Funny Tales from the English Zone

By Todd Squitieri

At some time or other, most if not all EFL teachers have encountered some really funny situations. As a teacher in South Korea, I found myself in many really peculiar, bizarre but funny situations when I was teaching middle school, high school, and some adults.

One of my first really funny situations that I went through was when I was invited to teach a public tech school. I had absolutely no idea at the time what the students would be like, but I had been warned by other teachers that they were very different from the private school kids, that they had a “different type of temperament,” and that they wanted more entertainment.

Well, I didn’t really know what this meant until I actually started teaching there and on the very first day of the class, I walked in to find 20 or 30 male students pounding on their desks and chanting, “candy, candy, candy.” I was mortified!

Firstly I didn’t have any candy, and secondly, I falsely believed that I was entering a very academic environment as I had been used to. I soon found out that my students were candy driven animals and well….. I gave them candy. In fact, I gave them a whole lot of candy over the following months that I was with them. Needless to say we got on very well.

The other situation that I recall fondly was during one of my open classes. It wasn’t funny at the time, but looking back I have to laugh at how ludicrous a situation can quickly become. An open class is something that many teachers have to do in South Korea when they’re teaching.

It’s also an observation class. Mostly it is a means of evaluating the teacher’s progress and style, providing feedback about ways the teacher can change certain things and subsequently improve their delivery of material.

This exercise is supposed to make their performance better and thus make them better teachers.

I had a total of two of these in my two years as a teacher in South Korea and my second evaluation required PowerPoint slides and a video, My slides featured a platypus. A platypus is an Australian animal that has a bill like a duck; it’s one of the more bizarre looking animals of the animal kingdom and if you ever wondered if God has a sense of humor this animal will lead you to believe 100% that he does.

I had actually designed my own platypus cartoons and had put them up on the PowerPoint slides. One day, while I was rehearsing, my supervisor had an issue with my platypus designs.“It’s about your slides,” she began, as we were in the room where I would be giving my demonstration. She said that they were too childish and that they looked like they were more for babies than they were for high school students. Which was her “nice” way of saying she hated them.

Who says politeness is dead?

My jaw dropped. I had worked hard on this presentation and to be told at this late stage that she didn’t like them really annoyed me.

I argued and argued with her about why these cartoon platypuses deserved to stay in the slides. I even argued the fact that the platypus was a noble and often misunderstood creature and that her criticism was an affront to all platypuses. I defended my position ardently, producing long and waffling arguments standing my ground maintaining that platypuses were a valuable part of my curriculum.

They weren’ and I am sure the supervisor thought I was quite mad. The truth was my ego was bruised and I was not great at taking the criticsm so something as small as a cartoon of a platypus took on epic proportions.

The last incident I would like to describe happened during my first year in South Korea and this gets the gold medal for the most hilarious situation that I was ever in. My co-teacher and supervisor at the time knew that I was a theater major in college and that I had some theater experience.

Therefore she thought it would be a great idea to get some of the high school students together and put on a show!

Needless to say, I was a little bit reluctant because my background was theater and I knew what a full production was to entail, or at least was supposed to entail. But this was high school In South Korea.

How bad could it be?

In theater, you need lighting, you need a stage, you needed production equipment and you need enthusiastic actors who can stay to all of their rehearsals, none of which we had. We did, however, have a group of students who “didn’t want to be there.” Lucky us!

We had no rehearsal space, just a classroom cluttered with desks and chairs. We had no technology. We had no actors who wanted to go to every rehearsal. We had none of those things and yet my co-teacher and my supervisor thought we should just forge on, much against my better judgment.

However I just kind of went along for the ride, because I didn’t know how things were done in this school at the time and I thought, well, why not try something new? Even if it went against everything I had ever known and could lead to some serious reputation issues, why not just try to put on a show and see what happens?

So we formed a circle with our desks on the first day of “rehearsal;” we, myself and my co-teacher and a group of students who had been basically forced to be in this type of theater club and to put on this show for their eventual high school portfolio, a portfolio that each student gets and which he has to submit to different colleges during senior year.

We eventually decided on what scenes we were going to do. Some students were very shy but eventually, my supervisor and I coaxed them to contribute inspired selections from Spiderman and Good Will Hunting and a bunch of other action-oriented films that I was not familiar with.

We ended up doing a series of scenes from these different action movies that only a teenage boy could love, none of the heady classical pieces that I had envisioned, like Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet, which in hindsight may have been torture for these young unwilling thespians.

Believe it or not, we eventually got the students together and they actually did memorize the scenes from their assigned movies, but the funniest part was yet to come.

It was during the middle of the day that they performed this collection of scenes in front of the entire student body and select faculty members, including the Principal, which only slightly mortified me.

And the funniest part of this happened at the end when three boys performed the Spiderman scene. Unknown to us, one of the students had painted his whole body green, and this was only revealed during the performance when he suddenly went off script and ripped off his shirt.

Bare green chested and with all of the students in the auditorium laughing hysterically, he charged this other student, throwing mock fireballs that no one else could see but him. It was fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

Of course you had to be there to get the full effect but it’s just those types of moments that really kind of throw relief on your life.

As an EFL teacher, you often find yourself improvising and doing crazy zany things that you really wouldn’t think you could get away with as an adult, but you somehow end up doing them anyway, building great and funny memories along the way.

So when you have a funny moment that doesn’t jive with your sense of the way things are supposed to be (in your own head), don’t resist the moment. Don’t challenge it. Embrace it.

Who knows if you’ll get a chance to experience something like it ever again?

Most people won’t even think about you anyway, so take Andy Warhol’s advice, as espoused in his book Philosophy of Andy Warhol, and just watch your life as if it were a movie.

Who knows? It might be even better than Spiderman!


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