“Teacher Yein! Teacher Yein! You are a princess! You are Miss Korea!”
If you are ever in need of a boost of self-esteem, try teaching children – you become an instant celebrity and your students your biggest fans. Well, I suppose as long as you’re a decent enough person who won’t scare away the kids. And it helps to be the only Asian person in a place obsessed with Korean dramas.
I teach English to 5 classes of third and fourth graders – 85 excited little Kurdish children who barely understand a word of what I say. Most of the time it’s like I’m giving an extended monologue to an audience of one, myself. The only time I have their full attention is when we talk about Jumong or sharks. But of course, children are going to find a Korean sword-wielding warrior prince much more interesting than the intricacies of subject pronouns. I don’t blame them, grammar isn’t exactly the most gripping of subjects.
So the past month of teaching has mainly been a gargantuan struggle to get the children to listen to me. I’ve taught before, at several different schools in Boston and Seoul, and before starting at Bradost I thought I had classroom management down. Especially with all that Jumpstart training on resolving conflicts between children and talking about feelings. Turns out, I was just fortunate enough to have well-behaved students in the past (with the exception of Jumpstart kids who liked to hit each other and me over the head with toy shovels. But we can excuse them because they were in preschool, where you have to teach children to be nice).
The challenge comes from the combination of a language barrier, and the Kurdish education system. Though I’ve done a lot of English teaching, it’s always been to Korean students. So if I or they got stuck, we could briefly resort to speaking in Korean. My Kurdish is limited to saying hello, thank you, and counting to 10 (though I’m slowly working on the alphabet and Kurdish grammar). A lot of my teaching and explaining new vocabulary or grammar is therefore through poorly drawn pictures or overly exaggerated acting. Yet the language barrier isn’t actually that much of a problem. The bigger issue at hand is the state education system the children leave when they come to Bradost. The education system in Kurdistan, from what I hear from the other teachers at my school, is restrictive, oppressive, generally detrimental to child development and learning, and in dire need of reform. (More on Kurdish state schools in upcoming posts; we’re visiting a public school later this week).
Bradost was started with the intention of revolutionizing education in Kurdistan. It is based on the Scandinavian model of education, where teachers and students are equals and children are free to explore, ask questions, think creatively, and truly learn. That being said, the school is still a far cry from what I imagine schools in Scandinavia are like, having only been educated or taught in the American, English, and Korean school systems. But Bradost is only in its second year, and you can already see the difference between students who were at Bradost last year, and the new students who have transferred from public schools. It’s not a matter of how well they speak and understand English (though the continuing students do speak better English). These students, the ones who’ve been at Bradost for at least a year, are much more self-regulating and motivated to learn than the new students. They understand that they’re given the freedom to walk around and talk amongst themselves during activities, but also that disruptive behavior has consequences for themselves and the rest of the class. They also ask many more questions and participate much more than the newer students, who are not used to expressing themselves in the classroom. I like to play games, sing songs, and generally have fun activities for the children. Learning a language in this way is much more effective, because it encourages active use of the language rather than passive acquisition (i.e. by repeating words and writing them down). It’s also just a lot more fun. Some of the children understand the idea that you can learn by playing games, that learning is supposed to be fun, and they are eager to fully participate. A lot of the newer students, because they have never been encouraged to see learning and education as a fun, creative process, simply see my class as just another playground. I think in their minds, English class isn’t actually a class because they get to play, but on their terms because I am not going to yell at them or get angry if they don’t listen, and that’s the usual reaction they’ve gotten from teachers in the past if they misbehave. Since that’s not my reaction when they don’t listen to me, they think they can get away with doing whatever they want.
And that’s the challenge. How to get these 85 cheeky little monkeys to internalize the ideas that school can be a fun place, you listen to your teacher out of respect rather than fear, and learning is a creative process. In the meantime, at least they help boost my ego. Ranya is the only place in the world where I’ll ever be called Miss Korea.