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Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

March marks the start of the Korean school year, which brings with it a whole ream of alterations.

Teachers come and go with regular frequency in the public school system. There’s a 4-year cap on the number of years they can stay at a specific school, and another limit to how long they can remain in one school district. I suppose part of it is to keep teachers on their toes instead of letting them get stuck in a routine, but I think it’s also to ensure that one school can’t hoard all the highest-performing teachers (or get trapped with all the lowest-performing ones). Needless to say, the bigger cities in a province have a shorter allowance of teaching years, whereas more rural areas are open for longer periods of time. Gangneung’s cap is set at 8 years, though you’re free to transfer to a nearby district and return later.

And, just as with EPIK teachers, most Korean teachers don’t receive word of their placement until about a week before they’re supposed to start teaching there. This means that there’s usually a mad scramble to get in and out of apartments as everyone changes schools. My predecessor at my previous school left EPIK to start searching for a university job. His description for the experience was fitting. “It’s like a big game of musical chairs,” he said. “Once the contracts are up, everyone jumps to try and find a new place.”

I’m not sure why all of this gets done at the last minute (unless I want to blame Korea’s culture of procrastination), but that’s the way that it goes. As the new students come in, so do new teachers, and some of the other teachers switch—or are switched—out. One of my co-teachers had a baby last month, so she’s out of school for the year on maternity leave. Another co-teacher was transferred to the local arts high school, where he’s teaching English to musicians, actors, and painters. I’m sad to see them go, but it’s part of the experience at a public school. It’s only my previous school, which was privately-owned, that was the exception.

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Pay no attention to the Iron Man figure atop the shelf... 

With a new school year underway, I also have a new desk. Until this semester, I’ve always been stationed in a school’s main office, with easy access to the IT assistants, unlimited boxes of copy paper, and a women’s bathroom almost right out the door in an all-boys’ school. I’ll be honest—I was sad to see it go. My colleagues explained that I was relocated to the smaller second teachers’ office so that I was closer to my classroom, which is on the third floor of the next building.

I’ve soon found a lot to like about my new setup. It’s much smaller than the second office, and therefore better-controlled by the air conditioning unit. (Not that it mattered much toward the end of the winter break, when my desk-warming sentence was lightened to a couple hours in the morning before lunch.)

I’ve also been positioned next to two of my English-speaking co-teachers, so it’s easy for me to ask them a question about whatever special event is planned for the day. With new office-mates and incoming teachers, we had three school dinners in my first week so that everyone could get to know everybody.

I’ve even started coming to terms with my new schedule:

 

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

1: 8:40 – 9:30

Class

Class

 

Class

 

2: 9:40 – 10:30

Class

Class

 

Class

Class

3: 10:40 – 11:30

 

Class

Class

   

4: 11:40 – 12:30

   

Class

Class

 

Lunch

         

5: 13:30 – 14:20

Class

 

Club Activity

 

Class

6: 14:30 – 15:20

     

Class

Class

15:20-15:40 Cleaning

         

7: 15:40 – 16:30

 

Class

Class

 

Class

After school

   

Extracurricular

Conversation

Class

   

First- and last-period classes are some of the most difficult to teach. In the morning the students are all exhausted—be it from studying late at cram school or playing video games until 3 AM—and at the end of the day they just want to get the heck out of school. After-school classes have started up already, so the mass exodus at 4:30 on the first day has become a bit of a sad drizzle. I only teach my extracurricular class once a week, for which I’m paid overtime, but my colleagues usually have classes four days a week after hours.

The break between 6th and 7th period is for the students to clean the school. I think it’s one of those character-building activities left over from the old Japanese educational system, but I’m not sure how well it works. Usually the students just sort of mop dust in circles and run away early for an extra five minutes of free time. This year, the students who clean my classroom are really sweet and work hard.

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Speaking of my classroom, I’ve been put in charge of the English-language books from the school library. They’ve been removed from the catalog, so the students are free to borrow them whenever they like and for however long they please. When I first arrived at the school, I was impressed with the variety and quality of the reading material available. Some of it is probably too difficult for most of the students, but whoever put it together clearly knew what he or she was doing.

The weather has been appropriate for March. When classes began, we’d hit a bit of a warm spell. I started washing my winter clothes and hanging my big, thick comforters up to dry. Then I left the classroom at lunchtime one day to see this:

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Being as close to the sea as we are, this kind of sudden, wet snowfall is common around this time of year. Almost all of it disappeared after a day, but it’s happened at least once more since then. We seem to have come to the end of it now—knock on wood—and the blossoms have already started to open up.

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So the seasons turn, and the time keeps moving forward. My quietest first-year classes become the most raucous as they get to know each other. My lessons never plan themselves. My friends complete their contracts and leave Korea for other adventures. Meanwhile, I, too, start tightening my belt in preparation for things to come.

As the expression goes, “It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply.” But I think it’s mostly a blessing. 

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