|The 25th Hangyoreh Winter School|
25th Hangyoreh Winter School
My initial reason for wanting to volunteer at Hangyoreh winter school was out of curiosity about students from North Korea. "Would they really look different from us? Would their manner of speech be so different?" These were the somewhat immature questions running through my head as I prepared for the school to begin. I was half excited, half worried. The orientation sessions for volunteers, which I had thought took place too often, proved to be really helpful and important. I was not so interested in either North Korean human rights or North Korean refugee adolescents, but this orientation helped me become familiar with these issues, and it was also helpful in preparing me to lead the North Korean adolescents.
I taught math at Hangyoreh winter school, which lasted 17 days. As the oldest of the volunteer teachers, I felt a lot of responsibility not only towards the students but towards my fellow teachers. I had a hard time figuring out how I should approach students to get close to them, as I have always been a little shy. I was discouraged when some students just passed me by, pretending that they did not see me and without bothering to greet me back, especially because it took a lot of courage for me to say hi to those students for the first time. On the first day, I was envious of other teachers who easily made friends with the students.
On the first day of classes, I was so nervous to the point of stuttering and not being able to write on the board properly. I remember my students trying to making me feel more comfortable by throwing personal questions at me. I felt that I managed to become closer to them by answering their questions and giggling with them, and I could see myself starting to joke with them. This marked the start of our journey together on the same boat.
I did not really have a hard time preparing for classes because I was assigned to students at beginner levels. Math is the subject that really gives students a hard time. Some older students who were assigned to my class because of their placement test scores complained, but they stopped complaining after having a harder time solving basic math problems than they initially expected. They showed enthusiasm for learning by actively participating in class discussion, asked questions during self-study time, and whined after late nights trying to solve difficult homework problems. All these acts looked cute to me.
In my Korean class, most of my students were more familiar with Chinese. They were either born in China or raised there since they were children, so they were poor at reading Korean and even poorer at speaking. I did not really encounter many problems during the winter school but Korean class gave me a hard time everyday. I thought about how to teach, if I should not allow them to talk to each other in Chinese throughout the class, and if not allowing them to speak in Chinese would affect their learning negatively as that would make it difficult for them to communicate in class.
These children especially had difficulty getting along with other students at the winter school because of the language barrier so I tried to find ways to help them outside the class. I tried to sit beside these students during meals so that I could show them a smile and make eye contact. I do not really know if they were aware of my effort, but some students who used to keep their distance eventually started approaching me to share their interesting stories, smiled at me first, and said hi. I was happy and energized to see these small changes.
Students did not keep up with the lessons well, and our progress was far below the goal that I set. I knew that they had been deprived them of chances to attend school and learn in the past, but it was more extreme than I thought. I felt really sorry that they were having a hard time catching up with South Korean students, who have financial access to private institutes, while simultaneously having to adjust to the unfamiliar environment in South Korea. I met some students who had managed to adjust well and attend regular South Korean public schools, but there were some students who gave up after failing to adjust to life in South Korean schools. I gave them advice on their academic direction and different perspectives on life, but I felt sorry that I could not help with so many of their personal needs. I hope there is a development of an educational system that enables them to hone their poor basic academic skills in a secure environment.
After living with the students for 16 nights and 17 days, I became as affectionate towards them as if they were my own children. I sometimes had to cajole students out of bed in the morning and I was sometimes had to scold those who said hurtful things or fought. I ran around the field and screamed with them during exercise time. I sometimes listened to their problems and gave them sincere advice. Students who came to the winter school were generally frank about their feelings, and I noticed that this sometimes made them act in a rough manner. They didn’t have bad intentions but they failed to control their anger. After fighting, I noticed that students became closer and reflected on my own tendencies to not always treat others with sincerity.
After taking photos at the end of our last Korean class, a student named Soojin said to me in tears, “Teacher, I feel sorry that the winter school is over. I am sad. Thank you.” Hyangmi and Eunju secretly put a thank-you letter in my pocket, and Hyuk, the class leader, cried as he spoke about the winter school. All the students cried in each other’s arms after saying good bye. Looking back, I feel sad but it makes me smile at the same time, thinking this would be one of the most worthwhile things I have done in my life.
Hangyoreh winter school is over but I still want to keep in touch with the students, and I want to help them as much as I can. I want to see them become successful members of our competitive Korean society. They were students who taught me to deal with people not with head but with heart. I will always cheer for them! Thanks all to the teachers and students of the 25th Hangyoreh winter school.
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