It was 2010, the winter after the summer of the BP oil spill, a year before Occupy and the country was in recovery from the harsh global recession of 2008. I had been out of work since 2009 and desperately searching for a job at a time when nobody was hiring. While scouring Craig’s List to complete my number of mandatory job applications for my last two weeks of unemployment compensation, I noticed a job ad. TEACH ENGLISH IN SOUTH KOREA -FREE APARTMENT-2 MILLION WON. Why not? I thought. I had not had a million anything in years. I was single, broke, and barely past a time as one friend described it “crawling out the Vietnam of the soul”. Before the week was over, I had 5 recruiters representing over 20 different hagwons asking for my documents. For the first time in ages, I felt like a wanted commodity.
Before I knew it, I was running off to get fingerprints for my FBI clearance. Not only were they offering me a free, furnished apartment, but they were also paying for my airfare, on top of a salary that equaled millions (in won). I bit the bullet and gave up smoking weed in just enough time to get drug-tested and blood tested for STDs, and before I knew it, I was waking up in the strangely chill mountain air of Chuncheon where I left the doors of my apartment with the gripping knowledge that I had to do the thing to earn all this goodness: teach, that is.
I was 36, old for an American or Canadian teacher. Most of my colleagues had just graduated from college and were there to work and pay off student loans or ponder getting their Masters. I appreciated this because they were enthusiastic, fun group for after-hours karaoke but for the first time in my life I felt I was the elder in my peer group and I wasn’t quite ready for that. My Korean co-workers did not make me feel less insecure. I was encouraged to dye my hair blonde to look younger, and shockingly slipped me cards with names of English-speaking plastic surgeons I could discreetly visit on my next trip to Busan. That did not improve when by my third class, I was nicknamed “ajumma” by the children, which is a Korean word for a middle-aged woman, often used in the pejorative to describe a pushy and unfashionable aunt-like person with a penchant for comfortable shoes. It was decided that my name was too annoying and for convenience, I was renamed Teacher Jenny.
I had wrongly assumed that being the oldest of 7 and my new wholesome, matronly look I had cultivated for the freezing Chuncheon winter would mean that I would be a natural with children, or at least good enough to fake it for the required 8 hours. In truth, I had little or no real experience teaching children. They assumed that my B.A, in Literature with a minor in Women’s Studies meant that I not only knew how to teach English, but that I had an advanced understanding of mothering small children since that’s what women do. I possessed neither.
What I found out is that children are universally uninterested in Luce Irigaray, or my opinions on anything related to anything postmodern. They were curious about me, but otherwise unimpressed with me as an American. My degree in English Literature that meant so much to my recruiters meant nothing to them. They didn’t want me to enlighten them, they wanted me to interact, to play games with them, and they want games that help them learn things. I didn’t know how to do that, and therefore Teacher Jenny as popular as a broken toy.
Somewhere around the 6th or 7th month, after frantic Skype calls begging friends back home who’d still answer that I needed to get out, I settled in. That was right around the time I realized that what I thought I knew about teaching English was proving to be wrong. I was faking it every day, and it wasn’t working. The children could sense my awkwardness with them and my difficulty with actually teaching them the language that was my native tongue and their ticket to a decent university and parents’ hearts. Understandably, they were pissed. My classrooms were chaotic, and even worse, their parents were complaining. Every day felt like a nightmare and I was desperate to leave.
I reached out to my old recruiter and asked her what I could I do to get a job in China by September. She told me I would need to get a teaching certificate, and pointed me to the internet. To be fancy, I chose a UK-based TEFL online program for the least amount of hours that would be realistically accepted as meeting the standard 60 hours. The online program required that I complete modules, with the option to re-submit many times. It wasn’t bad; it helped me remember spelling tricks I had forgotten since I lost. I completed most of them over soju and ramen during my cold, lonely nights in Chuncheon, so I don’t remember much of the actual content, but I do remember the moment I saw how grammar could be like a solving a crossword puzzle. There were actual strategies for teaching sentence structure, and words like nouns and verbs were relevant when you were explaining the language to someone else.
And it did work, to an extent. As an online class, I had gotten a toolbox, even if it lacked the opportunities or scenarios that allowed me to practice using those tools in live or even simulated context. Regardless, my classes improved immediately, especially with the 5th and 6th graders. This is what they wanted, to have fun and actually learn something in the process. Like a magician, I now had a toolbox of tricks of the trade, or strategies to whip out and teach with–or at the very least, entertain. I became the Teacher Jenny they were looking for the entire time.
What I didn’t learn was how to being a teacher is how trying new things and making mistakes, and reflecting on those mistakes was what helped you grow more than any advanced understanding of linguistics. I didn’t learn about how it’s important to listen to your students’ faces or the tone of their voice to gauge how their, or how to use short, simple sentences and speak slowly when giving instructions. I didn’t know enough about what the felt experience of culture shock was to understand that the random, out-of-nowhere panic attacks that happened in the marketplace or walking on the street were perfectly normal and part of the process.
How my TEFL Certification helped me
* Taught me actual strategies or tricks for teaching sentence structure and grammar.
* Refreshed my memory by encouraging me to remember how I was taught a language.
What my TEFL Certification training lacked
* There was no live practice. The first time I encountered I learned it by practicing the hard way and on the job, which made work difficult.
* It didn’t foster me to form a connection to my students or the learning community I belonged to until I started volunteering.