Bye Seattle, Bye CELTA (for now): Some Scattered Notes from the ROK

Alternative post title: Bye, Felicia CELTA!*

Posting from new lands

As you probably already know if you’ve read this blog in the recent past, I’ve up and split from the US and am spending a few months in Korea before landing back in Thailand where I lived and taught from 2005 to 2011. Then, after returning to North America to do an MA TESOL and dipping my feet (but inside, diving headlong) into teacher training while on it, I got trained up to work on CELTA courses – first in Boston, MA (and around the country doing ‘pop-up’ courses in summer) with Teaching House and then in Seattle, WA at ELS.


Now I’m working on a non-CELTA teacher training course here in South Korea. It’s for South Korean elementary school English teachers. In total it’s a six month program broken into a handful of parts: about three months of language study (the 15 teachers’ proficiency ranges from high A2 to scattered points up and down B1/2), two months of training (a 4-week TESOL module and another few weeks of a CLIL/Critical Thinking module, and then a one month trip abroad to Australia that includes school visits and projects, etc). The South Korean MoE pays for the program; I work for the contracting company. The teachers are in their mid to late 20s and 30s.

Bring it on

The work is not a complete departure from the familiar for me the ‘newbie CELTA trainer’ but there certainly aspects of it that are quite different..and extremely refreshing, I’m happy to report. These include:

  • Working with local teachers in a more local context (in-country, though remote from their schools/hometowns)
  • Working with participants with sub-C1 CEFR English language levels
  • Working with non-Cambridge CELTA training course curriculum/criteria

Autumn aims and interests

And here is a short list of some of the things that are important to me these days, aims and interests that I’m bringing into the situation I described above:

  • Learning as much as possible about the details of the teachers’ contexts, established practices, and ideas about/desires for the future.
  • Maintaining my equanimity in what is a new environment for me, and in the face of potential uncertainty and skepticism from trainees re: the new guy. Also, I’m back in Asia.
  • To take advantage of every opportunity, especially on a less stringently structured course than CELTA, to respond confidently and creatively to the trainees’ needs and interests using all the internalized knowledge and mentorship resources I’ve worked very hard to develop from my MA TESOL onwards.

Colorless green ideas

It’s now Sunday after the first week of the 4-Week TESOL module. It’s been fantastic and certainly sufficiently challenging for the likes of me, so far. There have been many salient critical incidents, fulcrum points, and aha! moments for both me, my colleague (it’s a two-trainer course) and for many of the participants. But rather than write at length about those publicly here and now, here’s one simple, silly little vignette from this past Week 1 of the 4-week TESOL module that was memorable for me:

I had a 3-item sentence halves matching task sketched onto the board, the answers to which were: The sky…is blue / The sun…is yellow / The moon…is white. When I matched them, the teachers’ collective jaw dropped at my fallaciousness. The moon? It’s yellow. The sun? Red, of course. Me: “Like the Japanese flag?” Them: “Yes, just like that”. In the US, when I grew up reading picture story books and drawing happy scenes, the sun was always yellow, and the moon was usually white. Back to the scene, I feigned an extra amount of shock. It was one of many moments of light-heartedly acknowledging the cultural gap. (Later, when I told my wife – who is Thai – what happened, she wasn’t surprised at all…I’m left unsure why I was in the first place!).

That’s what they call a “culture bump”, I guess.


Hold the handrails

On that note, here’s a short list of some of the “little things noticed by the new guy around here”:

  • Bathrooms tend to be cold, with windows left open even in winter – and there’s rarely any hot water in the sink, and often no hand-drying provisions. Result: BRRRR.
  • Our apartment trash and recycling scene is confusing. “When’s trash day?” I’ve asked several people. Nobody is sure, just put it out (somewhere) whenever. Our recycling baskets downstairs have 4 labels: plastic, bottles, cans, and vinyl. That took me a minute, and it seems cardboard/paper goes on the ground somewhere in the same vicinity.
  • Hippies and slackers ruined American fashion. People here dress, on a regular day, something not that unlike a proper New Yorker in the late 1940s. And I like it. I really do. Even at my best, I look only like a relatively conscientious, sobered-up beatnik.
  • What sounds a lot like ‘hot dog’ to me is Hotteok (호떡), a stupidly addictive small pancake filled with brown sugar, honey, pine nuts and cinnamon. This does not bode well for my attempts to arrive in Thailand a bit lighter around the waistline. There is a really friendly hotteok seller right around the corner from our apartment.
  • People didn’t walk on escalators much in Thailand. Here, people REALLY don’t walk on escalators. I’m a patient guy, but I’ve always been an energetic escalator-walker, not an escalator-stander. Most escalators here are quite narrow as well, so there I am, standing with the rest. I’m OK with this, partially in respectful deference to the impressive elevator design in the train system here in Daegu: there are sensors which allow them to shut down when not in use and come to life when you walk up to them. Having grown up near the longest/deepest and seemingly most often broken down escalators on the Boston subway lines, I bow deeply to thee.
esca ps
Porter Square’s problematic pride
  • Less to do with the new environment itself, but this is my wife’s first time living in a place that isn’t Thai or English speaking. After the first week she said, “It’s amazing how much just body language works to communicate!”. It’s been cool to see how she’s navigating the gaps. Also, her practical Korean bits n’ bobs are generally coming along faster than mine…
  • Come to think of it, I’m not less interested in learning to get by in the local language than I used to be, but I *am* less concerned/self-conscious about attempting to use English with folks, more able to scaffold and grade my language effectively in various contexts, and more interested in affording folks’ a chance to engage their English language abilities with a person I’m confident will be a decent interlocutor (me!). So I’m more focused on that than trying out my Korean all the time.

Apprenticeship of Donation and Meditation

Finally, my colleague recently mentioned how she’d learned critical reflection and other useful skills employed in teaching and on teacher training courses during her years as a student of ballet. It made me think of what previous study/work/training I’d had that perhaps similarly prepared me…and the first thing that came to mind was my nearly two years as a door-to-door canvasser/fundraiser for environmental campaigns in Massachusetts and North Carolina.

That job changed the way I spoke (projection, eye-contact, etc.), the way I listened (carefully, strategically), interacted (more empathetically, aware of turns, etc.), worked (my ass off), etc.

And another experience, maybe, is another side of the coin: being a frequent meditation retreat participant on weekend, one-week, and one-month long courses. I’d say that as a trainer a rather large percentage of my attention gets paid to what course participants are thinking/emoting/’psyching’ beyond the explicit parameters of the course content. And I see something like the CELTA, in large part, as a potentially transformative personal experience (as it was for me). I think all those retreats have a lot to do with this.

[EDIT]: I realized that I posted about this very thing in 2014:

The end…see you next week? 

Well, there’s a collection of notes and thoughts after the first week (counting from the beginning of the TESOL module, anyway). Maybe I’ll try to get something posted each weekend going forward, reflecting a bit week-by-week.

Thanks for reading, and if you’ve got any comments or questions please don’t hesitate!


*Hat tip to one Michael Griffin who put me on to the “Bye, Felicia!” thing at what was, for me, an embarrassingly late age. Somehow, some way, I kinda sorta missed Friday and its multiple culture-meme spawns.

Matthew smiling along with South Korean folk singer Kim Kwangseok on his street in Daegu.


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