Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Where Do You Find Happiness?

I've been doing a unit with my first grade students (grade 10 at home) on happiness.  We started off by talking generally about what makes people happy.  To the students, the secrets to happiness seem to lie in money, love, and food.  Of course, if you had asked me the same question at the same age, I probably would have given the same answers.  At 15 or 16 years old, how many of us knew what brought true happiness?  Every culture sees it differently.

After giving them some other basic examples (i.e. travel, friendship, sleep, music, books), I asked them to write down one thing that made them happy and sad.  When it came time for them to think of their own personal answers, rather than what they thought I would like to hear, you would have thought I was trying to pull teeth.  Some stared blankly at the paper in front of them, while others sighed in frustration.  They could describe it in Korean, but could they find the word in English they wanted?  A few braver students tentatively raised their hands to ask me how to spell a word in English, but most relied on the person sitting next to them  that they would hopefully know the answer.

I gathered up the papers once everyone had finished, then put on a video of funny sports clips to ease their tension and wrap up class.  While they enjoyed the hi-jinks and unwound, I took those few minutes to glance through their responses.  The answers for what made them happy varied varied from the simple (sleep, food) to the nostalgic (family, friends) to the commercially-driven (computer games, cell phone, money).  There was an almost unanimous agreement on what made them unhappy, however.  School.  Study.  Those two things were universal across the board, among both the boys' and girls' classes.

In a country where students are shuttled from public school to after-school to hagwons and study rooms daily (seldom taking a break, even on weekends), I can empathize and understand.  After seeing how students are taught, and how they learn, I wish that they could be allowed to be children, not study robots.  There is very little encouragement of creative, free thinking in their other classes.  When they come to my English class and I ask them a question for their ideas or opinion, the responses are blank, scared faces.  They were never shown that it is okay to make mistakes; that it is okay to not think exactly how the person sitting next to you does.  Information is learned for tests, then quickly forgotten.  I consider it lucky if one student remembers what we learned in a lesson a few weeks ago.  But show them a video once and they will ask for it countless times later.

I have heard that back home many schools are pushing more towards "teaching for the test."  That disappoints me, much like it does here.  There is no happiness in simply learning straight from the book only to repeat it verbatim for a test and hope you got every word right.  When I look at my students' answers to see 'school' and 'study' among the negatives, it makes me unhappy.

I haven't been shy in admitting that my current job is less than sunshine and rainbows.  Part of that feeling is due to what I see etched on my students' faces every day.  I go in with lessons that aren't taken verbatim from the book, with the hope and desire to get the students thinking in different ways.  Call me idealistic, but that's why I wanted to be a teacher.  I was fortunate enough to have teachers growing up who hated working inside the book, and tried everything in their power to get us thinking outside our comfort zones.

But because my students have been so beaten down by all their years of school, it's hard for them to change now.  Many of them have given up on learning anything beyond what their book tells them, not to mention given up on thinking that English could be fun or interesting.  This is my rock and hard place.

So how do I find happiness in all of this?

I find it in what I do outside of school.  I find it in the books I read, in catching up on favorite TV shows from back home.  It's in experimenting with new recipes to find something delicious.  It's in talking to friends here or to ones back home.  It's in planning what I want to do when I get back to NC, what I want to eat, where I want to go next.  Even after a long day at school, after encountering some of the rudest Koreans I've met in my time here, and after a difficult language barrier issue, I know that those things will be here for me. It's taken me a while to realize what was important.  I know I got lost along the way, but now I feel that things are more stable than they were.

Where do you find your happiness?

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