At once I can’t believe I’m writing this post, and I’m relieved to be. For those who have kept in contact with me during the 6 months I’ve spent in Korea, you are probably aware that I’ve decided to move to Thailand. As of late, I haven’t been posting as frequently as I would like for one reason: my story of working as a teacher has become one of the many horror-stories-turned-cautionary-tales you read online. Granted, my situation is not as bad as some of them. I am getting paid on time and in the correct amount. For that reason alone, my job is not the worst and is also a platform upon which expats judge teaching jobs. “If you’re getting paid, you have a pretty sweet deal.” However, my situation went from bad to worse within a matter of a month or two. I can’t go into specifics, nor do I desire to put them all over the internet. I do feel as though something needs to be said regarding the matter.
I came to Korea with little expectations. I knew that the hagwon system is known for it’s treatment of foreign teachers. There are foreigners who haven’t been paid in months; because hagwons are independently run businesses many owners embezzle money from their own business. I expected to be paid on time, and thankfully that fact has remained true throughout my entire experience. I didn’t expect to be treated the way I have been at my place of employment- which is more of a reflection on the teachers and my bosses, than upon myself. When I arrived I made it clear that, while I did have experience working with children in a professional setting, I had never taught my own class as an educator. I received 5 days of “training” where I watched the classes of the girl who I was replacing. I soon learned just how long my days were- 9am-7:30pm- and that I have the heaviest work load out of any teacher in the entire school. Since my school does not have a curriculum, I leave at 8pm because I have to create my own lessons and correct work for 9 classes. During my first week, as a brand new teacher with no prior experience, I had to create tests on my own for 3 classes. I asked for help from my co-teachers, but to no avail- for whatever reason.
During my third week at school I had to write report cards for all 9 classes, most with 10 students in each class- you do the math, it’s A LOT of work! Things were fine for a while, until my boss started watching me teach classes because, according to her, “all the students in the school hate me.” She eventually stopped watching me teach, and started taking over my classes halfway through. Before I knew it, every day when I came into school there was yet another passive aggressive note on the white board in the teachers room. The Korean co-teachers saw me-a new teacher, I might add- stressed out, and apparently couldn’t handle that so they just decided to stop talking to me about anything in general- including the classes we share. As a person to learn any new job, mistakes are bound to happen. In my eyes, forgetting to give the co-teachers workbooks isn’t the end of the world. But the silliest, easily fixed “mistakes” were treated as huge mistakes. I kept asking questions, because foreign teachers would tell me to do things a certain way, but then I would get scolded by my boss for doing it that way. When I say scolded, I mean- pulled into a classroom and screamed at like a child. I realize mistakes should be avoided, and I tried my best not to make them. At the end of the day, I am human, and learning a new job. Just because I made some silly, rookie mistakes doesn’t mean I am incompetent. It’s especially hard when there is no consistency. Kindergarten lesson plans are to be written differently than my elementary ones, and the kindergarten lesson plan requirements change with every class. If there was a curriculum, or a dependable routine to follow those mistakes wouldn’t have been made.
I tried telling my boss how I felt ostracized by everyone in the school. When I arrived, the foreign teachers did nothing to help me get acclimated to life in Korea. I remember once we went out to dinner, but there was no friendly reaching out afterwards. It was all fine- I went on some amazing meet up trips with other expats in Korea and made some wonderful friends! Yet, to me, it seemed like they had invited me to dinner as a chore rather something they wanted to do. This, coupled with my Korean teachers refusing to talk to me left me very alone at work, having to figure things out on my own. My boss told me that this wasn’t the case…because they have never had problems in the past. This is the infamous Korean logic I love. “It has never happened before, so it can’t be happening now” “someone with a little bit of authority told me that we have to take the kids to the roof in the event of a fire so we have to do it.” #becausekorea. One day, my boss was watching me teach a class. In the middle of my sentence, she interrupted and pulled me into the hallway. She told me all the kids in the school hate me and that my classes are boring (having fun is the #1 priority). I told her this is the most confusing place I’ve ever worked at. During class the kids seem to have fun, and then they turn around and tell their moms they hate me. I ask someone a question and do things according to their answer, and then I get yelled at because it isn’t done to her standard. I don’t know what’s right or wrong and I only find out after the fact, and I don’t know how I can proceed or even be successful when I’m kept in the dark about everything. To which she replied “So, will you quit?” I said “are you sure?” and she said “yes, I am sure.”
Of course I jumped at the opportunity. I wasn’t happy there, overworked and confused because no one ever gave me expectations. When they were made clear, the next day expectations were changed. The next day, I sat down with the patriarch owner of the hagwon, which was at the beginning of June. He told me I should wrap up work as soon as possible, which wasn’t an option for me. I had to beg to get July 29th as my last day. I was essentially pushed out of the door as fast and swiftly as possible. We signed an addendum to my contract and everything. Recently I made the decision to move to Bangkok! I bought my ticket last Sunday and was so relieved to do so. I walked into work on Monday and asked my boss if she could write a letter telling a future employer the things I’ve done at the school- not even a letter of recommendation, just something to show a future employer about what I’ve done at the school. This past Wednesday her husband, the patriarch of the hagwon, pulled me aside again and told me that they needed me to stay another month, because 1 month’s notice wasn’t enough time to find a new teacher. I brought it to his attention that the Korean law states I only have to give 1 month and instead I gave him 2 months. That I had already purchased a one-way ticket to Bangkok and made arrangements there that are time sensitive, as my sister is moving from Bangkok to the USA the week after I arrive. To which he replied with an ultimatum “we will give you a reference letter if you stay longer.” I said I didn’t even know it was an option to stay, and that I felt like I was forced out. That I had given them 2 months to find a new teacher and thought they would start looking right after our initial conversation. We left things that I would inform them if anything changed.
It has definitely left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I tried my hardest to accommodate every request made to me. I stayed late, even worked on weekends after completing 12 hour work days. I was literally asked to quit, and when I did I was asked to stay right after I had made plans to move. #becausekorea. I just don’t know what they expected me to say to that? I realize it’s inconveniencing other teachers, and Korea is very much operated from a group mentality. If they wanted me to stay, the other teachers should have made me feel welcome. At the end of it all, I am not bitter about my experience. I made some wonderful friends, and really took advantage of my time off. I got to travel around Korea on weekends and basically did everything I wanted to do before coming, and then some. I received proper training- though it was after I was asked to quit- and I feel like I’ve gained some useful experience. I know I’m capable despite some silly, rookie mistakes- and it’s sad that my boss thinks otherwise- but I can’t change that.
I honestly wish them luck in the future. I hope the new girl can reach the high expectations set for her. I just hope they hired someone with formal teaching experience if that’s what they so obviously want from their teachers. I think this experience has made me more patient, and understanding. I’m so sad to be leaving my babies- who apparently hate me…?- but I know it’s time to leave Korea. I’ve seen and done some unforgettable things with unforgettable people. At first I was heartbroken that things weren’t working out here. “How could this be happening? What have I done wrong? What will people at home think of me? How could I have failed at this so soon into the experience?” I was so sad, and confused, and didn’t want to talk to anyone. Hence the couple-months-long sabbatical from blogging. I’ve learned that in the grand scene of things, this experience doesn’t really matter. I have done everything that was asked of me, and it wasn’t enough. I realize I made small mistakes but they were turned into big deals, and I was treated with utter disrespect. I am not angry, because I know this isn’t the end. I’m slowly learning that one bad experience doesn’t define me. I’m learning not to let one disappointment hold me back from other, and far better opportunities elsewhere.
When I was deciding where to teach in Asia, I initially wanted to go to Vietnam or Thailand. I eventually chose Korea because they pay their teachers the most out of anywhere in the world. You can save over $1,000/month, your round trip airfare is covered by the school, your health insurance is 50/50 between you and your employer and you get to live rent free. I didn’t realize that the price for all of this would be my confidence, sanity and health. I didn’t realize I would have to choose between respecting myself or keeping my job. I’ve had some pretty awful jobs in the past, with horrible bosses. If you have the time, and are actually interested I can tell you all about those in person. If not, just take my word for it. I’ve let bosses insult me, yell at me, make me do things completely outside of my contract and not pay me for it, let alone provide me with benefits. And while I am responsible for those experiences, I am not completely to blame. I don’t understand the mentality employers have when hiring someone new to fill a position.
Regardless of experience, there is still going to be a learning curve and mistakes are going to be made- especially if someone has never done the job before. Everyone expects new employees to be these amazing, well seasoned employees and no one is willing to train them. I don’t understand that mentality, but I really do wish all employers- past, present, and future- who are hiring with this mindset: that new employees have to amazing from the get-go. It’s just unrealistic! I learned a long time ago to not allow a boss to push me around, and be disrespectful. Korea has taught me how to deal with that kind of situation with as much grace as I can muster. I’ve tried my best, and put in a lot of effort when I really had no motivation. I am open to suggestions and want to be the best I can be, but I know when to put my foot down and show that I deserve to get respect at work. I’ve learned when it’s time to walk away, what to put up with and what not to. I don’t harbor any ill will. I am grateful for my experience!
In the back of my mind, I can’t help but think that maybe things didn’t work out here because this isn’t where I was supposed to end up. I didn’t want to live in Korea, I came here for the money. I didn’t even know anything about Korea- other than it’s crazy neighbor to the North. There are things about Korea that I will miss, and will look back fondly on my experience when all is said and done. I just hope that someone out there will be reading this when contemplating whether or not to come to Korea; because there are things you should know:
1. People here live up to the stereotype: SUPER strict, super Christian, super conservative, very traditional. Women don’t have much to do other than getting married… Much like society the US in the 50’s.
2. You are held to a certain standard because you’re a foreigner. Certain rules apply to you that don’t to natives, and vice versa.
3. People here will judge you…HARD…. because you’re a foreigner. Try as you might, you will never ever be Korean, no matter how long you live here. Even if you get married to a Korean. Expect to be aggressively stared at everywhere you go, and followed around stores by its employees!!
4. Expats here are just as judgmental, but money-hungry as well. Some come here because they generally want to be in Korea, but most just come here for the benefits- myself included. You will meet some expats who are really cool, and some who are insufferably pretentious. There is a grey area, but for the most part, this has been my experience.
5. Your boss will expect a certain standard from you, and often times it won’t be communicated to you. A lot of things won’t be communicated to you- unless you’re really lucky.
6. Koreans are very hardworking people. It’s amazing that the country pulled itself out of literal third world ashes, and in 30+ years, became a first world power house economy. You are expected to work just as hard for that amazing salary and those attractive benefits. Just be prepared to do so!
7. In spite of it all, Korea is what you make of it!
I don’t mean for this post to serve as a public ranting and insult slinging platform for the world to read. I have merely stated the facts of the situation, and tried my hardest to share them with people without inserting my opinions. I truly hope that my experience will serve as a basis for future expats to learn from. Obviously there are wonderful experiences to be had from teaching in Korea. Not everyone’s experience is the same- even when it concerns the same exact things. Some people come here and have everything handed to them on a silver platter, and it’s really amazing that they are able to have such great experiences! For me, it wasn’t the case and that’s ok. It is disappointing for sure, but this isn’t the end of the road for me. I’ve read a lot about the new semi colon project, and the whole idea really resonates with me. When used grammatically correct, a semi colon joins two independent sentences, that the author believes to be connected. They could have ended the sentence, but decided to continue. Though the mainstream purpose for the semi colon tattoo is to symbolize struggles with addiction and depression and suicide- I think it can be applied to issues outside of those within the mental health realm. I have overcome a lot of obstacles in my life, some large while others pale in comparison. When I think about all that I’ve been through, and the things I’ve overcome, the whole idea behind this tattoo gaining mainstream attention is really a beautiful thing. It would be so easy for me to return to the shire, and fall into the comfortable, loving and waiting arms of my guy; but this can’t be the end of my story. I am not depressed, or suicidal, or suffering from addiction. But I set out in search of bettering and finding myself, and I will be damned if I allow someone to take that away from me just because I didn’t meet their unattainable expectations. I am worthy. I am capable. So are you!
Don’t worry mom, I haven’t gotten a tattoo…yet 🙂