You’re Not So ‘Sunny’ Outside This Classroom

As teachers, we are tasked not just with educating (a loaded word, depending on what is expected of you in your public school or hagwon), but of also remembering. That is, remembering our students’ names. Their English names.


And, there are a lot of names to remember.
And, there are a lot of names to remember.

I can remember in my first few weeks–even early in my second month–my difficulties in remember some students’ English names. Please forgive me. I mean, how many “Alex’s,” “Cole’s,” “Lily’s” and “Sunny’s” can one head handle? Occasionally, a child would look at me with mock (was it mock?) disappointment as I mixed up “Alice” with “Jenny,” “Tim” with  “Kevin” with “Chase.” You would think I would not get “Johnsina (yes, named after the WWE wrestler, John Sina. It’s apparently big in Korea among the littler set) confused, unless I was navigating a sea of about 22 children, as I did last week when two classes merged into one because my fellow foreign teacher was on vacation. I think I know what John Sina looks like, but If you asked me to picture what “Johnsina” looked like, I would be at a loss.

There have been students I could remember from the get-go for one reason or another. The good student. The nice student. Of course, some of the bad students’ names were burned into memory, since I kept shouting at them from across the room to “Evan, hajima!” which would elicit giggles because, holy crap, the foreign teacher is speaking Korean! After three months, it’s started to lose its novel shine, but only just a little.

Then there are the troubled ones. The “Alex’s,” who, a couple months ago wrote in his school diary how he “wanted to die” and I was tasked with telling my boss, his lead teacher and then waiting. For what? For nothing? I never really found out. They supposedly talked to him. And then what? I have him in one of my classes this month and he seems to act out more than he used to.

There’s “Aaron” who mostly comes off as an asshole who comes into class on average 25 minutes late, sits in the back, has probably said something about me a few times in Korean and concludes most times asked to read something with, ” … OK, bye bye.” Many times I want to slap the kid. But, does he already get that in regular school? At home? Are his reactions because he’s not very good at English and does not want to be forced by his parents to spend time at a place where he’s not learning, where he’s miserable? Or, is there a bigger, deeper-seeded emotional sadness buried within that Korea does not want him to let out?

And then there’s “Sunny.” She is one of my older students, a first or second year middle schooler that is in a class of about eight other middle schoolers that aren’t the highest level of English proficiency among my students but several are very good. It’s hard to tell if she is very low level or just low level because she is very quiet. Even when she speaks, I make a point to stand next to her just so I can hear.

Her voice is low, almost masculine. She is a larger girl. But I would not say it’s all fat. She looks solid. And, she is 13 or 14 in a hyper image conscious culture. She could be the sweetest person in the world, but something has pushed that deep down. What is left is a girl who is stunningly quiet and self-contained among her contemporaries, who almost never volunteers to speak or answer questions (though, she did raise her hand the other night–timidly, half-heartedly, but still–while I was going around having students read parts from the section of the book we were covering. So, there’s always hope).

Speaking of hope (I know, I just referenced something parenthetical outside of the parenthesis. I’m breaking the sixth wall!), a couple of the more outgoing girls in the class were being pretty goofy last night, ragging on each other for this reason or that. It made the 50 minutes fly by. And, at one point, even Sunny cracked a smile, something I do not think I have seen before. But, as soon as she noticed I noticed, it quickly disappeared. But, it was there. So, yes, (there is) hope.

But, who is “Sunny,” really? Who is “Aaron,” “Alex,” or any of them? The excellent students, the mediocre, and the miserable? As soon as they leave the hagwon, what becomes of “Steve,” “Erica,” “Selina” and “Mike?” They disappear. Until tomorrow.

It’s like we share the same space in separate dimensions. It’s like they are living two lives. How many of them actually use their English names outside of the school? I would guess very few, if any, and only if they were to associate with foreigners outside of class. Why would they? If I was in a Korean school that asked me to give myself a Korean name while I was there, what reason would I have to keep using it when I went back to New Jersey? “Please, Dad, call me Kim Min Gong.”

What’s in a name? A lot.

Maybe this is why I sometimes feel a bit on the outside at work. A younger student will come in and one of the teachers–who all refer to each other, even in Korean, by their English names at school but also no doubt use their regular names as soon as work is finished–in a motherly gesture will brush his cheek, talk with him in a calm voice, turn him around, open his backpack and check to make sure he remembered his workbook today. Some of the older students will find their way inside the teacher’s room before class and have a few laughs with a couple teachers over something. Maybe they will pass by my desk, the other foreign teacher’s desk, and say, “oh, hello, teacher.” Most of the time, they won’t say anything.

It’s not that they are being mean or exclusive, student or teacher (they bought me pizza and cake for my birthday, after all)–we’re just in different dimensions, separated by language and a name. Or, in their case, three names. It lends credence to the argument that it would be good to learn the native language of someone who you are trying to teach yours. But, I’m realistic. Just as it’s unlikely I am to learn all the Korean teachers’ Korean names, I am unlikely to learn more Korean beyond what is functional and what will occasionally get students to laugh and maybe even clap.

And, for those that have learned a significant amount of their charge’s language, I wonder what effect it really has. I heard in a casual conversation with a friend once how a teacher in Japan, having become fluent in Japanese, was still considered an outsider, even if he could pick up on the subtleties of a very old language. “Because he’ll never be Japanese,” my friend said. And, I’m a long, long way from Korean.

What has your experience been like?


2 thoughts on “You’re Not So ‘Sunny’ Outside This Classroom

  1. I’ve heard some of my students call one another their English names outside of class and other times get confused and mix up names like Kevin and Kelly (they are brother and sister and in the same class…). I’ve also heard students asked to be called their English name by their Korean teachers (who normally call them their Korean names). Those are the ones who really want to learn.

  2. I keep saying I’m going to attempt to learn their actual names, and I know the names of the Korean teachers. But that has more to do with them not using English names then me stressing the point. But we’re starting another semester next week, new classes and some new students, so I’ll give it another go. I get that disconnect, though. I only have any sort of bonding experiences with the students that have the highest level of proficiency.

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