Expression

by Janine Perri, ETA ’15-’16

 

“Teacher, I am shy. I don’t have a lot of confidence.”

Chan Young, one of my best students at Gimhae Jeil High School, sat across the table from me during English conversation club. He spoke English almost as well as a native speaker, yet he rarely participated in class and often hesitated before speaking with me. I could relate. Shyness was a feeling I knew very well, especially when I was his age.

“I am shy, too!” I said with understanding. “I know what that’s like. I am an introvert.”

Chan Young, usually so solemn, cracked a small smile and shook his head. “No, Teacher. I think you are extrovert.”

I felt my smile fade a little. An extrovert? Impossible! He may as well have looked at my brown hair and said, “I think you look like Taylor Swift.”

Recovering myself, I gestured toward the front of the classroom. “See this?” I asked. “This is my stage. When I teach, I am an actress. I am actually shy and quiet.”

Chan Young was unconvinced. He shrugged, as if to say“If you say so, Teacher.”

In America, I was like Chan Young—a shy, introverted student with my head always buried in a book. When I first came to Korea, I was nervous that my quiet personality would not be effective in a foreign language classroom. I would be teaching students from a culture, with a different language and different expectations of their English teacher. The ETA must adapt to Korea and Korean students, we were told at orientation. For me, part of that change would mean that my face and actions would have to express what words could not.

I remembered that during my first few days of teaching. I was setting up my computer in the classroom when a student in the front row said, “Teacher, so serious!” I realized that I had been frowning when the projector would not turn on, so I quickly softened my expression. I did not want to be another “serious” teacher, and I could tell my students felt the same.

The changes were subtle at first. I made a concentrated effort over my first two weeks to smile more often and become the friendly teacher my students wanted. By the time I had met all of my students, I was using more gestures and facial expressions to complement the simple English I used. The textbook was boring enough as it was, so I tried to compensate by exaggerating my mannerisms so much that I looked like an entertainer. I smiled and tried to show excitement over the stilted listening exercises in the textbook. I laughed too loudly when my students told a joke. I became an outgoing, sometimes over-dramatic English teacher, feeding off the enthusiastic student choruses of “Hi, Janine Teacher!”. Every action, every emotion became over-exaggerated in an attempt to communicate and–in the case of some less motivated students–cajole or amuse.

After all, this was what their foreign English teacher was supposed to do, right?

“When you are with English teachers, you are quiet, introverted,” a co-teacher told me a few weeks into the semester. “I was surprised to see how animated you were with students.”

“She noticed!” I thought. “I must be doing something right.”

But I was not. I had told Chan Young that it was acting. Then I started to wonder–if it was acting, did that mean I was not sharing my authentic self with my school and community? Had I really changed so much, or was it this persona that my students call “Janine Teacher”? Being expressive and an extrovert was so foreign to me it seemed fake. I wanted to adapt to my students and meet their expectations of being a “fun” teacher. But I began to worry that I was turning into something I am not.

Midway through the semester, I met with a team of four students, including Chan Young, to prepare for an upcoming debate conference in Busan. As I listened to my students read through their speech about North Korean defectors I was struck by the precision in pronunciation and grammar, but lack of emotion in their delivery. They spoke loudly and clearly, but their hands stayed at their sides and their voices were monotonous. I was surprised to realize that it was, in some ways, like watching myself as a student in America—precise and proper with my words, but guarded and measured with the way I felt.

After my students finished speaking, I went to the board and wrote one word: PATHOS.

Pathos means emotion,” I explained. “When you read a speech, you want the audience to feel your words. Make them sad. Make them angry. Make them want to take action!”

My students nodded, but they looked confused.

“How?” asked Chan Young.

That was a good question. I thought for a minute about my teachinghow I often pretended to be excited about textbook topics like sound waves or anger management. I realized I did not want them to be acting to express themselves – and they did not have to for this debate. This was a topic my students and I chose together because we were passionate about refugee crises, in Korea and other parts of the world. Outside of the classroom, we often had discussions about politics and our empathy for those displaced from their homes. This was something they could connect to, could care about, could express.

“Can you show us how to do it?”

I read their speech, watching their transfixed eyes as I varied my pitch, tone, and emotions to match the words. As I read about the struggles that North Korean defectors faced in fleeing to the South, I felt my throat tighten as I remembered the stories of defectors I have encountered during my grant year. I thought of the North Korean defectors I taught on Tuesday nights, of the old and young students who struggled to find a new home in the South. I thought of the stories I heard, the horrors I read, the empathy I felt.

For the first time since I began teaching, the emotions that rang in my voice felt authentic, felt like me. It had nothing to do with extroversion or entertainment. It was pure, sincere emotion. When I finished the speech, the students clapped enthusiastically and begged to try. As each student stood and delivered their part of the speech, their words came alive and their faces glowed with new understanding. Their hands were no longer glued to their sides, but used to emphasize important parts of their speech. They spoke with conviction, with persuasion, with passion. When Chan Young concluded the speech, he was breathless and his face was bright red with joy.  

“Teacher…again!”

For the last few weeks of the semester, I stopped “entertaining” during my lectures and started guiding students instead. I incorporated acting and speech writing into my classes, rewarding the students who were most creative and who wrote pieces that genuinely made them smile. My classes had more movement and teamwork, and less lecture and individual work time. By changing the classroom dynamic and adapting to topics that are more interesting to the students and myself, I have become a teacher who is both introverted and extroverted. Friendly and expressive without exaggeration. My students have also taken more interest in my classes and work harder.

At first I had a persona I donned like a winter coat, to be taken on and off as needed, but now I have found a balance that has become as natural as my own skin. Teaching has exposed a more expressive, and more outgoing, side of me that I never knew I had. Perhaps I can use it to help my students, like Chan Young, find the same.

Janine Perri is a 2015-2016 ETA at Gimhae Jeil High School in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnamdo.