Continued from Part I…

Many schools and academies are completely mismanaged. I concede to the point that not all schools operate under the same parameters, however, I have heard from teachers at other schools that they’ve experienced similar ‘quirks‘ (for lack of a better word).

Disorganization and miscommunication run rampant in the Korean culture. The bosses don’t pass information down the line in a timely fashion, potentially fearing the dissatisfaction of their underlings. Therefore meetings, projects, and even off campus trips spring up at the seemingly last minute. All of this could be avoided with a little forethought and some notice given.

Lemmings
Lemmings

Also, Koreans in general aren’t leaders – they’re followers. When I polled all my classes (approx. 120 students between the ages of 12-16) only 2 students chose to fill the leadership role. The rest, an overwhelming majority, preferred to follow; they’d rather sit back while others make decisions and give instructions. I saw this time and time again with my Korean colleagues as well.

None of the teachers felt confident in his or her ability to take the lead on a project and run with it, so they would wait, hoping someone else would, however, the longer they waited, the less got accomplished. Eventually, the last minute reared its ugly head (sensing a theme here?) and we would have to run around like proverbial chickens with our heads cut off to get it done on time. Needless to say, in a rushed environment, rarely were things completed the right, best, or even satisfactory way.

Over the course of the year, enrollment dropped. Because of this, the management felt the need to cut corners to save money and stretch the budget. I understand how this works in a business setting, however in the world of education, the only people hurt by tightening belts are the children.

Teachers’ assistants quit and were never replaced so the equipment stayed dirty, photocopies weren’t made, and other trivialities, not normally important, began to pile onto the desks of the other teachers – both foreign and Korean. The school stopped ordering supplies we needed to adequately do our jobs. We were instructed to use less paper and if we could go without making any copies, to do so (which didn’t make much of a difference since 9 times out of 10 the copiers didn’t work anyway). We also lacked dry erase ink for our markers and had to teach without writing on the whiteboards if our markers ran out of ink. Most rooms have broken wall clocks.

Dancing Monkeys
Dancing Monkeys

Another major issue, probably the most major, is the expectations placed on foreign teachers. We’re treated as an interesting blend of educator and ‘dancing monkey’. The admins want us to be both entertaining and informative – it’s a high-wire tightrope act if ever there was one and if we tilted too far one way or the other, the school was guaranteed to get parent complaints. When re-enrollment didn’t increase and test scores didn’t improve, the foreign teachers received the brunt of the blame – in spite of the fact that we only see each kid for about an hour and a half per week and bulk of their English language education (at this particular academy anyway) is conducted in Korean and not English.

Discipline is a joke because the kids figured out long ago that foreign teacher threats have no teeth. They don’t have to behave and don’t have to finish their assignments. We aren’t respected enough as educators by the Koreans (who don’t do a very good job communicating with us to begin with) to be given the power and control necessary to make the students do their work. We’re only in command for 40 minutes a shot, and that means there are no consequences for students who act out and don’t do any of their work.

The above two points are exasperated due to the fact that Koreans love saving face. As far as the parents are concerned, they care more about telling people their kids are advancing in their academies than actually having their kids learn English. As such, lower level kids are pushed through the curriculum at an accelerated rate – regardless of whether or not they understand enough English to move up.

How can a teacher design a lesson plan catering to three different levels of comprehension and fluency within one class? Pace the material too quickly for those above-level, and the teacher risks losing the rest of the class. Pace it slow enough for the below-level kids, and the at-level and higher students get bored and tune out. The only solution is to teach to the middle of the bell-curve and pray the below-level kids pick up something and the above level kids don’t sleep through class.

Sardines
Sardines

The final straw in saving overhead costs meant the powers that be canceled the lease on the third floor classrooms, taking away valuable space (including the auditorium) and cramming more desks into the fourth and fifth floor classrooms. The maximum class size jumped from 14 to 20 (my American educator friends who teach classrooms of 30 kids won’t think that’s a big deal. But let me tell you, stand in front of twenty second language students who can’t understand a word of the instructions, let alone the lesson, and you’ll quickly change your mind), and I use the term students loosely – sardines would be a more appropriate moniker.

An Actual Classroom...
An Actual Classroom…

The students write on the desks, the write on the walls, spill food and drinks on the floor…. There’s no cleaning staff to keep up with the mess, so the learning environment degrades more with each passing day, week, and semester. I’m embarrassed by the appearance of the classrooms and if I were a parent, I’d pull my kid out of a school resembling Camden, New Jersey.

The biggest saving grace of the school is the campus director. He’s a very kind and generous man who is a pleasure to work for and with. If not for him, I doubt I would’ve lasted the entire year. He’s the type of person who inspires his employees to work harder and do a better job in and out of the classrooms because you want to make him happy and look impressive to his superiors. Developing a professional relationship that bordered on friendship with him has been the best part of working for this academy.

While much of this may paint a pretty grim picture of overseas ESL teaching, I must refer you back to my disclaimer. The positives of this year are so huge and the negatives, although plentifully listed in this article, are few and far between.

This year has been one of the greatest of my life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything nor would I deter anyone from making the same decision themselves. I learned a lot about the world and myself, met some awesome people, and had a great time. I highly recommend teaching ESL to anyone with a strong sense of self and an attraction to the unknown adventures lying just outside their comfort zone.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

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One thought on “Your Mileage May Vary: Part II

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