Korean Quickie – Bad Teacher

During my short time in South Korea I’ve had a few short conversations with a long list of native English speakers like myself – people who’ve come to Korea for a variety of reasons. Though I won’t generalize, there tends to be similarities. This is about one of those similarities and how I dealt with during my first few months in South Korea.


I’d sometimes hear, “I didn’t plan to be a teacher.”

I’d say something like “Neither did I.” If I were drinking I’d give a low grunt in response instead. Either way the meaning was clear. My default response to a statement I had heard often in South Korea was that I understood.

In New York I tutored university students in English and speech, and liked it, but I never saw myself in front of a classroom, teaching anything. After having finished two weeks of training, however, I was there, in front of a classroom, teaching English. It was a disaster.

The main issue was that the training didn’t train me in the classes I was supposed to teach. I stumbled over curriculum, as well as cultural differences, and age differences. What embarrassed me most was that the kids could tell I didn’t know what I was doing – they can always tell. A few of them actually asked to leave my class. The growing number of empty chairs filled my room during my first two weeks.

Like all problems in life, though, it was resolved.

After a month or two I had gotten accustomed to almost everything. Kimchi was delicious, and the lessons plans I was being told to follow made sense – I had unknotted the mess of cartoons and essay questions through trial and error. Many of my students spoke near fluent English, and the staff of my private academy where all pretty-to-beautiful Korean women who were very helpful.

Although I didn’t plan to be a teacher, I’ve worked out a nice little grove. The walk to my job is fifteen minutes. On the way I wave at the kids who yell out “Hi Alex Teacher,” as well as random Korea kids who just smile at someone different. Getting to my classroom I sit next to a stack of previously made photocopies, ready to teach and babysit.

A few weeks ago I had finished half of that process when I saw a print out of my name near the front entrance of the academy’s office. “Alex” was surrounded by some Korean words that told me nothing, other than how ignorant I was of the country I lived in. I was a little puzzled.

I walked into the main office and asked one of the pretty-to-beautiful Korean women about it.

“Um, Jinny?” She walked up to me with a genuine smile that still reminded me of a sales woman. “Why is my name out there on the front door? Is everything alright?”

Following me out to the sign Jinny looked at it in surprised, “Really? Wow!” She looked at me and said, “You won the Cross Cafe contest.”

“The what?”

“Like all problems in life, though, it was resolved.”

I had won some contest that honored the teacher who had most participated in the academy’s new initiative. It was an interactive online program that allowed students to post up class projects, and comment on other students’ projects across all of academy’s branches. They could rate each other and receive points for creating quality content.

I didn’t even know I was in a contest.

Jinny explained the situation in her fluent English. I asked, “So nothing’s wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong.”

“Thank you.” I smiled and walked toward my classroom, quickly forgetting the sign, and my temporary fear of joblessness. The image of me being deported to America, and waiting for Medicare coverage in a line that snaked around the block, disappeared.

In my classroom I waited to teach my class of older kids some tools they could use in essay writing. I gave them clinically description then funny examples of each.

“…So Irony is when the opposite of what you expect happens.” I drew a stick figure and put my name next to it. “For example Alex teacher is very handsome…”

They giggled and shook their heads.

“… he is also very smart…”

They laughed and Sally jokingly said “No he is not.”

“He’s also very tall.”

They laughed even harder, with some saying No in Korean. I heard a few 아니s and some kids wrinkled their faces at me. I continued, “… But, he has no girlfriend. See? You don’t expect that because Alex teacher is so handsome and so smart and so tall. That’s irony.

A Not So Bad Teacher

“Now, what if I said that Brian never studied for school?” I waved my open palm in Brain’s direction and some of the kids looked at him with a smile.

Brian was my favorite student in that class, though I didn’t know his real, Korean, name. He always nodded his head when I made an important point, and smiled at some adult joke I made about booze, thievery, or some such thing.

“What ironic thing could happen?”

Sally said, “He could pass all the tests.” Brain raised his arms like a winning prizefighter.

“Yes, that would be ironic.”

Jae said, “He could become president.”

“Well, that actually happened. But yes, that would be ironic.”

Soon I had to conduct a test based on material from our last class. As I handed out the photocopies Brain said, “Alex teacher, you’re a mean teacher. Your always giving us tests.”

“That’s because I want you to learn. I’m a nice teacher.”

“But you’re mean.”

Not willing to argue, I smiled and said, “Yes, I know.”

“Why is your name outside, near the door?”

“Because I won a contest for being a good teacher.”

“But you’re a bad teacher.”

“Yes, I know.”

He smiled and said, “That’s ironic.”

I laughed loudly and said, “YES! Yes it is! Good man… That was excellent.”

He took the test and passed it. Whether I had planed to be a teacher or not was no longer relevant.

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