I’ve just completed the first two and a half of four and a half weeks of winter vacation classes that I have to teach. The final two commence in two weeks time, after the pupils are back at school for a strange two weeks in the middle of their winter holiday. Normally, I prepare for about nine lessons per week, each of which I teach at least twice with a Korean co-teacher. The preparation is shared between us. However, during the holiday I have to teach twenty-two different classes per week, preparing them all, alone, in the same amount of time I normally have to prepare nine.

Not only does this mean that I stay at least one hour late after work every single day, but on one occasion I got up before 6am with the aim of arriving at 7am to continue my preparations. And worse than this is that despite all this extra time, the lessons are still rubbish, because there is not time to stop and think through what I’m teaching. It’s just a panicked pulling together of enough material to fill the minutes.

The result of this is that I feel a contributor to one of the biggest problems the Korean education system has, namely, having children spend their evenings, weekends and vacations in what are mostly poor-quality extra lessons. My lessons were free, but my pupils come from rich families so that’s not of any significance.

For the first two weeks I taught a high-ability fifth grade class every morning, and despairing at pulling together materials, I found a textbook for adults and treated them like adults, teaching them in something resembling the way I was taught to teach adults back in July. This worked: the classes were boring because of my not having enough time to jazz the textbook up, but I do not believe the pupils were any more bored than adults would have been.

I tentatively put this down to my pupils’ lives being so like those of overworked undergraduates rather than eleven-year-olds. I asked my pupils what they would be doing in the afternoon after my class; they generally said that they were heading off to the private academies for more classes. This reminded me very much of undergraduates moving between the different university buildings in a city. I asked them what they were doing at the weekend, and they said they would be sleeping and nothing else. Again, the way in which they expressed this reminded me of undergraduates.

Something else that this experience made me realise is just how uninterested I am in teaching children. I almost always enjoy the actual teaching because I enjoy interacting with my pupils, but I detest preparing for lessons because I continually draw blanks when thinking about what to teach and how to teach it. Contrast this with what I learned about in July. I now think rather highly of aspects of modern EFL that I scoffed at back then. The teacher’s job is to figure out how to enable her students to work with the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing above the level they would be able to work out without the teacher’s input of carefully chosen bits of informatin, and interruptions at carefully chosen points in the work to give guidance.

Though I’m sure that I’m idealising the performances of the experienced teachers we observed, this is a skill that I would consider investing a fair chunk of my life into acquiring. But it’s impossible with children. A highly-skilled lesson in a Korean elementary school is never going to be as engaging to prepare for, so far as I can tell, firstly because the language level is just too low, and secondly because of the way children are. Neither of these things is avoidable.

The reason for all these classes is that the Incheon Metropolitan Office of Education passed down a command that schools make sure we have our contracted 22 lessons of teaching per week throughout the school vacation. My immediate superiors decided to follow this command, even though I’ve only met one other person whose school did; most other people just sit at their desks for two weeks. I don’t take issue with this decision in my school at all; I can understand why they took IMOE’s message seriously.

When things get back to normal and the fresh school year starts things will be significantly better because I will be working from a base of the textbook, and my co-teacher’s deep understanding of the Korean elementary school classroom. I find that I can be somewhat creative in preparation with them: I definitely have something to contribute when I don’t feel like I’m just floundering continually with no knowledge at all.

In the meantime, I find that the bad time I’ve been having at school and into the evenings and mornings means that I’ve a really low opinion of Korea, and I’m frequently culturally insensitive. I noted before that one of my co-teachers has told me that my complaining about things makes her feel she needs to do something about them, and I’ve not been careful about keeping quiet when there’s definitely nothing she can do (such as with these 22 classes). I feel that her and I are both victims of the system so my complaining to her should not make her feel obligated to do anything, but she doesn’t see it that way. I don’t know if it’s personality or culture or both, but I have not been careful because I’ve been feeling low.

Continuing this theme, this main co-teacher has taken a lot of my comments about Korea recently as highly judgemental; several times I think I have upset her. Perhaps a lot of the comments have been judgemental: I’m no moral relativist. Again, I don’t know how much of this is cultural and how much of it is a clash of personalities. In general though my cultural sensitivity has been poor. Hopefully I can improve it.