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The evolution of English teachers in South Korea The evolution of English teachers in South Korea
by Joseph Gatt
2020-10-01 07:52:16
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A short historical narrative of English teachers in the 21st century in South Korea.

Between 2000 and 2020, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Irish and British teachers taught English in South Korea.

Statistics can be unreliable. The system since 1986 mandates that teachers in South Korea are allowed 1 year visas that are tied to their employers, meaning that they can only be employed at one job or with one CEO. The CEO “owns” the teacher for one year. This means you usually have to finish you 1 year contract, or technically get banned from teaching in Korea again.

teac001_400Statistics claim that 80% teachers finished their 1 year contracts. Statistics claim that. But in the areas that I lived in, where I observed teachers in action, I'd say 80% of the faces would disappear after 3 months or less. And if they disappeared from the neighborhood, that usually means they quit, broke their contract, and went back to their home countries.

There were several reasons for this. Many “English schools” which are in fact cram schools with only one or two classrooms in them, rented in buildings. The mere concept often shocked the teachers, who came thinking they would get a public school building with a backyard and a football stadium and huge buildings and everything else, only to find out that they are parked inside apartments that were transformed into “schools.”

Second problem was that most schools did not explain teachers the concept. It's mostly elementary school and middle school children, who, after attending regular schools, get sent to that school for an hour or two a week to learn English at that school. Teachers did not know who they were teaching, why they were teaching, or what they were supposed to teach.

Third problem was it was never clear whether teachers were supposed to be teaching grammar or conversation or vocabulary or reading or writing or what they were supposed to be teaching.

Add to the problem the fact that teachers were not hired based on qualifications, but tended to be hired by recruiters who often did not even take the time to look at their resumes.

Add to that all kinds of conflicts that can emerge with the school. Add the fact that teachers often only knew their colleagues in Korea and no one else, and that those colleagues plain ignored them. And the teachers had nowhere to go to meet people, and did not quite grasp the rather complex internet structure on teaching English in Korea.

Websites and Facebook groups for teachers in Korea were often designed by veteran teachers for veteran teachers, and novice teachers often found those hard to navigate because of all the jargon, technicalities, and Korean context that they seemed to ignore.

Most teachers were paid 24,000 US Dollars a year, with free housing often provided (usually a studio-like apartment no bigger than 40 square feet (6 or 7 square meters). And, by law, those rare teachers who did complete their contracts were entitled to a bonus equivalent to one month of the salary, and could receive their pension money back, and teachers often used that money to travel around East Asia.

So this short narrative will be on those teachers who adjusted, survived, and how they more or less thrived.

2000-2005: the easy (but boring) years

Back then, most jobs were in the private school industry, you know those apartments where bedrooms were turned into classrooms. Public schools did not hire many teachers, and few teachers taught at universities.

Private school jobs often started at 2 PM and finished at 10 PM. Those who taught adults tended to do “split shifts” and would start the day at 6 AM (yes, they would start teaching a class for adults at 6 AM, meaning they had to wake up at 4 AM) and would teach until 10 or 11 AM. They would then try to take a nap (and often fail) before their shifts resumed at 4 or 5 PM until 10 PM.

Either way, teachers never really taught consecutive hours, and usually taught an hour or two and rested an hour or two.

Schools tended not to be demanding with teachers, and all teachers had to do was follow the textbook. But since you have to teach the same class 6 or 7 times, that means repeating the textbook 6 or 7 times. And two months later, you would have to repeat the textbook yet again.

So teacher life tended to be an easy but repetitive life. Back in the day 24,000 a year was good money, and most teachers used the money to repay their college debt, and lived very comfortably in South Korea.

Food options were limited. There were few pizza parlors, many cities and towns did not have McDonald’s or Burger King, meaning teachers often settled for Lotteria, the local equivalent of McDonald's.

The Internet scene was rather limited, but there were a few very active forums about South Korea.

There was a small group of teachers (a minority group) that bonded around “dating as many Korean girls as possible.” That group started out as a joke, but then started aiming for jobs around the Hongik University area (where there were a lot of schools and a lot of nightclubs).

Local nightclubs identified the teachers and started organizing “sexy” evenings for that group of teachers, with “wet-t-shirt-contests” and other weird (and sometimes illegal) stuff. A few teachers started blogging about those evenings (like that's something to brag about?) and the entire English teacher community was labeled “sex predators” by the Korean media.

So, around 2005, if you were a male English teacher (or just some male White or Black dude) girls usually tried to cross the street, or would look at their feet, or would have a panicked look on their faces.

2005-2010: When teachers clashed with their schools, and with the system

This was the era of “angry” English teachers. Now teachers were making a lot more money, because the demand for private tutoring exploded.

In the old days, many “rich” (but heavily in debt) parents would hire Korean college students to tutor their kids on a variety of subjects, sometimes feed the tutor and give the tutor a private bedroom. Those tutors were often female college students who had to tutor when they were not studying for class or inside the classroom.

So those rich parents started using the system with “White” English teachers, minus the bedroom and the feeding. But such teachers would often get a second salary (this practice was illegal) for “playing games” and “chatting in English” with young kids.  

But, around 2005, there were huge tensions between teachers and their schools, and between teachers and Korean society.

First, teachers were angry that their visas were tied to the CEO (or school principal) and that they had to leave the country if they quit their jobs. Teachers were trying to argue that schools were Small Businesses after all, that many collapsed, and many others forced teachers out before collapsing to “avoid losing face.”

Second of all, there was opacity as many schools lied to their teachers before hiring them. Many other schools paid late, violated contracts, in some cases did not pay at all; in some cases did not even register teachers with immigration. Some schools even lied about being in the capital Seoul, when they were in fact hundreds of miles South of Seoul. And yet teachers had to leave the country, and could not work at another school instead.

Then there were instances of conflict between the foreign teacher and Korean staff or other foreign teachers, and yet such teachers could not quit their jobs.

The conflict between foreign teachers and Korean society was one where White people started being treated like “English-speaking juke boxes” and Koreans would put a “dime in the juke box” and expect the foreigners (not necessarily a teacher) to say a few words in English or to teach English.

That is foreigners could not have normal conversations with Koreans, could not discuss the weather, sports, politics, food or fashion, could not discuss their personal lives. They were “academic English juke boxes” and would only be asked questions about English grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

But pay was good and teachers were happy with the pay, if they were paid that is.

2010-2015 The crazy years

Now the good news is Koreans stopped treating teachers as “English juke boxes” and started actually hanging out with teachers.

The bar scene exploded. The restaurant scene exploded. For young Koreans, dating or being friends with a “foreigner” was trendy, and many would date or befriend English teachers.

Now most teachers were either teaching at public schools or universities. Parents stopped sending their kids to those “two-bedroom” private schools or academies, especially for lessons with foreign English teachers, for many reasons.

First parents could afford those lessons online, cheaper, and with professional teachers, not backpackers (most private school teachers were really backpackers when they could). Second, for many Korean parents, the trend was to send children to the Philippines or Australia to learn English in “immersion” rather than from just one teacher.

But parents with modest financial means complained that they could not afford to send their kids to the Philippines, so many foreign teachers taught at public schools, especially in “blue collar” neighborhoods or “farming” neighborhoods.

Universities employed many, many teachers (because the government basically forced schools to teach 3 hours a week of English for freshmen, 2 hours a week for sophomores) and so you had a bunch of teachers who were hired for that. Around 2016, the government did away with that mandatory English for universities rule, and most universities fired whichever teacher they could for whichever reason they could find.

Salaries stagnated at 24,000 a year. A meal at a restaurant usually cost 3 dollars in 2000, but now cost more like 8 to 10 dollars in 2015. A can of beer cost 60 cents in 2,000, 2 dollars in 2015.

Those teachers who got married and had kids often lived very complicated “blue collar” lifestyles, and often lived paycheck to paycheck. Add the pressure of losing their job that the equation.

Conflicts between schools and their teachers often turned very violent. Until around 2012, it used to be considered “rude” to “fight” with a foreigner, but starting around 2012, foreigners started being treated on par with Koreans, and that meant foreigners had to obey to the hierarchy, and had to be at the bottom of the hierarchy, even when they technically had more experience than their Korean counterparts and were older than their Korean counterparts.

Since the only benefit of teaching in Korea was the good cash, and that teaching became something of a blue collar job, teachers left in droves.

2015-2020 “The Korea-boo” teachers and the “professional” teachers

Now teachers in Korea were either huge K-pop fans who spoke Korean and used all their free time to study Korean.

Or they were teachers with a ton of credentials to teach English.

Teaching became more of a women's job, when it used to be a man's job.

Few universities and public schools hire teachers. It's mostly those “robust” private schools (or shall I say “resilient”) that employ a foreign teacher or two.

There are also those teachers who have taught over 5 years at their university. Korean law mandates that any teacher who teachers for 5 years for the same employer gets “some kind” of tenure. Not exactly tenure, but the school is “under the obligation to renew the contract if the teachers wish to renew his or her contract.”

So you have those teachers who have been teaching for 10, 15, 20 years, and have to teach one or two dozen more years to get their retirement pensions back. Retirement pension system in Korea is as follows:

-A lump sum comprising on one month of your last salary multiplied by number of years taught (if you taught 30 years and your last salary was 2,000 dollars, that means when you retire you get a “bonus” of 60,000 dollars. That's your retirement gift.) Or, in some cases, you get your monthly contributions back and those of your employer, but that's about the same amount.  

-A monthly retirement salary calculated based on contributions, numbers of years worked, taxes contributions and other factors.

So many teachers are waiting for those cash rewards. Not that they really worked hard for them (some did work hard, but many played games in glass and played other games at home).

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