Unpacking with Danielle

Travel & Exploration

Why I’m Not Renewing

I’ve been in Seoul for about 10 months now, which means I have 2 more until my contract is up.  Most jobs here for foreigners are on a 12-month contract.  Towards the end of that time, you can ask to renew.  If your school is happy with you and still has funding for your position, you can stay another year.

I decided not to stay.  This is actually a very common decision for people in my position.  Everyone has their reasons.   I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you why I’m choosing to leave.

Overall, things are pretty okay here, but they’re not so great I want to give it another year.  Here’s why:

First, I don’t find the teaching methods they use to be very effective.  Are kids improving: yes.  Are they functional with the language: nope.  I think the methods and classroom organization are holding them back.

Here’s how students are organized: Kids are put into classes by grade, not ability or aptitude.  So kids who are pretty good, motivated, and learn fast are in the same class as kids who know almost nothing, lack interest, and/or are slow learners.  There’s an enormous disparity in the room, which only widens as they get older.  You’re supposed to run class so it’s appropriately challenging to everyone.

While this could be possible, the school generally prefers group uniformity/conformity to individual customization.  That plays out with everyone doing the same work altogether, so English class can feel like military formation.  They also want me to strictly follow the book.  The book is pretty cookie-cutter and also doesn’t allow for individual customization.  This means that advanced kids get bored and slow kids are totally lost.  When this happens, they often goof off, which makes it challenging to keep the class under control.

The approach is to get kids to enjoy learning a language.  So the focus is mainly on games and fun activities as opposed to explaining patterns and rules.  I think in theory that’s a great thing to shoot for, but in reality, if they can’t speak the language, they are never going to have fun with it.  The approach has dropped clear instruction for “fun”, versus finding a balance with it.

I find that maybe a few kids  get the point through these fun activities, but the bulk get lost and frustrated until I show them the rules.  Is listening to a rule fun?  No.  Is playing a game in a language you can’t speak fun?  No.  So I drop a fun thing sometimes for the sake of effective teaching.  I’m getting tired of explaining why this is necessary to my co-teachers who take the “they must always have fun” directive a bit too seriously.

Now onto co-teaching with a Korean teacher.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I have personally liked all of my co-teachers.  They’ve all been very nice people and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them.  On the other hand, professionally, they have varied greatly in their attitudes toward teaching.  Most have been good overall and I’ve learned a lot from them.  One, though, was negligent, disorderly, and accepted no responsibility for outcomes (again, this was the exception rather than the rule).  Whenever she was around things devolved into chaos and she wasn’t willing to work on it.  No one had a clue what was going on under her watch.  So, co-teaching can be great or awful, depending on who you’re with.  But you never know what’ll happen because your co-teachers change year-to-year.  So I have no idea what would happen if I stayed.

The next thought that comes to mind is if I have any influence over things.  Sure, in terms of how I execute lessons from the book.  Officially though, none at all.  I’m on great terms with my principals and they don’t want me to go, but I don’t have any real power or influence in how things are run.  I just have to be open to whatever directives come from above and support that.  I don’t mind it for a short while, but long-term I want a position where I can have the same power as my coworkers and have an impact outside of the classroom.  Since I hit the ceiling the day I arrived, I don’t see this going anywhere for me.

Another factor is the students.  Before coming to Korea I expected to have studious kids, who were hungry to learn.  I know that’s definitely true for some teachers here.  Families push their kids to get ahead.  I was expecting to work hard and be pushed as well.  That’s definitely not the case for me.  Most of my students are very nice, but they are content with a slow pace.  Kicking it up a notch/rising to the occasion isn’t in their wheelhouse.  I try to give them motivational speeches, but they don’t understand and I’m pretty sure my co-teachers don’t either.

But the primary reason is the job is way too easy.  Since I’m expected to stick to the book and not deviate, preparing for lessons only requires reviewing the book, and that takes less than 10 minutes a day.  That means I have 3-4 hours a day to myself.  I have to stay at school, in my classroom, all that time.

At first I didn’t mind it.  It was nice to have quiet time to relax.  But that’s 15-20 hours a week of nothing to do.  Yes, I have my own projects to keep myself busy, but it’s still way too much time.  It’s boring.  Like, it’s so boring I’m sure I’m getting dumber.  I just can’t sit through that for another year.  I’m afraid of the person (or blob) I’ll become if I do.

Despite making the decision to not renew, I have mixed feelings about leaving.  Overall Korea has been good to me, and I feel like there’s so much more I could learn about this place.  But on the other hand, I have to acknowledge that I’m just treading water with what I have.  I’ve never been content with that.  It’s not a thing everyone understands, only the ones who are also continually curious and/or ambitious get it.

Mark Manson wrote a piece a couple of years ago called “Fuck Yes or No“.  In it, he basically says the right opportunity is the one that has you saying, “FUCK YES!”  I just don’t feel FUCK YES about this anymore, so I had to say No.

So there you have it.  The reasons why it’s time to move on.  I’ll spend another 4 weeks keeping the status quo, then I’ll do 3 weeks of camp.  After that, travel.  After that, TBD.

Stay tuned.


  1. I had originally planned to stay at least two years but a few weeks ago I hit some sort of wall and was ready to pack my bags and get out of here when the contract is up.

    before i had that feeling my co-teacher told me that the school was willing to renew my contract for 6 months, to finish the school year so I signed a paper saying that i intended to renew.

    When I told them a few weeks ago that I didn’t want to renew after all they were really confused and denied saying that they offered a 6 month contract; perhaps a communication error, which is one of the reasons I wanted to leave.

    I finally figured out a compromise, not a F_ck yes but something I think I can get through and certainly. i will finish the school year then ..like you say TBD.

    The Korean mixed ability classes are also typical in the USA and Spain and one of the challenges of teaching. Personally I set the bar high and modify the expectation based on ability. I think setting the bar low does exactly what you say, in causing developmental harm on every level of the ability scale.

    OH,the fun thing!… I get a back and forth. one day we have to be sure to teach to a high standard then the next day I hear that lessons should be fun. Personally I feel like my goal is to help the kids develop confidence in speaking. They don’t have to be grammatically correct, though I try. Many Koreans will be able to read and write but lack ability to speak English for fear of making mistakes, but they should know that its OK to do so.

    My co teachers are great but when I am not there the students have minimal exposure to English and I get it. When I was teaching Spanish I was afraid to use Immersion, I didn’t feel it was most effective and I was a new teacher. I learned to have a routine in the class so the kids know what to expect especially when entering the classroom. nearly one year later my students still enter play around and don’t write the question or vocabulary on the board that i prepared. I try, day after day, to build that routine but that isn’t valued by my co-teacher.

    Teaching is hard no matter where you do it. It is really frustrating when you hope to inspire most of the students and are met by mostly uninterested students. I, like many young teachers, was very idealistic and it’s hard to resign to teaching for one or a few “good” students.

    Add to it a life in a place that you feel so-so about and it is hard to feel enthusiastic. I am hoping that over the next 8 months I can uncover more things to like about Korea and teaching here…hoping.

  2. I totally agree about how frustrating it is to group the kids together by age, instead of ability.

    I fought HARD, for months, to get my school to open an advanced class, open to the highest level kids, regardless of age. We had 4th, 5th, and 6th graders working together. My school told me that this was a bad idea because different grade levels can’t mix. Like prison gangs. But it was an awesome class, I was able to push my students to work beyond the book, and we had parents calling the school to get their kids into my class.

    Also, get the hell out of Korea. There’s a big world out there
    : )

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