I’ve been in South Korea now for about 5 months. I came here for a break from American corporate culture and to try something which I thought would be more meaningful, teaching. While it’s been a break from corporate life, it has definitely been work. Most people I know here have much to say face-to-face about their teaching experiences, but far less often I see people writing about it. It probably has to do with saving face, which suppresses any urge to be openly critical of anyone or anything. But for anyone who knows me, I’ve never been, nor do I think I will ever be, overly concerned with what other people think of me.
I say this because in people’s desire to save face there’s a lack of transparency, and a lack of transparency gives other people false impressions and hopes, which ultimately leads to dissatisfaction and poor results. In my time here I’ve noticed a lot of absurd, dysfunctional, and at times disturbing ways schools tend to work, so much so that if I had read about these things in blogs, glassdoor.com, etc, my decision-making process to come here would have looked very different. That’s not to say everything is awful; there are a lot of good things about teaching. But the writing is disproportionately tilted in the “it’s so amazing!” camp that I feel someone needs to say, “Hold on, let me show you the other side of the coin”.
So this is the stuff I wish I had known before coming. It’s meant to help people make a well-informed choice to come or not come, and set expectations based in reality so they are adequately prepared.
The first topic I’d like to explore is school placement.
You have very little say in which school you work. What you do have say over is which province or city you’d like to be placed in. This is no guarantee that you’ll get it, but you do get to list your preferences. When you’re given an offer for the job you’ll be told which province you’re in, but you won’t know where exactly you’ll be placed. For example, I was placed in Seoul. Where I live and work is basically the edge of the city proper. So it still looks like a city, but it’s like a busy suburb. Other people I know are right in the middle of super busy areas while others are so far in the outskirts it’s almost rural or like a small village. This means that even though they asked to be put in a city, they’re really not living “in the city”. They’re really in a village 1 hour outside the city.
Your commute may be a short 5 minute walk to school, or you may need to ride public transportation for up to an hour each way.
Your apartment may be brand new, with the latest technology, and be fairly spacious, or you may be in a closet-sized apartment, in an old building with bad plumbing, and a previous tenant who left the place a filthy, stinking mess.
You may work in a wealthy neighborhood, where almost all your students already speak English fluently, or in a poor area where the sight of a Western person startles people, and where “hello”, “goodbye” and the alphabet are the extent of their English vocabulary.
You may work in a school that is well run and the teaching philosophy jives with what you believe, or you may work at a school that’s disorganized and uses teaching methods that make you uncomfortable.
And the thing is, you won’t know any of these details until after you’re already here, after you’ve already signed your contract, and for some, after you’ve been working at the school for some time. Everything could turn out great- and it does for some people- but many people experience challenges with these things. And this system of having no say in the matter and just being placed somewhere was very new to me. Coming from a large internet company and previously being at a progressive non-profit, and all the while working in theater, I can say the topic of recruiting is always hot. Any good workplace in the West does not take that lightly. In fact, they pride themselves on taking as long as they need to, even years, to find the right fit for a job. This is because they know how important it is to the success of the organization to have not just people with the right skills, but also the right personality in the job. Cultural fit is essential.
But in Korea, at least in the education system, they seem to think anyone who passes a test and an interview at a city, or even a national, level will be a fit at any school. This is how it works to be a teacher here: you study education, you take an exam, and if you pass the exam, you apply to a province to be a teacher there. The province then places you at a school somewhere, whenever they get an opening. Then every five years they move you to a different school, and again, the province chooses where. So public school teachers here have no say over where they teach. This is also true for school administration, like principals and vice principals.
Now, to illustrate how this gets even more complicated, let’s say you spend your first five years teaching at a school in the wealthiest part of the city, then for your second five-year stint you’re placed in the city’s poorest area. It’s like going from teaching New York’s elite in the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the poorest of the poor in the Bronx. Somehow your skills are supposed to translate even though the demographic is completely different.
Now while you’re halfway through your second year at a school, your principal changes. Whenever leaders change anywhere- in schools, companies, nations, etc- so does the feeling of being there. So your first principal may have had a “just keep the peace” way about him/her, and the new principal may be very rigid and strict. Korea is a very hierarchical society, so you always have to agree and go along with whatever your superiors tell you to do, no questions asked. So with a principal change like this, you may have to change your teaching personality.
I bring this up because in the US part of why I chose to work where I worked was because the values of the organization and the people I was working with fit well with what I wanted to pursue and how I wanted to work. There was at least some transparency with cultural fit and an expectation that I would be myself because who I was already fit with the organization’s current culture or what they wanted to evolve into. (That’s not to say it was always great. I did leave places because I had changed or they had changed in a way where it was best to move on.) The important thing to note here is that both the actual organization I worked for and I had a lot of upfront contact before either of us made a decision to work together. This does not happen in education in Korea. Everyone is just expected to mold and fit in together. So long as people are willingly flexible with their work personalities, this “works”. But this country has the highest suicide rate of OECD countries, so I’m going say it’s not really working. (I know a lot of factors contribute to that statistic, not just work culture, but work culture isn’t helping.)
This is not to say you should not be open and try to adapt to your new school environment. You definitely should do what you can to make this new experience work. But what it does mean is that things will come up that you are not expecting, and you will have to figure out a way to deal with it. For example, this could manifest itself as teachers at your school using corporal punishment as discipline, and kids not responding to authority unless they think you may hit them. I’m guessing most people reading this are against corporal punishment. If that’s the case, you’ll have to figure out a way to earn your students’ respect without you hitting them. And the answer is never a simple ‘just don’t hit them and it’ll be fine’, because when they’re used to being hit, you not hitting them is weird, and weird stuff confuses them. You’ll have to be thoughtful, creative, and well-informed in your approach if you want to succeed.
But back to the original point- you have very little say in which school you work. When you look more closely at it, all these details about how you work (and this is just scratching the surface) are also part of what you don’t have say over. So when you sign up for this program, you really have to be totally open to whatever they give you, for better or worse. And no matter what you do to prepare, things you’d never guess will happen and you just have to go with it.