Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Finding my replacement

papier mache duck
blue dot
Aug 12 2013

We’re in the dog days now. I have three more days of summer camp to teach, and then I’m finished. Vacation, then home.

Summer camp is easy. The classes are small, the kids are all decent and they’re in that relaxed vacation mood. The classes are heavy on crafts and pretty light on English study, to be truthful. But that’s OK. It’s camp.

We made ice-cream. A while back the 부장님 who drives me to school made ice-cream in her science classes, but it was fake ice-cream: pureed frozen bananas with some other random fruits mixed in so it wouldn’t taste too much like pureed frozen bananas. She is that rare thing: a Korean vegetarian, and doesn’t like eggs or dairy**If you’re wondering how a Korean goes about being a vegetarian, it is by being not too fussy about it. She eats around the meat in meat dishes and soups.. I called it “fake ice cream” and decided to make real ice cream for summer camp. The couple of times she has seen me since break began she has teased me about this. “How is the real ice-cream?” she says. “Is it good? Not fake ice-cream?”

Ah, but she’s OK. I have had some run-ins with her, and at times she has left me frustrated, but I do have a lot of respect for her, and we’ve had some good debates about the state of Korean education on our trips to school. She’s really smart.

A while back I asked her for a reference letter. Of course I had to ask about seven times – it has been the same at every school I’ve taught at in Korea – and finally she announced that, as she hadn’t seen me teach in six months, she would ask all the other teachers’ for their opinions of my teaching in a meeting. Reference letters don’t seem to be a thing in Korea, and I wondered if she grasped the concept. I thought she might think it something like a school report, documenting both positives and areas that needed improvement, which would be disastrous.

On the last day of school, driving me to work, she said, “Oh, last night I wrote your letter. Every teacher talked about you. I put everybody’s ideas together in the letter.”

Jesus. I said, “It’s nice, right….?”

She said, “Mmm…?”

She gave it to me at the end of the day. I didn’t open the envelope, but then my co-teacher asked to read it. She read it and asked 부장님 if it was true, and 부장님 said it was. So then I looked at it.

It was in Korean, but my Korean is good enough to get the gist of it. I puzzled over the first sentence for a bit because it said 15년 – fifteen years – and I couldn’t work out what fifteen years had to do with anything.

Then I worked it out – she was referring to herself. It said, “He is the best native English teacher I have met in fifteen years working with them.”

She’s a class act – and was stringing me along in the car. She wasn’t always easy to work with, but I have a lot of respect and affection for her. I think it’s what the Koreans call jeong – I think I’m starting to get the concept. It’s a difficult word, although I’m sure it’s possible to understand it. Human emotions are universal, even if some words do not have exact correspondences in another language. At the moment I’m defining jeong as a sentimental affection brought about by time and small acts of kindness. I’m not certain that’s exactly right, but I don’t think it’s completely wrong. I will miss her, and many other people at this school.

I also know it’s a little bit of a joke, her saying I’m the best native teacher she’s known. I’m sure she meant it, and I can even believe it’s true. But we agree that the majority of the waeguk teachers here are pretty mediocre.  It was a backhanded compliment – but only she and I need to know that.

For those who’ve followed my adventures in trying to avoid desk-warming – here and here – you might be interested to know that I won’t be desk-warming this vacation. When the issue of vacation time and summer camp first came up, I said to my co-teacher, “After camp, I’ll be finished with all my classes. Instead of coming to school and doing nothing, can I just take unpaid leave?” She said she would ask about it. My contract is pretty vague on “unpaid leave” – it is mentioned tangentially, but not defined. I asked the same thing of 부장님,  and it seemed to be OK.

When it came time to fill in the book of my absences, 부장님 did it while the vice-principal, across the room, stood at his desk and called questions across to her about what was going on, which she politely deflected like the master politician that she is.

Then I had to get the vice-principal to sign off on it. He stared at the book for about five minutes before writing in his signature. Success!

I sat down at the table in the teachers’ room. About a minute later, the vice-principal asked the admin lady if he could take another look at my book. I immediately got up and left the room. I didn’t know what was going on, but I figured that if he changed his mind, it was possible that nobody would be willing to seek me out and tell me. Anyway, nobody said anything further to me, so I got away with it.

It’s unpaid, but I don’t care about that. Really, this seems to me the best solution to the problem for everyone. I don’t feel I’m entitled to extra, paid vacation – I just don’t want to waste my life going to an empty school for no reason. If they would just write this option into the contract, I think everyone would be much happier.

I’ve worked hard this year, and although I’ll miss it, I’ll be happy to be done with it. Just the same I want the next teacher to be able to continue on. One of the ways my school is cool is that they actually consult me about the way English is taught. So when it came time to find a new English teacher, I asked my co-teacher if she wanted help with the interviews, and she said yes.

Because of my teaching English in Korea guide, I get a lot of questions by email, and the most common one is, “What are my chances of getting accepted into EPIK/GEPIK/TaLK/SMOE?” The question usually takes a more specific form than that – “I’m a 26 year old Canadian with an online TESOL degree who has worked part-time in a Kindergarten, but my university transcript is in social science, and is pretty bad. Do you think this will affect my chances?” – to which I can only answer, I have no idea. While I’ve met plenty of people who have worked for those programs, I don’t usually meet people who’ve been rejected, for obvious reasons. So I don’t know. I don’t know what percentage of people are rejected, or  why.

So I thought it might be worth looking at how the decision making process went for one small GEPIK school. These are the things I thought were interesting.

1. My co-teacher used a recruiter to find a teacher. The recruiter cold-called her at the right time, and promised to make the job easier, so she went with them. I had suggested placing an ad on ESLcafe, but this was too complex, although I think it would have resulted in a lot more applicants from which to choose.

2. The recruiter sent us five resumes. All of them had some sort of teaching qualification. One had done CELTA, one had an American teaching license. The rest had online qualifications. To the teachers at my school, all of these were equal – they all had “teaching qualifications”. I had to explain to them the difference between CELTA and an online money-for-a-piece-of-paper degree.

All of the people we were sent were Caucasian, except for one Korean American. I don’t know whether this indicates anything other than a small sample size. For the record, the only person who mentioned race at any point was me. I asked 부장님, regarding the Korean American, how she thought students would feel about learning English from someone who looked Korean. (Mostly, I was just curious as to what she would say.)  Her answer? “Actually, every foreign teacher here has been white. I think they should meet all types of people.”  She’s a fair way farther to the left on the political spectrum than most Koreans, but I think it’s worth noting that this attitude exists in Korea, too.

Two of the applicants had experience teaching in Korea; they happened to be the two with the CELTA and the teaching license. A third was a young American woman. The other two were middle aged American guys who seemed to be looking for a change in their life. Nobody talked much about those last two, and we didn’t interview them. The young American woman got an interview because she was young, and a woman. The sixth grade teacher made the comment that if we hired her, he would be happy to drive her home from school.

So yes, she got an interview because she fit a stereotype. But, before you get outraged – the intent was always to hire the best person for the job. And she was on the borderline of being cut before the interview. And the main person who thought she should be interviewed was me.

Why? Because the students here have always had male teachers, and they’ve had a year of a teacher – me – who is good at the technical aspects of teaching a foreign language and knows how to teach grammar and the like. I thought it was possible that a very different sort of teacher – young, enthusiastic, friendly, female – might be a useful change for them. She was given an interview to see if she was that sort of shining personality; unfortunately, she wasn’t.

3. Before the interviews, both my co-teacher and I were incredibly nervous. This is probably not important, but I’ve had plenty of job interviews, always been a little nervous beforehand, and it’s never occurred to me that the person interviewing me might be nervous, too. I asked my co-teacher if she wanted to ask most of the questions, or wanted me to do it, as I know she’s not super-comfortable in speaking English. She was a little vague, but I ended up asking most of the questions.

4. My “on the spot” question. Now, I hate this type of questions in interviews. “What are your weaknesses?” and the like. I don’t really believe in them, but as I’ve said, I don’t think a lot of the people who come here to teach English are qualified to do the job. So I had one question to test whether the interviewees actually knew more about English grammar than my fifth graders. Which I think is not an unreasonable expectation. This was the question:

“What is the difference between  ’I go to school’, and ‘I’m going to school’?”

If you want to teach English as a foreign language, I think you should know at least that much English grammar. (I’ll put the answer at the end of this article if you want to check yourself.)

Of the three people we interviewed, one – the Korean-American with the CELTA – answered it fully. The licensed teacher understood the distinction, but didn’t know the name of the grammar point (which is admittedly not terribly important). The young American woman bombed it spectacularly.

I didn’t mean to set her up to fail – I was just trying to lead into the question – but I asked her how much English grammar she knew. And she gave a long speech about how good her knowledge was, how her friends always came to her with their grammar questions. Then I asked her the question.

She repeated it, paused, then said, “Well, it’s…. The difference is…” and then another long silence, before she finally admitted she couldn’t answer the question.

I felt bad for her, but in truth I don’t think she was even close, regardless. She had initially put on her application that she only wanted to live in Seoul or surrounding cities, and not teach in the country, which our school certainly is. Then she had changed that. She also intended to bring her dog. I’m a big believer in the idea that “pets are for life”, but if you can’t make arrangements for your pets, you probably shouldn’t think about coming to teach in Korea. Leaving your country means leaving things behind. Finally, she didn’t adjust her language level to something my co-teacher could understand, and just talked rapidly to me as a native speaker, which didn’t win her any points with my co-teacher (who was actually in charge of the decision.)

The guy with the teaching license seemed qualified, but he tended to ramble on when answering questions, which isn’t damning, but neither my co-teacher nor I warmed to him. So the Korean-American with the CELTA degree got the job, and I’m happy. He seemed to know his stuff, and I  got a good impression of him. So I hope my kids will be in good hands.

I’m a selfish asshole, really. I always want the teacher who comes after me to be really good – but just a little bit worse than me.


Finished, now. For the last couple of days of camp we made papier-mache pinatas. I held mine – a duck – back from the destruction, and on my last day left it on my school desk. I put a card around its neck saying “영어샘” – English Teacher – and wrote a message to my students on its body:

얘들아, 안녕, 잘가
Goodbye, see you again.
Teacher 기억하세요

*All you children, bye, go well;
Goodbye, see you again.
Please study English.
Please remember Teacher.
I’ll miss them.

Answer to the grammar question: “I go to school” is present simple tense, indicating, in this instance, a repeated action, extending into the past and the future. “I’m going to school” is the present continuous or present progressive tense, indicating an action in progress.

Waegukin wrote these 2468 words on August 12th, 2013 | Posted in Teaching |


7 comments on “Finding my replacement”

  1. Peter says:

    Great post. It’s neat to get an insight into the world of hiring.

    On “jeong”: I think it’s an attachment (and appreciation) that comes from shared experience, regardless of the quality of those experiences. The more intense the shared experience, the stronger the “jeong”. The Army is a super “jeong” maker, e.g.

    You shared a lot of experiences with this bujang of yours, so you have mutual “jeong”. That’s the way I understand the term.

  2. The Waegukin says:

    I like your definition; I think it’s probably better than mine. Of course I’m barely in a position to judge the merits of an English definition of the term, but it feels right to me. I read some things that emphasized gift-giving as part of it, but perhaps that is merely a subset of it, rather than an integral part. Cheers!

  3. Thomas says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. I find your blog thoughtful, well-written, humble and full of valuable information. More importantly, I respect and appreciate that you take pride in what you do. Where are you headed next? All the best on your next endeavor.

  4. Peter says:

    TW, you wrote:
    “I’m finished. Vacation, then home.”

    Does it mean you’re done with Korea forever?

  5. The Waegukin says:

    I mentioned this at the end of my previous entry, but it was really long so I can understand how you might have missed it. I guess I need to clarify. I’ve been doing a Masters of Education in TESOL for a while, with the goal of hopefully finding something in Korea that is more stable than an endless series of one year contracts and one-room apartments – probably at a university, if I can get it. The way the scheduling of my classes has worked out, I can either go home and do it full-time and finish it in less than 6 months, or stay in Korea and it will take 18 months, which means another 2 years of contracts. So it just makes sense for me to go home now to finish it off. In an ideal world I will be back in 6 months with a better job.

    In the meantime, the blog will continue, as I still have a large backlog of things I want to write about.

  6. Thomas says:

    Lack of attention on my part. I just read your last post. Thanks. You know where you are headed and why. I’m sure you’ll get there and hope that you do. I wish you all the best and look forward to your future posts.

  7. J. says:

    Wish you luck with the journey ahead.

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