Monday, April 18, 2011

To Be: An English Teacher in South Korea

I've decided to start a new series! I have so many friends with really interesting and fascinating jobs, and I myself am always really curious about what they do and how they live. This series will be an interview series, and I hope you enjoy it!

First, I'm interviewing my dear friend Rachel. We grew up together, and have been close friends for many, many years!

Rachel, from a trip to the State Fair from a few years ago.

Photobucket Tell me about yourself!
My name is Rachel Neiman. I'm 23 years old and graduated last year from Arizona State University with an English Bachelor's of the Arts degree. I'm an Arizona native and spent most of my time living there going to school full-time and working full-time in the service industry: restaurants, merchandise, etc. I love to read and write and being a movie and music geek.

Photobucket What do you do?
I am an English teacher in South Korea. I teach children from ages as young as 6 up to 14 years old, who are at multiple levels, five days a week. The school I work at right now is a private school that specializes in English and the children come here after their regular schooling hours. My location is a new set-up in Cheongju where just this semester we opened our doors. Right now our attendance is small, but we're getting new students almost daily. We're hoping to expand from just elementary students to middle school students as well by next semester.

Photobucket How did you get started on this path?
Actually, my dad was the first person I heard from about this being an option. I originally went to school to become a writer (something I still hope one day to do) but my dad was convinced I'd come out of college wanting to be a teacher. However, coming from the United States, I have a very low point of view on the schooling system and a very negative outlook on fighting a system that is upheld by crazy, entitled parents, passive voters, and a Bureaucratic net set in place to save the jobs of sub par teachers. So anyway, any comment my dad would make, "But you love kids!" I'd just brush off because of all these reasons. It wasn't until sophomore year my dad mentioned an ad in the paper; a job description for English teachers wanted in Panama -- no experience or degree required! I thought it sounded bogus and brushed it aside once again -- but it was intriguing enough to plant a seed as just another idea. Two years later, I graduated and like many others, I had no job handed to me because of my fancy degree and was making pathetic pay at a job I hated (Discover Card).

I have a friend Dylan who has been in China for over a year teaching English and he absolutely loves it. Between talking with him and his mother, I started to get more of a plan in my head: "Why am I sticking around in Arizona and the U.S.? There is nothing for me here." I was miserable and stuck in one place which is the opposite of who I am. I like to travel and always experience new things. If I don't like my situation, I fix it as quickly as possible. So I started researching online, and South Korea has one of the highest demands for English teachers with some of the better benefits. So I looked for a placement agency and a few months later, here I am!

Photobucket What's it like living in a foreign country?
I feel much freer here than I ever did at home -- I think a big part of that is not having a car. That seems like the opposite of how it should be, but this country is so connected with public transport and cheap taxi fare that not owning a car is a big sigh of relief. I just have a bike to get me around and it has made things much simpler. I'm also living solo for the first time ever; I've always had a roommate of some kind until this point. I don't think I can ever go back to living with someone else. But it's also the first time I've lived somewhere where a little cuddly friend is not present and it's a little hard to not have a pet with me...

It's hard to explain. I'm just so comfortable here that it's really not unlike living back in my home country. There's differences to adjust to, certainly, but I've always been fairly adaptable. I'm learning the language very slowly -- time has been going by so fast that I haven't had a chance to sit down and really commit to it. Right now I only know phrases to get me by in minimal day-to-day interactions. I think the transition has been so easy for me because I'm surrounded by wonderful, caring people who love to dish advice and wisdom.

Photobucket What aspect of living in South Korea do you like best?
I like living somewhere new and unfamiliar like South Korea because it gives me countless chances to do and see new things. I'm practically always occupied with exploring my neighborhood and experiencing new foods, people, and information. I've been bungee-jumping at the DMZ, to a Korean baseball game, the downtown shopping areas and college streets... I've gone hiking within an ancient Korean fortress and found a unique place called Hello Cat where you can get a coffee and baguette as cats roam around the restaurant to cuddle and be fed. This very weekend I'm going camping by a river with a lot of my fellow English teachers. The next few months I plan on going to a concert, a mud festival, a tattoo convention, a cherry blossom-viewing festival... Who knows what else? It's practically like I'm getting the college experience I never had; seeing as I worked full-time and had classes full-time.

I love soaking my new home up like a sponge.

Photobucket What's an average day like for you?
I like to wake up a bit on the early side so I can get personal things done before school starts. The latest I have to clock into work is 1:00PM but I have accessibility to the building if I wish to come in earlier to prep for my classes. At 1:00PM everyday we have a mandatory teachers' meeting -- the time this lasts fluctuates day-to-day but the content that is directed to myself and the foreign teachers is minimal; perhaps seven minutes at the most. After the meeting I prep for classes which starts at 2:30PM. At 2:20PM we all head downstairs for the arrival of the buses so we can greet and walk in with our youngest students -- these are the ones at the bottom of the ladder as far as English comprehension is concerned. We race/skip/sprint with the kids back up the stairs to the third level where the school is located; in South Korea, no space is wasted... We are located next to a doctor's office and above a Baskin Robbins.

The classes are separated into blocks. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I see the same students while on Tuesdays and Thursdays I see a different group of students. The three day schedule is more packed with me teaching 6 classes, and the two day I only teach 4-5 classes. I teach the younger students at the start of the day and the classes get progressively older until my last class ends at 8:20PM. I do listening, speaking, and writing classes which involve me acting a fool to keep the kids' attention. Depending on where the class and I are at in the syllabus, I'll have activities, reviews, or the occasional refresher course in disguise of a fun game planned for the 50-something minutes we have together.

The earliest I can leave is 9:30PM and I spend most of my time between the final class and clocking out by preparing for the next day's classes. I organize worksheets, look over the material in the book, and come up with ideas to fill in possible leftover time if the kids pick up on the new lesson quickly.

Photobucket What is the best thing about your job?
My students. Hands down.

Photobucket What is the most challenging thing about your job?
I'm going to be frank. I already plan to link this interview you're doing and realize some people who read this may not like my answer, but it has to be said. I could say the most challenging is the language barrier, or the business before school aspect, or the "problem children," or those crazy, entitled parents who complain about how you sign your name on their child's homework...

The most challenging aspect of this job is inept co-workers and knowing there is nothing you can do. Criticisms will be ignored and it's as hard to get rid of a sub par teacher here as much as in the U.S. The school has invested a lot of money in getting native English speakers over here and they're not about to send home those they probably shouldn't have hired in the first place. The kids at my school are so smart and deserve teachers who put in the effort, not ones who are stepping out of one class to do prep work for the next class because they're wrapped up on Facebook before and after school hours and aren't ready. These parents are paying a pricey tuition; they're looking for an educator, not a lazy babysitter who rushes through the content and complains the kids are just too smart and they don't know how to fill the remaining time with the exception of snacks and games that don't even challenge their students.

Sure, I took this job because it was an opportunity to explore a foreign country. But I got here in the first place because I was expected to do a job for kids I knew I'd love at first sight. Kids and I just click and I want to do all I can for them in the time I have with them. If all I worked hard for is lost because they get a different "teacher" next semester... Or if I get those kids who had the glorified nanny before me, I'll have my work cut out. They'll be expecting someone to pamper them and I'll have to rebuild. I realize this is more of a rant than an interview at this point and the opposite of my goal to keep my head down and only worry about myself... But it is truthfully the most challenging. It's the same maddening fact in the U.S.: Some people are teachers who should not be teachers.

Photobucket Are there any culture differences, besides the language barrier, that make it difficult to teach your students?
Honestly, the language barrier is the greatest challenge with my students -- and really the only one I have. But we connect through mime, Pictionary, or electronic dictionaries if necessary. The academic culture is also a bit of a challenge. It's like the extreme opposite of academics in the U.S. The kids are literally at school all day, sometimes up to six times a week. They go to their regular schooling hours and afterwards attend private schools such mine that focus on more specific subjects. The older the student, the later they're in school. The oldest I have don't get home until nine at night.

I firmly believe children should have time to be children and I hope all my students get those chances though they seem far and in-between. But being at school so late and some being so young, they don't know how to properly take care of themselves yet; like not finding times to rest or eat. I have one class three nights a week with only three students, and someone is always crying because they're tired or hungry or stressed. Or they act out because they're reaching that point of being slaphappy; many of these children also don't get enough attention at home because their parents work as late as they do. I have mountains of patience because they're young, but it's still challenging for me and a little upsetting to witness.

Photobucket What do you consider your biggest accomplishments so far?
Just coming here, taking that first step was a big accomplishment in itself. I was so terrified I would be a horrible teacher -- I only had experience with tutoring younger kids and I'm not going to delude myself into thinking it's the same thing. But coming here and having a wonderful teacher who helped train me say she didn't need to check up on me because she wasn't worried about my teaching skills -- and even telling the owners of the school that I have "a talent?" ...I've never been so proud of myself before!

Photobucket How do you keep yourself inspired and motivated?
I don't take my work home. I was never one to do so at previous jobs and I'm certainly not going to start now. I allow myself to go home, get refreshed, have fun weekends away from the school and leave all the work and grading and drama at my desk.

Photobucket What are some goals you have in the next year?
After deciding to move to a different country for an entire year, I've decided to stop planning that far ahead. I'll have little day-to-day goals, but I suppose my only real long-term goal is to survive here.

Photobucket How long can you see yourself doing this? Is there anything else you'd like to do?
I can see myself teaching for quite some time. In South Korea? Maybe the one year, maybe two. I have yet to decide. Who knows what the year will bring and what my mindset will be when the time to end or renew my contract draws nearer. I can see myself going to teach English in another country after this -- maybe Spain or Greece or Brazil. Who knows?

As for other careers? I still wish to be a fictional writer or screenwriter. That'll be one hard dream to give up on. Anything else would be hard to predict -- I did not see myself teaching and I've fallen in love with it. Who knows what other opportunities will come my way?

1 comment:

  1. This was fun to read! I've been thinking about going to another country to teach English. It sounds like it is rewarding.