d learned one of the most important lessons of my life thus far: When life gives you lemons, make some DAMN good lemonade.

Lemonade: Korean Style


8 thoughts on “When Korean High School Students Give you Lemons…

  1. I agree that it is not an easy task to draw student’s interests and communicate with them since each student has a different English ability and some of students are not interested in learning English at all. In addition, it is true that there are too many students in a classroom (about 30) to make agreeable conversation.
    I want to suggest you introducing American music such as pop songs and country music in your English lesson. As I said earlier, most of Korean high school students are tired of studying because they usually spend a lot of time at high school and private institution. I think Music can give them refreshment. I learnt an American famous folk song “Country road take me home” from my American professor at my university during English conversation course. She played the guitar and students sang the song together. It became one of my favorite songs. I reckon that Korean high school students are familiar with pop songs and they know Ne-yo, Maroon5, Mariah Carey, Bon jovi, and Beyonce.
    If there is a beam projector in your classroom, it is good to watch popular movie or sitcom. I heard from my close friend that he watched sitcom ‘Friends’ during an English conversation class at high school. I think it can be a good way to draw student’s attention wisely.
    Friend, don’t forget you have a friend who live in Korea. I am sure that you will be well adjusted and experience many things in my country. If you are available in Korean Thanks giving day, call me! I want to meet you and introduce my hometown to you.
    Lastly, I don’t think that this lemonade is Korean style. ^^

    Jonghwa Lee

    • Jonghwa,

      You make some great points here. And your English writing is excellent! It is interesting that you suggested music and movies actually because after each class this past class I asked my kids what they wanted to learn about, and we came up with a list. They came in with all kinds ideas. Movies and pop music were some of the most popular! When we meet this week, maybe you can he me think of some other ideas.

  2. Hi Chad,

    Great story. I think your first day was a great start for you and the students. It sounds like a great learning experience from both sides the blackboard.

    I’m looking forward to the next installment of your adventure.

  3. It’s incredible to hear that you have not only inspired individuals here in the States but also in Korea as well. I certainly believe that dealing with children is one of the most difficult and frustrating things to do. I’m really glad to hear that you were able to overcome your challenges and turn it into a positive experience.

    • Nick,

      Thanks for the that. I think that is something that you and I have in common; we are positive and motivated, and that is contagious. I can’t wait to hear how things go this semester for you.

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