Yesterday I had my first classes in two months. In the time between my English camp (a week of unsupervised, self-devised material in the first week of January) and now, I have prepared absolutely nothing for my students. I simply couldn't motivate myself to plan the lessons. Much to my chagrin, I also couldn't motivate myself to commit to my writing, instead using this extended period of time to surf the internet and watch as many movies as I could from the Oscar 2011 nominees.
Imagine my surprise then to find that yesterday was actually a joy – that my first year classes lifted my spirits even though the new found effort completely exhausted me. They laughed, they smiled, they gasped on queue. When they asked:
“Teacher? You have girlfriend?” I would reply, yes, I do, and the class as one would make 'wooo' noises, the girls giggling behind their hands and going on to ask is she pretty, what is my dream girlfriend, what do I like in a girlfriend. When the boys asked:
“Teacher? You have six-pack?” They would shriek and cry “no teacher no” when I made a motion to show my belly. I knew enough now to limit my answers about music and movies to things the students knew – Michael Jackson, Korean movies and K-pop groups which I have never listened to. My first years were interested in my answers, asked questions without prompting and had such a high level of English that I was completely shocked. One student, when told I was from Australia, asked why I sounded English.
“You know accent?”
“Yes.” he replied, in a way I think meant to imply 'derr'.
“My accent is light. Not strong. So I sound a little British.”
He nodded sagely. And it was only later, when I compared the questions of the first years with the interest shown by my Korean co-teachers that I realised – in twelve months my co-workers have not shown as much interest in me as just one of these new classes.
I've been trying to write this article for some time now. I started it several times in February, trying to reach a unified conclusion about my teaching experience. Over the course of the last eleven months I have written about engagement with the job, my unforeseen capacity for racism, criticisms of the ex-pat community and some misconceptions I had concerning bilingualism. But what was my beef? What was my final conclusion on this failed job?
Because this is a failed job. It is a bull shit job. It is a go-nowhere, play-act fake job. I do not know one teacher in Korea who values the job above the lifestyle teaching ESL in Korea allows. This seems the norm until you realise that the community is completely disenfranchised with the sole profession which defines it. This disenchanted mindset is not solely due to the unrest of the highly educated men and women who cannot find work back home, but it does factor in. Neither are the students to blame for, as is illustrated above, when you have learnt how to handle a class the students can be an absolute joy. I think even the grumpiest of ex-pats over here would admit that the difficulties of the classroom are part and parcel of any teaching job.
What makes this job difficult and frustrating, what makes it seem fake and saps your confidence is the relationship (or lack of one) with your co-teachers and your school. Strangely enough, I have come to agree with a quote from the blog of a foreign ESL teacher that I criticised earlier in the year. I use it again now, still highly critical of his rants but begrudgingly in accord with his opinion of the Korean teaching situation:
“I came here with good intentions. Something changes over time. Your belief that you are making a difference in the students’ lives turns into a lost cause. Your belief that they (students/teachers/admin) give a rat’s ass – disappears. Your belief that they are actually capable teachers – vanishes. You will remain, alone, to spend your year in purgatory. Teaching in South Korea is the midway point of nowhere.”
Just now, a particularly difficult student came into the staffroom with a senior English teacher. Upon seeing me (as he has in class many times) he said,
“Oh! Herro Danrel!” The teacher he is with, with whom I have never had any classes nor spoken with at all, laughs as she goes to her desk, not bothering to look over towards me as the student has. Perhaps I am being too sensitive to the student's greeting, reading explicit sarcasm where there is none. Then again, when the teacher's attitude towards me is so openly dismissive, it is easy to insert an insult where none is intended.
Being Nowhere, Being Ignored
They've remodelled the cafeteria at school. The wooden stools have been replaced with plastic molded chairs and the walls bear fresh paint and new cupboards. Like everything else at school, no one told me this was happening, nor did I have the slightest inkling that it was going to happen. Being within weeks of my contract's termination, my visibility has reduced to near zero – teachers ignore me when I arrive at school in the morning and do not invite me to come with them for lunch. I come to school late, leave early, take sick days that no one notices. I have become invisible, of no real worth and a burden not to be bothered with.
One of the best examples of this occurred during the deskwarming period over the winter. There were no Korean English teachers present so a younger Korean teacher was sent over to ask me what I would like for lunch. At this point I had begun eating by myself, often overlooked when it came time to order for the other teachers. So when I said that I did not want to eat lunch with my co-workers, that I was “okay”, she seemed inordinately confused. She left my desk and returned five minutes later.
“I think maybe you should eat lunch with us.”
“It is too expensive. I'm not hungry. I'll eat later.”
“I'm sorry, but I think you should eat lunch with us.” Relenting, asking for bibimbap, I returned to my movie and was tapped on the shoulder a half hour later. I understood what the problem was when I sat down and saw that the principal of the school was present. My food was put in front of me, unwrapped as if I didn't know how to do so, and then when we had all been seated the conversation went on without me. No one looked at me, or acknowledged me in any way. When I had finished my meal a lively conversation was going on and I thought it might be nice to try and make an effort – so when the chosen co-teacher asked,
“Are you finished?” (meaning, you can go) I said
“That's okay. I was wondering what you were talking about. I caught something about Korea? Or something about numbers?”
The Korean teacher looked around, terrified. “No no. It's okay. You can go.”
“But maybe I could stay? I'd like to know what you are talking about?”
“No no. It's okay. Maybe I think you should go.”
I left the school an hour after that. I didn't show up to deskwarm for the week. No one commented.
But my attitude has gotten worse too. My attempts at learning Korean have all but reversed themselves, with even the most elementary of words and phrases forgotten as I mumble my way from restaurant to pub to supermarket. Last weekend I went with my neighbours to Chuncheon, a rural area a few hours out of the city. We took taxis a lot, and I began to prefer the drivers with no English to the few that attempted to engage with us – a cabbie with some English asked me the same four or five questions I've answered a hundred times. A driver who does his job in silence allows me to ignore them, to pretend as if they don't exist. The streets, the Korean language and the Korean people have begun to form one fixed backdrop. They ignore me, I ignore them.
There are reports within the community of right wing Koreans who dislike foreign teachers in their schools. They say they are overpaid, under qualified and a disruptive influence within the community. I cannot speak to the last point except to realise that with a little research all racism sounds the same and is used to the same political ends. What I will say is that I completely agree with the first and second points – we are overpaid and most (not all) of the teachers who come here are unprepared for the job. But this is because we are an unused resource.
We are supposed to be co-teachers, helping to supplement course material and assist our Korean teachers. Instead, we teach self-devised lessons with no input given or offered by our co-teachers. We are supposed to be ambassadors, aware of the cultural differences and understanding of our host nation's ways. But this is the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. The cultural 'awareness' that the GEPIK program promotes in its orientation is a way to mask the uncomfortable reality of being at the bottom of the social pecking order.
We are supposed to be helping teach English. How can we when confronted by so little English comprehension in our staff rooms? Just yesterday, in my very first lesson back, with a class I had from last year (who were thus immune to my celebrity) a co-teacher asked a student to explain to her the instructions I had given to the class. When the bell rang and we returned to the staffroom she said she was very “embarrassed” because she could not understand. Yes, I thought, and incompetent. If she could not understand the activity, and would prefer to ask another student rather than the foreign teacher, why should any other student do anything differently?
What the Job Is
I have loved my time in Korea. Even at my job I am aware of being present at a very unique, very special thing. But if there was one way of describing the conditions I have faced, the position that I think all GEPIK and EPIK teachers face in public schools it is this: This job is institutionalised alienation. It's a lie perpetuated by overseas recruiters and Korean bureaucrats.
The recruiters say, “It's a dream job! You'll get to see the world! What an amazing cultural experience!”
The GEPIK co-ordinators say, “It's important to understand our culture! Try to be a good sport! You'll have a great time!”
The schools say, “Look. We have foreign teachers. They are not cheap. We are a good school.”
But the truth is that without the support of the teachers in the staff room, your job winds up being a joke. There's some great teachers, both foreign and Korean, that work together and dispel this myth in some places – but their work is hampered by a dialogue of cultural dissidence. The school pushes you, you push back, they put you behind a desk, you don't show up. This is a broken system. Someone needs to fix it.
My advice if you wanted to come to Korea? Do it. Definitely. But don't believe the hype. Prepare yourself to learn Korean. Prepare yourself for loneliness and uncomfortable working conditions. And most of all, be prepared to be rude. A language barrier and a cultural barrier is no excuse for being treated as burdens by teachers who studiously ignore us.
But me? I'll let someone else fix it. If there's one thing I've learnt this year its this – I'm not cut out for the ESL profession. I can't stand acting like I care when no one else does.
Daniel East is a centralised, low pressure front English teacher.