“Teaching is not about information. It’s about having an honest, intellectual relationship with your students.” -Paul Lockhart
Every week, Monday through Wednesday, I work in the children’s center of a welfare community center for about 3 hours. I mainly work with elementary and middle school students. I thought I would be asked to teach English, like some of my fellow volunteers do at their sites. But instead I was told, “If you speak English, speak very slowly……actually maybe don’t speak English at all. Focus on making relationships with the children and improving your Korean.” So I am to become friends with the kids, but still referred to as 선생님 (seon-sehng-nim) or “teacher”, like the other staff.
Initially, I thought these somewhat vague instructions might bother me. But I have come to really appreciate the simple instruction “make relationships.” Because I am not a teacher, I don’t feel pressured to make sure the children learn anything specific. For lack of a better phrase, it allows me to simply “be.” I can play with the kids, help grade homework, or simply watch and observe their interactions. But oddly enough, some of the kids really like using the limited English they do know around me. The phrases “Hello!”, “I am good!”, and “Yummy!” are quiet popular.
During my first few weeks, there have been some very memorable moments with the kids. A few of the boys like for me to play chess with them. So I play a lot of chess. Though they don’t always follow the rules of the game…
In one game, I played against one boy while another watched. The boy watching was telling me where to move my pieces. I almost always followed his advice, and if I ever disagreed agreed with his advice, I explained why. About halfway through the game, I pointed at him and called him 선생님 and called myself 학생 (hak-sehng) or “student.” It seemed appropriate, since he was calling most of our plays. He looked at me with a puzzled expression, then he smiled and laughed.
Another day, I heard the boys talking about a subject very dear to my heart: Pokémon (it’s a series of cartoons, video games, and a card game about catching monsters and using them to battle). I didn’t know exactly what they were saying, but I still immediately joined the conversation. The boys began naming Pokémon in Korean to see if I recognized the names. However, I quickly realized that only some of the English Pokémon names sound similar to the Korean ones. So we used my phone to look up any Pokémon that the kids mentioned. This was an awesome bonding moment for me and the boys. Unfortunately, after 15 minutes, one of the other teachers came over to me. She said the kids are not allowed to use phones until a certain time in the day. So my phone went back into my pocket. But the boys just kept asking me Pokémon names even if we couldn’t look them up on my phone. Once we exhausted that topic, we named characters from the popular Japanese cartoon One Piece (thankfully all the names sound the same in English and Korean).
A third moment was when I asked an elementary school girl if she was reading a book. But she interpreted it as me saying that I wanted to read a book to her. So she pulled a kids book of the shelf for me to read out loud. Two important context notes: 1) Since my Korean vocabulary is limited, I had to read the whole book syllable-by-syllable, and 2) the book is about a piece of dog poop that gets lonely, makes friends with a rock, and later becomes part of the earth and grows into a flower. It’s actually a beautiful story with a deep message. It’s also comical when read by an incompetent, non-native Korean speaker surrounded by middle school girls who laugh every time the word for poop is spoken. But the girls were great teachers. They were patient with my slow reading speed. And any time I incorrectly pronounced a word, they corrected me and had me read the sentence again.
I guess the moral of these stories is that certain things are universally entertaining, including chess, Pokémon, and poop. And that no matter what your title is, you are always a 학생 (student).