Tuesday, March 23, 2010

24 Hours

The last 24 hours of my life have been quite a ride. As you well know by now I struggle with the one thing Korean coteachers despise, and that is talking back and expressing a bold opinion. Last Friday I had one of these moments. It happened about an hour before work hours were finished and so I didn't really leave with a "sorry". What occurred was that I argued over being asked to write in 12 more topics for the extra class I am to teach. I made the point that since it doesn't really matter (we are going to do whatever and the topics are just for show) that they should write in anything and not ask me. I made a big deal about it and somehow embarrassed the youngest coteacher. (She is "beautiful" and has a princess complex.) I agree, though, that my big mouth should of been kept shut or that I should of just gone along with it. However, as you know I am still struggling with these areas.

Anyways they (my 3 coteachers) worked on Saturday and must of come up with some plan to deal with this. However, on Monday I didn't really know that it was such a big deal and when the youngest coteacher announced we were going to have a meeting later in the day I was surprised to find what it was about. She just said it was going to be about "school policy."

It turned out it was about me.

The youngest coteacher's English is poor and somehow (maybe with some help) she wrote down in her notebook a speech to give to everyone at the meeting. I was shocked at what I heard and how it was delivered. Her message was to me and how I embarrassed her and hurt her feelings. What she read clearly stated my name and what I did that she disliked. Keep in mind I have another foreign coworker, who was sitting at the meeting too.

I understand that they wanted to address my attitude and disobedience but honestly I would have never imagined that they would have solve this issue by confronting me at a meeting in front of everyone.

On top of being sick (headache & sore throat) I became so embarrassed and ashamed of myself that I couldn't come up with sincere answers to their questions.

 After a while into the meeting one of the other coteachers spilled the beans on all the things I did that upset her. I asked her, "Why didn't you tell me then that it upset you?" And she was insulted that I asked her that.

I tried to keep my cool and also represent my side of the story, that I have a tendency to voice my opinion passionately but know Korean people find this rude. That I am trying my hardest to understand the Korean system and work well with everyone.

I felt like I was on trial. But in this case I didn't even know I was going to be prosecuted. I told them that confronting me like this made me feel frightened and that they should of considered coming to me personally, instead of so publicly. Yet, they turned it around and said they couldn't believe that I was surprised.

Needless to say Monday was a mess.  I have to say that my other foreign coworker, although she tried at first, ended up throwing me under the bus in the end. Agreeing with my coteachers on things and not really showing any compassion for my being assaulted like the way I was.

The meeting finally ended when I couldn't take it anymore and burst out into loud tears. I went home Monday feeling betrayed by another foreigner and mentally annihilated by my coteachers.

As I walked home it was snowing heavily and there was not a person around me to hear me sob. After awhile I looked around and heard that sweet silence that accompanies snowfall. I couldn't help but think about my life. I wanted to pack my things and fly back to America. But I couldn't, because I need health insurance. "What would I do back home?" "How would I survive?" I thought. Then I considered my future. "What if they fire me?" "What if they don't renew my contract for another year and refuse to give me a good recommendation letter?"

My mind was spiraling down hill. It seriously felt like I couldn't go back to America and couldn't take another step back at work. I wanted to disappear.

I told JH what had happened and my feelings. Then later he showed up here at my home. He told me to no longer cry and gave me good advice on how to continue on. He said that no matter what happens he will be there for me.

With his expression of love and caring I was able to calm down and see what needed to be done.

On my way to work this morning I was scared and broken-hearted. What they did was really unfair and just messy in trying to get me to shape up. But I knew that they didn't see it that way and I would likely never get an apology from them or alternatively something in the ballpark of thinking they were wrong.

Yet as I walked the long path back to school I couldn't help but think of the children and that is why I was still carrying on this job. I like teaching them and seeing them laugh and have fun because I created a good lesson plan and executed it well. But I realized that the Korean public school system favors good relationships over the amount of work you do for the kids. Meaning I could probably be a lousy teacher but great at making everyone feel good and never argue, while at the same time never once be reprimanded for my poor teaching skills. It's a bitter medicine to swallow. But not impossible and I am not acting up all the time.

After careful thought I understood what I had done wrong but also realized that the young coteacher took it too personally. This is likely due to that I broke many Korean relationship taboos (saving face, don't talk back...etc) in front of everyone.

Despite all these feelings inside me I went through my day today pretty well. Of course there was no mention of what happened. However, when I had the chance I apologized to the coteacher I teach the most with and let her know how sincere I was. I will call her Mrs. K, and she has been good to me. I also have been good back to her by praising our coteaching and her ideas.

But still the other two coteachers remain in that grey area, where you never really know what they think of you. And you have to somehow redeem yourself and never make mistakes again. So today I talked politely and positively trying to show that I do care about my demeanor.

All in all, I want to obey the Korean way of things and also enjoy a fun and relaxed atmosphere with everyone. I guess the first step is letting go of how they handled that situation and getting a grip on my big loud mouth.


  1. Joy,

    I've always enjoyed reading your teaching experiences and regardless of who started them and how it ended, I appreciate your honest opinion.

    That being said, I can't help but think this: Why don't you stop teaching kids in public schools?

    I know you like the youngsters, but they don't seem to be your problem. You clearly do, however, have problems getting along with young Korean co-teachers. So, why not just move to a medium where there aren't any "co" anything?

    Gone will be the stress of summer camps, co-teacher feelings and last minute schedule changes. You love Korea too much to let it get the best of you.

    No job comes without headaches and hassles, but unless you can that balance, it's time to move on (to another gig).

    Best of luck, Joy!

  2. Thanks "The Expat." On that snowy walk I couldn't help but think the same thing. In fact your not the first one to suggest it.

    By non-coteaching gigs do you mean hagwons? Or university? Or teaching adults??

    Let me know what to look for in the wanted ads ;)

  3. Joy,

    I'm surprised by how shocked you are that the co-teachers dealt with the issue in a GROUP--it's a GROUP CULTURE, and western cultural professionalism workplace procedures and norms are NON-EXISTENT here.

    I had an experience one time when I was working at a training center with 10 foreign teachers where the Korean English supervisor in charge of us went around the office all 10 of us were in, one by one asking each of the native teachers to side with her against me in an argument we were having . . . I could hear everything she was saying (sometimes she was 3 feet away talking to the foreign teacher sitting beside me) and I thought it was hysterically funny because in WESTERN culture we don't deal with work issues that way. The one on one meetings, possibly with a mediator, between two professionals who have a problem, or between a superior and a team member...that just doesn't happen here.

    Disagreeing with the co-teacher's plan is a direct attack on her plan and her ideas . . . I'm the same as you in terms of feeling things passionately and being very outspoken but five years in Korea has taught me some degree of diplomacy and tact. In some ways that will probably be the most positive thing I take away from my time in Korea.

    I now try to weigh the cost-reward ratio of something before I open my big mouth cause otherwise whatever small gains I get might not be worth the fall out later.

    If I can offer a suggestion . . . every time you get upset or angry in Korea force yourself to take a time out, and physically put your hand over your mouth if you feel tempted or compelled to speak--I actually do this sometimes in meetings with Koreans, lol, cause I know myself, and I know if I don't have that hand over my mouth I'm going to be shooting myself in the foot and breaking a bunch of taboos.....

    I agree with the suggestion that public school might not be the best place for you to be a teacher--especially in Korea.

    Why not do some research on the major hogwan chains, and network with expats who teach in the hogwans and find someone who is working at a good hogwan and apply there?

    Imagine a year of teaching small classes, no co-teachers, and with kids who you can build close relationships with and teach in the manner you know is good.

    I might also suggest getting some kind of token gift, something small, and giving it to the co-teachers who were at the meeting with an apology note.

    Oh, and as for your foreign co-worker . . . she's just being Korean culture saavy and going with the group--if she sided with you then she'd have her own headache to deal with, and expecting her to share in the responsibility for your choices and actions is not exactly fair to her--is it? I think she should have just been quiet and said nothing at all, and not sided with anyone, but siding with the Koreans was just smart workplace politics....I'd try not to hold a grudge . ..

    Good luck with everything.

  4. I'm sorry to hear that you're still having problems at work, Joy.

    I agree that a good hakwon might be a better fit for you in Korea. They tend to be a bit more accomodating of foreign ways of doing things, as long as you are making money for them (so you might have to check yourself at times if it would cause your school to lose money, but this might be easier than checking yourself for something as abstract and irrelevant in your life as Korean culture is).

    Jason's comment is good. Really good. You're going to need to eat a lot of crow for the next couple months if you don't want to be miserable for the remainder of your contract. Bring food (a pile of fruit should do the trick) every week and make a big deal of personally offering it to everyone. Turn NO work parties down. Eat lunch with the teachers and try to speak Korean with them. This stuff goes a LONG way in Korea.

  5. Joy,
    I'd love to support the hagwon idea... but realistically, you're dealing with the Korean culture, bosses, co-workers, and students wherever you go. Going to a hagwon won't solve that, and neither will working at a university.

    Even a number of Koreans don't like the way things are in Korean culture. Ask the younger female (or even male!) Koreans if they really *want* to go to those after-dinner parties until midnight. Or run menial errands for anyone above them. Or bow and apologize for each and every trivial thing. Or spend eight hours traveling across Korea for Chuseok. Or bow to their ancestors. That's the way they've been raised, but that doesn't mean they have to like it. Being submissive in virtually every way isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea.

    Whatever you do, I wish you luck :)

  6. Joy, I don't know that you're going to listen to me considering our history. However, I have found the methods I talk about below worked for me.

    Rather than trying to conform yourself to Korean culture, what if you tried to view Korean culture from your coteachers' viewpoint and then reacted accordingly?

    (By the way, the "you're thinking" in this case is sort of a universal you.)

    Here's what I mean. You are thinking, "Why do I have to give them 12 more topics at the last minute when this is just for show? This is stupid."

    Your coteacher is thinking, "The topics are just to make the principal happy. They can be changed at any time. Joy knows this. Why doesn't she just write down anything? Why is she being so difficult?"

    On the original day they told you this (last Thursday, maybe?), before they gave you more topics, you might have been thinking something like, "Since this doesn't matter, why don't they come up with the topics?"

    Your coteachers are thinking, "Joy is not a trained teacher. Joy is not Korean. Joy is the lowest person on the pole here and she's being insolent and disrespectful."

    You have said (on this blog), "Since I have already one year of teaching behind me and a TEFL certificate that I feel I know a thing or two about teaching."

    Your coteachers are thinking, "We are the elite in Korea. We worked the hardest in school to get to become teachers, we took some of the hardest classes, very few of us passed the English program, we are respected amongst Koreans, we know how to teach Korean kids, and yet this woman with a certificate you can earn online thinks she knows what's best for our students?"

    I had to use this method myself. I kept getting asked for proof of my degrees, teaching certifications, and ARC or something like that. I got asked for these things 4 times in two weeks. And every time I'd ask why they needed it again and I got angrier and angrier about it because they always needed it ten minutes ago and the stuff was at home.

    Finally I thought, "My coteacher has no idea why she's being asked for this 100 times. She just is. And she doesn't want to go back to her boss and say she couldn't get the foreigner, the lowest person in the building, to listen."

    So rather than argue, I brought everything in that morning and made 6 copies. I gave her 5 in case she was asked for them again and made a little file for myself to keep in a locked drawer in school in case I needed them again.

    Stopping to consider what my coteacher was feeling helped dispel my own anger at being asked to do something pointless. It sort of gave me time to think rather than to react, too.

    Maybe try that method?

    Also, if your coteachers are like my coteachers, when they sense things are getting uncomfortable, they say things like "please understand me."

    The understand they mean (이해하다) is not just understanding with the head. It's understanding with the heart. When I realized that, I started using it too. "I know you need this in an hour, but I think it might take me two. Please understand me. I will try very hard." That phrase did a lot for me.

    All of the advice posted by others above is good. If you decide to go to a hogwon, you're still going to have to deal with a Korean boss. Right now your real Korean boss(es) are distant from you and buffered through your coteachers. In a hogwon they'd just be closer.

  7. Wow thanks for all the advice everyone. Actually I just skimmed through it and will read it more thoroughly later. First I want to say that I am trying to look at this from my coteachers perspective.

    Anyways I am glad to hear your guys responses since we all have been there. And I know that I am unique in my cultural adaptations.

  8. Jason:
    I think it is not that I am shocked rather again and again hit over the head by it. Korea is teaching me diplomacy and tact...just I am still in the learning phase. I too at times take a moment to weigh the penalities that would occur if I gave my full opinion out front. It has helped me keep a straight face and just say "Yes"

    I have thought of some tricks to stop myself from blowing up. Going out of the room is a great idea!

    I know my coworker was doing that but I think she could of secretly later on showed some compassion. She really wants to stay a second year there and at times I think she is taking advantage of my situation. But I could just be overthinking it.

    Thanks~all good ideas

  9. Diana: Actually last week I brought a bag of treats for everyone and they liked that. I also have been eating what they bring in and chatting with them. Thanks!

  10. Chris: I agree about the hagwon thing. So any job I chose here in Korea I need to always remember these cultural facts of life and make it a point to contribute wisely.

    I don't believe I can transform myself 100% and always go out with them. Thankfully at public school we don't go out a lot. But I do want to offer games or fun things to do together in the office. thanks!

  11. Amanda~ That is a good idea to try and see it from their perspective and what they see. I kind of did that today as I stood somewhat further away from my desk in the office. I imagined what it was like to see me sitting there. So I realized it is good to get up and meander around the office and make small talk.

    As for what they are actually I thinking I do know that it is task oriented and to please the Principal. I realized that i can't fight their thought process system. But your idea is good.

    For example. I was told I would go to orientation. I just said yes, but really i knew I wouldn't be going and that my coteacher didn't need to call the GEPIK office. Orientation goes to the newest teachers and I am not one of them.

    But I just let the coteacher call the GEPIK office and find out herself that I would be on the bottom of the list. Then she told and I said that it was no problem.

    Oooh that phrase sounds golden ~! I think I even was starting to do this naturally haha!

    And I want to add thanks for coming on and adding your 2cents...

  12. Joy: I'm going to take issue with what Chris said about the hogwans... whereas in a public school, there might be two foreign teachers for twenty Korean teachers, or whatever, at some hogwans there are equal numbers Korean and foreign teachers, and some hire only native speakers: because they deal with them all the time, of course management there would be at least a bit better briefed in dealing with westerners, rather than expecting the westerners to conform to the rest of the overwhelming majority of the staff.

    Plus, if you're at a hogwan that hires mostly foreign teachers, that'll be one of their selling points, so they'll treat you more like the centerpiece of their education program, rather than as an afterthought assigned to them by the Board of Education, in part as a repudiation of the English skills of the Korean teachers.

    And I've heard the money's way better, too.

    Sorry to hear you're getting treated this way at work, and good luck figuring this stuff out, buddy.


  13. Joy...my comments are best saved for an email....just remember you are powerless over other people, places and things! The only power you have is over yourself.
    And I think you've realized that, now acting upon it is your challenge.
    Thanx everyone for your care & suggestions for Joy.

    In these situations there's no time or situation like the present .... going to a Hagwon, or other employer....will just be the same til Joy works thru this w/herself.

    And....there's real need for good teachers here in the U.S. now! Many older teachers are retiring & in the coming years many many more teachers will be needed. Lousy teachers are being let go. How that's being accessed is another BIG story!
    However, good teacher training is really important.
    And that's something for another post response!

    Bottom Line:
    Eating crow is just part of the work place experience no matter where, it's universal! Humility Furthers.


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