Transitions commence new adventures. Make 'em last…

First Impressions

On the third day of my classroom & school observation, many teachers, the principal, and several public school workers invited me to go on hike about 25 miles outside of Wolgot near a town called Ilsan. It is somewhat of a school tradition to go on a joint hiking expedition for new incoming teachers and administrative staff; something I think is quite awesome. The hike was far from easy as the terrain was generally uphill and steep; and again, even though I’m very much in shape and can handle strenuous activity quite well, I was the only one sweating profusely. When we all reached the top, a panorama of spectacular views overwhelmed the senses…

Beautiful sky over Gimpo City across the river

Seoul's Bordering Cities

I was breathing heavily after having just endured an uphill battle, but these prodigious views immediately fostered solace and bliss that transcended far beyond what I had imagined. What soon followed was a toast to my beginning. The principal, who is very kind-hearted and endearing, remembered me mentioning that I love wine and surprised me with a bottle of aged Cabernet Sauvignon, which she poured into small cups for everyone. To top it off, she pulled out the box of Ghiradelli chocolates I had previously given her as my “gift” in following asian custom, something that I would discern that most foreign teachers overlook as she was initially surprised when she received it. There was exactly enough chocolate truffles for everyone, which honestly, paired absolutely perfect with the Cabernet. However, before we all took our first drink, everyone raised their cups of wine in recognition of my beginning and toasted to my success as a teacher in South Korea and at Wolgot Elementary School.

Cheers to my beginning

The Principal & I pointing to Gimpo City in the distance

After we all finished our wine, about five minutes later it seemed that the wine went to our heads as we all began to start joyfully laughing. I must remind you that we all had just hiked an hour without drinking water, but that didn’t matter, it made for a very mirthful moment.

Wolgot Elementary School is really a great place! All the teachers and staff are very friendly towards me and towards each other making for a merry work environment, in addition to the fact that almost the entire staff spends time together outside of work.

Wolgot Elementary School

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the town of Wolgot sits roughly 30-35 minutes northwest of Gimpo city and is about 3 miles from the DMZ. Wolgot is surrounded by scattered villages, small middle-class suburbs, high rising mountains and very fertile farmland. The student count is around 140 and the socio-economic composition of the student body varies greatly, as I’ve perceived that the majority of the students come from low-income families, while a good handful come from fairly wealthy families from the local suburbs and with very few in between. This initial observation may not be totally accurate, but on my third day observing the school, I rode with the bus driver picking up students from what appeared to be somewhat rundown villages and homes along the DMZ, making it a little apparent that they had little resources. Ultimately, I would surmise that the student’s primary resource is the school; thus, any extra instruction given will be of sublime benefit and I intend to give the students my all.

I taught and tutored small groups of students in English for about 5 months while living in Spain, but this is essentially the first time that I’ve ever taught in a classroom setting. Even though I’ve only taught English at Wolgot Elementary School for a few days, I’ve discovered that I have a knack for it and really enjoy it. I can foresee myself not getting tired of it because of the supreme jubilation during and after each class.

Helping 6th graders with an English activity

Of course, this is considered the ‘honeymoon’ period, and many of you who are teachers will probably say “give it six months.” Ya, I understand that… but I feel that among all the jobs and professions I have tried and pursued, this is the pot of gold. It’s the end of the rainbow for me folks; I can honestly see myself doing this for many years to come.

I admit, there have been those few moments of slight frustration, as in Korean schools, slightly mentally disabled kids (ADHD, etc.) are integrated into each class and I’ve already observed that the information being taught is going in one ear and out the other without any fault of their own. In addition to all the regular classes, I have a few after school classes that only contain 3 or 4 of these slightly mentally disabled students and even though they are in 5th grade, the regular 1st grade students apparently understand more information than they do. This frustrates me just a tad as there is only so much I can do for them. There doesn’t seem to be any direct pressure to make sure that they know super specific information, but I am going to work hard to see to it that they learn a good quanity of information and have them practice it constantly. I have never been given charge of teaching “special” students, and the previous English teacher had somewhat of tough time teaching them and utilized English games to calm them down since they have a hard time listening. However, yesterday I made some pretty good headway with a few of these students teaching them some basic concepts through the use of games, but I can foresee it’s going to be a little tough going deeper than that. In spite of all this, I also teach other afterschool classes with supremely gifted students who at the age of 7, understand everything I say and ask of them to do. Much pleasure comes from teaching these students, and essentially, what I’ve discovered is that it all balances out. Tis is life…

After my last class of the week, I gazed out the classroom windows, enjoyed the view, and prayed…

View from my classroom desk

Yesterday was also a School vs School volleyball match. Teachers from Wolgot Elementary, including myself, and a group of teachers from another school from across the river joined to play in the Wolgot Elementary School gym. Everyone was duly curious as to how good of a volleyball player I was. I told them I’m from California and used to play all the time at the beach, but I could discern that they felt a little uncertain. As I was tying my shoes before the game I actually prayed that we would win in order to further help me solidify relationships that I’ve begun to build with all my fellow teachers and staff. Basically, I wanted them to believe in my athletic ability since it appears that sports are huge deal among my fellow teachers. Therefore, I wanted to win, badly!

The match started and the ball was lifted up and hit over the net to our side. The ball floated to the center and he tapped it just enough to get it to the designated setter who then soared it high in my direction. When the ball reached the perfect position I jumped as I high could and with a loud yell, spiked it over the net which immediately hit an opponent in the chest and bounced away. Everyone clapped and congratulated me, and I immediately sensed a genuine comradery building among all the team members. In a best of 5 match, we beat the school 3-2. In addition, the match ended the same way it started, with me spiking the ball over the net. For a moment during the match I was very concerned that we weren’t going to win, and later I was actually curious about the match itself because the first two games we won by an 8 point margin and then we lost the next two games by that very same margin. It looked as if my fellow teachers were not playing in the same capacity as before, and luckily in the final game we came back to win from a 5-point deficit.

Wolgot Elementary School volleyball team (w/ principal on the far left)

Later, when talking with one of the teachers that speaks a little English, I asked him why we apparently did not beat the school 3-0. He then typed a Korean word into a translation program on his phone, which popped up as: CONSIDERATION. He then described to me in broken English that it’s not advisable to beat them 3-o because they came to our school, and is bad sportsmanship. Bad sportsmanship, really? This is just one facet on how Koreans apparently treat each other, even in fairly competitive matches, and I learned quantities from this event. It almost seems rather paradoxical, as the other team eagerly, I mean really eagerly wanted to win and tried hoards to maneuvers to squash our efforts.

Tired, I was dropped off at my apartment in Gimpo-si and was immediately confronted by some of my neighbors while going up the stairs who were going to the rooftop to chill and have a beer; I decided to join them. My apartment complex is full of foreigners from many parts of the world, including: South Africa, England, Canada, Australia, and a few from around the US. The rooftop, which is is analogous to an open patio, is just one quick flight of stairs from my 4th floor apartment and has pretty cool views of the bustling part of the Gimpo-si: the Saudong district.

My Apartment Rooftop View of Saudong District

The Saudong district of Gimpo-si is where the action is. The good restaurants, bars, stores, and almost anything else one would want is there. After having a beer on the rooftop, I split and decided to go for a walk through the entire Saudong district in attempt to memorize where specific stores and restaurants are located, in addition to perhaps grabbing dinner. I must have walked a 3 to 4 mile loop through Gimpo-si and as I was approaching the street that heads to my apartment, I hear, “Paul! Paul!”

To my immediate surprise it was all my fellow teachers whom had just played volleyball a few hours earlier and our vice-principal. They were on their way to getting dinner, and in truth, I was actually a little relieved because I was really innately hoping I would run into one of them to perhaps help me when ordering something I know I would like. Two days ago I bought what I thought was soy milk, which unfortunately turned out to be some kind of bean milk that tasted like burnt cork; I had taken a large gulp of that stuff which was quickly heaved into the nearby sink. I laugh thinking about it now. Anyway, it was a great, random surprise running into my fellow Wolgot Elementary teachers in the middle of town. They treated me to a bounteous dinner and insisted that I invite them to a get-together/party at my apartment to indulge tasty american cuisine. Apparently there is a Costco nearby where I can find some american BBQ items and decent wine to compliment each dish, but first thing is first… I need a barbeque.

6 comments on “First Impressions

  1. carmen
    October 18, 2010

    what a great story. i love the part where you hit the volleyball over the net and it ricocheted off the other team’s chest. you are too competitive sometimes. i started laughing so hard when i read about the ‘burnt cork’ milk. that is the way things will be over there for a while; trying new things that you may or may not like. hearing these stories makes me miss you that much more. when will the next time be before i see you again? keep up the good writing material. carm

  2. carey
    October 19, 2010

    wow, they really do hang out ALOT after work! Cool they are so active

  3. Wyley
    October 19, 2010

    You saw the volleyball and were like BAM!!!
    I love the crosscultural stories. I miss that life. I miss you man.

  4. Glennda Hardin
    October 20, 2010

    So, learning a little about sports habits of other cultures, are we? I really wish sports in school in Texas wasn’t so competitive. It would be great if kids could just go out and play for the fun of playing. I guess those days are long gone….

    I’m enjoying this blog–keep it up!

  5. Glennda Hardin
    October 20, 2010

    Oh, yeah, forgot to tell you–I’m so envious that you get to look at that beautiful countryside every day! Don’t ever let yourself take that for granted.

  6. Katy
    October 21, 2010

    Paul, your stories and pictures are amazing. Keep ’em coming!

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This entry was posted on October 16, 2010 by in South Korea and tagged , , , , .

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“Experience, travel – these are as education in themselves.”

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