The Initial Struggle: Life in South Korea

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ESL Tate
I have been an ESL Teacher for more than 15 years and a Teacher trainer for the last three. Now I help new teachers start their journey traveling and teaching English abroad.

“Order a new laptop charger before you leave.”

My mom’s words echoed in my ears as I laid on the couch in my new apartment in South Korea, alone and bored out of my mind. There was wifi here—I could see the little green light blinking on the router. I silently thanked the previous EPIK teacher for that.

However, every device I’d brought with me from the U.S. was, for some reason, out of commission. So I couldn’t connect.

At orientation, a friend had dropped my tablet and the screen broke. Neither my laptop nor the out-of-date smartphone I’d brought had chargers. So although the little light on the router blinked green, I had no internet connectivity that first weekend in my apartment here in South Korea.

I lay on the couch and looked at the little prepaid phone my recruiter had given me when I landed at Incheon Airport. I could call family and friends for quick blitz chats to tell them I was fine, albeit bored (and to call my mom at 4 a.m. a couple times when I was jet-lagged and tell her I was sick or scared—all the things a mother wants to hear from a child two continents away).

Korean TV droned in the background. I couldn’t understand anything that was being said, but I found a drama that seemed easy to follow and watched the pictures for three days as I tried to prepare mentally for what would greet me on the first day of school.

If I’d known then what I know now, I would have literally gone across the street to the nearest PC 방 (PC Bang, or PC Room) and Facebook with friends and family to my heart’s content. That Monday, I saw that that’s exactly what my friends from orientation had done so while I was in the apartment cut off, they had gotten together to explore some caves.

Although honestly that was fine for me because I was still recovering from being sick. So I spent that weekend recovering and rummaging around the apartment, reading the note and materials that the previous EPIK teacher left in the apartment and tried to prepare myself for that first day as best I could.

That first day at my school was very low-key, but about a month in I realized that my job was much more demanding that I’d assumed it would be. My school has a very strict curriculum that’s quite demanding for students (and therefore demanding for EPIK teachers) that includes evaluating presentations and grading essays. However, in those first few days, my co-teachers had given me about a week to get settled in. I, not knowing what was in store or what I would actually be expected to execute, used that week to make an edublog, a video greeting the students, to write my teaching philosophy (and, OK. To desk warm a little).

In hindsight, what I should have been doing was asking questions, discussing assignments, and setting expectations in a very real and honest way. Perhaps that would have prevented a few of the misunderstandings that arose later when the demands at my school started getting real.

Speaking of honesty, another thing I would do differently in those first few days at my school is be as honest as possible about my expectations and limitations. I work for public school, and part of that process entails attending a giant orientation week before receiving your placement here in South Korea. One thing they drilled into orientees’ heads (or maybe this is just what I took away) is that we as foreign teachers should try to be as open and flexible as possible—which is good advice. Where the advice falters, however, (in my opinion) is that they then tell us to try to “say yes to everything” in order to make a good relationship with our school.

It is true; in South Korea, relationships are very important. But speaking as someone whose relationship with her co-teacher is shot anyway, I think that it would have benefited me more to give honest responses to some of the more taxing demands, like teaching every other Saturday and staying every Tuesday until 8:20 p.m., initially, rather than waiting until all of the demands piled up and then having EPIK tell them that they were trying to force me to do a lot of things that are not in my contract.

My school didn’t particularly appreciate that course of action. Maybe instead, it would have been better for me to ask more questions. “Let me think about it…will there be overtime? Will I be able to stop when I want to? Will my hours be offset? Is there another time to do this? Well give me a day or two to think it over and I will get back to you.”

These would have all been appropriate responses that may have caused less damage to my relationship than bringing out the contract. Because let me tell you, once you bring out that contract, it’s no-holds-barred. You’ll find yourself getting up to use the restroom and your co-teacher will tell you to wait while she checks the contract about bathroom breaks.

Contribution by
Bryoney Hayes: lives and works in South Korea as an English Teacher

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The hilarious E-book and novella about the life of an ESL Teacher in South Korea. A small town, not many English speakers and the events that followed are shared in this book.

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