Please Don’t Take A Picture, It’s Been A _____ Day

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Or: An Uncharacteristic Work-Related Rant About A Job I Actually Like 

All things considered, it’s fairly easy to have a good day as a teacher in Korea. Weekends in particular are spectacularly easy to enjoy, for a number of obvious reasons (no school, little no lesson planning, a considerable number of same-boat Westerners to share the time with) but also because of the potentially overlooked fact that I can actually afford to do stuff with my weekends here. EPIK pay is nothing spectacular but it’s more than enough to be able to comfortably afford weekends (and weeknights if you’re not as keen on saving) of sightseeing and eating out whenever the mood takes you. Having lived in overpriced England all of my life and never having had an above minimum wage job, this is not something to be sniffed at. Whether I choose to go adventuring or stay at home, weekends in Springtime Busan are lovely and I feel lucky to have them.

That being said, I think it’s important to clarify that working for EPIK isn’t a constant stream of beer, sunshine and underpriced seafood and (just as they are at home) bad days are easier to encounter than good. My Monday and Tuesday of this week have been two such days and (considering I’m currently savouring my final waking hours of Tuesday) I felt compelled to strike whilst the iron is hot, or perhaps more appropriately, to strike whilst the teacher is stressed. If you’re not in the mood for a visit from Captain Hindsight or the Elementary School Employment Envy Fairy, it’s probably best to read something else.

As you may have inferred from my previous comments surrounding my lengthy history of minimum wage jobs, I had zero teaching experience (save for my TEFL certificate) before coming to Korea. As you may also have inferred from my ramming it down your throat in other posts, status updates or in person, I am placed in an all boys’ middle school in a pretty poor area of Busan and teach classes with an average of 40 students. I have no budget for classroom materials and none to borrow, I have to use my own laptop in class if I want access to Powerpoint and I have to teach in every class’s individual homeroom rather than in the big, airy, lovely ‘English Zone’. I recently discovered that every other English teacher gets to use the English Zone to teach their parts of the textbook, which is exactly the opposite way in which it’s conventionally used. Needless to say, this pisses me off rather as I have to lug my laptop, books and everything else to 22 different classrooms per week when I could be just setting up shop in one and having the students come to me. This (along with everything else I’ve listed in this paragraph) doesn’t usually bother me too much, but this week I’ve been struggling with my own warped sense of entitlement so it rather does.

The biggest problem I have in school, and the thing that has bothered me most this week, is discipline in the classrooms. Before I rant I’ll openly and wholeheartedly admit that this is completely my own fault for not laying down strict enough rules at the beginning of the semester and not sticking to my own rules firmly enough thus far. Understood that I’m not oblivious to this fact? Good, because now I’m suffering for it and most likely will be suffering for it for the foreseeable future. I’ve heard it said before that a guest english teacher is only as good as their Korean co-teacher and this has been proved true beyond measure in my experience. I work with 5 different co-teachers and the lessons I teach with them could not be more different. One woman is practically perfect, kindly encouraging the students whilst speaking minimal Korean when necessary and maintaining good behaviour and order without seeming to try. Another enforces behaviour with an iron fist, but seems unwilling to have any fun. One is exactly average, and wears a microphone which makes her look like a cyborg. The youngest has only qualified this year and refuses to speak in Korean or English, preferring to sit at the back of the class and ignoring me and her responsibilities at all costs. Finally there is the last, and without doubt my least favourite co-teacher, who refuses to speak unless it is to embarrass a student or me…who I think also may have some kind of time-bending skills as she can make 45 minutes seem like 3 hours of pulling teeth with a claw hammer.

Regardless of how good the co-teachers are, however, at least they are there. I was taught during my TEFL course that when teaching a class without an interpreter you should speak slowly and clearly, group instructions into manageable chunks and accept that the higher level students will help the less able ones. Ha. My co-teacher showed up a mere 15 minutes late to a class today and I was practically tearing my hair out by the time she got there. This sounds pathetic, so allow me to talk you through my classroom management failure. I walked into class as the bell rang, to find 7 of the 40 students there. Eventually they all trickled in, mumbling a Korean apology and immediately starting talking to their friends in Korean about where they’d been. I managed to adequately shush them (after cutting through the Korean by repeatedly banging a board eraser on a desk) and began to explain the instructions (slowly, clearly and in manageable chunks). The quiet lasted for approximately 15 seconds before practically everybody began talking in Korean again. This happened repeatedly for 10 minutes. Eventually I managed to get across the instructions and we began the exercise and immediately ran into difficulty when I chose a student (by random number) to ask a question out loud to his partner. He stared at me for a while and said nothing, during which I provided a question for him to ask. He stared a little more, then clearly declared “no english” to the room, sat down and put his head on the desk with his eyes closed. I put this question to you readers, what would you have done at this point? I considered my options:

  1. Believe him and choose someone else (which I disregarded owing to my suspicions that everyone would answer every following question with ‘no english’.)
  2. Don’t believe him and try to eek the answer out painfully word by word (which I disregarded owing to the fact that I could only get his attention now by shaking or punching him, which I’m uncomfortable doing.)

Thankfully, I was saved from thinking of a 3rd option by the arrival of my co-teacher. Within 3 words of Korean they were in complete silence, sitting (inexplicably) with their hands on top of their heads. I explained the situation to her regarding the boy still with his head flat on the desk and was told “he is baseball player, ask someone else”. I was never told why his prowess on the field makes any difference whatsoever to his english ability, but whatevs. I was just so happy to see her. After this nightmare of a class, I taught exactly the same lesson to 5 different classes immediately after. Tuesdays are pretty hard going.

As you may have realised from the above, Korean students do not work like the TEFL instructors suggested. The more able students may understand the instructions given, but I have never ever heard them explain anything to the less able. In actuality, the lower level students simply switch off as soon as they hear english words they cannot understand and begin to talk/throw things/fight or distract everyone else in any which way they can. Usually this works (without a co-teacher these are the students I cannot easily discipline because they can’t understand 90% of the words coming out of my mouth) and within seconds the class can be beyond reach of even the most vigorous board eraser banging. As I mentioned earlier, I am aware that this problem is of my own making from not being a strict enough disciplinarian in my first week…but I ask whether any other first time teacher would have done any better. My first day of teaching consisted of 6 consecutive classes of 40 boys with my least helpful co-teachers. More than once I genuinely felt despair wash over me as I imagined the whole affair turning into a riot in front of my eyes and I did what I imagine most would do in that situation…I bribed them into near silence with niceness and the promise of rewards for good behaviour. This was a mistake, yes, but I think it was an understandable and largely unavoidable one, especially considering that my co-teacher’s introducing me to my students (“this is Carrie teacher, she is so young and pretty!”) made it beyond clear that I am more window-dressing than educator, more to be seen than listened to. As such my early classes found that myself and my co-teacher had somewhat of a Good Cop/Bad Cop vibe going on…I’d provide the nicey nice english fun and she’d step in whenever discipline or silencing was called for. This seemed like quite a good plan at the time…

…until I found out that I would be teaching after-school classes without a co-teacher to assist. This, guys and gals, is what makes Mondays and Tuesdays so hard to deal with. After my 6 classes on Monday and 5 on Tuesday, I am contractually obliged to teach an hour-long ‘conversation’ class to a group of mixed age, mixed ability boys. I have received no instruction or advice on what they should be conversing about, or how to get the little bastards talking about anything at all. Do you remember being 12 years old? Do you remember how tiny and insignificant a 15 year old thinks a 12 year old is? Can you imagine a group of 12-15 year old boys calmly sitting down and conversing about anything at all? No? Good, because they don’t. To make matters worse, some of these students have been attending a private english academy since they were 5 years old and some of them cannot yet introduce themselves in english. The older ones refuse to speak whatsoever, too cool or embarrassed are they to attempt conversation with the increasingly frustrated english girl.

In short, my after school conversation class is an utter nightmare and has become an exercise in making it through an two hours a week without a nervous breakdown. Today was particularly trying as the school (disappointed by the low turnout to my classes) forced the previous absentees to attend. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly, owing to their lack of attendance for the previous 4 weeks) they understood absolutely nothing of what I was talking about and so divided their time between playing on their mobile phones, running round the classroom, attacking other students or answering back in Korean whenever I said anything…hilariously, by the other students’ reactions. Luckily for one particular douchebag this only happened at the end of the class, but by the Gods if it happens next week I shall kick him out with ferocious trans-linguistic sign language and report him to someone who can tell him how much of a dick he is in his own tongue. Although they probably won’t if he’s a baseball player, he’ll most likely be given the key to the city and a lollipop.

In closing, the irony of the after-school class situation is that it’s outside of my 22 hours of contracted teaching so I’m being paid an extra £11 for each class. This makes those horrific two hours a week the highest paid two hours of my working life, and even then I can honestly say that it isn’t worth it. Literally nobody in this situation is getting what they paid or are paid for…and why?

Well, why do they serve watery soup everyday for lunch? Why is putting your hands over your head simultaneously a punishment and sign language for ‘love’? Why do all delicious looking sweet treats hide disgusting bean-y innards?

Sigh. Because Korea, that’s why.

PS: You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m not having a good time here, but that’s rubbish. Do not fear, friends and family, I will no doubt bounce back tomorrow with all the joyful, unerringly optimistic ebullience of an utter moron.


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