Working in a Small, Private Middle School in Rural South Korea

I haven’t talked a lot about my job in South Korea, because beaches and pictures and weird flavors of Pringles just seem more interesting to me. Who wants to hear about my boring 9-5, everyday gig? And I’m realizing that, probably, you do. Because you don’t work here. It’s not boring for you. It’s exciting and foreign and mysterious! So I’m going to take you into my professional world, today. To kick this post off, here’s a short video:

Now, let’s get started. I’ve decided to interview myself with questions that I’ve heard from my friends and family over the past year or so. Because interviews are great, and I don’t have any on my blog yet. Who better to start with than yours truly?

Aren’t Korean kids better behaved than kids in the USA?

No! Did you watch that video? Do you think that only happens between classes and then magically, as soon as the bell rings, the students gracefully sit up straight, have their pens poised and ready to go and shut their mouths? Eyes eagerly looking forward, waiting to learn? Does that sound ridiculous? Great. I’ve conveyed my point. Kids are kids are kids. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.

What’s the difference between a private and a public middle school?

Just from walking around or observing classes, nothing really. They have the same curriculum and school hours, uniforms just like every other school and there’s nothing remarkable about the school building. So from the students’ perspective, I don’t know what the difference is, really. From the native English teacher’s perspective, it just means that I wasn’t required to go to orientation (a blessing and a curse), I filled out a lot less paperwork (no EPIK forms) and my contract is much more flexible than Korean government contracted teachers. I renewed for six months and was able to negotiate half the benefits, something other EPIK teachers don’t have the freedom to do.

Yeah, they're angels.
Yeah, they’re angels.

Do you know all of your kids’ names?

Yes and no. I know all of their English names, but I only know maybe 20 of their Korean names. I tried to memorize all their Korean names, but it was taking too long and compromising my authority as a teacher. It’s hard to get a rogue student’s attention when you can’t even say their name! So English names it was. And I learned all ~130 very quickly.

Are you friends with your co-workers?

I’m at-work friends with some of my co-workers and on friendly terms with everyone. But the majority of them are older, with families and kids and we don’t have a ton in common. I don’t think any of them have ever lived abroad, some have never left Korea. Most of them can’t speak English well enough to carry a conversation. My co-English-teacher is the closest thing to a “friend”, though I’m pretty sure we’re from different planets. She’s 25 with a minister husband, new baby boy and never-been-stamped passport (if she even has a passport?). So while I enjoy working with my co-workers, there aren’t any friendships there that I’ll be keeping up in the long run.

Are there any other foreigners where you live?

Ehhh, yes and no. In walking distance? Definitely not. In the nearby town? Plenty. I just need to hop in the car and drive 25 minutes to see them.

Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.
Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.

Since your school is so small, do you have less work to do?

No. While I teach fewer classes per week than my other native English teacher friends, I have to teach new material with much more frequency. So while teachers working at a big school can teach the same lesson over and over for a week or even just two or three days, I only have two classes before it becomes repeat (unless I reuse a lesson on different grade levels). So the hours that other teachers spend in the classroom teaching the same lesson, again, I spend at my desk making new lesson plans, again. It’s different work but it’s no less.

Are your classes graded?

No. I created a sticker system to create some semblance of rewards for doing well, though. So you could say that my classes are graded by the potential for getting candy at the end of the semester.

How do you keep your kids disciplined?

Sometimes I don’t, and candy. My classes are my own, so it’s just me and a bunch of kids. Considering my lack of cred as a disciplinarian (I won’t hit kids with sticks), sometimes they get a little rowdy. The key is just to have an interesting game or change activities a lot during class. Or bribe them with ten minutes of Sherlock at the end of the lesson, whatever works. Sometimes it doesn’t, that’s just life as a teacher. And candy.

The only surefire teaching method: bribery.
The only surefire teaching method: bribery.

What do you like about your job?

I like the relaxed atmosphere and the freedom I’m given inside my classes. We can cover literally anything in the lesson, as long as the kids are being exposed to English words. I also like my middle school students (mostly), because unlike elementary school, they are going through hilarious and awkward growth and puberty spurts and crushes on girls. I can also tease them without provoking tears and sometimes they even catch my sarcasm. Lastly, living a three minute walk away from work has serious advantages.

What do you dislike?

I don’t like that I’m so remote and far from friends, because it takes away all of my spontaneity. This also means I can’t enjoy a beer after work with anyone, or ever with friends, because I’ve driven there and have to drive home. (And don’t tell me “just one beer is fine” because driving in Korea is all kinds of crazy when I’m sober.) So everything about my school is great, except for the location.

Do you feel like you’re making a difference?

Yes, but not in the way you’d think. I don’t think my students are learning a lot of English and I don’t think they’re picking up on my accent and fixing their pronunciation. (Even though I try so hard!) But, I think that the exposure to someone from the USA/Western world has been good for them, because they see that I’m human. When we talk about Christmas or Halloween or any other cultural subject during class, they listen and are interested. So while they’re not becoming fluent in English while I’m here, they are being exposed to a lot of information about the West that they’d otherwise not know. And they see that I’m a normal, breathing person who likes to eat ice cream and has friends outside of work. So my hope is that they see foreigners not as a weird class of people, but a group of individual people, not so different from them.

Can I have some candy?

Yes, Sally, since you just went through such a long and detailed interview with yourself, I’ll give you some candy. Oh, readers, you want candy too? Sorry, I ate it all.

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If you have any questions of your own for me on this subject, go ahead and write them in the comments below and I’ll add them to this post / answer them. Wouldn’t want to hog the interviewee!

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questions without an answer

in any situation where you’re a fresh new face, people around you will be curious. they’ll ask questions and try to get to know you, understand your life and reasons for doing what you do. when it comes to traveling, this is certainly a big part of the trip: conversation. and I’ve found that you can decipher some of the values of a culture based on the everyday questions that people ask you. if you look closely enough, you can see the sociological borders of other lives, just based off the subject matter of the question at hand. so it’s not a one way street. questions aren’t just a chance for someone else to find out about you, they’re an opportunity for you to look into their lives just as much. but you have to pay attention. Continue reading questions without an answer