Having now been an EPIK teacher in Korea for a little over 3 months, I feel like I’ve gained enough insight into the life of a GET (Guest English Teacher) to throw my two cents in on the whole shebang. Before any lifers get on my back about 3 months being nothing at all, I am well aware of that but if I reserve judgement until I’ve been here for a year I’ll probably have forgotten what this profound feeling of realisation is like.
To begin, some disclaimers. Firstly I am a Middle School teacher, and therefore can’t comment on Elementary or High School with any clarity…however, this won’t stop me from reading into the Facebook-documented experiences of fellow EPIKers and commenting on them accordingly. Secondly, there is no guarantee that your Middle School is anything like my Middle School, but again this won’t stop me from making sweeping (often damning) generalisations. Thirdly and finally I am not claiming to be a great, or even particularly good teacher. This is my first year of ESL teaching, after all.
During the week-long EPIK orientation I attended in February, practically every lecture given was focused on Elementary teaching. Seeing as you don’t find out what level you’re teaching at until the last day of the orientation, at the time you don’t realise how pointless this is until, like me, you open your manilla envelope and discover that you aren’t going to be one of those teachers. I forget the exact percentage, but the vast majority of new EPIK teachers will be placed in Elementary schools and (as I have mentioned many times before) I have days and sometimes weeks in which I wish I were one of them. This is not helped by my being a member of a number of EPIK Facebook groups populated largely with deskwarming* Elementary teachers filling their apparently empty days by posting comments along the lines of “….. ….. has another day of cancelled classes! Watching Mad Men at my desk all day long, LOL!” and the ever-hateful “Out drinking til 4am, roll into school at 9. Can’t believe we’re being paid for this!”.
*for the uninitiated, this is the time you have between classes when lesson planning is complete and you have nothing to do other than twiddle your thumbs and hang out on Facebook with people in the same position.
I imagine at this point you are rolling your eyes and tutting the word ‘jealous?’ to yourself. Well, admittedly, often I am jealous of the Elementary lifestyle but not in the way you’re assuming. For a start, I do try to take my job seriously as far as I can (more on that later) and secondly, after working in bars for a number of years I’m fully, painfully aware that whilst some jobs can be done on a critical-level hangover, some cannot. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t believe that standing in front of huge classes of students and attempting to impart knowledge is one of them…at least until you’re an experienced enough teacher to do it on autopilot, and even then it’s shaky ground and a slippery slope. Of course a lot of Elementary School teachers are fantastic and I count myself lucky to be friends with a good few of them. We all agree, however, that there is a portion of the ESL-teaching society here who make the rest of us look shitty, but that isn’t a topic for today…or possibly ever.
The main point of this post is that it isn’t really about whether you’re a good or bad teacher here, it’s about whether or not you can consider yourself a teacher at all. When I first began my job I was slightly surprised by the amount of work and responsibility I was given, especially compared to the examples given during orientation. Each week I teach all three Middle School grades and am responsible for the complete planning and presentation of each lesson. I have a textbook with certain pages I’m required to cover but anything over that is my own choice, plus I write the exam questions, give after school classes, design and run summer camps and am solely responsible for grading the new speaking test implemented by the Office of Education. My timetable (as mentioned in a previous post) has nightmare Mondays and Tuesdays consisting of six or seven consecutive classes, all of the same grade, resulting in what I like to call a Groundhog Day. Never, ever try to get a sensible conversation out of me after a Groundhog Day, I am beyond stressed and make less sense than the casting of Andie MacDowell**.
** Note: not just in Groundhog Day, but in literally everything she’s ever been in.
After 3 months I’ve come to realise that whilst I do have a lot of work, I do not have the responsibility I first thought. I began to notice this as my classes started to be cancelled at a minute’s notice for things along the lines of ‘Inter-Class Soccer Practice’, ‘Emergency Lecture’ and (most bafflingly) ‘Health Time’. I won’t deny that these last second changes are often welcome at the end of a long day, but it doesn’t half mess up my planning when I turn up at the class a week later (sometimes a month later as I only teach 3rd grade once every two weeks) only to remember too late that they are a lesson behind everyone else. A couple of weeks ago I found myself turning up to classes to find that the co-teacher had planned a lesson on vocabulary (not my area) and so I would be a classroom helper whilst she took the lesson. Again, not a problem but it would be nice to be kept in the loop.
Remember the newly-implemented speaking test I was recently been told I’m conducting and evaluating? This morning I was told that whilst I am solely responsible for the students’ individual grades, the grades as a whole must conform to each class’s average test scores, I’m not allowed to grade students under a certain amount of points and also that everyone must score around their personal average from previous tests. Brighter folks amongst you may have realised that with all these stipulations considered, the entire thing isn’t so much testing and evaluation as a rudimentary matching exercise made all the more tiresome by the fact that the students names will be written in Korean and I won’t actually be supplied with their average grades…presumably I have to guess what they should score and if I get it wrong it will be changed without my knowledge alongside much grumbling about how bad foreigner is at marking.
To cut a potentially much longer story short, being a foreign teacher in Korea is not really a teaching job in the traditional (actual) sense as we are responsible for nothing more than delivering a tiny portion of a book where the grades don’t matter in the slightest. Some schools don’t require the foreign teacher to use the textbook and do not ask them to teach students anything they will be tested on whatsoever, instead preferring the GET to conduct hilariously titled ‘Fun Fun English’ classes in which the students theoretically learn to enjoy the language, but actually chill the fuck out and go to sleep as it’s the only break they’ll get that week.
Whichever way your school swings we’re not here to be serious teachers, which is a conclusion I imagine the properly trained, PGCE/equivalent-wielding EPIKers reached long before I did. I often wonder how they feel about the situation when they have been accustomed to the responsibilities of a regular, run of the mill teaching job…after the initial elation of not having to mark essays all weekend wears off, obviously.
All of this begs the question: If we’re not here to be teachers, what are we here to be? It’s an easy question for Elementary teachers, and one which was cringe-inducingly described during orientation as ‘edutainment’…foreign babysitters, essentially, with smiles on their faces and alphabet songs in their hearts. Although this is without question a monumental waste of money for the government, I genuinely believe that a foreign presence is beneficial to the little guys, considering that this is a country in which we are often stared at purely for the shock value we possess by being non-Korean in public.
But surely ‘edutainment’ isn’t what we’re here for when teaching unbelievably self-aware teenagers? I cast my mind back to my early years of high school (when I was the same age I’m trying to teach now) and I can imagine nothing I would have liked less than being forced to chant and sing songs at the demand of some overly enthusiastic teacher-clown, however my understanding of our role changed the first time I played a game with the students in my class. I had been warned about the dangers of Korean student competitiveness before (especially within large groups of boys) but you can never truly understand until you’ve inadvertently caused the full-scale, 40 students screaming, jumping on tables kind of riot purely because someone chose the wrong Mario mushroom. I quickly came to realise that whilst my students would look at me like I’d gone mental if I tried to make them sing en masse, their competitive streak makes any kind of game totally worth playing. At the beginning of practically every lesson I am approached by at least three different students all looking at me hopefully through their sleep-deprived eyelids and uttering “teacher…game?” like I’m some kind of Fun Keeper and will unleash my powers only when they’ve reached critical levels of adorable-ness.
The conclusion I’ve come up with, foolish as many of you will think it, is to play the games and make the poor little guys happy for 45 minutes a week. I haven’t written about it at any length yet but the school system is not easy here for students and (regardless of what false pretensions any uppity EPIKer has) we aren’t here to offer much in the way of actual teaching so why not try to offer something else altogether rather than just coasting by and getting paid for the bare minimum? I’m in no position to give advice but with every passing day I’m taking my teaching duties less and less seriously and being more concerned with letting the kids have a bit of fun, making myself more available to chat before and after classes and generally trying to make them feel a bit more comfortable about hanging out with a foreigner. They’re not going to be great at speaking English until the government’s approach to teaching it changes, and whilst I’ve got no part in that I can have a part in being a positive-ish influence on a large number of kids just by being the nice English lady who plays fun games, smiles and says hello to them in the corridor regardless of her mood and doesn’t hit them in class…
but that’s a topic for another day.