Would You Ever Go Back to Korea to Teach?

Classmates and professors alike have asked me if I would ever return to Korea, upon completing my B.Ed degree. Old colleagues and former students in Korea have made similar inquiries. The general consensus is that they want me back in a Korean classroom delivering the same high-energy classes they had grown accustomed to. Much to their eternal disappointment, I have declined their invitations, to instead focus on the here and now.

The short answer is no.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy my time in Korea. For those of you who have been following my journey for the past decade, you can remember many of my adventures over there. I had an absolutely amazing time, and was lucky to have taught many of the students I did. My time in Korea continues to reward me at every turn, often when I least expect it to. It definitely gave me a leg up during my practica, and it bolstered my confidence in classroom management situations.

However, I am not the same person I once was as I near the end of my B.Ed. While employed by EPIK, I was at the top of the food chain. Due to my previous three years of experience in Daegu, I was fast-tracked through the pay scale, and broke it by the time I left Gangneung. In my final year, I was asked to work as the district coordinator for the city, but declined because I knew I was returning to Canada. I was involved not only with my school’s professional community, but with other schools’. I had more experience teaching in Korea, than the rest of the foreign teachers in Gangneung combined (budget cuts meant a lot of people lost their high-paying jobs, but I fortunately escaped unscathed). in 2015, I knew it was time for me to leave Korea, because I had reached the pinnacle and there wasn’t anywhere else to progress.

This is why I wanted the B.Ed degree. It would open so many new doors for me, and would introduce me to something I wouldn’t get from my practical experience: theories. The theoretical aspects of teaching cause many a B.Ed student to groan. Keeping your Piagets, Vygotskys, and Skinners separate in your brain is a tough task. Since September 2015, I’ve been inundated with theoretical frameworks. While I still have gut instincts about what works in a classroom, thanks to thousands of hours in Korea, I now also have research-backed theories to work with. There were times in Gangneung I just couldn’t figure out why certain approaches wouldn’t work with various students, but now I do. Now I can adapt my lessons accordingly.

The new two year Ontario B.Ed degree is a lot of work. It’s time demanding, and highly stressful. At the end of it, though, you get your certification. With all the work I put into obtaining this degree, I want to be highly selective over the kind of job I end up taking.

And this is where my humble bragging up above falls apart. For all my success in Korea with EPIK, I was still beholden to one-year contracts. Many of my expat friends can attest to how tenuous those can be, regardless of your popularity. An EPIK teacher is very much at the whim of the school’s principal, even though we were working for the Provincial Office of Education. I was lucky to have good relationships with my principals (working really hard, and speaking Korean helped), and luckier still to have stellar relationships with my vice-principals. If you don’t have those kinds of relationships with the admin, there is nothing else to fall back on. There isn’t a teachers’ union, or a federation. There are rules and stipulations connected with your worker’s visa that are in place to protect the country, but not you.

The truth of the matter is that many Korean public schools don’t know what to make of their foreign English teacher. Many assume the Native English Teacher (also called Guest English Teacher) doesn’t know how to teach, and view them as a potential headache. NETs usually aren’t included in staff meetings or debriefings, due to the language barrier (I attended them, however). The NET doesn’t always get a say in how their school’s English programme goes either, as many don’t last past a year (if do you last a few years, you might find yourself having the most experience when the rest of the staff gets transferred).

There’s also the sheer number of students you are responsible for. I was teaching 950 students a week. There was no way for me to assess or evaluate them as I have been taught in my B.Ed programme, and indeed that job largely fell to my co-teachers (out of 27 classes, each co-teacher was the main English teacher for 4-5 classes). Korea is still very much a test-driven educational ecosystem, so formative assessments didn’t take much precedence. I would mentally assess students on the fly, so as to change my approach to delivering the content, but it was very much an in-the-moment kind of situation. I did have a role in creating exam questions, and I was the final authority for what was considered a correct answer, but exam-based learning is not the approach I want to take.

Are there international schools in Korea that follow a more Western approach to teaching? Absolutely. Would I be interested in working at one of those? Interested, yes, if only out of curiosity’s sake to see how they are run. Am I discouraging two-year B.Ed graduates from applying to EPIK? Not at all. If you want some very real hands-on experience in an overseas school, an EPIK position can give you skills you can later use down the road. Just don’t expect to use a lot of what you are familiar with through your university courses. In all my time in Korea, I didn’t run across too many NETs who held teaching certifications from their countries of origin.

Students should always be at the centre of one’s teaching philosophy. At the end of the day, I feel I wouldn’t be able to serve my students to the best of my abilities, and that would bother me. While I certainly had a great deal of freedom in how I delivered content to the students, there is so much more to teaching. Students grow through enriched assessment-based lessons, but there isn’t a meaningful way I could implement that for 950 students. Having enough authority to inform the direction of what I taught is also a key factor.

Although I haven’t touched upon it in this post, teaching English as a Foreign Language does have its limitations. This is readily apparent with the kind of curriculum you are provided to teach. These days, I enjoy teaching dedicated math and science lessons. My teachable subject is history. While I was able to inject these subjects into my EFL lessons, they were really just themes to get to the content (having students use English).

So would I go back to Korea to teach? As amazing as the experience was, there are so many other venues I wish to explore. 미안해요 대한민국.