Ten Things I Learned from My First Few Weeks as an OT

*OT, as in Occasional Teacher, and not Over Time. Most of us grew up calling them substitute teachers, which is still used but my official job title is Occasional Teacher.

Get to know the office. The most obvious would be the administration – principal and vice principal. But you also should get to know the office administration staff. In a genuine, friendly way that you get to know people you work with. I’m not one of those people who can naturally bond with others – nor do I “suck up” to people. But it’s good for them to recognize your face and name when you come to school so that you can start building a repertoire with them. Luckily, I’ve been working at the school that I was a student teacher, and later a volunteer, at and most of the staff recognizes me, even if they don’t personally know me that well yet.

Bring supplies and materials. I’ve had mine packed way before I ever got a job assignment. In it, I had a few storybooks, worksheets, school supplies, stickers, bandages, and other nick-knacks. How often have I actually used it? Perhaps twice in the past three months. Luckily, I’ve been going to classrooms where the teacher has the daily plans so well done that I haven’t needed any emergency supplies. But it’s good to know that I have something if anything does go astray.

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Take any job if you can get it. But be prepared. This one seems obvious but it really isn’t. The truth is, as a new and young OT, it’s hard to get called in at all. So when the call comes around or if the job pops up in a search, we should automatically accept it. Even if they call and wake you up at 6 in the morning. However, I do believe that there are exceptions. If you get called in for a job assignment that you really feel like you cannot handle (lack of certification or experience), perhaps you should let it go. Why? Because at the same time, you don’t want to do such a terrible job that the teacher and school you’re at thinks you’re incompetent.

Primary-level students are the cutest little people, especially in Physical Education. I’ve actually covered a lot for Phys. Ed in the past three months during their Cross Country days. Which is why I’ve taught many of the Kindergartens, Grade 1s, 2s, 3s, and a few of the 4s. And honestly? You will never see a more adorable game of soccer than to have ten little second graders running around the gym. And then you have to hold in your laughter when a few of them run up to you after only playing for a minute and a half (I keep time for rotation of teams), asking to get water because they’re thirsty, tired, and sweaty from playing around.

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Teaching Primary actually isn’t that bad. Not that I ever thought it would be. In fact, I really do admire the teachers who do it every single day. I love this age range – they’re so cute and adorable – but I always felt my interest in teaching lay with the slightly older students. I like that challenge more. But recent experiences have definitely opened up my perspective and I’m considering taking my Primary qualifications. Which I don’t have, but I’ve been managing for OT days.

I need to be flexible and patient. So flexible. So patient. And not just with the students. With the search of jobs. It’s been especially hard since September because of the strike action in Ontario. Strike = no workshops = no teachers taking time off = less work for OTs = even less work for new OTs who have no connections. Because that’s what it is right now, a lot of the classroom teachers call in OTs that they already know. And for the ones of us who do not have that personal network yet, it’s very difficult. So I’m being patient. And flexible, as in, when I get called at 6AM, I’m taking the job. If all I can find are half days, I’m taking them.

Whistle. Attention Grabbers. I showed up to my first Physical Education job assignment without a whistle. And learned firsthand how difficult that can be. Ever try pausing a gym of 25 Kindergartens playing soccer/basketball/bowling/jump rope, with just your voice? Not fun at all. My throat was so sore by the end of the three hours I was there. And I’ve learned a few attention grabbers to use – especially with the primary grades. They love doing this sort of thing.

“Hocus Pocus.” “Everybody focus.”
“Macaroni and Cheese.” “Everybody freeze.”
“Ba da da da da.” “I’m loving it!”

Smile. It really does make a difference. I greet the students from the start so they know that I’ll be with them in the classroom for the day. I’m friendly and approachable. I’m kind, willing to listen and talk, and I see firsthand how students – even the “troublemakers” – respond to it. It doesn’t always work of course. And students are apt to get out of hand, especially with a new teacher in their classroom… so,

Be firm and follow through. It’s not always enough to be good, fair, and kind to your students. They need to know exactly what the rules are and what happens when they do not follow the rules. This is something that I’ve been working on for as long as I can remember. I acknowledge that I need to be stricter. And going in as an OT has definitely made me stricter.

Enjoy the time off. It can be really hard at times. Especially the first month, when I didn’t get a job until near the end of the month. You’re sitting at home, feeling kind of useless. And the feeling can be so destructive. So I’ve been working hard on being optimistic and grateful. Living with my parents is definitely a blessing at this point in my career and I’m so grateful that they’re able to be supportive of me. I enjoy (some) of my days off – especially those when I can go out for lunch with my parents. Something that would not be as likely to happen on a regular work week once I find a permanent position (which probably won’t happen for at least a year or two). So until then, I might as well enjoy the fact that I can have “time off” aka “couldn’t get a job for the day.”

I returned from Seoul with the desire to teach in my own classroom. And while I’m still not quite there, I’m glad I came back. Teaching in Toronto has always been a goal of mine, and I do believe that I’m gaining so much experience as an Occasional Teacher that will only make me a better teacher one day. Especially when it comes to classroom management.

Good luck to all my fellow Occasional Teachers out there. I’ll be back with a few more anecdotes and reflections. If you’d like to share yours, I’d be happy to hear them.

The Chronicles of a Teacher: The Beginning

My teaching chronicles – as I will be calling them – were once a part of my personal blog. I’ve brought all that over to this new blog. Partly because I feel sentimental towards them, they’re all great memories of my teaching adventures in Korea. And partly because I believe that they’re a part of my growth as a teacher.

Which is what this blog is about – I need a space where I can record, document, reflect, and bring insight to my journeys as an educator. So, this is where I shall begin.

Who am I?

I started as an occasional teacher in Toronto, Canada this past summer. I had spent two years teaching English as a foreign teacher in Seoul, South Korea prior to this current job. I have known that I wanted to be a teacher since 11 years old. I have thus made most of my life decisions based on this dream. What I have learned as a student teacher and new teacher is this – dreams are made up of hard word, perseverance, and courage. I have gone through ups and downs. I have doubted myself and wondered if this is the right path for me. I have been inspired, supported, and encouraged along the way. And it’s a journey that will continue.

Why a blog?

I’m not comfortable with the idea of social network and education. It’s why I’ve been resistant to certain forums but I have been thinking about how in university, my professors made us write our reflections about our practicum experiences. Those reflections helped me gain more insight into my practice and what I wanted to improve on as a teacher. It’s a practice that I wish to continue through here. And hopefully it will one day provide some insight to other new teachers.

Welcome to The Chronicles of a Teacher.

A Farewell to Korea. 고마워요. 사랑해요. 안녕히계세요.

Dear Korea,

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February 2013 – My first hanbok experience at the EPIK orientation; it didn’t quite fit right but I loved the cultural experience of it all.

 

I had no expectations as I came to this country. I was not naive enough to believe that my life would be like a Korean drama. And while the K-pop and K-culture was a contributing factor to my decision to come to Korea as opposed to the other countries I was considering, it was not the end all and be all – despite what others have said to and about me. I was hoping to challenge myself on a personal and professional level. I wanted to travel and see a different part of world. I wanted to understand another culture (can we ever really?) and interact with different people. And I like to think that I’ve done that as much as possible.

It’s been two years. Sometimes, it feels just like yesterday. As if I had just gotten off the airplane – exhausted, nervous, excited. Sometimes, it feels like so much longer than two years. Like I’ve been here for years and years – despite my beginner level of the Korean language- and that it’s so much harder leaving Korea than it was in coming. Why? Because I’ve fallen head over heels for this country.

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June 2014 – Wearing a hanbok at a traditional hanok village in Jeonju. It felt like stepping back to a different time.

 

It was in this country that I’ve learned to be on my own. I’ve made mistakes and had to figure out how to fix them. I’ve traveled to different parts of the country using different modes of transportation. I’ve learned to cook food on my own – with plenty of blunders and little successes along the way. I’ve learned a bit of the history of the city and the country and can proudly give a mini tour of different places of the city to my visitors. I’ve picked up enough Korean – listening and understanding – to be able to communicate with most Koreans. My speaking is dreadful and almost non-existent considering how I spend most of my week teaching English. Still, I’m proud of myself.

By no means was my experience in Korea completely perfect. Life never is. There are things that I will never be a fan of but even those challenges have made me grown a little more as a person. Learning to deal with the cultural differences, language barrier, and the occasional professional situations have made me grow up and understand myself as a person. As the individual I am, I have learned to be brave and generous and understanding. As the professional, I have come to understand children with the same language barriers I was experiencing, I have learned to be patience in and out of the classroom, and that work politics is a tricky business. Korea has challenged me in every aspect of my life and I’m thankful for it.

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February 2015 – It’s like a circle. Starting in a hanbok and ending with one too. Finally starting to feel more at home in the hanbok.

 

I’m going to miss it here so much. I’m going to miss all the side dishes that comes with the food. I’m going to miss the cafe culture. The shopping. The delicious little restaurants. The non-tipping culture. The living on my own and the freedom that comes with. The walks through the traditional and modern parts of the city. The convenience of traveling. The wonderful subway metro system. The bingsoo. The free domestic shipping through online shopping.The security guards in my apartment who recognize me and call me by my apartment number- 천사백십. The friends I have made. The coworkers who have made these two years at work so wonderful. The students. The hundreds of students who I have come to love and care for so much. Almost everything that has made my life what it was for two years.

A friend recently commented again how “brave” she thought I was for having lived here for two years. I got a lot of these comments two years ago when I first told people my plans. And once again, I thought to myself: I’m not brave. Coming to Korea took a little courage, sure, but I’ve been dreaming of teaching and traveling for so long. It was something that I wanted to do. I wasn’t afraid of it. But now, leaving Korea – I am afraid. Because I have no definitive plans or a job lined up. And that to me is so much scarier. This is my brave decision. Going home and working hard to get that job that I want. And even if it wasn’t for that, I know that my time in Korea is up.

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Carmen teacher. This was my domain for two years. I’ve taught, learned, laughed, smiled, joked, cried, fell, tripped, ranted, hid, played, etc, etc, in this classroom.

 

Two years is both short and long. When I think of my students, I can’t help thinking about how I want to keep staying on and teaching them all until they graduate. The younger ones hugging me and pleading with me not to go. At that point, yes, it feels like I haven’t been here long enough. But when I think of everything that I have done, all that I have seen, I know that I’ve made the most of the time here. I have gone to places in the city that many Koreans who have lived here all their lives have never been yet. And that’s because I knew that I always had an expiry date. And that expiry is now. Korea is changing. Seoul is changing. This is evident in all my familiar places to go have closed up and are changing. The education system is slowly letting go of the contract English sector – my time was always limited. And even if I chose to stay, I would have been working with a completely new office or been transferred to a new school. My fate with Korea was always going to come to an end. And the feeling is very bittersweet.

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This was a wish I made in February 2013 – I like to think that it was something that came true.

 

I’ve changed too. Not exactly in a better or worse way. Just changed in the way that we all have to change – or are bound to change when you live in a different country, immersed in a different country, for two years. I’ve taken on Korean little expressions in my day to day communications, much to the amusement of my students, friends, and family. I’ve become more confident when dealing with my private matters- things that I’m so used to relying on my mother for. My style has changed – as it was bound to since I buy almost all my clothes here now. I’m so much better as a teacher now than I was two years ago, since I started with little to no experience teaching English as a foreign language. I’m going to miss Korea so much. Thank you for these amazing two years. I’m sorry for all the times that I mis-communicated with others, whether it was because of the culture or the language barrier. I’ve loved this country and who I was while I was here. I’ll be back one day.

Until then, please take care.

고마워요. 사랑해요. 안녕히계세요.

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Saying goodbye to Korea one last time in my apartment. I’ll be lingering around the city a little longer – but now as a tourist.

 

My Last School Lunches in South Korea

My cousin remarked that she didn’t know what sort of lunches I ate working in Korea. So this one is for you, Tiff.

These are the last school lunches I had – the students get the same thing. It comes in a little trolley and are rolled into each classroom. The students would get in line and get different little dishes onto the lunch tray.

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Deep-fried meat of some sort, kimchi, apple, green vegetable, rice, and spicy seafood soup.

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Rice, Korean curry, steamed red bean bun, kimchi, strawberries.

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Rice, meat and rice cake soup, plant roots, fried fish with a mayonnaise sauce, kimchi, and tangerines.

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Rice, vegetable soup, spicy marinated beef, and fish cake.

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Rice, beef radish and tofu soup, japchae, kimchi, and spicy pork and rice cakes, and strawberries.

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Rice, vegetable soup, kimchi, spicy marinated spare ribs, crab and fruit salad, and orange.

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Who I Am

I am not special. I am not beautiful. I will never be rich. I will never be able to retire early and travel as much as I want for many many years in my life. I am not especially talented in anything. Nor can I sing, dance, act, or do anything to become famous. I am no genius, and only have elementary knowledge of the general subjects. I am clueless when it comes to money matters – savings, investments, and business. I am weak and what physical stamina I had back when I was a child has long deteriorated over the years. I will not be remembered by the people of this time. I will not be one of the great people of our time.

But this is what I am.

I am Carmen teacher. I am called (affectionately?) Caramel teacher, 칼멘 teacher, knife-noodle teacher. I have a semi-celebrity status in my school. I had over 800 kids in two years. I am a proud teacher who calls her students her kids. For my students, I am sometimes an actress, sometimes a singer, sometimes a comedian, sometimes an advisor, sometimes a confidante. I have created games that failed miserably and games that were amazing. I have tried to expand their mind and understanding of the world as they know it. I have introduced foreign concepts and foreign people. I challenge them. I praise my students when they try their best, no matter if they’re right or wrong. I express my disappointment when they misbehave. My students know that I’m disappointed in their actions and not in them. I take the time to speak to them one on one. I play and talk to them even outside of class. I am never out of energy when it comes to my students. I never give up on them even when others do. I know that they are imperfect because I am too. I care deeply for my students. When they think of me, they think of my constant smile. Every day, every class, to every student. I am kind. I am encouraging. I am supportive. Sometimes, I’m discouraged but I always find my way back. In the end, I have expressed my gratitude and wishes for them. I have received their messages of thanks. I accepted their apologies and thanks. I have seen them cry tears for me. I have cried and shed tears for them. I have said goodbye with a heavy heart.

I am a teacher. I am Carmen teacher. But in a week, I will no longer be Carmen teacher.

And I will work hard for the next students when I get the job, the chance, the opportunity. Because the joy of working with these young minds and the heartbreak at the end is all worthwhile.

This is who I am. I am a teacher.