First days as an ESL teacher: Korean names, pre-teen monsters and being nicknamed “Christmas Teacha”

My first days teaching have flown by in an extreme blur of hastily prepared lesson plans and learning (faking) familiarity with the curriculum. Seemingly simple tasks such as taking attendance have unexpectedly turned into Christine’s comedy hour as I horribly mispronounce the students’ Korean names producing a class full of laughing students and sometimes hurt feelings. Some of the students with particularly difficult names to pronounce deal with this by adopting nicknames; for example, Jae Hee becomes “Jelly” and another student (whose real name I forget) is nicknamed Mandu – the Korean word for dumpling, I will add. Not knowing how to correctly pronounce the students’ names has made it extremely difficult to establish authority in the class but then again, just about everything makes it hard to establish authority here….

For instance, my older students that are in that most unfortunate and awkward life stage –some in puberty and others not—are no longer motivated by stamps or stickers and don’t really care if you tell them “good job!” and actually prefer it if you left them well enough alone with their giant Samsung cell-phones. Another grumble- I have to repeatedly tell a girl in my PRESCHOOL phonics class that she needs to put her cell phone away during class. WHY!?? Anyway, the tweens may only want to talk about the latest k-pop stars, how to straighten their hair, and sports but, they certainly do NOT want to talk about these subjects in English. This overly pronounced pre-teen angst and rebellion creates the perfect storm in the ESL classroom- not only do my students disrespect me because I am a teacher, they also conveniently use Korean as a code language and refuse to speak English to me, making it impossible to get through even the best planned lesson.

For those who have had the pleasure of teaching those most horrible of human-monsters that are in my opinion mislabeled “pre-teens”, I pity you and I know you understand my pain. For those who think I am being overly dramatic, let me just illustrate by saying I never imagined that I would be on the receiving end of a 13 year old girl’s hate art. Literally, she drew a picture of me, glasses and all, labeled it ‘Christine Teacher’ and had started to write the first two letters of a very negative word directed towards females that starts with a “B” when I pleasantly asked her about her lovely drawing and she took the opportunity to morph her previously chosen misnomer into the benign, “blah”. Yeah.

Basically, my first days with my classes I knew I had to try and be firm from the start but it was way harder to establish respect than I had imagined. Most of these kids have had foreign English teachers for years now and the older ones especially are no longer all that stupefied just at the sight of us. As the days have gone on, I have made some changes and have come up with a system that seems to be working well enough (at least with the real humans) so far to try and put a stop to all the Korean speaking in my classes. As soon as someone speaks Korean, I write their name on the board and put a “K” next to it and they have to stand up for the rest of class or until I say so. If they continue to speak in Korean and get a total of 3 “K”s beside their name, they are automatically sent out of my class to the desk and a call will be made home to their parents. I’ve yet to have to take it that far but my worst class is (of course) preteens on Tuesday/Thursday and unlike the younger students, who tell on each other and let me know when the others are speaking Korean, the older kids choose to argue openly about whether or not they were actually whispering in Korean. I mean, they must think that because I am not fluent in their native language, that I am automatically and obviously an imbecile. Really, you were whispering in English during the test? Oh yeah, that’s completely excusable, totally the truth and also makes perfect sense, who whispers in their native language anyway?

On the other hand, I have to give a shout-out to my precious little kids. Little Seung Min, with his overgrown bowl cut tells me nearly every day that he wants to be an English teacher like me when he grows up. Darling Yu Min, with her pig-tails and bows and super-Asian ambition asks me, “why you only want to be one thing? I want to be doctor and pianist!” Adorable and hyperactive Woo Jin, who aptly nicknamed me “Christmas teacher” may be different from his classmates but is really a brilliant kid with impeccable penmanship and a tender heart. My twin buddies, Hee Hak and Hee Won, are probably going to change the face of the world someday. All in all, my students are absolutely making every struggle worth it and I cannot even believe how much I love them already.


2 thoughts on “First days as an ESL teacher: Korean names, pre-teen monsters and being nicknamed “Christmas Teacha”

  1. Could you give them English names just for class. In French class we all picked our own French names. Mine was Chocolat, of course. Because I grew up and became a stripper.

    1. Haha well, Chocolat, it is basically school policy that we use their Korean names- spelled out in Romanized letters. Also, I have around 100 students and it would be insane trying to give them all different names–there would be too many repeats. It is crazy that out of all those students, I think I only have 2 name repeats. It’s getting easier to memorize them and now I’d say I have about 80% memorized!

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