I‘ve neglected an important factor that has influenced my South Korean experience, and that is my situation as the sole native English teacher in a public middle school. I am surprised that I haven’t noted this, since teaching English at this particular school has been quite an eye-opening experience, where this situation has continually been shaping my perspective towards Korean society, education, class and media/youth culture and the reality of inner-city public school education. I’m convincing myself that I haven’t written about my (adopted) role because of how much I’ve been taken aback. That said, there is a – plenty to mention, and still a-plenty to understand.
The middle school is in an economically confusing area, where the predominantly low-income foundation is currently being mixed in with higher-income amenities. At first glance from my ninth floor window, the high rise buildings around my officetel with bold numbers painted on their sides look like signs of economic progression. I wake up every morning to the sight of these buildings overlooking my district. These buildings, as I’ve been told, are federally-funded low-income public housing units. The majority of my twelve through sixteen year old students live in these buildings. They will tell you that they live close to their friend, Ah-ram or Min-Soo, in apartment building number 203 or 506. If I had not known, I would have always assumed that these buildings overlooking a small part of Western Seoul were merely reminders of Seoul being too small to house thousands of families. I would not have thought twice about them and they would’ve merely been nuisances that block sun rays.
Like a lot of underprivileged public schools in Seoul, my school is stripped of what Westerners would refer to as basic necessities of the post millenium: heating and air conditioning, computer system per classroom and maybe a bit of classroom environment umph. There are computer systems installed in every classroom. The dusty monitors are traced over with vulgar Korean and look more like they belong in catacombs rather than in classrooms. The weather has already dipped to as low as -6 degrees Celsius. I’ve already been bitten with the fever three times and have been wearing my wool coat while teaching. This past spring, my school head received enough budgeting to install a heating system in each classroom. Even with the precious systems installed, they’re only used for ten minutes at the beginning of each period to save energy and money, hence the reason why students are wrapped up in their coats throughout the school day and animal flannel blankets that can be rolled into pillows. As long as winter endures, the school remains frigid cold and I cannot imagine the sweat I’ll suffer in when comes cicada season.
And surprisingly, I am not complaining. Touché, but I have come to appreciate the conditions these kids have to learn in. I’ve been used to being in public schools – or anywhere – that suck up energy to overheat and air condition the building when comes November or May, so much so that people generally take advantage of this luxury that is a significant decision factor in other countries. A few of my students show the need to excel (other circumstances may also feed into their determination, including familial and economic struggles etc.), and they have proven to me that the desire to learn outweighs the condition they’re placed in. They also do not know anything else but the Korean public school system, which strikes me whenever I see Ji-Eun wearing the biggest smile whenever she stops by at my desk in the teachers office or when students are in awe of an airplane’s interior in a movie clip. But even after four months of teaching and finally getting a routine, I am still shocked that I am teaching in a system that has remained in tack for over forty years. Yes, disciplinary actions by physical punishment is still in effect, although apparently punishment with the stick has gotten “softer,” and students are still relied on to fulfill basic school-cleaning chores. Nonetheless, I still think that a regular janitor can be hired rather than having the students (particularly the mischievous ones) clean the building. I mean, it is only every other day when I see mice running around my desk and empty bottles of yogurt drinks lying near the entrance and trash bins.