Teaching from the Bottom of the Totem Pole

6 Sep

I mentioned in my last post that when you’re a Native English Teacher in Korea, you are often (if not always) placed at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to hierarchal positioning. After giving it some thought I realize I should elaborate a bit on this. Plus being that my first full week of teaching has come to an end, I should probably share some of my new found insights while they’re still fresh in my dreads.

First off, the view from the bottom of the totem pole isn’t all bad. Yes, I’m the last to find out about any and everything that goes on in my school (this includes random lesson planning sessions with my co-teachers, an introduction to the entire school given via live video broadcast and a retirement ceremony/dinner party that I was told not to miss), and yes, having to teach for almost four hours straight only to sit and warm a desk for the rest of the day is less than desirable at times, but when it comes down to it, I’m living in a beautiful coastal city with my rent paid for and a crap load of vacation time. I’m a stones throw away from several countries I’ve been trying to get to for some time now, and I’m skirting the mundanity of the broke debt ridden post graduation life that awaits me back home. I’m living a dream compared to some of you rubes in the states! Plus the spontaneity usually leads me into some interesting situations.

For example, at the end of my first day of teaching I’m told that the principal is retiring on the following Monday and that the vice-principal will be transferring to a new school shortly after. This is after I sweat it out in button-up and tie  and bow like a damn slave trying to impress him during our initial meeting. Only to find out that I’ll probably have to do it again. I couldn’t figure out why I should care that the man is retiring when I just arrived as the new Native  English Teacher. That is until Monday rolls around and  my co-teacher tells me during lunch that I’m expected to attend a ceremony for said retiring principal in an hour and a half. Mind you I have lesson planning to do as well as a status to update on Facebook (both equally important), but I smile and say I’ll meet here in the school auditorium 10 min before it starts.

“Ceremony” was an understatement. As it begins there is a 10-min video presentation on the man’s life, followed by a grand introduction. Next everyone stands to sing a song in Korean. I’m handed the lyrics and stare blankly at the characters pretending to follow along, even humming at times to make it seem like I’m completely involved. Before the ceremony is said and done, there are several speeches given complete with plenty of tears bowing, pictures taken and a clarinet performance of Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.” Later my students would ask If I understood anything being said during the ceremony. When my co- teacher translates to them that I understood only the tears and the clarinet  they all enjoyed a good laugh while I pictured the outgoing Principal laughing at me in his office at the same time. .

Still, the kids are the best part of the gig. Everyday I’m hit with a borage of greetings as soon as I walk in the door:
“Hello Mr.Woodson Teacher!”
“Mr. Woodson handsome guy!”
Sometimes the kids just rattle off all of the random english phrases they’ve been taught:
“Hello. How are you doing? I’m fine thank you. Are you Hungry? You have a nice shirt. Bye bye!”
Half the time they say it so fast it sounds like Korean. I just stand there hoping to soon make it to my air conditioned classroom.

The best, however, is noticing the differences between school kids in Korea and those back in the states. For starters, Korean kids bring razors to school. Why? I have no clue. At first I thought it was a low grade way for them to cut paper, but in every classroom there is a big ass basket of scissors that the kids can use whenever they please. I asked my co-teacher why they have them, and still haven’t gotten a concrete answer. The whole thing has me feeling uneasy. I try to ignore it but the kids often extend an retract the blades. It makes a distinct clicking sound that has me thinking I might get shanked at any moment. “Fuck up one english syllable Mr. Woodson and I’ll stick this in your abdomen.” It’s like teaching in midget prison.

In addition to the razor blades you always have to be weary of the famous
“Dong-Chim.” If you’ve ever taught in Korea chances are you just quivered at the sight of those words. Literally translated, “dong-chim” means poop needle. Apparently boy students like to sneak up on their unsuspecting teachers, place their hands together while like a gun with both pointer fingers sticking up and send a quick jab right up the poop shoot. No joke, I read about this on a blog before I left for Korea and It almost deterred me from coming altogether. What kind of shit is that? Not only do I have to worry about young Jun-ho slashing me with his razor, but now I have to watch my back for fear that his buddy might jab me in the rectum while giving a lesson? How the hell am I supposed to teach in this type of environment? A friend of mine teaching in Daegu told me he almost got caught slipping the other day. It was like he was describing a scene from American Me. I told him to pinch his cheeks and pray, and never turn his back on his class. That’s the only advice I had.

I ask one of my co-teachers about Dong-Chim, and she grins (as if it was a joke) and asks is if it has happened to me yet.
I tell her no and she then tells me it’s like a game  and asks if students in the United States do it. First of all dong-chim is NOT a game. Hangman is a game. Jeopardy is a game. Dong-Chim is likened to rape.  In fact, if one of my students tries that shit on me, I guarantee the next lesson they learn will be the proper use of profanity to express anger and distress.  Or even better, I’ll simply release a vile gas bubble right as the litle bugger is trying to penetrate. Ask any of my students back home. I’ve farted on kids for less! And no, kids in the U.S. don’t “play” dong-chim. If that happened in a American public school the kid would probably be sent to counseling for the rest of his natural life.

All joking aside though, my students are eager to learn and I’ve had t pretty easy compared to my other Busan comrades. Some people got stuck in classrooms where discipline is nill, and they get blamed for poor lesson implementation because of it.

I have little to complain about. The differences are apparent, but that hasn’t stopped stop me from giving the kids all the energy I have in teaching my native tongue (and a new handshake or two). I give four or five lessons, eat lunch amongst a bunch of Korean women, and sit on my ass for the rest of the updating my Facebook status and checking up on my hometown sport teams (in addition to planning a lesson or two). Indeed, view from the bottom of the totem pole ain’t half bad.


Kimchi Dreadlocks


13 Responses to “Teaching from the Bottom of the Totem Pole”

  1. Molly Geiger September 7, 2010 at 7:06 AM #

    Makes the twins seem like angels!-Molls

  2. Jimmy September 7, 2010 at 8:47 AM #

    Hi Jay,
    Those razors are called stanley knives and they use them generally for cutting anything, including paper, sharpening their pencils, and carving beautiful pictures into desks.

    • Jaywoodseyo September 7, 2010 at 8:54 AM #

      Another reader mailed me about them last night. It just strikes me as odd that there are pencil sharpeners and scissors in the classroom (and often even in their pencil cases), but they still have stanley knives. Obviously I kid though. I’ve never seen the children play with them in any way violent whatsoever.

      • Jimmy September 7, 2010 at 2:20 PM #

        Yeah, it does seem strange that they have them but what we can we say except ‘welcome to Korea!’

        I think if you keep posting regularly and maintain the same high standard of writing you’ll soon get a decent readership going.

        If you want, you can write a guest post on our blog, anything you choose, and add a short bio at the bottom which would include your blog address.

        You never know, it might help promote your site.

      • Jaywoodseyo September 7, 2010 at 2:32 PM #

        Welcome to Korea indeed! Thanks man. I do hope to keep churning out high quality posts. I’m still new to the K-Blogosphere so that you would offer me a spot to post on your site means a lot. For now, I don’t know that I’m worthy, but if I think something is good enough for Strange Lands, I’ll be sure to send it your way. I got your email. Thanks for the comments! I’ll continue to send people your way.

  3. a squizzle September 7, 2010 at 4:08 PM #

    this post had me straight fallin out the chair laughin! dude your writing is great its like i’m readin a novel in progress keep it up

  4. Sheryl Hurt September 7, 2010 at 9:59 PM #


    Happy to hear your first week went good. I really enjoy reading your page, thoughts, note, etc. I am so excited and blessed that you are family. God Bless You and Love ya!

  5. 3gyupsal September 9, 2010 at 12:38 AM #

    It’s good that you have a flexible attitude about everything so far. I think what drives a lot of people away is the fact that they can’t get over a lot of their fixed preconceptions about things should be organized or not. Get used to all of the last minute changes, or at least try to minimize the surprise as much as possible. Something you could do is to learn how the daily schedule of your school is laid out. The word for English in Korean looks like this “영어.” It’s probably different in your school, but in mine, the classes are written on a grid on a white board in the teacher’s office. If there is a schedule change that I have to worry about “영” is written in red and the class may have been canceled or moved to a different period.

    I check the white board every day for that kind of change, that way it’s not a surprise when a co-teacher forgets to tell me until three minutes before that class. Probably different in your school, but just check to see if there is some kind of system like that that you can hack. Also try to get your hands on the school lunch menus. They will tell you more reliably than your co-teachers when the national holidays are. You may show up to school on the 21st 22nd and 23rd of this month, only to find an empty school, because nobody told you that those days were Chuseok, which is the Korean/Pan-Asian harvest festival. (But don’t assume that you can just stay home on days off on the lunch menu…well chuseok is a pretty safe assumption, but other days they might just want you to sit around and do nothing.) Sorry for the long comment.

    • Jaywoodseyo September 9, 2010 at 1:21 AM #

      No worries on the long comment. Good info on living well in Korea is always welcomed at this blog. Luckily I got a calender from my co-teach the first week of school and it seems pretty legit. Some people are not as lucky and I hope your comment will help them out a bit. Cheers!

  6. Lynn September 21, 2010 at 7:56 AM #

    This is hilarious! I’m sorry I took so long to read it. I am a little disappointed, however–I thought you would be a fan of dong-chim. Must be true what they say about black men being homophobic!

    • Jaywoodseyo October 7, 2010 at 9:38 AM #

      If by homophobic you mean afraid of being ass raped by a elementary schooler’s fingers, then yes, I am guilty as charged. Miss you guys!

  7. collese October 4, 2010 at 6:36 AM #

    I’ve been laughing aloud off and on all afternoon. My son and his girlfriend are headed to Korea in a couple of weeks so I thought I’d look over a few blogs to get a feel for what they’ll be encountering. You’ve reminded me that with a sense of adventure and humor, every day can be a good one.

    • Jaywoodseyo October 5, 2010 at 8:27 AM #

      Thanks for the comment. I do enjoy my time here, despite the oddities, and I’m sure your son and his girlfriend will as well. Have them take a look at the blog (as well as others) when they get a chance. It builds the excitement and prepares one for the land of shiny suits and soju.

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