Yesterday I visited an elementary school and felt uneasy. We stood back on the far wall sitting and observing as the 3rd graders entered the class in single file lines. I wish I could have captured the students’ reactions on camera. We “Americans” were a novelty to them and they responded to our presence with gleeful giggles and enthusiastic “hellos”. The lesson now began. They were practicing active words such as “I am jumping. I am swimming.” I watched intently reliving my time in Philosophy of Education trying to think deeply about the intentions and impact of the space, the method, and the approach. I remembered my first day of Philosophy vividly. Anthony, with his gray wiry hair, his loose white cotton and thin round classes that stayed on and off his head, captured my classic quintessential image of a professor. We sat in a circle when Anthony pulled a classroom chair in the middle and asked “Pretend we are all aliens and you have to examine the use and meaning of this object.” We determined answers like “stationary”, “entrapping”, “uncomfortable”, and “independent”. All this stemmed from examining a single chair. I worked to resurface that critical lens noting students raise hands and stand up to answer questions, students refer to the teacher as “teacher”, and students excitement for competition. I surveyed the class absorbing the features, seeing the Korean flag displayed proudly in the center front of the room with no pictures or posters surrounding it and little decorations anywhere else except for the three window blinds that displayed floral prints, which shaded from the sun. The class was led from a teacher centric approach intermixing recall and responses, role play, and kinetic games. Nevertheless, throughout the lessons I couldn’t stop laughing at the students’ adorable quirk. The kids unquestionably cute and I loved being there, but simultaneously I felt out of place and unsure this was the setting I was looking for.
Today I chose to tour a Korean high school. I entered the high school not sure what to expect, but with a underlying hope that I would discover my connection and find resolution in my struggle between choosing elementary or secondary teaching. We were introduced and welcomed by the school administration and proceeded to observe a fellow ETAs class. The class was great! They had finished finals yesterday so today was focused on review and fun. The class played mafia and used the game to practice speaking in English. Following the class we had the opportunity to have a Q & A session with the fellow ETA. She spoke to us with transparency and as a part of the Fulbright family. Through the conversation I learned students spend 13 to 15 hours in school and are often exhausted and potentially will fall asleep in classes. I also better recognized the dichotomy between the great maturity students possess in their discipline and studiousness and their innocence and social immaturity. Following the talk, we proceeded to another great class taught by the current ETA and then had a student guided tour of the school. I loved having the chance to talk with students and hear from them. Nevertheless, it was awkward at first. It was first year students aka freshman and I on the tour. They both had little confidence in their English. Despite this, one of them spoke really well and together with a mix of guessing games and hand signals we held a solid conversation. It wasn’t until later the other one began to talk more. By the end of the toured we had covered a range of topics covering school, the Hunger Games, America, and more. We happened to return to the class a little early where another group had started a name game icebreaker. We jumped in to find shortly a speaking based game wasn’t the best idea. There was a quick pause and I said what about if we play ninja. There were a few blank faces, but after a few explanations we got it together and started playing. Soon the game grew until every student was playing from the class including the teachers. It was priceless. Leave to a game to remind me that we all have commonalities and can build camaraderie.
Ultimately, I found the connection I was hoping for. I realized secondary teaching has the opportunity to engage in social issue conversations and deeper cultural exchanges that I feel would be less available in elementary students. In this I realize my teaching will not be transformative for all students despite my best hopes, but I still believe this space for meaningful dialogue has helped convince me of the place I am supposed to be.
Grant you I still will not know my official placement for several more weeks, but I’ll take lemons and make lemonade and maybe even play Ninja.