One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How difficult is it to get in to the EPIK program?” I even wrote a long post about this, doing my best to infer the answer from economic data and Google Insights. My conclusion, broadly, was that it was not as hard to get into EPIK as people often suggested.
But it was impossible to say for sure, because while EPIK regularly reveals how many teachers it places in schools each semester, they’ve been coy about how many applicants they receive.
The extent to which we are personally affected by news of a tragedy is proportionate to how close we feel to its victims. So a disaster in some far-off part of the world has less of an emotional impact than one in your own country, and one in a distant city is less emotional than one affecting your neighbours.
That’s natural, and so I can understand if the Sewol tragedy is not something that greatly affected you. But for me it has been heart-wrenching. I feel a genuine sense of grief about it.
Partly this is because the details are so horrible; partly it is because of the immediacy of the video footage and the constancy of the television coverage of it here. But mostly it is because I have taught so many classes of Korean students. And so I feel like I know those kids. They could have been my students. While I’ve never taught high school, the first students I taught in Korea are now in high school; many more will enter high school next year; and the first-year university students I am teaching now are only recently graduated.
I do know those kids. I know their dreams for their future, their interests, how they acted with their friends, their teachers, the opposite sex. I know how they worked hard and how they goofed off.
But I will understand if their deaths do not affect you in quite the same way. With one exception: if, being vaguely familiar with Korea, it occurs to you to make the following speculation:
Like other Asian nations, South Korean society is based on a neo-Confucian culture which emphasises obedience to authority figures and deference to elders … “Obedient” students on the ship are among the missing, while “disobedient” students survived.
…then take a deep breath, think for a moment, and please – just shut the fuck up. Read more
I think that most English teachers who plan to stay in Korea for more than a few years hope to eventually get a university job.
There are reasons for this. A lot of what passes for common knowledge among foreign teachers in Korea exists as a sort of grapevine of oft-repeated truisms, and the word on university positions is this: low hours, high pay, long vacations. This grapevine, by the way, is often not especially accurate, and in the case of university jobs, the truth is that conditions vary quite a lot. But for my job, I’ve found it to be mostly true. I have 14 contracted teaching hours per week and 8 weeks “official” paid vacation – although with gaps in the schedule there are usually a few more weeks on top of that. Outside of my rostered classes, I am free to set my own schedule, coming and going as I please. There are lots of overtime opportunities, with enough variety that I can pick things which are interesting to me.
There are also some things about teaching at a university that I find less satisfying than teaching at a Korean public school. Despite the rumors, my monthly pay is actually less than I’d make teaching at elementary schools with the same qualifications (although it is higher when viewed as an hourly rate, or if you include overtime). As I said, it varies: my university is pretty stingy and other universities pay more. Beyond the grapevine “facts”, I’d say that I don’t feel university teaching provides me with the same sort of culturally immersive experience that I got teaching at public schools. There, I was part of an institution that was integral to the local community; I was also the only foreigner, and always thoroughly “in” Korea. At my university there are many other foreign teachers, and the Korean staff we work with directly are all fluent in English. I also feel that as a university teacher I have less of a chance to have a positive impact on the lives of my students. Teaching Freshman English is more of an act of triage: trying to address the worst of the repairable damage caused by thirteen years of English education of uneven quality. Each semester I do have a few students who I feel I have helped a lot, but there is simply less that you can do as a teacher when you come in at the end of your students’ education, rather than at the beginning. And this is probably why I have written less about teaching university students than I wrote about teaching elementary school kids.
There are things I miss about teaching in elementary schools: the kids, the grandparents who hung out in the shelters on the school playground, the teachers who spoke no English but nonetheless drove me home and showed me kindness, the ajeossi teachers who smoked with me in the hidden places at the back of the school. But overall, university work is unquestionably better. I like my job a lot, and so do most of the other teachers who work here. I like the freedom and the extra time I have. The Korean staff I work with are great, and the other foreign teachers average quite a bit better than the usual run of waegukin you meet in Korea. Look, before I came here, I worked for three different Korean elementary schools in three years. Each of those jobs was wonderful in their own way, and I don’t regret any of them; but the fact that I’ve stayed in my current university job for three years should tell you something. So while I’d still recommend public schools as the way to go for anyone new to Korea, I would have to agree that if you plan to stay in Korea long-term, you are better off looking to transition to a university job eventually. Read more
In about a month I’ll return to Korea. When I do I’ll be living in Jeollanam-do, quite close to one of my best Korean friends, KH. This makes me glad. In the past I’ve only been able to see him once or twice a year, but it’s usually been a memorable time when we have caught up.
I originally met KH in Australia, of all places. I was taking CELTA in Sydney, and he was one of the crash test dummy students who got free English lessons in exchange for being taught by incompetents. At that time he was taking a post-army, mid-university gap year, theoretically to learn English in Australia. Actually he was learning a bunch of laid-back Australian habits – marijuana, sick days, overuse of the word “mate” – that would leave him forever dissatisfied with the obligations of Korean society.
He’s a bright guy; he’s also funny. In Australia, he worked as a removalist and enjoyed subverting customers’ stereotypes about both Koreans and removalists.
“Don’t Koreans eat dog?” a customer once asked him.
“Sometimes,” he said. Slyly, he then asked them if they had a dog. They conceded they did.
“What’s it’s name?” KH asked.
“Mm,” KH said; I imagine somewhat wistfully, with a slight smile. “Perfect.”
Another appealing quality of KH’s, particularly to an introvert such as myself, is that he is one of those people who enjoys bringing friends from different social circles together and then seeing what happens. A night with KH usually involves him making and receiving a number of phone calls and moving around the city from place to place, rendezvousing and separating from groups of people that he knows. Making friends with Koreans isn’t easy, so I’ll be glad to have a friend like that close by when I am back in Korea.
But one time when I visited him there were no other friends to be found. Read more
This is the second and final part of my look at the future of teaching English in Korea. Part 1, looking at how competitive it has become to find a public school job in Korea, is here.
One of the things that started me thinking about these posts was this article on the “Golden Age” of teaching English in Korea. The other inspiration was my own effort to find something a little more permanent for myself in Korea; something beyond the endless series of one-year contracts and one-room apartments offered by the public school system. Read more
“Positions in Korean public schools are becoming increasingly competitive.”
This is something you hear a lot; I’ve written it myself on here a few times. Sometimes you will hear even more alarmist things. “GEPIK is finished.” “The recruiters all have waiting lists.” “There are ten applicants for every EPIK position.” “In five years, there won’t be any native teachers at public schools in Korea.”
But what is the truth of all this? Official figures are hard to find, and much of it seems to exist only on the ever-rampant, never-terribly-reliable foreigner community grapevine. Read more
I got a university job. Barring some sort of calamity – a possibility I am trying not to think about too much – I will be working at a small, private university in Jeollanam-do from the beginning of March. Listen carefully and you can probably hear my excited yell from way over here in Australia. Read more
A minority of people who come to teach English in Korea are, I suppose, just economic refugees: unable to get a job at home, and in Korea for the money. But I don’t think this is true for most people. For most people it is a chance to do something different with their lives; to live overseas for a year or more, to experience another culture and hopefully change and develop as a person.
And yet for many people who come to Korea, this idea seems to go awry at some point. At first, they drink and find it all exciting, then they drink and find it all frustrating and hostile and alien, and eventually they go home with not much to show for it but some stories of cheap alcohol, clubbing in Seoul, and Koreans always telling them things at the last minute.
Why is this? I don’t always have the highest opinion of many of my fellow waegukin. Often, the problem is with the people themselves. For some, particularly the less mature ones, this really is what they had in mind by “exploring another culture” – seeing some beaches and temples and getting drunk in them. Meeting people from other countries, and sleeping with them. A sort of post-university gap year. I’m not making a moral judgment, because I was young once, too, and almost everyone goes through a period of acting up when they first get here – more on that later – but the people who come here only seeking that sort of experience can give everyone here a bad name, and leave a lot of damage behind when they go home. So I’m not going to defend them, either. I can understand wanting to have those experiences, but expecting to be paid for them is a bit much. Read more
My university work is finished. Excluding something really dramatic, like nuclear war or the administration office losing their record of my fee payments, I’ll graduate in December with a Masters of Education (TESOL). Small – very small – applause, please.
I’ve done well, too. Since I’ve been back I’ve had nothing but high distinctions for everything I’ve had graded, and I think my final essays will also get very good grades. I’ve had the luxury of time to work on them, and I’ve been able to get engaged with researching and writing them. My professors seem to think I write well. Perhaps even smaller applause for that one; I once wanted to be a writer, you know.
In other ways, being back in Australia has been a sort of enveloping, unchallenging nothingness. Read more
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. Read more