Saturday, June 20, 2009

Open Classes Day or Fear and Loathing on the Kindergarten Campaign Trail

Has it really been a month since I posted last? Ugh! So sorry but as this entry will attest, I have been busy busy busy with one of the most important events in a Hogawon's school year.

I recently had my "Open Class Day" which any reader of this blog who has ever taught overseas will probably immediately identify with and sympathize. For those of you who teach in the Western countries I imagine there is probably something comparable to this event. For all the rest of you, including myself up until four weeks ago, let me summarize this intense and important event in the academic school calendar for a Korean Hogawon in the most honest way I can:

"Open Class Day" is the day where the parents of the children enrolled at a private academy get a chance to see how their money is being spent.

The nicely padded lines of "demonstrating our program to the adults" or "giving our students a chance to show their knowledge with their parents" is about as honest and effective as sitting in a methadone clinic decorated with posters of kittens dangling off trees with a cursive "Hang in There" tilted on the bottom. At the end of the day "Open Class Day" will make or break a school's financial future for the next year and with that event horizon come people's careers. A bad impression will lead to a bad reputation and as anyone in business understands, a satisfied costumer is mute next to an unhappy one. You can guess this leads to some anxiety within the school.

For the sixty minutes that the parents were in my classroom my supervisor and I spent four weeks preparing. When I got my class the room I received was literally disgusting. The teacher and supervisor who had it before us really didn't do anything to improve it at all. There was dust everywhere, absent staples holding up nothing scattershot throughout the walls like tommy gun bullets, ridiculous felt boards holding up slacking over colored paper of yellowing smily face suns and ugly trees. It looked like a derelict day care center to be completely honest with you. Rebecca, my supervisor, and I basically inherited a mess.

Then there were the kids. The class I have is full of adorable little humans but the level between them is so vast they are really two different classes. The smart kids are very very smart and the slow kids are very very slow. It brought a huge degree of anxiety to the people who run the school when they sat in my class and saw firsthand what I deal with daily, and had commented on to them about up to the point daily by the way, that the kids were leveled up together based on the parents shelling out money, not their inherent abilities. Being that I teach the highest level kindergarten class the spotlight was on my class big time and my class was underperforming by their standards due to the fact that half of them aren't geniuses like the other half. So we had rehearsals for the big show. Then another one with notes on how to make the dumb ones look not so dumb.

Then another one. And more notes, this time more activities almost like dance numbers.

The ANOTHER one! And more notes! This time with them needing to learn songs with only two days to go!

By the end of this I was absolutely flummoxed. I felt the school was using my class to cover up for their own mistakes of letting certain kids pass by the levels instead of paying attention to begin with. Plus the people that ran the school were talking about the slower ones in a negative light using phrases like "we just don't care about them" or "we can't let them drag us down." Hey, these are 6 year old kids, if four out of eight are smart enough to diagram a sentence at 6 thats great for you but the rest of them are not going to be tossed aside because they don't fit your model of the golden goose. I went to bat hard for these kids and found the school's behavior regarding them highly reprehensible. This lead to a lot of tension for a little while. Plus my supervisor would be in my room constantly scaring the living hell out of them to learn Yellow Submarine and other songs to impress their parents with. It was a dog and pony show basically and I was the white MC to it.

Well Open Class Day came, I wore a very nice suit, the kids were lined up in their seats with care, rows of chairs were set up and the parents came shuffling in and we were off. I'm a performer so being in front of a group of strangers is very comfortable for me and with that comes the ability to gauge and direct an audience's energy. When the kids were quiet, I would look at the parents and quip "wow! They are never this quiet," and that would make the parents laugh. The kids all jumped through their flaming hoops well enough. When the climax of the show hit and they did their screaming at the top of their lungs rendition of Yellow Submarine I saw the look on their parents smiling faces that we had succeeded. Money would be flowing in for the next year and the director of the school, who has said two words to me the entire time I've been there by the way, leaned over to my supervisor and whispered "he's very good." I shook their hands as the parents shuffled off and thanked them for coming and was called "Superman" by three of them.

Since then it has been a different situation altogether. My supervisor knows what will set me off and visa versa, our working relationship is much easier. The school leaves my class the hell alone and actually listens to my comments now after seeing firsthand I'm not just saying something for the sake of it. Basically I earned my stripes so I get to teach them in peace. Now that its over I can look back on the experience and feel pride in having accomplished it but WOW was it a hilariously tense and massively awkward four weeks. I mean I participated in really passionate arguments over Raffi songs versus Yellow Submarine. The subjects of debate alone are just so odd that during the heated exchanges I was outside myself looking down thinking, what are you talking about?! Grown ups arguing about the merits and value of a Beatles' song trumping "Down By the Bay" in grammatical value. Amazing.

So again, so sorry for the month delay in posting, my hands have just been very full. Normal posting schedule will resume and there is lots of more stuff to talk about. Thanks again for stopping by and we'll see you soon!

Physical update: I've lost 15lbs since I've been here! Yikes! The lifestyle here just pours the weight off you.

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