Bad Teacher | Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely

A version of this short, non-fiction narrative is included in the book, "Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely."

"bad teacher" from the collection eating kimchi and nodding politely by fiction author alex clermont writes

I'd sometimes hear, "I didn't plan to be a teacher."

I'd sometimes reply, "Neither did I."

If I were drinking, I'd instead give a low grunt in response. Either way, the meaning was clear. My default comeback to this often-heard statement was that I understood.

Back home, I tutored university students in English and liked it, but I never saw myself in front of a classroom teaching anything. After finishing a week of training, however, I was there, in front of a classroom, teaching English. It was a disaster.

The main issue was that my training didn't train me in the lessons I was supposed to teach. I stumbled over curriculum as well as cultural differences. What embarrassed me most was that the kids could tell that I didn't know what the hell I was doing, and a few of them actually asked to change classes. A growing number of empty chairs filled my classroom during those first few weeks.

Like all problems in life, though, it was resolved.

After a month or two, I’d gotten accustomed to almost everything. K-pop music was tolerable, and the lesson plans I was told to follow made sense. I had unknotted the mess of cartoons and essay questions through trial and error. Many of my students spoke nearly fluent English, and the staff at my private academy were all pretty-to-beautiful Korean women who were very helpful.

Although I didn’t plan to be a teacher, I worked out a nice little grove. The walk to my job was fifteen minutes, and on the way I'd wave to the kids who’d yell out, “Hi, Alex teacher,” as well as random Korean children, who smiled at anyone different. Getting to my classroom, I'd sit next to a stack of previously made photocopies, ready to teach and babysit.


A few months into teaching I’d finished half of that process when I saw a print-out of my name near the front entrance of the academy’s office. “Alex” was surrounded by some Korean words that told me nothing, other than how ignorant I was of the country in which I’d been living. More than a little puzzled, I walked into the main office and asked one of the pretty-to-beautiful Korean women about it.

"Um, Jinny?” Jinny was beautiful and walked up to me with a well-meaning smile that reminded me of a salesperson. “Why is my name out there on the front door? Is everything alright?"

Following me out to the sign, Jinny looked at it in surprise, "Really? Wow!” She turned to me and said, “You won the Cross Café contest."

"The what?"

Jinny explained the situation in her fluent English. I’d won some contest that honored the teacher who’d participated most in the academy’s new initiative. It was an interactive online program that allowed students to post class projects and comment on other students' projects across all of the academy’s branches. They could rate each other and receive points for creating quality content.

I didn't even know I’d been entered in the thing.

I said, "So nothing’s wrong?"

“No. Nothing is wrong.”

“Thank you.”

I smiled and walked toward my classroom, quickly forgetting the sign and my temporary fear of joblessness. The image of me being deported back to America and waiting in a line that snaked around the block to talk to a dispassionate bureaucrat about getting Medicare coverage disappeared.

In my room, I waited to teach my class of middle school-aged kids. That day I was supposed to go over rhetorical tools they could use in essay writing. I gave them clinical descriptions then funny examples of each.

“So irony is when the opposite of what you expect happens.” I drew a stick figure and put my name next to it. “For example, Alex teacher here is very handsome…”

They giggled and shook their heads sideways as I wrote "handsome" next to the stick Alex.

“He is also very smart…”

They laughed, and Sally jokingly said, “No he is not.”

“He’s also very tall.”

They laughed even harder, with some saying “No” in Korean. I heard a few 아니s, and some kids wrinkled their faces at me.

I continued, “But, he has no girlfriend. See? You don’t expect that because Alex teacher is so handsome and so smart and so tall. That’s irony.

“Now, what if I said that Brian never studied for school?” I waved my open palm in Brian’s direction and some of the kids looked at him.

Brian was my favorite student in that class, though I didn’t know his real, Korean, name. He always seemed focused when I made an important point, and he giggled at adult-themed jokes I made about booze, thievery, and the like.

“What ironic thing could happen?”

Sally said, “He could pass all the tests.”

Brian raised his arms like a winning prizefighter.

“Yes, that would be ironic.”

Jae said, “He could become president.”

“Well, that actually happened in America, but yes, that would be ironic.”

Soon I had to conduct a test based on material from our previous class. As I handed out the photocopies, Brian said, "Alex teacher, you’re a mean teacher. You’re always giving us tests."

"That’s because I want you to learn. I'm a nice teacher."

"But you’re mean."

With no time to argue with my fourteen-year-old student, I smiled and said, "Yes. I know."

"Why is your name outside, near the door?"

"Because I won a contest for being a good teacher."

"But you’re a bad teacher."

"Yes. I know."

He smiled and said, "That's ironic."

I laughed loudly and said, "Yes! Yes, it is!... Good man. That was excellent."

He took the test and passed it. Whether I’d planned to be a teacher or not was no longer relevant.