Fire Drill: Hotbox of Horror

Yesterday marked another first in my time teaching in South Korea: my first fire drill!  Fire drills are a critical part of education in every part of the world, insofar as incineration is among the least desirable outcomes for students.  With my classroom situated on the third floor of an entirely wooden (and not entirely up on its maintainence) building, I was glad to know my kids were learning important survival skills.

I went through a fair number of fire drills as a substitute teacher back in America (one wonders if there’s a statistical correlation between drills and teacher sick days), and of course I trudged through more than a dozen in my own student days.  But on the morning of, I didn’t really know what to expect.  Korea is always full of surprises.


This being a kindergarten, the “drill” began in our (very flammable) gym with a safety presentation by an officer from the Uijeongbu fire department.  It was all in Korean, so I don’t know what he said, exactly.  But there were a couple of animations featuring a fire safety mascot of indeterminate animal species.  It was pretty easy to follow that.

Incidentally, they dial “119” for emergencies here in Korea.  I should probably remember that so I don’t waste time in a crisis.

The drill itself came later, mercifully without the obnoxious klaxon call I’d been brought up to associate with pretending to be in mortal danger.  We brought our classes downstairs, put on their outdoor shoes, and marched into the adjacent parking lot.  But there was no lamely standing in rows for us!


Inside this truck, the firefighter guided four kids at a time through what I can only imagine to be a carnival haunted house-esque obstacle course, simulating an escape from an infernal housefire.  And there was smoke: lots and lots of smoke.


Were the children scared?  Oh yes.  Most of it was the giggling sort of nervousness associated with roller coasters and high dives.  A few of the kids shed copious tears the moment they saw the smoke; another few broke down before they saw it, either from the rumor or the memory of the year before.  At least one scuttled down the steps after taking a good look inside.


My own class did a great job.  Selina in particular was nervous before we started, but quickly got caught up in the excitement.  Dolphin Class is made up of second year kids (Korean age 6, western age 5 or so), so I guess you can say they were old pros at staring into the maw of death.  It takes more than the back of a smoke-filled truck to make Dolphin Class back down!


In America, some might view the act of making a child crawl through a smoky van that’s been made to look like the burning ruins of their home or school as traumatizing.  But they do a lot of weird stuff in America, so who knows?  I personally would have loved to crawl around in their myself, as curious as I was.


Series of Short Posts 3: Dinners with Mr. Kim

Nothing is ever simple in Korea (or in life, but we’re talking about Korea).

Things have improved tremendously for Tara and myself since we started our new jobs.  We’re happy and stable and we have great friends, and though we no longer work at the same site, we can appreciate the differences in our routines and the divergent perspectives that grants us.

That said, I sometimes feel like I’ve been stuck in a dinghy while Tara rides in a more seaworthy vessel.  Not everything, sad to say, is sunshine at CIS Uijeongbu.  A few weeks ago, we had something of a “regime change” in our office.  Our previous vice-principal (who was essentially managing the company in all but title) quit abruptly, and the man who stepped in to fill his shoes and direct this crazy show is none other than Mr. Kim, the company’s owner.  Despite predictions to the contrary, I have seen him in the office pretty much every day and he does appear to be filling that role.

Life under Mr. Kim hasn’t changed all that much, from one perspective.  The drinking fountains still dispense water.  the wifi signal still won’t reach my classroom consistently.  The building remains firmly rooted to its foundations.  The furniture in the office has moved around, but everybody sort of agrees that it kind of works better that way.  But despite the outward appearances, we have had problems.  Whether it’s Korean supervisors not being paid, or management “forgetting” to pay into our pension funds on time, or last minute announcements of new teaching assignments and the drastic curtailment of prep time, the new regime has often found itself in the position of apologizing and pleading for accommodation from us.

Mr. Kim’s preferred venue for such discussions is taking everyone out to dinner.  His preferred tack for navigating these discussions is to buy lots of meat and booze and encourage us to have fun.  Making plans on a Friday night is dangerous, because it’s becoming increasingly common for Mr. Kim to spontaneously decide we need to go out.  This means free meat and booze, and that’s kind of OK.  It’s just one of the features of the new regime, along with uncertainty over teaching hours and a dream-like sensation of floating through a sort of shadow-realm.  I’m betting most of my co-workers don’t even get that last one.

We’ve learned lots of things about Mr. Kim from these dinners.  For one, he is generous: not “pay your Korean staff on time” generous, but “everybody’s invited, let’s go get hammered!” generous.  Our last outing ended up turning into one of those boy’s nights you hear so much about in Korea, despite our staff being preponderantly female; on the other hand, our old vice principal used to sneak out of the office so that he wouldn’t have to tell all the girls we were going out.

Another thing we’ve learned about Mr. Kim is that he owns a norebang (that’s Korean for Karaoke club, for those who don’t know).  The first time he treated the entire staff (plus Tara) to dinner, he led us to the norebang for a glorious after-party.  Mr. Kim’s Norebang (the establishment’s actual name*) is sort of a shrine to Jeff Beck, for some reason, with other mid-70s guitar heroes accorded prominent, but lesser, status on its walls.  And when you go up to sing your heart out in front of everyone, you’re accompanied by an actual guitarist.  I don’t think Mr. Kim technically owns the guitarist too, but I’m not going to commit to that conclusion.  Either way, Mr. Kim is committed to the idea that his labor force will be content and his school will function well as long as everyone is having a great time.

Basically, Mr. Kim is Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.  The metaphor is not perfect, but the mental imagery is just about.

Anyway, that’s how things are on my front.  Although things are weird here, and I’m going to have to figure out new and creative ways to politely drink less before these Friday nights kill me, we’re surviving and adapting.  I don’t know how long the new regime will last before Mr. Kim is sick of doing everything himself, but change is definitely a constant in our lives.

*as far as I am concerned.

Series of Short Posts 1: Beginning My New Job

I am so sorry I have been absent for such a long time.  In all honesty, I have been a combination of busy, homesick, and actual sick, so I haven’t really felt like writing.  In fact, I have about 3 unpublished drafts waiting for me to finish but who knows if/when I will finish them. To catch everyone up, I thought I would write a series of short posts and TRY to publish one everyday.  We’ll see if I can maintain that!

First off, Beginning My New Job. I have now been working at my job for about a month.  The beginning was a little difficult because I had an entire week of shadowing the current teacher.  This would have been fine except for I had already been doing pretty much the same thing at the other campus.  So it got old pretty quickly.  It is a weird situation to be in, having a classroom but not wanting to step on anyone’s toes.  Watching a teacher, who is very much ready to return home, in his last week with his students.  Not that he was in any way a bad teacher, just that you could tell he was over worked and ready for some time off.  I talked to him a lot about going home and what he was excited about etc.  Speaking to and saying goodbye to him actually launched a week or so of intense homesickness.  I was just re-signing a new contract for the year and all this talk of home seemed to make the thought of another entire year seemed unbearable.  In fact, at the time I was feeling homesick, I started writing a lengthy blogpost about the whole situation.  In the last two weeks, however, this feeling has already faded and life feels ok again.

My schedule is pretty nice.  I start work at 11am everyday and work until 7:20 (except Tuesdays, when I have to be at work for a staff meeting at 9:15).  Since I started though, I go into work early almost everyday.  I have not yet found a way to get everything I need to done in the amount of time I am given.  I am told that this will soon change.  Everyday I teach 1-2 Activity Room classes for kindergarteners.  They only last 40 minutes with the last 10 being spent on playtime.  During these periods we play bingo, freeze tag, alphabet games… and so on.  I feel like these times are some of the most stressful of my day because the kids just want to run crazy and play on the play structures.  It is very difficult to get them to behave at times because I am not their normal teacher and I only see them once a week for 40 minutes.  They are super cute though!

I also teach ESL1 everyday from 3pm to 4:20pm.  These are kids who are in elementary school and have never taken English before.  Most of them are in 1st grade, one is in 2nd, and one is in 3rd.  As you can probably guess, this creates quite a large knowledge gap.  This class is pretty fun because, even though they do not understand me most of the time, I have lots of free reign when it comes to curriculum.  I get to plan a lot of fun activities for them and there always seems to be extra time.  The hardest part is that the kids are still having a really hard time with phonics (knowing their letters and sounds) but we have had to move on to words, vowels, and so on.  So I have been doing a lot of backtracking to the basics.

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I teach BC 4 which basically means 4th graders who have gone through the program.  There class is from 4:30-7:20 (and remember, this is AFTER all day elementary school).  A couple of the students have conversational English to almost the level of an American 4th grader.  At times, I forget that I am teaching English Language Learners which is probably not a good thing.  It doesn’t help that we use American curriculum though.

I also teach BC 5 in the same time slot but on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  This class has been challenging in a lot of ways for multiple reasons.  For one, there are 9 students (soon to be 11 starting this week).  They are older and do not fit very well into my tiny classroom.  Their curriculum is also much more challenging.  One of the workbooks they use (TOEFL iBT) is a workbook for high schoolers to test their ability to succeed in English-speaking University. Think of the SAT but only focused on reading, writing, listening, and speaking English.  THESE KIDS ARE IN 5TH GRADE!!!  The last couple of TOEFL lessons I have taught have been about the Earth’s magnetosphere, Tabula Rasa (Psychology), and the Industrial Revolution.  It is ridiculous.  Sometimes I’m not even sure of the correct answers from the multiple choice questions and I consider myself pretty smart!  So basically my teaching this workbook is me giving them the correct answers.  I find this style of teaching for this particular book to be ok though because I have a lot better things to be teaching them and our time is precious.

Anyway, my short post turned into a long one.  I will leave you with a couple pictures of my classroom.

Robin Class!

Robin Class!

Color overload?  Yeah, me too!

Color overload? Yeah, me too!

Adventures of Tara Teacher

*Disclaimer: In South Korea, it is completely legal and awesome to post pictures of your students online.

When we first arrived at our apartment, one of the Korean Supervisors met us and proceeded to tell David all about his classes for Monday.  She then looked at me and said, “And I don’t know what you are doing.”  It turns out my job is a little different and it might be changing, even in the next week.  Right now I am Tara Teacher, Tara Artist, Tara Scientist, and Tara Librarian.   On Mondays I do library with each class, on Wednesdays it’s art, and Fridays I do science “kits”.  The other times I go to each class and help the teacher with whatever they need.  Sometimes that means helping students, but mostly that means I laminate, cut, and grade.  I don’t mind too much though, especially since I know it is not permanent and it really helps the other teachers out.

We also had our first field trip!  It was to a music museum and, honestly, it was a little boring.  The most eventful parts were probably the bus ride there and back.  If you saw my facebook you probably saw the kindies singing One Direction and just being silly.  The kindergartners got a tour in Korean so we did not understand anything that was being said.  I did take quite  a few pictures though.  So enjoy!

Overall, I really enjoy working at this new place and am excited to see what the future brings!


Quick update

Hey everyone!  Sorry for the lack of updates but it has been really stressful, busy, and crazy the last couple weeks.  So this is just a quick update to let everyone know that things are getting WAY better!  David and I are officially moving tomorrow to Uijeongbu (pronounced wee-juh-ng-boo) to a new school where we will actually get to teach!!!  We are so excited.  We also have had a lot of crazy things happen to us with regards to our current job and so we will fill everyone in soon!  For now, I am spending my last day of work laminating a million things and listening to my boss interview new victims teachers over the phone.  It is horrifying to hear the “half truths” he tells them as well as remember how he said those exact same things to us!  Hopefully they will google the school before they sign any contracts or send in their paperwork.