Dealing with work issues so far from home
January 17, 2011 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Please help my friend not get fired from her job teaching English in South Korea. Advice and coping strategies requested.

A close friend of mine, "Rachel", is currently teaching English in Incheon, South Korea. She has not been enjoying the job or the city since she arrived, but I have been encouraging her to stick it out for at least 3 months before giving up. However, she has been receiving negative feedback from her students and now her manager is getting involved. She wrote to me last night about her situation but I unfortunately know pretty much nothing about work and culture in Korea.

She has agreed to let me e that she sent me (italicized with identifying details removed). Any advice or suggestions from fellow Mefites would be greatly appreciated! She'll be reading this thread and can also supply answers to any questions that may come up through me. Right now, Rachel is leaning towards quitting, but I honestly feel that she should try to stick it out (she was seriously miserable back home so I'm not sure returning to a place where she felt trapped is the wisest choice). Thanks!


I have this study group. My manager just called me during the middle of my study group (interrupting it) to tell me that the students in the study group don't like me and that I am too shy.

I don't know what I am going to do about my upcoming student evaluations (which are coming up this week). My manager let me know that there is a problem with my teaching, but will not give me any suggestions on how to improve it. She just says things like "we pay you" and "just fix it". I asked the other teachers and they say, "You must not take it personally" when students complain or drop out.

I am doing my best, and if the students don't like me there is not much I can do about it. So if my manager tells me that my evaluations are poor, the only thing I can say is "Well, I'm trying my best. I'm a new teacher, I think I am getting better." But the problem is I might just start crying after that, or, if she digs into me asking why I am so bad, I might just say, "Fire me if you want to." Which, if it doesn't get me fired immediately, will make me a pariah about the school.

I honestly wouldn't mind going home at this point except that I will be completely broke. I can't believe how fucked up this is. I would have been so much better off if I had just stayed in my home town. I had a decent amount of money saved before I came out here, but it's almost gone after 3 months without pay and all of the shopping I had to do in preparation for the trip. It also looks like my return ticket is going cost twice as much as it did to get out here. And if I get fired at the end of the month then all the fucking work I did for my classes will have been mostly wasted. But I guess I never would have known how fucked up it could be unless I tried... I guess I will just have to look on the bright side no matter what. If I get fired now, I don't have to do this horrible job anymore. If I don't get fired I might be able to recoup the expenses.

Can you think of anything I can do to make this better? I feel like, if I were to preemptively tell my manager in person or via email that my evaluations will be better in February than they are going to be in January, it will only make things worse. I think any unnecessary contact I make with her may only make things worse. The bottom line is I'm not a good fit for this job, and I will continue to get negative feedback and this will continue to cause me to be upset. I think I'm just going to quit, but I have to decide when and how. If I want to be released from my contract (which doesn't actually matter to me), and be less of a douchebag, I'd have to give 45 days notice.
posted by HeKilledKennedy to Work & Money (17 answers total)
I feel like this is the sixth or seventh time I've heard this story. Don't know if it's an urban legend/hacked account or just Americans have very similar experiences there.

I don't think it gets better. She should probably leave. It's a cultural thing.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:21 AM on January 17, 2011

I Hate Teaching in Korea

Teaching English Sucks in Korea

(via googling)
posted by Kronur at 7:29 AM on January 17, 2011

I get the impression she feels like an outsider with no understanding of what she could do differently to improve things. It sounds like she really needs a friend among her peers at the school, who could clue her into whatever is going wrong. So that's my suggestion -- pursue social connections with colleagues, and ask them for help.
posted by jon1270 at 7:30 AM on January 17, 2011

The only person talking about getting fired is your friend. The best thing to do is to lay low and hope they aim their sites on someone else. The bullying behaviour may continue, but I doubt she will get fired.

As far as making her students "like" her, the only thing you can really do is smile, ask questions as though you're interested in their lives, and remember to use their names.

The real issue here, though, is that she says she has not been paid in three months. That's pretty fishy.

It may be time to cut her losses. At this stage of life it may seem expensive to buy a ticket on a credit card and go home to stay with parents for six months, but it may be the best thing for her mental health at the moment.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:36 AM on January 17, 2011

I don't think these links are helpful to the discussion.

Your friend needs to remain as positive and hopeful as she can in order to remain resilient in this situation; she can't focus on the negatives of teaching in Korea.

Besides, her situation is not unique to Korea. I myself endured a pretty awful work environment early on in my time in Japan. There was bullying by management, staff (including me) were not getting paid, there was a lot of office politics and bickering. I ended up leaving Japan for a few months, but I returned and thrived.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:46 AM on January 17, 2011

I don't have a lot of experience with Korean culture, but the little I have leads me to believe that your friend is waaay overestimating how much her supervisor and class hate her. The Koreans I knew were brutally honest in evaluating each other, and their bosses and employees. It wasn't because they were mean or hated each other -- quite the opposite, in fact. But for them, feedback was only useful if it helped people correct their mistakes, not if it made them feel better despite their mistakes. Their version of the "compliment sandwich" technique doesn't have a lot of bread.
posted by Etrigan at 7:48 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like she doesn't know exactly what the problem is. She's got to use her noggin to find out.

She could ask some of the more astute students directly, one-on-one.

I have also heard of a technique in which students write in journals which the teachers take to read, every other class or so, just to keep communication open and to keep the students writing. This can apparently be very effective, and might establish the kind of connection that would make it easier to ask about problems and get real answers.
posted by amtho at 7:57 AM on January 17, 2011

I might add that I worked for Americans at an American language school during that horrible time in Japan. So my point is that what your friend is experiencing is also not just limited to working for Korean, Japanese or even Chinese employers.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:06 AM on January 17, 2011

I taught in Japan for a year on the JET Programme aged 21. I was painfully shy at the time but wanted to travel, so made myself do it. The first semester (September-December) was awful - I wasn't an ALT as I'd been told, I was the main teacher, the students laughed at me, I was trying too hard, and my super-confident English colleague was loved by everyone (and made sure she told me at regular intervals how all the students said they preferred her). I met a friend in Thailand for Christmas and surprised myself and him by bursting into tears on the last night and saying I didn't want to go back.

By February though, it had changed. I'm afraid I can't give your friend any hard and fast reasons why, just that I settled in more and became more confident. That confidence is still with me 14 years later and going to Japan was the best thing I ever did. I've taken the lesson from it that it can take up to six months to really know if you're going to like something like teaching and living in such a different culture. By the time I finished that July, I was cursing myself for not having signed up for another year (we were asked in November and at that time my response was an overwhelming Hell no.)

So I'd advise your friend to stick it out, especially as she'll be broke if she leaves. BUT, some schools are just crap. Maybe she could look around for something else starting in a month or two - I assume she already has her work visa. Or she could look into going somewhere like Taiwan to teach, or Thailand or Cambodia just to do whatever.

I would never recommend sticking something out for months and months if it's making someone unhappy and things are not going to get better, but often if you hang in there things will change. If they don't, well, your friend could consider that it's the school, not her. They don't sound very sympathetic to a new teacher. And yeah, if she hasn't been paid for three months (I had to wait two to get paid in another Japanese teaching job some years later), she should make sure she is. Bonus - she then has three months' pay to go and lie on a beach somewhere and consider her next step. It doesn't have to be teaching just because she wants to travel - one of my happiest times was working as a cleaner in a hostel, which gave me the time and money to stay in the country I was in.
posted by mudkicker at 8:16 AM on January 17, 2011

but it's almost gone after 3 months without pay

This is a huge red flag, why are you not getting paid? I have seen Korean employers use negative feedback as a tool to make the teacher feel OK about getting ripped off and working for free. It doesn't matter if your teaching is pure shit, it is paid work that needs to be compensated for.

Are you just "working through the textbook"? That can make things boring. Add in at least one game or fun activity per class, preferably near the end. There are a million EFL/ESL game sites, use Google.

Journaling is good but kind of "bulky"... takes time and effort. You can also collect your own mini-feedback at the end of each lesson. Give out a wee tiny scrap of paper and have the students write one thing they liked about the lesson, one thing they disliked. Then ACT ON THAT FEEDBACK.

Even if you still totally suck, the fact that you are transparently asking for and responding to feedback will make students much happier with your classes.

As someone who gave 24hrs notice before fleeing my last job in Korea my heart goes out to you. But I had other options while it seems yours are more limited - so I urge you to try to stick it out. Good luck.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:29 AM on January 17, 2011

I spent three years in Korea, worked for some crappy schools, and had a blast once I figured out how to deal with my employers. The first six months after I got there were hard. I felt like I was a shit teacher and I almost bailed. Thank god I didn't. Those wound up being some of the best times I've ever had despite the jobs.

She should stick it out and try to keep in mind that it's only a job. If the job is awful (believe me, I've been there - I nearly broke down in tears sometimes at one school because it was so poorly run, and I would work there again just to have had the experience in that country) she should suck it up a bit and try to cultivate more of a social life outside of work. The only way you can have a great experience as an ESL teacher in Korea, in my opinion, is if you find a great social life.
posted by fso at 9:32 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Disclaimer: I am a professional ESL teacher, but I am not an EFL teacher in Korea (however, one of my best friends is). It's hard to tell exactly what's going on, but finding other teachers to talk to--SUCCESSFUL teachers, not Bitter Expats(TM)--might help. Incheon's a bit far out, I guess, but she could see if there are any KOTESOL meetings coming up, plus try, various Facebook groups for teachers in Korea, and Twitter (there's a thriving ELT community on Twitter, with a fair number of users in South Korea).

If she's new to teaching EFL, she may be unknowingly overwhelming her students by talking too fast, giving them way too much to do in a well-meaning way, constantly using impenetrable idioms without realizing it (I used "let me know" for a long time before realizing NO ONE knew what it meant!) and so on, resulting in students who don't understand anything and are even less motivated when they came in. That's in a best-case scenario where there IS something to rescue about the job, of course. :) I also sometimes tell learners "Raise one finger in front of your chest" (demonstrating how they can do it discreetly) "if I talk too quickly for you." Use actual comprehension-related questions instead of asking "Do you understand?"

She might also try surveying students about their interests and incorporating those into lessons, if she has enough freedom to do that. A survey I did along these lines used very simple questions and yes/no or smiley/neutral/frowny faces as answers--KISS principle! My friend in Korea uses Korean pop heartthrobs with her junior high and HS classes (they were less interested in Hollywood stars). You can keep up with the news at omonatheydidnt and other sites, giving students context for grammar or vocab questions, or use groups' English lyrics in various ways. Very motivating! My friend also searches lyric and script databases for relevant phrases in recent English pop songs/movies and uses video clips.

I host a copy of The English Teacher's Guide to Korea on my TESOL blog (self-link, obviously), which has information about rights and so on, but also advice on lessons, getting along with co-workers, etc.

Classroom games at ITESLJ
Powerpoint games and other lesson plans/activities

Best wishes to her--I hope she can improve the situation or find a better one!
posted by wintersweet at 1:03 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am not a native English speaker, and in addition to learning English, I have studied around a dozen languages. I must have had at least 60 language teachers in my lifetime, the vast majority of them native speakers of the languages I've studied. So I've seen both the excellent and the horrific.

Sadly, my worst experiences have been with teachers of English. Because it's a high demand language nearly everywhere on Earth, there is a demand for English teachers in all sorts of exotic places, while the demand for teachers of Serbo-Croatian or Haitian Creole or Korean or most other languages remains flat. The demand for English teachers is a double-edged sword of negativity.

It means that people without real knowledge of English grammar, of phonetics, of the underlying rules of language (etc) can easily get a job teaching it anyhow. A large number of these people also lack a desire to teach per se - it's simply a means to an end (like travel) - and these people are thus also unacquainted with the basics of pedagogy. Quite often, these teachers have pretty naive views of the rest of the world, and travel with a very poor understanding of the ways in which other cultures operate. This makes it hard to feel comfortable, which makes teaching - a very stressful job - even tougher.

It also means that imported English teachers can be easily exploited, since their supply is huge and few are in it for a long enough period to change the culture of employers.

As a student, I couldn't believe how awful some of my English teachers were. They often knew less about the actual structure of English, the etymology of words, even the meanings of some idioms than I did at a very early stage. Most spoke no other language (not that this is necessary, but learning a foreign language well really makes one consider the complexities of one's own language.) You can debate who vs whom forever, but when your English teacher can't articulate the difference, it's pretty appalling, and something the equivalent of which I have never witnessed with teachers of any other language.

Keep in mind also that people learn language for many reasons, but a big part of it is to become more familiar with the culture and values and history of those people. There's not much point in learning Hungarian or Basque or something if you don't get some insight into the history and mentality of those people, and to a large extent teachers should be entertainers. When I look back on my "best" language teachers, they seem to be the ones who captivated me with a mirror into the minds of their people - "typical" jokes, interesting folklore, songs and whatnot.

So you need to look at a few things. Why are you really in Korea? Are you there to teach others, or primarily for yourself? Have you spent any time learning teaching methods? How well do you really know English? Are you teaching culture, too, or just language? Are you sure you are not simply misinterpreting the ways in which Koreans speak to employees? Honest answers to these questions might help you find a better way of proceeding.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:09 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

She shouldn't have to wait three months to get paid. Two, maybe, but three is too long.

If she's really unhappy with the school and city, it's possible to transfer the work visa to another school as long as she gives proper notice to the current employer. I don't know the details, but it's an option she could look into. I've only ever been to the airport in Incheon and don't know what the city is like, but Seoul is great and there are tons of expats there.

Also, what age kids is she teaching? Kindergarten-age (or what they call pre-school) kids will pretty much love you as long as you're not terrible to them. Elementary school children, too, will respond very positively to you as long as you show interest in them. Starting off the class with an informal, 'How was your weekend?' type conversation is great for their speaking skills and lets everyone contribute something and feel listened to. Even middle school kids will perk up if you let them do something creative like write and perform a TV drama or play. Good luck!
posted by martianna at 1:24 PM on January 17, 2011

The pay situation is a serious issue, and something that needs to be figured out. Teachers can be, and are exploited, especially teachers fresh off the boat.

The thing is, some people are just not cut out for teaching. Your friend mentions that she thinks she is too shy. For a lot of entry level EFL jobs, you're essentially supposed to be a smiling, friendly foreigner who makes studying fun. Actual student progress ranks far, far behind student satisfaction. The goal of every eikaiwa in Japan, or hagwon (sp?) in Korea is to get the students to renew their contract with the school. If your friend isn't able to, frankly, be open and engaging with her students, she's likely in the wrong field.

As roomthreeseventeen mentions, this kind of problem comes up a lot, and while it might be too late for your friend, maybe other people who are thinking of going overseas to teach EFL might see this: Going overseas to teach English will not magically fix the problems you have at home. In fact, being in a stressful new environment might make things worse for some people, and make their problems worse. It's not (or shouldn't be) a whim, or an easy way to see the world. It's a job, and one that you should prepare for. Maybe get some training in ESL before you come, or achieve some basic ability in the language. Just showing up and expecting everything to be hunkydory is not going to work. It's unfair to your students, and it's unfair to teachers who actually believe in what they do and work hard at their jobs.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:59 PM on January 17, 2011

I agree with everything that Dee Extrovert said, although I think a lack of basic pedagogical background is more of a crime than the lack of etymological/linguistic knowledge in the waves of untrained English "teachers" descending on trusting students around the world. If struggling to explain things is part of the problem, the OP's friend should get a book like The Teacher's Grammar of English by Ron Cowan. It gets into those things that we don't usually think about, and it also suggests a variety of practical classroom activities. It uses real student errors as examples, including Korean learners' work. For teaching methodology, the brief Practical English Language Teaching series edited by Nunan is a good start for someone who doesn't have the time, energy, or funding to delve into weightier books. Even if it's too late for this job, and even if such jobs claim not to need anything like this, I highly recommend some self-study if she doesn't have any background along these lines.

(Unfortunately, I *have* witnessed this problem with teachers of Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese in the US, as a lot of those teachers here are simply native speakers with graduate degrees in things like English literature. Maybe things are different where Dee Extrovert is from.)
posted by wintersweet at 9:48 PM on January 18, 2011

I've been in EFL over a decade, although I don't teach much any more. I spent 5 years working in Korea.

Your friend's story is indeed a familiar one. Korea as a nation imports huge numbers of native speaker 'teachers' with very little idea of how to make use of them or how to ensure they are suited for the job. Of course, the teachers should have some idea of how to teach English or whether they are suited to living and working in a confucian society, but such issues are rarely touched upon by recruiters. Korea itself can be culturally very difficult to deal with, especially for the sort of young graduates who make up the bulk of native speakers. It's little wonder that so many find themselves miserable and unable to perform well in the classroom.

However, it's entirely possible for her situation to improve markedly, if she does something about it. Her options are:
  • Quit her job and take the financial hit that will entail.
  • Try to find a new job. This is not always easy, particularly if the employer doesn't play ball regarding the work visa. It will almost certainly require persistence and luck.
  • Keep her head down and take advantage of the fact that the employer doesn't want to go to the effort of recruiting a new teacher to replace her. Even if she isn't the most popular teacher, she can improve enough to get by, especially if she learns how much of the criticism is real and how much is due to Korean workplace politics.
  • Stop saying stuff life 'I will continue to get negative feedback'. Work on her teaching, figure out how to get good feedback and make the most of being in a fascinating, if alien culture.
Whichever she chooses, she needs to be aware that many people have gone through it before her and she can get advice here and other places. While she's waiting for your next AskMefi question to come up, she can look for some of the many previous questions asked on this topic. Oh, and she also needs to work on making sure she gets paid - that is not guaranteed at a Hagwon.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:30 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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