An EPIK take on girl's middle school
We all go through life with a series of assumptions. When I was a hagwon
teacher I had a lot of assumptions about Korean schools, most of which
were based on my own experience in American schools. No one ever really
sits down and explains exactly how Korean schools work to a hagwon teacher.
Your Korean co-workers and your students just expect you to know, and occasionally
you pick up information. But I never saw the full picture until I started
working in a public school.
After the relative simplicity of life in my small, quiet,
corrupt private English institute, I found middle school at first to be
a vast and confusing world. I was hired to work for the Korean government
in their drive “towards globalization”. You may have heard of EPIK. It's
a government-run program that recruits foreign teachers, trains them en
masse, then disperses them to schools around the country.
I was placed at Susung Girl's Middle School in Daegu.
When I arrived at my new job, two of my six fellow English teachers met
me and I soon learned that the school had never employed a foreign teacher.
They were excited to have me in their school, but obviously didn't know
what to expect. I was embarrassed by how much they bent over backwards
to make me happy. First of all, since the government money for my housing
hadn't materialized, my school took out a loan in order to move me into
my apartment. Then, although not obliged by contract to provide even one
single spoon for my apartment, they proceeded to ask and supply me with
what I needed. (Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, big expensive
appliances like a stove, refrigerator, and washing machine immediately
popped into my mind.)
Adjusting to life in this huge school was more of a challenge.
It's definitely different from my own junior high experience. We wear slippers,
not shoes, in the school. The students each take about thirteen different
required subjects and there are no electives here. Their schedules constantly
rotate. Classes considered important, like Korean, meet five times a week,
English meets four, they have Ethics twice, and Dance only once a week.
Each class averages about 45students. I teach only the 7th and 8th grade
students, and since both grades are divided into nine sections I teach
each section only once a week. The students have their own homerooms, since
it is seen as easier to move a handful of teachers than it is to move gaggles
of girls. I also have my own “language room” where I teach extra classes
for the most interested students. These classes are more about having fun
with learning English, and understanding cultural differences.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is teaching other teachers.
There are sixty of them, excluding myself. Imagine this: you are a minority,
young, a woman, and new to your job. You have just been told to teach approximately
10 teachers. They are all older, have more teaching experience, and suffer
from at least a few bad speaking habits. Sounds a little hairy if you don't
want to tread on toes, right? Well, add this to the mix: the oldest male
with the poorest English is your immediate supervisor. Now even in American
culture it would be extremely awkward to expose his lack of ability.
Fortunately as time has passed we've all become much more
accustomed to each other (and my old supervisor has retired).My regular
classes are much less complicated. All my students were extremely interested
to find out I had a brother near their age. “Is he handsome?” they choked
out from behind their hands, blushing. The news that he had hair longer
than me was almost a cause for collapse. After all, Korean middle schoolgirls
are required to keep their hair above their uniform collar. This rigorous
rule-keeping can be misleading though. Back in my hagwon days I thought
that students in the schools must have that perfect behaviour I'd heard
lauded before I arrived in Korea. What a joke! They are not mindless info
sucking automatons sitting in neat ordered rows looking intently at the
teacher. If I don't keep class interesting and change activities fairly
often they will begin to “sneakily” do homework, write notes, or hide an
open comic book in their lap. The girls have abilities which range from
mildly retarded (yes, they attend normal classes) to genius level. It is
a huge challenge to teach 45 students speaking and listening skills simultaneously
(the other teachers cover reading and writing skills) and it's much harder
since many will be bored cause it's drastically too easy or too hard for
Since they have to wear a uniform, their entire sense
of style is expressed in non-regulation accessories... especially ones
that can be quickly hidden when they see a hard-line teacher. They would
have to be very hard pressed to mouth off to a teacher, but that doesn't
mean they aren't grumbling and truculent. There are many things expected
of them that I can not imagine a student doing when I was in school (and
as long as a teacher isn't watching, they often don't do them either).
For example, we don't need a janitorial staff-we've got students! That
includes gathering the fallen leaves of autumn and scrubbing out the toilets
in the bathroom used by the male teachers and administrators. When I was
a student I never had to worry about being whacked with a rod if I was
screwing off. But although corporal punishment was outlawed in Korean classrooms
a couple years back, it is still fairly common particularly among the older
All in all I love being a public school teacher. Yes,
there are masses of red tape and I am required to be here from nine to
five every day. On the other hand, unlike my co-workers, I don't come in
on Saturdays. No one ever changes a book on me halfway through the course,
I get paid on time, and I have a lot more job satisfaction than I ever
did back in my hagwon. I've got large classes, but I don't have to worry
about students dropping out and the boss getting all bitchy about it. Most
of my co-workers can't speak much of any English, but they treat me fine
as long as I conform to their ideas of propriety.
Working at a middle school is not a dream job, but it's
a good life. I'm just glad I'm one of the teachers and not one of the students.