Friday, April 9, 2010

Warm Outside Cold Inside

If it is one thing I don't want to do it is to constantly talk about my work life. There are so many other aspects of life here in Korea. But really I can't help but pass along these experiences since I know it will be helpful to other expats.

In the springtime at school it is usually warmer outside than it is inside. The school seems to act like a refrigerator. These days they have turned off the heater to the entire school. I don't really mind since they were blasting the heater anyways and it was making the air way too dry.

This week, it seems, was full of ups and downs. On Monday I had succeeded with my open class and felt really positive. But then I came in Tuesday in a moody way. I had PMS symptoms, which made me look moody (seriously if you are a woman and know what I am talking about...). As the others sat around mingling over coffee I barged my way around asking where the dice were. It didn't look good of course. Later before lunch my coteacher Mrs. K asked why I was so wrong to do that. I said sorry of course. Then apologized at lunch time to everyone. Mrs. K then reminded me, "This is your second time, Joy."

I know the mistake I made of bringing my mood onto others and bringing everyone down. But inside I just get a bit tired that they don't get past that and accept I am human. Yet, I am in Korea and being moody in front of others is a taboo. So making sure I don't upset others with moodiness is something I am going to be mindful of.

Then Wednesday came and some little change occurred. Mrs. K told me she will give the 6th graders a listening test outside the classroom, which meant that I will be teaching alone. I wasn't too shocked by the news since giving tests in this manner was familiar to me. However it was going to be my first time at this school teaching by myself and so I knew things needed to be shifted around in my mind.

What ended up happening was a mistake that I didn't recognize would be so grave. It was second period and the class was being very rowdy and unfocused. Also I had the period mixed up with the next one so I accidentally finished 10 minutes early. As soon as I said, "It's time to say goodbye." The students closed their books, got up and started playing their small games. I lost control of the class and didn't get it back. I just resigned myself to play some English videos. I treated the situation in a casual manner and even considered the incident not that big of a deal. I apologized to my coteacher when she came back in the room to make sure she knew it wasn't the students fault.

Yesterday I went to work thinking all is fit as a fiddle. I worked with my other coteacher Mrs. W and we enjoyed our time in the classroom. Then a few hours after lunch Mrs. K came up to me and told me to come with her to have a talk. I figured she just wanted to talk about our coteaching.

We left the teacher's room and went into the Audio / Visual room. At a desk she sat in front of me. We sat down and she asked me, "Do you know why you are here?" I was honest and said, "Not really." ...."To talk about coteaching?" (With a big grinning smile.)

She shook her head and gave a heavy sigh, and then went into yesterday's events. Apparently it greatly upset and disappointed her. Immediately I explained the mix up with the time and that the students were already not focused. But she grilled me harder about it. She used this event to come to the conclusion that I am not a good teacher. That I am a "cold person" who does not have a warm heart. She told me about how she doesn't like my teaching style at all.

Her complaints were that I am not using a loud voice (truth is my voice is not naturally loud), I am not moving my arms, I am not touching or hugging the students (with 6th graders I draw the line), I am not being active enough, I am not in control of the class (when we are coteaching the class is usual under control and I use a point system and other techniques...just don't yell at them), I use too many powerpoints (maybe 1 or 2 a just 2 times a week), I don't keep track of time (not entirely true...just end things quickly), I don't give a review with the class....and so on.

In other cases I have cried and become very emotional when an older Korean woman rips me to shreds. I know a supervisor's role is to check their employee's job but when an older Korean woman does it she hits you over the head so hard with her message that you are left feeling tiny and insignificant. Anyways, this time I didn't cry or have a tantrum. I let her talk and I explained where I was coming from.

Some explanations I gave were that although I have taught at public school before, the teaching situation was a lot different. At Hwasan Elementary we taught basically 50 / 50 and made things up as we went along. Last semester, at my current school with the previous coteachers, I taught probably only 30% while they did most of the work. (It wasn't my choice...they made it that way). So I explained to her that this is my first time given 80 - 90 % of the class. Really it is the first time they have told me, "This is your class you can do what you want." I tried to relay the point that I am new to this concept and working it out. Another explanation I gave her in regards to my class management style is that I like not to be aggressive like the Korean way. I told her that I like to use certain methods and techniques besides the familiar Korean ones of yelling and scaring a child into learning. Her response: You are in Korea and you have to teach the Korean way.

This is where I realized that it probably didn't matter what I said in defense of myself. She had already chosen an image of me and all I could do now was tell her that I would consider everything and make a change.

Throughout this were some pretty oddball things. For example, at first she made me write down "in detail" explaining the event that took place Wednesday. Then she made me write down what I would do next time to make it better. Both pieces, when she read them, she gave another heavy sigh and said that I didn't write what she was looking for. I just wrote things very factual and added stuff like discipline methods and a promise to not make the mistake again. In addition, she had a written letter from a student from that class explaining what happened (it was in Korean...but I put two and two together).

We talked in that room for, I believe, two hours. There were a few times when she tried to finish up the conversation but I kept on talking and trying, in a polite and calm way, defend my position and explain myself.

At one point, towards the end, she mentioned how she will take what I said and share it with the other coteachers and have a discussion and then give me my "result." I asked her what kind of "result" this was and she just said it was a "result." Of course in mind it made me think they were going to fire my ass. That is probably why I kept on talking to give her all the info I could. I also told her that I felt defenseless. I even mentioned how I felt like she is forgetting the cultural differences. But she said that I have to be like a Korean here since I am in Korea. I wanted to argue with her that I agree I should follow the Korean way but it is not something I can't do 100% of the time or expect to get it right. But I knew it was useless and also just generally disappointed she couldn't realize this herself.

We finished and it was already nearly 15 minutes to leaving time. So the day ended on that note. Needless to say last night was spent a crying mess.

On the way home I walked with my coworker (the other foreigner) and burst out in tears about the situation. I told her that I was sorry for any problems I have caused her. She listened to me about the meeting and told me how shocked she was to hear that Mrs. K did that. Her impression is that she is really going after me and not being fair. Not considering the cultural differences.

What was funny was that in the meeting Mrs. K mentioned my coworker. Saying, "P is younger than know?" "You need to look after her because you are her older sister." I nearly burst out laughing at hearing that. Yea my coworker is younger than me but we both consider each other on that same playing field that Westerners do. I told my foreign coworker this and she was a bit surprised.

Well my coworker told me to not let it get to me, but that is what I did last night. I know I screwed up Wednesday but really I am trying my darnedest to get every aspect of this job right. From keeping things happy and charming in the teacher's room and around school, to teaching the kids in a wholesome and fun manner. Yet, it feels that no matter how hard I try and suffer that in the end if someone doesn't like you because of X, Y & Z than you are in the shitter no matter what. Yes I disappointed her with that incident but does she have to go to such extremes with dealing with it? At the meeting she literally crushed my teaching spirit. This morning on the way to work I couldn't see how exactly I was suppose to teach.

Yet as I got closer and closer to the school I told myself, "It's Friday" and I imagined one of my 4th grader's smile. (He has the cutest and funniest smile.) This pepped me up enough to get through the day.

Oh yea, I also brought with me one of those spongecakes from Paris Baguette to grease the wheel with everyone today.

Of course, at work, Mrs. K showed no signs of disgust towards me during the day. And I never got that "result"....not that I was expecting to. We went to our classes and she sat in the back giving the listening test.

But I did my darndest to rock up the class and talk with excitement, move my arms and laugh...whatever it took to show I gave a shit. I don't want to amp up my classes to please her but do it for the kids. Of course I agree with her teaching philosophy but you know you can't insult someone thoroughly and then tell them to go teach classes with a positive chipper attitude. Yet that is what I did today. Playing the insane fool was kind of fun.

I know Mrs. K is freaking out and taking things too far. I also know that I will never really be able to please her. But I am going to keep on teaching until they fire me or my contract ends, and then we will see what comes next. By the way, Mrs. K is only at my school for one semester and then the Teacher dude comes back.

One last thing... I also feel somewhat shocked by all this. For a while there I was really getting along with Mrs. K, talking to her, laughing, sharing about my boyfriend and American life. One afternoon I knew JH was coming to my house so I invited her to swing by and meet him. I honestly thought all was well on this front. I guess she just snapped when I made the mistake on Wednesday. I want her to forgive me but I want her to know that she needs to be forgiven as well.

Well there you have it another post about the casualties of teaching life here in Korea. Last night I seriously thought to myself maybe it is time to pack up and leave. Go back to my poor life in San Francisco, maybe go back to school and get a Masters in something. Shop at thrift stores and only spend my money on groceries. Oh the good old days.

Of course I talk about these troubles with JH, even cry deeply over it with him on the phone. He is comforting but there is a cultural line that he struggles to cross. Yet as long as he is willing to understand and help lift my spirits I will take that.

To anyone else struggling with these issues here in Korea or ever experience your supervisor telling you that you are not a good teacher. Just take it in one ear and don't let it go up to your brain.  The point I am trying to make is that do what you can, and don't give up.


  1. From following your blog....but not knowing you, I can say this:

    1. Public schools are not working out for you. Perhaps a hagwon where you have no co-teacher and smaller classes?

    2. Leave Korea? It's not for everyone.

  2. I'm really sorry for your troubles Joy. Maybe after this contract you need to seriously reconsider your options. The above two are a fine start.

    I'm glad you are being so honest on your blog about your work situations; I'm sure it's very helpful for new English teachers in Korea to see what potential problems they could encounter at the workplace.

    Mrs. K sounds like she was overreacting to a relatively minor incident, but you've already learned that Koreans find "explanations" for why you do things your way to be aggressive and irritating. It causes them to fall back on the "this is Korea and you must do things in the Korean way" argument, which is clearly ineffective, but what else can they say to get through to you?

    "Just take it in one ear and don't let it go up to your brain." What do you mean by this? I'm worried that you are still getting negative feedback about your teaching and refusing to learn from it and are instead ignoring criticism and making the same mistakes.

    You worry so much about doing a good job, but you don't seem to respond to criticism so well. I'm going to give you just a bit of "tough love." I really mean this to try to help you see how you can take better charge of this situation:

    Either buckle down and learn how to be a teacher for real or stop caring so much about your job performance. Start with classroom management (your class being out of control was the cause of this particular incident and is one of the necessary tools for good teaching--you can have the best lessons in the world, but you'll always be a crap teacher if no one listens to you).

    You can't both refuse to listen AND expect to improve. Life doesn't work that way.

  3. I have to say, I agree with the above two posters. As the first commenter said, it seems to me that Korea may, in the end, not be the place for you. At the very least, you should look into switching into a hagwon. I think your style of teaching would work better there, and you wouldn't be dealing with a coteacher.

    As for Diana's advice, I also agree. After reading your blog for so long, it seems to me that your response to criticism is to go home and cry, rather than learning from your experience. There's nothing wrong with a good cry, but you have to learn to listen to what others, including your Korean teachers, are telling you. If you've been in Korea for as long as you have and weren't able to deal with a class on your own, I question the amount of professional growth you've had in those previous years. It seems to me that, as Diana also said, you need to either work on really learning to be a teacher or stop caring about being a good one.

    Don't get me wrong - I love reading your blog, and it's one of the few K-blogs I still read after being home so long - but these are some of the things that have stuck out to me over the couple years I've been reading your words here.

  4. Your co-teacher might targeting you because she is in a perpetually pissed-off mood because of a number of things (her life sucks and is upset that yours doesn’t, she doesn’t care for mixed-relationships, she gets off on treating younger people like crap because no one has ever put her in her place, etc.) and nothing you can do will ever be able to win her over, especially if that rowdy class isn’t the norm but an exception.

    I really doubt anyone but your co-teacher might be trying to fire you at this stage, but she might be hoping that if you become discouraged enough that you’d take the hint and quit on your own. Getting you fired might actually be a loss of face for her if she couldn’t work with a foreigner, but getting you to quit would be a major victory in her book depending on her school of thought. I had my own problems of that sort myself, but it was in a relationship where a thirty-five year-old grown woman couldn’t go against the wishes of her father and marry a foreigner. The prospect of her running off with me scared her father so much, that he made her quit her job and move to Daegu.

    Anyway, there are always tons of hagwons looking to hire if you want to stay in the country. And if you decide to go that route, you might want to find one where you will be the only native English teacher. Then, you’d stand on your own without have to be compared against the other native English teachers on staff. There are some good academies out there. Maybe you can put some feelers out there via your blog and get some feedback about future openings that you might find worth checking out.

    Good luck, and remember that life’s too short to stay in a crappy job for long. This commencement speech by Steve Jobs might help you along your way: 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech I know it/he helped light a fire under me.

  5. In the military, one is broken in any number of ways - by being pushed beyond the limits you thought you had, by making you do contradictory things, or being berated for doing one thing (or not doing another thing). Think about being told to jump and not land - then getting berated for landing. There's no way to win.

    I am no psychologist - maybe I will be one day, but it sounds like you're being emotionally abused. They know you'll cave in from almost any quasi-legitimate sounding reason. It doesn't matter whether you apologize or simply admit your mistake - they want to feel above you. It's not precisely your fault, and may be the result of them being made to feel inferior themselves. Being a foreigner, you're somehow 'beneath' them despite being older or a teacher.

    Korea isn't easy on foreigners - but it's not meant to be an all-out fight. You go after what you want, and you try your best. You don't let other people get in your way - if they do, you get them out of your way one way or another.

    Stop being defensive. Assert yourself. Explain your PMS moment as being a PMS moment - if the girls don't understand, they're lying or they're not really girls. If crap hits the fan, another job is not overly hard to find.

    Diana - respectfully, one can improve without listening to a person that is unable to offer sound advice. The person offering advice must have the credibility necessary to qualify their statements. You won't hear me talking about the tourist opportunities in Mongolia for that reason :)

  6. Joy, the comments in here offer you a few options. While some people may have been hard in the way they responded to your post, at the end of the day they have also offered objective, reasonable and sound advice on your situation.

    I do not know you personally. I do read your blog from time to time. I used to be in Korea and still miss the place often. I was a teacher there and since moved on to other work.

    What I can say is that the very first comment in this list is an excellent starting point. You need to figure out what you are good at and what you are not so good at when it comes to where you teach.

    You seem to have a strong interest for teaching and to have your students needs at heart. From what we can read on your blog, I submit that you are not made to teach in a Public School in a co-teaching environment.

    I think a Hakwon would suit you better (again this is my opinion based on what you write here). The smaller classes and the fact you would be teaching your own class seem to be a better fit for you.

    I would also say that perhaps Korea is not the place for you but that it is not sure that this is an issue.

    Finally, criticism will occur in teaching! We all experienced it at one point or another and all too often in a rash of self-pity or pride we brush off the criticism as invalid. In reality, there are often valid points to criticism. Your co-teacher in this instance had a few points that, from your account, seem valid.

    Time management being one of those points for example. We also need to remember that while we are foreigners with our values and outlooks on life, Koreans also have their values and outlooks and we are working in their country, their schools and teaching Korean students. This is a hard thing to grasp correctly and requires a hefty dose of self-introspection, humility and willingness to learn.

    Good luck.

  7. Chris in SK--

    I think a Korean teacher who is capable of controlling the classroom IS qualified to offer Joy advice on how to control a classroom full of Korean kids.

    Just a thought.

  8. Chris, I don't know a single professional woman who would use PMS as an excuse with her superior. I know some unprofessional women who would, however.

    Joy, sorry to hear that you're still having problems at the school. Some of the points sound odd, like she was just making a laundry list. But the classroom management one is huge. There are some excellent books out there about classroom management. (Since there are so many options on Amazon, I'll give a few titles. My personal favorite is SETTING LIMITS IN THE CLASSROOM. I know others who adore TEACHING WITH LOVE AND LOGIC).

    Rather than getting defensive, when you're being criticized in any job, the best way to defuse it to say, "OK, how can I change it? Can you give me some strategies?" This shows that you're open to suggestions and that you respect your supervisor's opinion AND knowledge of the field.

    If you were teaching in the US, in most districts you'd get at least three evaluations every year for a certain number of years. After successfully completing your first several years of teaching, you'd be considered a strong, solid candidate for continual contract. (This is not necessarily tenure.)

    If they said, however, that you needed to change something and you didn't change it? If you took something in one ear and let it go out the other? They'd non-renew your contract. Ignoring professional criticism from a superior is not the way to keep a job. Anywhere.

    Good luck.

  9. Wow I just want to thank you all for passionately responding here. It's good to hear all sides.

    First let me clear the "One ear out the other" statement. What I meant is that to not take things personally like I did and cry yourself silly. But to take their opinions as signs to buck up and do a better job...for the kids.

    I want to reiterate that at the meeting I didn't get mad or cry and show emotion. Yes I did argue with her but I did do a lot of "Yes, I agree." "Yes, I understand". "I can see why you feel that why."

    Her point of view to me is something I do value. I just wish she didn't hit me over the head with her opinion. I told Mrs. K at the meeting we had that I valued her opinion and was really pleased she was telling me this. I told I wanted to talk to her more about my teaching after class.

    The bottom line is that she wants to show the presence of a fully developed teacher who takes the job seriously. She wants me to show that I care in the classroom and not just in my lesson planning. ALl of which I agree with and CAN do.

    As for hagwons vs private schools.Let me remind folks that I have worked at a hagwon. Given it wasn't the best one out there but I have had the experience.

    Although you are not coteaching in the classroom you still deal with it outside the classroom when they talk to you about Mom complaints ..etc. I know not all hagwons are equal and there are a great many that are nourishing to a native teacher. And I could teach adults where the parents would complain less ( I assume).

    I wouldn't mind teaching at a University but I think I would have to really take all this passionately and seriously and get involved in the TESOL community. Which is fine and I want to do it.

    The reasons I stick with a public school are for the vacation and work hours. I can't physically work past 6pm. Since I am fond of this work ethic I need to stick with public school and make it work.

    Perhaps that does mean stop reacting in a tearful when I go home. Actually to be honest, although I did end up crying, beforehand I told myself it wasn't worth it and to just take in the major points. BUt since I felt like I was being personally attacked my emotions ran high.

    I don't want to ignore professional critism. Yesterday (like I said) I taught in a way that I felt was what she was suggesting. Of course the only feedback I got from her was a smile and look in the eyes.

    For me I don't want to change just to please Mrs. K. To me that feels like I am being competitive and it stresses me out. I would rather consider what she says and realize that it is best for the children. Measure my success in the children's reaction. But maybe I have this backwards. Maybe just I generally should teach for teaching sake and treat her as my supervisor and do what she says.

    At this stage in teaching in Korea I feel less rebelious to do it "my way" but rather go with what they are suggesting. It's backfired too many times that I know you just got go with what they say.

    ANyways thanks guys!

  10. Amanda said:
    "Rather than getting defensive, when you're being criticized in any job, the best way to defuse it to say, "OK, how can I change it? Can you give me some strategies?" This shows that you're open to suggestions and that you respect your supervisor's opinion AND knowledge of the field."

    I just want to point out that this is great advice. And at the meeting I was doing such a thing. I really tried to get exactly the image she wanted to see so that I could fully understand what she wanted...instead of just hearing the abstract "Teach more actively." She ended up suggesting one thing that I found will be difficult...and that is to tell jokes. I tell jokes in my life but usually they are of the sarcastic witty ones. Well I figured out that I can turn myself into the joke's center by acting silly at the beginning of close...

    For example: I asked the kids if they will sleep in on Saturday. THen I acted out their mothers trying to wake them up. They laughed and I laughed. = joke ? hope so


    Anyways a good reminder Amanda ~ thank u

  11. Yeah, sarcasm doesn't work. You've got three things going against you.

    First, kids don't start to understand sarcasm as humor very well until they're 12 or 13. I know this from five years of teaching 10-13 year olds! Only the most advanced students get sarcasm in September, and a bunch still don't get it by May. (Really, see?

    Second, there's the whole English thing. In order to understand sarcasm in English they have to be so advanced! I don't know about your students, but my students didn't have that level of English.

    Third, Korean culture doesn't use sarcasm for humor nearly as much as American culture does. Slapstick and physical comedy is the way to go.

    Glad to hear that you weren't super defensive, Joy. Again, good luck.

  12. Good to know about the sarcasm. I will keep experimenting with what can make kids warm up and feel funny at the start of the class. I think that is what my coteacher was really trying to say. Instead of the humdrum "How are you?" "How's the weather?" bit. ;)

  13. Hi Joy!
    I've been reading your blog for quite some time now, and I have to say... I'm really shocked by how sensitive you Korean co-teachers seem to be. It's really sad that you have to go to work and put on a cheery face all the time so that they don't get offended. Really, your office should be your place to feel free to share anything you're feeling. I've never experienced any office environment here where someone is just in a bad mood and it has to be hidden. Unless you are lashing out and screaming at everyone, being rude and inconsiderate over everyone in the office, I can't understand why they would all take it personally.

    Of course it is always good for us to get constructive criticism on our teaching styles and such, but to be burdened every day with having to have a sunny disposition, it makes it hard to focus on teaching. :(

    I really hope that things start looking up for you, and soon. These Korean co-teachers just seem to have a problem dealing with foreigners, and maybe they need some culture lessons as well. Just because we are in Korea does not mean we have to do everything Korean style.

  14. Jennifer ~ Thank you for reading my blog. Yes this has made me so stressed that in the process I forgot to think about the kids and my teaching. Sigh~

    It is my understanding that the public school environment is a lot more serious than most work environments in Korea.They really take ones image seriously. But yea it is stressful to have to be very cheerful all the time...even when I am feeling blue. But I have to go with it. I haven't really expressed dramatic sadness at work just your typical looking down kind of thing.

    Anyways I need to focus now on my teaching and the students so to not think about this crazy stuff. ANyways always good to hear from a reader :)


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