Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

How to avoid deskwarming

My school desk. I was bored.
blue dot
Jun 15 2012

The standard contract for foreign teachers at Korean public schools gives 18 days paid vacation. The school, however, has about ten weeks when it is not in session. For part of this time, you will run English camps. But this still leaves a lot of time when school is out and there is no work to do. This is when foreign teachers in Korea engage in one of the least pleasant aspects of teaching here: deskwarming.

This involves coming to an empty school and sitting at your desk, with no assigned duties, and occupying yourself as best you can. There are two attitudes to this. Some teachers say, “Hey! Paid to do nothing. How long has this been going on?” And then there are other teachers who go insane at the waste of it all – who look outside and think of all the other things they could be doing, like drinking in dirt-cheap South-East Asian countries. Members of both these groups will spend time debating the two points of view, interminably and without resolution, on eslcafe and waygook.

“It’s in your contract.”

“It’s a waste of time!”

“It’s better than teaching.”

“Korean teachers don’t have to do it!”



Myself, I fall between these groups. I have an active mind and can happily spend a day reading, studying Korean, playing the keyboards in the English room, watching a Korean drama, and writing. If I was at home, I would probably not do anything radically different.

But I am also a lazy person who would rather do most of these things in a reclining position, on a bed or couch. And I prefer to do them after waking up at a more human time, like midday. Still, I can live with it.

Yet – there is something soul-destroying about deskwarming. There is no good reason for you to be there. And as Korean teachers, who have a different contract, are not there, I find it starts to feel punitive, after a while. I start to think, resentfully, that I’ve worked hard all year, helped my co-teachers, and now I’m being punished.

The reason for deskwarming seems lost in history. The oral tradition of foreign teachers here is that there was once a golden time when foreign teachers didn’t have to deskwarm; but some schools insisted on the letter of the contract, and some teachers, envious of their friends who were free for weeks at a time, complained. And so it was handed down, that all teachers should deskwarm.

It was before my time, so I can’t say if it is true. It is a nice creation story. I know that some Korean teachers, who are also contract teachers and not accredited teachers, are on similar contracts and also have to deskwarm. So I question whether it is exactly true.

What is true is that there are still some schools, and some teachers, who don’t have to deskwarm. It seems to vary by region, and also by luck. And there are some teachers who have managed to achieve it for themselves, and are probably smart enough to keep quiet. At my current school my deskwarming has been severely cut back, and appart from a few days at either end of the holidays, I’m free to leave. (There is a reason I keep this website anonymous.) This was something I set out to achieve, and it is something that you, too, can do – maybe.

How to avoid deskwarming

Here’s the method that worked for me, and might work for you.

1. Be a good teacher. Be friendly and helpful to your co-teachers. Make them look good in class. Be friendly to the other teachers.

2. Be friendly with the people above you in the school hierarchy. Who this is may differ, depending on the size of your school. In my case, my head-teacher, who is also my co-teacher, was my advocate. If you can get to know the principal, that’s best. In a larger school, it may be difficult.

A tip for this which I learned at TaLK orientation, and which served me well at my first, smaller school: go to the principal’s office each morning when you arrive at school. Greet them in Korean and bow. They will laugh, say hello, and wave you away – and like the funny foreigner who tries so hard.

To Koreans, a workplace is like a family. The Confucian pattern of relationships obligates the younger person to respect the elder – but it also obligates the elder to help and be benevolent towards their juniors. It is this that we will attempt to use to get out of deskwarming. If the principal sees you as a daughter, son, or younger brother or sister, you are a long way towards avoiding deskwarming.

3. Pick your battle. The foreign teacher who complains about everything will not be given many special privileges. In this case, the aim is to avoid deskwarming in the holidays. Keep it in mind when you are asked to do extra work, or pointless, annoying work, or your schedule gets changed at the last minute and nobody bothered to tell you. Is this where you want to spend your accumulated capital of goodwill? Is it important? Or would you rather avoid deskwarming?

4. Be patient. When the holidays come around, turn up for desk-warming.

5. Turn up with a good attitude.

6. Turn up with gifts for the administration and the principal/whoever is in charge person who you have the good relationship with. Nothing huge – some bread or fruit will go down well. (In preparing for this article, I read a lot of complaining about deskwarming, and one good idea, which was this one.) Don’t be suprised if they wonder why you are there, and had no idea that you had to come to school – it may be something that is completely beneath their notice. Explain that it is in your contract. Don’t point out the pointlessness of it all to them – let them realize it for themselves, and see instead your good attitude.

7. Be patient. Do this for a couple of days.

8. After a couple of days, hit the principal with this line. “교장선생님, the school is very cold/hot/the computers are in Korean. In this time when the school is not in session, would it be possible for me to do my work from home?” (Modify according to your principal’s ability with English – or your ability with Korean.)

They key to this is the last sentence “do my work from home”.*

*After a serendipitous accident, I can confirm the importance of this – and some more light is shed on deskwarming. For my last holidays, my co-teacher mistakenly gave me the form for the Korean teachers’ holiday applications. It had a section where the teacher was asked to describe what they would be working on. My co-teacher described this as a sort of research project – the teacher would make a plan to develop their teaching skills in this time, and write a report on it. She explained that teachers would usually do some research on the internet, download a few photos and graphs, throw something together…

Extrapolating a bit, I suspect that Korean teachers don’t get holidays, or at least their actual holidays are quite limited – instead, by tradition or by their contract, they receive time for independent development and other duties. This explains a lot, such as why some teachers go off to courses in their holidays (the ambitious ones?) and why the youngest English teacher gets lumped with English camp.

It also suggests another approach to avoiding deskwarming, either seperately or in conjunction with my other suggestions – put together a proposal for how you will use your downtime to develop your teaching. You might even be able to get out of the country with this. Korean teachers have overseas holidays – and I bet their proposals read something like, “I will explore different approaches to education as pursued in Thailand, specifically Bangkok, Chang Mai, and Phuket…”

This is a very Korean expression that my co-teacher at my first school used to use as code for “take the day off”. Of course, you will not actually work from home – but it allows everybody to save face. It allows the principal to be generous to you, and if it works, they will readily agree to this fiction.

It might not work. If your school has other contract teachers, they will be less willing to make an exception for you. If your principal has a personal tendency to do things by the book, or is afraid of the Office of Education, it won’t work.

If it does work, you probably still won’t be able to go watch ping-pong shows in Bangkok. You will be on-call, and probably will have to stay in the country. It’s still better than waking up early to go to school.

If it does work, for god’s sake, shut up about it. Don’t go bragging about it, or the acquaintance who you casually boasted to at a bar is likely to complain to the Office of Education, who will then ring up your school, and ask where you are and why you’re not there. The Office of Education may then send a message to all schools, reminding them that the foreign teaches should be given their holidays, and no more – and that they should be given work to keep them occupied while they’re at school.

It has worked for me, and it’s a lot better that sitting at your desk, complaining on eslcafe. And the above tips, even if they don’t get you time off in the holidays, will help make your life at school much easier in other ways.

If you try it, let me know how you get on in the comments.

UPDATE: While I still believe everything I wrote here is good advice, avoiding deskwarming continues to become more difficult, with MOEs and POEs seemingly determined to ensure that everyone serves their time at the desk, and avoiding it requires some pretty deft negotiations of Korean school office politics. I wrote something of an extended sequel to this post, which tells of the bureaucratic and cultural mess I got myself into while trying to get out of desk-warming at my new school.

Waegukin wrote these 1721 words on June 15th, 2012 | Posted in Teaching |


10 comments on “How to avoid deskwarming”

  1. Julia says:

    Very smart!
    I’ve never been to Korea, nor do I speak Korean, but I met many nice Koreans while studying abroad in Japan, and the Japanese tend to be quite similar.
    I intern at a Japanese school and there, half of the teachers always have to “deskwarm” during the holidays. They also need permission to leave the country (the school I’m talking about is in Germany, but otherwise completely Japanese) etc. and some might not be allowed to leave Europe. It sounds pretty strict, but in this case, it’s the actual teachers who have to do it, not the ESL teachers or me.

  2. The Waegukin says:

    Hey Julia, of course Japanese culture has a lot of similarities to Korean culture, for reasons of geography, Confucian heritage, and of course the period of occupation. Some important differences, too. I think work cultures are probably particularly similar between the two cultures, from what I’ve read and seen.

  3. W says:

    Were you in TaLK too? I miss the non-deskwarming life~

  4. The Waegukin says:

    Yeah, I was third generation. You? There’s a lot about TaLK I miss. Nothing else in Korea has ever quite matched it.

  5. Frank says:

    tired, did not work…

  6. DN says:

    I had no problem desk warming. I can watch movies at my computer and use the air conditioner when it was so hot. When it was cold, eh… kept warm as much as possible or sat in the bigger office after classes were finished.

  7. Phillip says:

    I’m desk warming now. It’s Monday morning and it’s my second week to desk warm. My school is big and strict and by the book. Nice will not play me out of it. So I play guitar all day and read books. “The Confucian pattern of relationships paragraph pretty much sums it up on why we have to be here. If one or a dozen other teachers have to be here to teach, then all must be here to be fair to them. In actuality it’s not fair. But that’s their line of thinking- don’t question, just accept what the principal says. Anyways, it’s good I am not the only one feeling this way.

  8. Wai Guo Ren says:

    Desk warming for WaeGuKin but not for locals.

    Treating foreigners differently has a word.


  9. DN in Korea says:

    Are you serious? Desk warming is easy compared to what the Korean teachers have to do. They have to write and full blown essay on what they would be doing on their vacation, do a semester’s worth of lesson planning that has to be turned in among other things. They have all this other paperwork to do and we only have to sit there and look pretty/handsome/a combination of the two if you like.

    Go ahead pay me to watch movies, read manga, learn a new skill, nap,on your dime. Get your lessons plans done so that can free you up to do whatever you like on your break time. Usually, you can leave after lunch…if you are in good with the teachers.


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