By Robyn Kincaide, ETA ’16-’18
Almost all foreign English teachers teaching at the secondary level in Korea are responsible for administering some kind of biannual speaking test. Almost all of us have mixed feelings about it. The tests really cannot provide an accurate measure of students’ speaking abilities but do afford us the rare opportunity to interact with the students on a one-on-one basis and learn more about them as individuals. In addition, test time can give us a much-needed break from, say, trying to keep a room of 25 middle school boys entertained for 45 minutes…
There is a knock on the door.
“Yes? Come in,” I say, finishing up my notes from the last student.
In walks Jihyung, a bright third-year student quite skilled with English but often overshadowed by the class clowns due to his more humble personality.
“Teacher, give me five seconds, please,” he says, starting to pace nervously in front of the desk where the test questions are laid out to be randomly chosen.
“It’s okay; breathe.” I inhale and exhale in an exaggerated manner, followed by a light chuckle and a smile to try and make him feel more comfortable.
“Okay. Ready.” He sits down and answers my first question without any mistakes.
I read his second prompt out loud, “Tell me a lie.”
Jihyung hesitates, which surprises me. I know he understands these words and am sure that he must have had a response prepared on his exam practice worksheet. He takes a deep breath, and then quietly mutters:
“I hate you.”
I laugh as I record his response on my grading sheet, and he follows up with a panicked, “It’s a lie, okay?”
The knock on the door this time is very deliberate, almost rhythmic. Without waiting for a response, Chanhun slides the door partway open, pops his head around the corner, and with his unique but convincingly fluid intonation and cadence asks, “Do you want to build a snowman?”
It’s June. It’s 32° Celsius outside.
After about twenty of his classmates have gone, Jimin steps into the room. His English skills rank in the bottom half of his homeroom, but this fact never seems to stop him from chatting in English all class. Rather than being obnoxious, I find it strangely endearing, and it makes 3-1 class a livelier environment.
Ironically, on the day of the speaking exam he is almost dead silent. We make it through the first question with only a few errors, but the second question stumps him:
“What is hard for you to do?”
He fiddles around a bit and taps his foot up and down, trying to remember what the question means and how to respond.
“Hard… like difficult.” I pull a stressed face and muss up my hair with my hands, trying to get the concept across without using any hints in Korean. “What is hard”—I pull the stressed face—“for you?” I gesture at him with an open palm.
He starts shaking his head back and forth. I can tell he has convinced himself he doesn’t know his answer, even though it is likely still in his mind, buried beneath layers of panic. I remember the answer he had written on his test prep worksheet with the help of my co-teacher, because its accuracy had made me burst out laughing:
“It is hard for me to be quiet in class.”
But now, shaking his head and staring at the floor, he utters only a single muttered word: “Skip.”
Two days later, Jimin sees me twenty meters down the hallway and bellows with a big grin, “Hello, teacher!”
I breathe an internal sigh of relief. I didn’t break him.
“I broke my arm. What should I make sure I don’t do?”
“Make sure you don’t study.”
Last year, Youngsun had given the best English Speaking Contest presentation out of all Uiseong Middle School’s students. I know he recognizes the illogic of his answer.
“Ah, my arm!” I say, clutching it with my face contorted in affected pain. “I can’t study!” Then I give him one of my well-practiced, resigned What are you doing, boys? looks: one eyebrow raised, a sideways grimace-smile hybrid, elbow bent and palm flipped upward.
I roll my eyes and write “A” on his paper. His grammar had been perfect.
The door is already partway open, but Byungwoo raps on the door and says, “Excuse me?” as though he is acting in a play.
“Yes? Would you like to take an English test now?” I ask, trying to keep up the skit-like atmosphere he has created. However, when I do this, he pauses mid-stride and a look of slight confusion flickers across his face. As one of the top English students in his class, I know Byungwoo has the knowledge base to understand what I just said, but it seems as though he didn’t process it. I then realize he may be more nervous about the English test than his confident tone of voice may suggest. Okay, then. Just the test questions; let’s not push him beyond that.
He answers the first question without a problem, but also without his usual swagger. With the second prompt, though, Byungwoo rediscovers his groove.
“Tell me a lie.”
“I have a friend Youngsun and he is very handsome.”
The door slides open and I look up, having just finished writing my notes. “Hello!” I say cheerily as Woochang walks into the room.
He sits down at the desk, looks at me, and makes the observation: “Gold head.”
When I first began teaching, I would not have known how to respond to such a statement, but these days the apparent oddness does not faze me.
“Gold head.” I repeat Woochang’s words, nodding in acknowledgement of this fact before launching into an explanation of the test. “Choose one blue question, one yellow question, one orange question…”
Usually his voice is several decibels louder than necessary, but after the initial “HELLO TEACHER!” as he enters the room, Junhwan quiets down to something more like the speaking volume of an average human being. I ask him the first question, and he responds easily. With the second prompt he draws, however, he gets to turn the tables around on me.
I barely glance up as I make a note of the selected prompt and read it to him: “Ask me a question.”
“What do you think about love?”
My pen pauses. Most students ask me, “How old are you?” or “How tall are you?” Those questions I can answer in a heartbeat, but this one is far deeper than I had anticipated.
“Um… I think… It is hard to find… Yes, hard to find.”
He nods sagely.
“Okay… and last, choose one orange question…”
“What will you teach at Jungwon University?”
As one of the top students in the second year, I had been expecting Minhyung to ask something a little more inventive than “How old are you?” in response to the ask-me-a-question prompt.
Looking up as I finish scribbling down the word “university” on my grading sheet, I reply, “I will teach English there—surprise!”
He laughs. When I had first started teaching—and by teaching I mean bumbling my way through 45-minute time blocks—at Uiseong Middle School, Minhyung had thought of my classes as a waste of time. Looking back, I really can’t blame him. These days, however, he’s much more involved during speaking class time and almost seems disappointed that I will leave his school to teach university students in another month.
“Okay, last question: What do you hope that you will be when you grow up?”
“I hope that I will be a prosecutor, because I like solving riddles.”
I smile and say, “Good dream,” but my heart sinks as I think of the hours, days, years of private tutoring and hagwon classes ahead of him as he pursues that goal. I don’t see how even the brightest of students can make it through this education system without being broken.
As I’m finishing laying out the question cards, the first student for 2-1 class walks into the room. The second-year students haven’t been taking their tests in alphabetical order, and seem to be operating more on a volunteer/peer-pressure basis as to who goes first. To my surprise, student #1 turns out to be the more introverted of my twin host brothers (although they both certainly fall into that category). At home, Namjoon avoids speaking English—or interacting with me—as much as possible. Within the structured environment of class, however, he is a willing enough participant and sometimes looks suspiciously as though he is in fact enjoying himself.
I ask him three questions. He answers them flawlessly.
“Very good job!” I tell him enthusiastically as he gets up to leave.
“Goodbye, teacher,” he says in a deep near-monotone.
Although we live in the same home, these are the last words we will exchange today.
“Hello, teacher!” The slightly more cheerful of my host brothers enters the room.
“Hello! Could you write your name here, please? Just in Korean.” I hand Dangchan my clipboard and pen, although I know how to spell his name both in Hangeul and in English.
“Great, thank you! And here, choose one blue, one yellow, one orange.” After conducting well over 100 of these tests so far, these words, uttered in a cheery tone as I point my pen at the slips of paper in a bouncing motion, are getting old.
He does as I ask, and I look at the randomly selected questions in disappointment. English class is the only time I really feel that I can bond with my host brothers, perhaps because here at school they are more distant from the pressure put on them by their well-meaning mother. However, the questions he drew are quite frankly the most boring of the bunch, and will not lend themselves to any more bonding. I’d really been hoping for: “What do you think of English class?” The week before, as we prepared answers for the speaking test, most students had just copied down one of the example answers: “I like it. It’s very interesting.” or “I don’t like it. It’s boring.” However, Dangchan’s response was more personalized:
“I like it because we play many fun games.”
My heart had melted as I read that over his shoulder. Perhaps it’s a sign of narcissism, but I really wanted to hear those words uttered out loud.
“Teacher, I want number three,” Eunsung says instantly as he steps across the threshold.
“Um… Maybe you will choose number three?” To be fair to the other students, I have to have him choose questions at random, but secretly I hope Eunsung manages to select number three from among the ten paper slips. I’m sure he has an interesting answer prepared.
No such luck. I ask Eunsung the three questions he has drawn, and he responds without any problems.
“Teacher, one more!”
I blink in surprise. Usually students are itching to escape the testing room. Nobody has ever requested that I ask more questions.
“Um, okay…?” The two of us flip over all the paper slips to see where it had been hiding. It was the last one.
“What do you hope that you will be when you grow up?”
Grin plastered on his face, Eunsung starts his answer. As he speaks, he gestures in the air with his index finger, a habit of his when he wants to make sure he is putting all the words in the right order and not skipping tricky grammatical pieces like articles.
“I hope that I will be a national curling team player.”
I smile and look him straight in the eye. “I hope that you will be, too.”