Desperation and the ESL Teacher Abroad

I work a job I seriously dislike and make peanuts doing it. I end up relying on my parents a lot, which makes me feel just… gross and sad. While I wallow around in my self pity I remember the year I spent living self-sufficient, never having to ask anyone for money.  It was also the year I fell into an amazingly deep depression that I’m not sure how I managed to emerge from intact.

For that year I was teaching English at an after school academy (hereafter known by its Korean name: hagwon) in a large compared to Boston, small compared to Seoul sized city in the southern part of South Korea. And it was miserable. And even though many who go to teach are not miserable, I don’t think it is so

We’re going to go a little more into depth about all this, but first I must make a very important disclaimer. There are horror stories out there about foreign teachers (waygook songsaynim) getting treated like absolute shit, horrible bosses, horrible work and living conditions, and just general abuse. I met some people who dealt with those kinds of institutions, people who fled in the night from their contracts because what they were making was not worth how they were being treated. This story, my story, is NOT one of those. I had amazing bosses who were considerate people and went above and beyond to be simply wonderful to us. There were flaws in the system, of course, but I had great Korean coworkers and an awesome living space. Everything else herein is my opinion, my educated opinion, and no matter if people agree or disagree I want no one thinking poorly of the awesome, supportive people I worked with who let me out of a contract a  month early so I could attend my brother’s high school graduation and gave me no crap about it.

Long disclaimer over, let’s talk about the desperation that bookends my time in the ROK. In March 2010 I was anxiously awaiting an acceptance letter from any of the six graduate schools I applied to. In a hilarious turn of events, one day saw me receive seven rejection letters.  That’s no typo, six applications, seven rejections. One school thought I was so unqualified they sent me two separate rejection letters with different reasons for my rejection. I take some solace in the fact that they had to pay twice the postage to tell me I sucked.  The next two days I did what any reasonable person facing an uncertain future would do: skipped classes and stayed in bed and sobbed.

So when a friend emailed and said that after two years teaching at a hagwon in Korea she was ready for a new adventure, did I know anyone interested in her job? I jumped on the opportunity to not have to move back in with my parents and be sad that I didn’t have a post-graduate plan.  Even though I a lot of apprehension about teaching, I thought it could be a fun experience, and I was really excited about the prospect of living and traveling abroad, and more than anything I figured I had an extra year and a cool resume builder that would give me a better shot of getting into grad school.

Grad school didn’t work out, I spent a year feeling overwhelmed and unhappy as I struggled in a program that didn’t actually meet any of my expectations or needs, even though I had researched it to exhaustion.  After I lost my funding and spent two terms of taking waste of time classes with no application to my career or research goals I dropped out and sowed my wild job application oats all over town until I was hired by a grocery store and live in the barely getting by hell I do now. The money was the most appealing part of Korea, and when it gets tight I often wonder if I should throw myself back into the Foreign Teacher fray, go to a new country and live a more financially secure life where I could maybe, just maybe, save up some extra money. I imagine that it would be more fun with the support system of Manbeast being there with me. I reminisce about the days when I could go into a store like Zara’s and have enough extra cash to buy something off their sales rack (but only their sales rack) and I remember when I could buy good cuts of meat and all the fruits and vegetables I wanted, or go out to eat, without feeling guilty about the cost. I remember a cup of coffee being a thing I could just buy, and not a luxury I had to justify.

But then I remember how much I hated it, and how much I feel that the current system for selecting ESL teachers does a disservice to those students trying to learn English as a second language.

Unpacking why I hated it is far, far easier. As I said in my disclaimer, it was not at all related to my school. Would I have been happier at a different hagwon? Well, possibly, I found that I enjoyed working with younger children far more than older ones, so If I worked at a hagwon that focused on K-3rd graders it might have been more fun for me, I can’t rightly say. Ultimately though I discovered that I don’t like children nearly as much as I thought I did. I also have no aptitude for teaching in general and didn’t find it particularly enjoyable. My students didn’t really find learning enjoyable and I wasn’t equipped to engage them and we both floundered because of that.

And that’s part of the reason why I think people should think twice and probably decline opportunities to teach abroad. On the one hand, I think spending time with native language speakers is a boon to any language learner. I know when I was learning languages the classes taught by bilingual native speakers gave me more insight to the languages than the ones taught by non-native speakers (Exception: Latin).  But do you know what the requirements to teach children English in most of these countries are? 1. Native English speaker 2. College Degree. Well, the only language I’m fluent in is English (but I can read the Cyrillic alphabet like a champ!) and as mentioned earlier in this story, I have a college degree (in English Lit and Anthropology). I do not have an education degree, anyone considering teaching abroad who HAS a teaching degree and wants to teach as an actual career should ignore these opinions, as they aren’t really applicable to you. I know that there is a lot about teaching that you must learn and hone in practice and can’t be theoretically taught in a classroom. That said, I had (have) no training in the education field, and even before my stint in Korea I knew I didn’t want it to be my career. So what did I bring to my classroom? A lot of awkward pauses, a lack of confidence in my ability to communicate ideas, I could speak English, but that doesn’t mean that I had any of the skills to effectively teach it. I know that I  can really only speak for myself, but I know that I am not alone in this feeling that the necessary teaching skills were lacked. There is a distinction here, I had my own, independent classroom. Friends who taught in classrooms with a direct co-teacher (who was usually in charge of leading the class while the foreign teacher supplemented the primary lessons).  I was a massively ineffective teacher, my co-teachers were also fairly ineffective, most of the people I met and talked to didn’t really think they were getting anything through to these children. I saw almost no progress in the majority of my students in the year I was there.  I don’t think I actively harmed any of my students in anyway, but I did them a great disservice by pretending and failing to teach them for the sake of a paycheck.

Largely, the kids don’t care. I was thrown so many stereotypes about the diligent Asian child who craved an education and respected their elders, and I kind of bought it, but mostly it was a loud of crap. This is more applicable to hagwons than public schools, because from what I have gathered the public school teachers do command a fair amount of respect, but hagwons are about money more than learning, and the students know that even though they are graded in their hagwon, it is how they do in their primary school work that is what really counts in terms of getting into a respected university. Therefore, the children don’t really care about listening to or respecting you (or the Korean teachers), they know they are only there because their parents paid and that in the long run it doesn’t matter that much. Knowing that as a teacher made it hard for me to get too mad when I caught them doing other homework in my classes… If you are considering teaching in Asia because of stereotypical beliefs about Asian vs American children, just don’t. Don’t even. Kids will be kids will be kids and I doubt there is a country on this planet where any of them think school work is fun, even if they do recognize its importance.

Which leads to the ethical argument. I believe schooling and education are important. I believe that education should be considered a human right. I believe that every child has the right to go to school and receive a good education.  This section does not really apply to Korean public schools. I’m sure they are flawed, but I am not intimately familiar with those flaws. I will not say that the entire educational system of Korea is wrong. However, having lived their and interacted with its students, I do not feel that i can support the hagwon system. A typical Korean student spends their entire day in school (like an American Child), but then after school they go to one or more specialized academies where they are met with more academic lecturing and assigned more homework. This system starts as young as kindergarten.  They attend a school day as long as the average American student. The kids come to these hagwons mentally tired and unengaged with tons of pent up energy.  When I was immersed in that environment I ended up not really wanting to educate the kids, but letting them unwind and have some fun, free time. I couldn’t do that, I had to assign homework, grades, and tests (some parents would call the hagwon and complain if they thought their child was not receiving enough homework). Knowing how much pressure these young students were under, and knowing how high the youth suicide rate was in Korea at the time I was there made me very uncomfortable taking part in a system that I realized I did not support and did not think was set up in a very beneficial matter. Now, I don’t think the American education system is a perfect model to be followed, very far from it. I suppose that is my second disclaimer. I’m not trying to say that South Korean schools are horrible even places and American schools are made by rainbows and lollipops (just the vegetable known as pizza…), but I made the mistake of not researching the system that I was going to be a cog in before I accepted the job offer, and then felt it was a fundamentally flawed thing I did not feel comfortable being a part of.

The students also know that the hagwon is something that is paid for by their parents. They know that their normal schooling counts for much, much more, and because of that there are respect issues. Many of my peers working in public schools would sometimes feel like their status as a foreigner made them the target of disrespect, but they could count on their co-teacher to rein the class in, as the students did have a large amount of respect for their Korean teacher. However in hagwons the students had little respect for me and my other co-teachers and only slightly more respect for their Korean teachers.

If teaching abroad is something that you are interested in and have stumbled across this post here is what I urge you to consider. The first is your aptitude for teaching, because that WILL be your job, and just being a native speaker isn’t enough to make you a competent language teacher (oh if it were only that easy). If you have been trained as a teacher, or want to pursue teaching as a career, than I think it is something you should actually consider, it’s certainly an interesting experience and insight can always be gained by expanding your knowledge of other cultures. If you are only interested in making some money, or if you are trapped in the same spiral of desperation that I found myself in… don’t. This experience doesn’t exist in a background, you are placed partially in charge of the minds of learners who deserve better than what I had to offer as someone grasping at straws, better than what someone only interested in money has to offer, and dear god, they deserve far, far better than someone who only wants to fetishize their culture and sees teaching their as an in (yes those people do exist, they are amazingly easy to spot). I would also ask you to consider the system that you will be entering into. If someone who was passionate about teaching were to approach me about teaching abroad, I would tell them to consider the public schools, as that is where the most real learning seems to take place (also they seem to offer more vacation time). If you want to teach at a hagwon, I would ask you to consider if it’s an institution you feel comfortable supporting. Maybe it is, I can’t make that call for someone else but it is a point that should be considered.

While my overall experience living abroad was filled with ups and downs and some sideways, I feel that my time there was not beneficial to anyone. I felt morally conflicted about my place in the hagwon system and did not do the students I had the educational service they deserved. Others out there can certainly (and have and are) done better than I, but so many people I met were in the same place I was, and ended up there ‘just because.’ Because what else?

I learned something though, through my entire time there wondering what good I was doing but feeling great financially (if not mentally). If I let desperation dictate what I do, I end up like a fish out of water. And not in a good way. I’m no coelacanth.  I just ended up being a regular old mola mola who launched themselves onto the deck of a boat and couldn’t get off. My life now isn’t one that is super great or happy, but I’m having less moral conflicts, and even in my state of financial and emotional desperation, I know it could be worse and that has kept me from launching my large, pasty white, misshapen self back into the same situation.



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