Sunday, 24 April 2011

New school year, new strict routine

Way back in March, we started the new school year with a fresh batch of 1st year middle school students (12 -13 year olds in Western age) to shape and mould in our own image (I wish). In Korea the school year runs from March to February rather than September to June like in the UK. We both had high hopes for the new school year and wanted to enforce a consistent and straightforward discipline/rewards system to try to instigate better classroom management this time around.  

One of the problems with being a native English teacher in a Korean public school is you usually don't have any teaching experience and are just dropped straight into teaching a class of 35-40 kids s soon as you get to your new school. No support, no training, no guidance on what you should be doing and not even a chance to sit in on other teachers' classes to see what they do. At least that is our experience anyway. In fact, I've met teacher's who have had to teach a full day of classes straight off the plane before they've even seen their apartment, let alone had a chance to recover from jet lag or anything. This means, of course, that you end up learning everything as you go, from lesson planning, effective classroom management to how to use the classroom equipment and what the school actually expects you to teach in your lessons. One of the many disadvantages of this is that for many people, including us, the first few months of your new job teaching English in Korea can be confusing, frustrating and stressful. I remember how difficult it was for me to get even the smallest amount of information out of my Korean co-teachers when I first started. 
The co-teacher's role is to support the native English teacher in the lesson, such as by translating instructions into Korean if necessary or helping with classroom discipline. However, their exact role and the extent to which they participate in the lesson is not set in stone and varies massively from teacher to teacher. Some co-teachers actually "co-teach" as an equal partner, coming to the front and explaining things to the class and actively getting involved in the lesson. However, many of them don't get involved beyond occasionally shouting at the students to be quiet or doing a bit of translating if absolutely necessary. I've heard of some co-teachers who don't bother showing up to the native English teacher's class at all but I think that isn't seriously common. When I first got to my school I wanted to know what the previous native English teacher did in his classes to give me an idea of where to start: things like, what games did he play with the kids, how was the lesson usually structured, what worked and what didn't work. No good. I struggled to even get my co-teachers to tell me what pages of the textbook I was responsible for let alone what they expected me to do with the rest of the lesson. Consequently, I think I was a pretty terrible teacher when I first started out as I didn't know what I was doing and had no time to learn before I was slung straight into the classroom to teach (I had to teach a class on my first day at the school in the first period at 9am - no time for preparation -luckily I had a vague lesson plan sketched out by a friend who had been working in Korea for a couple of years already or I wouldn't have known what to do). 

Not only was I shaky with the lesson planning and making of teaching materials, I also seriously struggled with discipline and maintaining order in the classroom. Don't believe any of that racist BS about Asian kids all being perfectly behaved, quiet, shy science geeks - so not true. They're just like kids of the same age back home but possibly even more rowdy and hyperactive. From my experience, there aren't many problems with kids bringing weapons or drugs into school like there might be in the UK or North America but there are plenty of different discipline problems here. My main problem was the noise level in class. They just wouldn't (and often still don't) be quiet when I'm talking. I would ask repeatedly for them to be quiet, their Korean teachers would bawl at them but still they kept chatting while I was trying to teach. One of my co-teachers suggested that I had "a very small voice" and that I needed to "shout more" so the students could hear me. I quietly informed her that the students needed to "stop talking when I'm talking then everybody can hear". She looked non plussed by this and when I asked her what she did she said she "shouted". She, like many of the teachers at my school, also carried a small, microphone and speaker set clipped onto her jacket that she used to amplify her shouting so students could hear - and I thought they were supposed to be "listening"! 

So discipline was a serious problem and it was compounded by the fact that I was made to teach straight away with no real idea what I was doing so I made a lot of mistakes and spent the first 3 months or so changing my approach on a regular basis to try to find the best formula for my classes. Inconsistency is, of course, a bad thing when you're dealing with children and makes you look weak and disorganised so they naturally take advantage which exacerbates the discipline problem. The confusion over what I should be doing in class and what the Korean co-teacher should be responsible for also made things difficult. I often felt that they should be helping maintain discipline a lot more than some of them did as they actually spoke Korean (being able to speak to the students in their native language is a real plus when you're asking them why they've turned up 15 minutes late AGAIN! - maybe they actually had a reason but as the naughty kids are usually the ones who don't speak much English it was very hard for me to tell). Also, I was the one who had to stand at the front of the classroom and do the teaching as I had sole responsibility for planning the lesson so I didn't see how they could expect me to discipline the naughty kids at the same time as presenting to the rest of the class - and then what would their role be? 

However, some of my co-teachers complained (not to me) that I wasn't managing the class well enough when I was first there so I felt pretty frustrated for the first few months and wanted to set this right with the advent of a new school year. It was a chance to start again (with the 1st graders at least - and luckily for me I was only teaching the 1st graders this year - no more sullen, moody 2nd graders for me) with a new set of rules and with several months of experience under my belt. I also found out that I would be teaching with all new co-teachers this year so I could start again with them too. 

The plan was simple but required a fair bit of preparation work on our part (Rowan and I both implemented pretty much the same system at our schools). It was the good old time honoured team points system that aimed to utilise the students' natural competitiveness and use it against  them (for their own benefit of course)! The basic idea is that the kids get put into teams at the beginning of the year and stay in those teams for a set amount of time. They get points for good behaviour and lose them for bad behaviour. At the end of the set amount of time (a semester, a month or year or whatever) the best team wins a prize. I originally started off saying that it would be for a year but I quickly realised that a year was too far off for the students to really get into it so I changed it to a semester. There's also a green card (good) / yellow card (bad) system already set up at my school so I gave green cards to the winning team at the end of each class as well as keeping running scores for each team from week to week. Rowan didn't have the green card system at his school so he let the teams out in order of their place in the team points system with the winning team leaving first which he said worked well.

We both spent a lot of time making seating plan diagrams that mapped out the desks in our respective classrooms and sticking corresponding seat numbers on the desks during the holidays so that we could get the kids sitting by their student numbers to try to avoid having all the bad ones sitting together as usually happens. We also hoped that by sitting them according to their student numbers and having a seating plan for each class with a student's name next to their seat number would help us to get to know their names (or at least make us look like we did as theoretically we could refer to the plan during a lesson and use it to call a student by their actual name - imagine that). To be honest we never really managed to learn many of our kids' names even with the seating plan but it was worth a try. In our defence, I see nearly 500 kids a week and Rowan sees more like 800 so it was a pretty tall order.  

My freshly numbered tables back in March - they didn't stay looking like this for long unfortunately as the kids steadily picked away at the numbers over the next few weeks much to my ongoing annoyance.

The numbers I stuck on my desks were far too large. It took me ages to print, cut out and stick down all 36 numbers. Rowan was much more sensible and used much smaller pieces of paper that only required one strip of tape. 

The first time we saw each class, we made them line up by their student number and then got them to sit in their corresponding seat. This caused some confusion at first (which the students of course took advantage of to waste time) but we got there in the end. We decided to spend the first two week's of classes establishing the class rules and setting up the team point system.  In week 1, we very briefly introduced ourselves (just our names, where we were from and what the students could call us), explained that the students had to sit in the same seats for every English class and got them to fill out the seating plan with their names and student number so we could try to learn who they all were. We got them to pick team names with the provisos that they had to be 2 words, in English and not rude. Some teams were too lazy/confused/distracted to think of their own (appropriate) name so I or my co teacher named them ourselves. A lot of the teams decided to go with names inspired by Korean soap operas (namely Dream High and Secret Garden) or computer games (Star craft and Sudden Attack) though I also got some pretty funny/ weird ones from my lot. There was the aptly named Korean People team, School Banking, Big Money and Business Class teams (future salary-men and women perhaps), No Brains team (named by Mr Moon my co teacher), Big Brain team, Textbook Team (wonder where they got the inspiration for that from), the scarily named World Master team, the Indian Gandhi and Smart Gandhi teams (not sure why they were so obsessed with Gandhi), the Crazy Boys (annoying more like), the weirdly named Super Contents team and Smart TV team, the Red Humans, the polar opposite Nothing Better team and Always So-So team (Korean kids love saying they feel "so-so" much to the chagrin of us English teachers - I mean nobody really says that do they?) and the appropriately named No Idea team. There was also the instructional Be Quiet and Right Now teams (wonder why they know those commands...) and a whole host of animal teams including Dog Cake (I named them), the Sydney Dogs, the Dark Horse team, Cow Dragon (a joint naming effort between a student and myself), the Chicken team, the Rainbow Monkeys and the Golden Monkeys and the Cat and Dog kids. I also teams with zombie oin the name including the Rainbow Zombies and the Smart Zombies - perhaps they were the ones responsible for the No Brains team's catastrophic lack of grey matter.

The Big Brain live up to their name early on in the year.

After choosing the team names and explaining the team points system we did a short graffiti exercise with the students to talk about what makes a good class. Basically, this involved setting up 6 different 'stations' on different tables and each station had a piece of chart paper with a topic written on it. The topics were things like 'What to bring to class" and "What not to do in class" and the idea was that each team had one minute to write their ideas on the piece of chart paper. After the minute was up, all the teams rotated to the next station and then the next until they ended up back at their own table. Then the teams got a couple of minutes to look at all the answers and if there was enough time we had a quick feedback session. I got this idea from our lovely Canadian neighbours Jen and Leif, who also happen to be real life qualified teachers (seriously). It worked quite well and the kids seemed to enjoy being able to move around a bit too. With my low level classes the kids ideas were pretty limited due to their lack of English but the high level kids had plenty to say of course. Both Rowan and I had instances where the Korean co-teacher's tried to intervene and stop the kids form moving around, instead making them pass the chart paper from table to table. This kind of missed the point though as getting the kids moving and active was integral to the idea. We collected the chart papers back and explained that the ideas the students had come up with would be used to help make the rules for English class and that next week we would make posters of the rules.

As promised, the following week I made a PowerPoint of the range of answers that the kids had given for each of the topics including the silly ones (What to bring to class - brain, body, spirit etc.) and laid out the 7 rules for English class. In hindsight, I think 7 was probably too many but most of it was pretty obvious stuff, like they should always bring their pens and textbooks to class (well, d'uh, but loads of them don't). Then we got down to making some posters for the rules. Each poster had to include the rule and the reason for that rule. I got some pretty nice ones and a few funny ones that made me laugh but which I couldn't really put on the wall. I picked the best ones to go up on the walls and those teams got green cards and a few team points too. 

Rule #1 - Be quiet when teacher is talking!

Rule #2 - Bring a pen. Rule #3 Bring a textbook (just for once, pleeease!).And yes I am the purple person in picture 2 though ,my hair isn't really red and yellow, not all the time anyway!

Rule #4 - If you want to talk, put up your hand (farting not necessary!)


 Rule #5 - Arrive on time (as if that's ever gonna happen!) or get ready for danger of the late zone!

Yep, being late can really land you in the shit! You might turn into a cyclops if you're really late.

This rule seemed to get the best response from the kids when they were making their posters - shame they never stuck to it though.

Rule #6 - Try to speak English in class.

Nice picture on this one but forgot the English part - d'oh!

Rule #7 - Be nice in English Class! The kids' favourite one to draw was no fighting of course. 

After those first two weeks it was back to teaching normal classes again. Looking back now there are a few things I would have done differently and I do wonder how much good those first 2 weeks of discussing the rules actually did. By week 4 or 5 some of the classes behaviour was already beginning to slip, mainly the low level classes in my case, and I felt that despite spending two weeks on rules many kids had forgotten all that which I suppose isn't that surprising given their age. I still think it was good to spend some time establishing what was good and bad behaviour and I would do something similar again though maybe only over one week and with less rules. 

The team points system was really good for encouraging participation, in fact sometimes I wished that they would participate a little less as fighting to be the ones to give the answer to a question to get team points was a bit annoying. Still, being too excited about answering a question in class has to be better than looking at a bunch of bored, silent students instead. If I were to do it again I think I would scrap the prize at the end of the semester and just give green cards to the best team at the end of each class. This would stop me from having to keep track of the scores from every class for weeks and make it unnecessary for me to fork out for tons of candy at the end of the semester. I also found, that as the weeks went by some teams would start to seriously lag behind and lose interest in the lessons so starting fresh every week would have been a better idea. 

I think, in the end, it's hard as a Native Teacher to be the disciplinarian of the class when a) you probably don't speak Korean (as I mentioned earlier) and b) if the kids are allowed to get away with stuff like turning up late and talking all the time in their other classes it makes it harder to enforce those rules in your own classes. Ultimately, having a good co-teacher is the key and if you get landed with a dud one then you're pretty screwed. 

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