By Stuart Stravis
To begin this story, I will have to take you way back to the idyllic and overly idealistic glory days of English education in Korea, way back to 2006. At the time, I was employed by an elementary school in Seongbuk-gu, up in northern Seoul. My views on life in Korea at the time were just as hopeful and full of optimism as the day-dreaming policy makers at the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) and education policy makers in national government. All naïvely believed young and inexperienced native English speakers were the answer to Korea’s obsession to master the English language. For the policy makers and the wide-eyed foreign teachers, fresh out of college and fresh off the boat, the program was seen as a sure-fire and bound for success. Despite the overwhelming wave of optimism from the Department of Education upon hiring native speaking English teachers (NSETs) in public schools, the truth of the matter was, all parties involved had an appalling lack of understanding and direction on the work that was expected of them.
Yes, it was my second year in Korea and I was still full of youth and enthusiasm for the job I was doing, even if it was all bullshit. I was an English teacher, one of several hundred employed in Seoul, caught up in the mass public school hiring frenzy of the mid 2000s. My life at the time was comfortable and my job was easy. The school had set me up in a high-rise office-tel, which overlooked the Sungshin Women’s University area of the city. Looking out from my apartment at night, you could see all the neon madness that is Seoul. The apartment was small, but modern, clean and comfortable. It came equipped with all the necessities and conveniences of modern day Korean life, including incessant jack-hammering from dusk until dawn as a high-rise government office slowly rose to occupy the horizon before me.
Local and national education administrators were adamant that the ESL gravy train was eventually going to turn super-sonic gravy fueled, blast off and take them along for the ride. Officials were so adamant about bringing NSETs into Korea, that several English villages were constructed with government money to teach Koreans English, in “theme-park” like settings. Local media did its part in selling the English villages to the public before they were proven to be effective, financially or academically. English villages suffered from three main problems: they were found to be pretty much ineffective at creating better English speakers, they come at a massive cost of billions of won in public money, and Korean people generally don’t like or use them as much as officials had initially hoped and said they would. But in the heyday of English fever in the mid 2000s, the sky was the limit and anything was possible. After all, some of the old roosters in administration were turning a bit gray around the neck and they needed the promotions and recognition, a defining achievement if you will, that comes with a job well done after years of public service in government bureaucracy.
The idealistic and wishful thinking old timers in education administration, as well as NSETs and Korean co-teachers all bought into the belief that we were doing the legitimate and noble work of educating a Korean society to compete in a newly globalized and modern world. Whether or not that played out to actually be the case was an entirely different matter, and for all intensive purposes irrelevant. So long as those big budgets kept annually rolling into the district, the training we were providing for the Korean people was the myth propagated to all NSETs from the get-go and many of us ate it up, worked our jobs with pride and vigor for the supposed betterment of Korean society.
Foreign teachers were treated for the most part as paid English mercenaries, and we began to act accordingly over time. All hiring of foreigners was done out-of-house by recruiting agencies. I believe this method of recruitment was the first and one of the biggest mistakes of many on the part of Korean administrators. It set up a system of greed from the beginning and allowed private entities to oversee the hiring of foreign nationals to teach in Korean public schools. How crazy would it sound if that sort of thing were happening in almost any other country in the world? In most cases, teachers were hired from abroad and flown into Korea on free flights. The terms and conditions between the school and the teacher were agreed upon over the phone, with the recruiter acting as an intermediary between the teacher and the school. The unsuspecting district and school officials had absolutely no idea who or what would be waltzing into those classrooms.
Training was completely slop-job and inadequate on both sides of the isle. In my case, it didn’t even take place because I was hired mid-way through a semester, so no one in SMOE wanted to take the time to train me in. Typically, new teachers are run through a 2 week cultural sensitivity/teacher training program that is supposed to impart on them the necessary knowledge they need in order thrive as an English teacher and become a productive member of Korean society. After the training course is finished, teachers are divided up at the district level. Once foreign teachers are settled at their respective schools, all communication between the school, the district, and city officials seemingly ceases, except for the couple of times a year when district officials hastily throw together summer and winter English camps at the behest of slack-jawed city administrators, or when district officials come to a school to check a teacher that is up for a contract renewal. If a teacher has a question, the school will tell the teacher to ask the district, who will tell the teacher to ask SMOE, who will tell the teacher to ask the school and it becomes a never ending comic cycle of Aboot and Costello proportions: Whose on first? I don’t know… Third base! During the time I was involved with SMOE, I noticed that there was basically no communication within the program whatsoever. Now I can’t say they didn’t give it a bit of a try. There were a few half-hearted field trips to Korean “folk villages” and a forced drunken meal or two meant to build moral and cohesion among foreign teachers and Koreans working in the district, but inevitably, most of the interaction was usually between people who spoke the same language and only occurred after the straight laced Korean educators were well pickled and socially loose enough to attempt to speak English with a foreigner.
The job itself was initially a joy. I was being paid handsomely for the work I was doing and was able to save a fair amount of dough. The exchange rate was favorable and I was sending a good sum of money back home every month. The school, uncomfortable and awkward as they were with foreigners at the time, had placed me in my own private office to keep me out of everyone’s hair. While the office was poorly designed, out-dated, bare-bones, and frigid in the winter, it was mine and no one ever really came by to hassle me. The office was big by Korean standards and had a large window that allowed for a stunning unobstructed view of Bukhan Mountain and the surrounding area.
Sometimes when the school was dead quiet, and all the other teachers had snuck off for the day, I would open that window and let the cold winter air blast into the office. The old boiler heater in the office would be rolling out the heat and I would smoke a cigarette and think about just how lucky I was, to be where I was, when I was. All my worries and apprehensions about living in Korea would roll right up that valley and out of existence. I knew that I was living in a splendid moment of my existence. I would savor it all and be at peace looking out into the mountains of northeast Asia.
Lesson planning worked out to my co-teacher and I having to plan together no more than three lessons per week. While the workload was easy for me, I really doubt little ‘Minsu ‘benefited much from the of couple hours a month we were able to spend together. To top it off, my contract limited me to 24 hours of teaching a week, anything over that would be considered overtime and I was to be compensated accordingly. Seeing the demand and need for more English education in his school, the principal asked me to teach a few extra hours a week to students who were struggling with English. Of course I obliged because I was going to be paid $20 dollars an hour for the extra work. The way I looked at it, I was required to desk warm from 2pm until 5pm anyway, I might as well make some extra cash while I was there.
Korean education officials assumed foreigners were lazy, so they paid us not to be and thought that would be enough to make Korean children learn English. For some teachers, the extra money did actually make them work harder and see to it that their students improved their English abilities. For others, the extra cash financed post-college benders fit for a Bukowski novel. Budget hungry school officials and local administrators couldn’t blow through SMOE funds fast enough. They were essentially giving us free money for doing what would have been expected of any teacher in the West – the work of properly educating the students under our care and guidance.
And so it went for the next couple of years. I was living the life. The work was easy, there was always a big wad of cash in my pocket and my belly was always full. I was an Anti-English Spectrum member’s wet dream come true. I had the high-rise apartment and I was living there out of wedlock with a beautiful Korean woman, an artist nonetheless. Our life together was much to the consternation of her parents, the officials at my school, and the nosy security guards who lived in the box downstairs. All of the ridiculousness was funded and made possible by the tax payers of Korea and my girl and I were loving life because of it.
The new teachers tasked with educating the Korean masses were improperly trained, rarely evaluated, under-used, and over compensated for the jobs they performed. They weren’t trained as teachers, so they didn’t act like teachers. Many of these began to get fat and lazy off the tit of Mother Korea and started treating their jobs as a multi-year paid vacation/boat-less booze cruises.
At about this same time, I was up for a contract renewal with my school. Months earlier, before the new principal arrived on the scene, I had agreed to a third year at the school with the former principal, a kind but decrepit elderly Korean man who unfortunately passed away shortly after his health imposed retirement from the school. The school was happy to have me, and at this point it would have been more of a hassle for them to train a new teacher and get to know another foreigner all over again. They must have thought that they could have done worse. Despite the construction of the English Center and the loss of my private office, I was just about to say, “fuck it” and sign on for one more year, when one random afternoon a wry looking Korean man, sporting a short military haircut and wide-rimmed spectacles showed up at my office. He said his name was “Alex” and that he would be overseeing the completion and then become the manager of the soon to be completed English Center. I knew immediately and with certainty that it was time to go and gave notice that I would not be returning later in the same week.
It didn’t take long for it to come out that Alex’s daddy was also a principal at another school in Seoul and someone in the district had apparently done daddy a big favor by getting Alex his first job after military service. Alex was totally useless and incompetent at performing the job required of him and knew nothing about administration. At first, Alex tried to use that he was two years my senior to muscle me into doing his work for him. That lasted for about a day, until he realized that I knew far more about the mess he had gotten himself in than he did. Alex is one of those Koreans from the newer generation, my generation, that think they understand western culture because they were raised watching MTV. Alex would always stereotype me, and when I would call him out on his assumption, he would pass his ignorance off by saying, “well that’s what most Koreans think”, as if that was the perfect excuse for his being a moron. He wasn’t a particularly threatening character, he just didn’t have a clue.
Since Alex didn’t have the faintest idea on how to do his job properly, the task of finding three foreign teachers for the new English Center was of course delegated to a recruitment company. The first “teacher” they managed to drag into the school was a paranoid schizophrenic wandering Jew. She was in her mid 50′s and from California. She was apparently as broke as one can be in Korea, because she needed an advance from the school the first day that she walked through those doors. When we first met, she told me that she thought that, “the world was going to end very soon.”
Since neither her apartment or the English Center were ready to roll, the district decided it was best to put the woman up in a hotel for a couple of weeks, keep the workload light for her, and slowly orientate her into her new position. During her two week tenure at the school, she drove Alex and school officials up the wall. Apparently, she would call Alex in the middle of the night, complaining that the air-conditioner or fan in her hotel room didn’t work. When he would tell her to call the front desk for help, she would scream at him, “You’re not helping me adjust to Korean society!”, and then hang up the phone in anger. The woman lasted until all the cultural confusion surrounding her had finally settled and they realized that she truly was insane. “Oh well,” I thought, “What’s another flight, one more free hotel, and a bit more cash out of the Korean tax payer’s coffer? The next teacher that came swinging through those doors at least looked the part of a teacher and was better ready to do his job. The problem with him was that the recruitment company messed up his paperwork before he came over to Korea and he had to return back to Australia, two weeks into the job to collect documents required by Korean immigration to get an E-2 visa.
At the time, they were just starting to do criminal checks and the recruitment company brought him over to Korea without one. I’m not sure who covered those expenses, but he told me the flight didn’t come out of his pocket, although he was probably out a bit because of the ordeal. The way I saw his situation, through my jaded eyes, in the waning days of my public school service in Korea, was that it was just another botched job, done by a private company, at the expense of Korean taxpayer’s won. It was no skin off my ass, but what a damn shame.