A Korea story part one

Noble warriors and the culture of Irresponsibility

(This is not about me. This is about all of us, including me.)

At the beginning of March, I applied for a teaching position at a public middle school in Korea. The ad on Dave's ESL Cafe sounded fantastic. Since the school was situated in a rural area and they had trouble finding a native speaker, they promised a four day work week and ten weeks paid vacation along with the usual perks for Korea--- a rent free apartment, paid airfare, and one month severance pay at the end of the contract.

After a few days I received a phone call from a Korean teacher at the school saying that the Principal had chosen me after viewing my resume. I was honored. It would be the first time that this school would have a native English speaking teacher, and I was looking forward to meeting the students and doing my best to have them fall in love with learning English.

They sent me the government contract through email signed by the Principal on March 8, 2006. I printed it out and signed it as well. I spent the next week getting all my documents together: Certifying my university degree with a notary, taking it to the Korean Consulate for verification, getting official sealed transcripts from my university, all the time keeping in contact through email with the school. Then it was time to FEDEX it to Korea to ensure the work visa before leaving. I realized that I didn't have the school's postal code. I emailed them to ask for it.

One day passed. I emailed them again. Two days passed. I emailed them again. Three days passed. On the third day I received this email from the Korean teacher:
"Dear Steve:

Yes it is true. I am sorry but the Principal decide to hire another teacher. He just come yesterday. I am sorry."


(Oh well, that's life. Next!)

This time I decided to go with a recruiter. Why? Who knows. Since the public school year had already started, this recruiter wanted me to just come on down to Korea without first securing an apartment or the work visa. I told her that that was impossible. I told her what had just happened with the other middle school and that I had three conditions:

1) That an apartment be secured;
2) That the E-2 work visa be secured;
3) That a one-way prepaid airline ticket be reserved for me prior to my leaving Montreal.

All reasonable conditions since that is what schools in Korea promise an EFL teacher anyway. The recruiter wrote back giving me the email address of Mrs. Park Jeong-Sook, one of the Supervisors of the Secondary Educational Division in charge of hiring native English teachers for Chungcheongnam province. I wrote to Mrs. Park, told her what happened, and reiterated my conditions. What follows is her response.

"Hello Steve,
At first I have not known what happened to you and between a certain school in Dangjin. We're not reported individual school hiring Native Teachers. I am only responsible for the hiring NT's (native teachers) by Governor of CNOE (Changnam Office of Education.) Therefore its authority is quite different from individual recruiting.
Anyway, the NT's are placed in a middle school in a rural district office among 15s. And 2--3 visiting school to give as many chances possible to the students in that area. But the specific name of the schools is determined by the district office of Edu.
Secondly, Now we are doing like this for E-2 visa. The NT's come first with multiple visa then change the visa into E-2 visa. The process are going successfully with no problem, as long as the NT prepare graduate diploma and transcript enveloped. Then the other documents are prepared by CNOE officers.
Thirdly, the airfare will of course be reimbursed by contract.
As for me, some NT's are constantly asking one thing or another and after all send e-mail not to come. In that case, My explanation will be a thing in vain, just wasting time. Hurry to make a final decision as soon as possible. we are asking some recruiters for NT's and will compensate the position by the principle "first come, first served."
Refer to the final contract revised lately."

Mrs. Park.
March 20, 2006.

(What follows is my response.)

March 22, 2006.

"Hello Mrs. Park. Thank you for your reply. I realize that as a government employee for the Provincial Education Office of Chungcheongnam you are very busy. So taking the time to correspond with a native English teacher is something I appreciate. Having said that, I feel compelled to respond to a few of your comments in your last letter to me.

I understand the CNOE's way of doing things. I may not agree with it, but I understand it. Korea is short quality and dedicated native English teachers , and for the sake of expediency, the Korean government and greedy business people who own private language institutes, are attempting to bypass the law and just about all notions of human ethics in an attempt to hire English teachers from English speaking countries. In a situation like this, is it any wonder that Korea is short quality and dedicated native English teachers?

So you are aware of what recently happened to me regarding this middle school in Dangjin. That's good. I also realize that you are in charge of ONLY your particular department run by the governor of CNOE, and that you and your department cannot be responsible for what happened. May I ask, who is responsible? Who in the Korean government is prepared to take responsibility for this and the hundreds of other cases where foreign English teachers are not being treated fairly? Do you agree that someone in the Ministry of Education must be held accountable? Will you send me the email addresses of someone in the Ministry who I can write to about this?

For the record, I have no doubt that the benefits of the employment contract--- apartment, airfare, etc., will be met. Just imagine what would happen if they weren't! But I am concerned about some of your comments and your department's attitude towards this whole process of hiring native English teachers. From your letter:

'As for me, some NT's are constantly asking one thing or another and after all send email not to come. In that case, My explanation will be a thing in vain. just wasting time.'

Are you kidding me? Is it surprising to you that we NT's have questions? Are you surprised that we have concerns? After all, many NT's in Korea are young, far away from home, living in a strange place among people with different customs, and thousands of dollars in debt due to student loans. They have read most of the horror stories about hagwans on Dave's ESL Cafe, and are scared to death about being cheated, humiliated, and even attacked by those who may want to hurt them. And you have the gall to say that we are wasting your time by 'constantly asking one thing or another.'

It is a very important part of your job to help NT's. It is an important part of your job to protect NT's. It is an important part of your job to answer any questions we many have; to address our concerns; to allay our fears. We rely on you and your office to do that, and more. Addressing our concerns and allaying our fears is a great opportunity for you and your office to move this whole process forward and improve the educational system that you represent. Again, from your letter:

'We are asking some recruiters for NT's and will compensate the position by the principle first come, first served.'

Again, are you kidding me? "First come, first served?" What in the world are you helping to run, an educational system or a Chinese restaurant? Do you and your office really expect NT's, many of which are young and already in debt, to spend over one thousand U.S. dollars to come to Korea on a first come, first served basis WITHOUT first taking responsibility for securing their work visa?

We are qualified, dedicated, and committed EFL teachers taking a huge step in coming to Korea. We are coming to your country to do a job and to help people have a better future. There are many opportunities for NT's to teach in Korean public schools. First come, first served doesn't apply here. It's a school we're talking about, not a Chinese buffet!

Why don't we replace "first come, first served" with "be responsible, act responsibly?" Now imagine how much better the educational system would be if we did that.

'Hurry to make a final decision and send your decision as soon as possible' is fine so long as the process of recruiting teachers is done legally, ethically, responsibly, properly, and fairly. The whole process of recruiting a teacher properly--- from first email, to preparing and sending the appropriate documents, to sending the documents, to securing a work visa and reserving the airplane ticket usually takes no more than four or five weeks. Are you and your office saying that you can't wait four weeks to recruit a teacher properly and ethically? If this is the case, no wonder that NT's have lost faith and confidence in your system and way of doing things.

Again, Mrs. Park, I thank you for corresponding with me, a native English teacher who is just trying to make a positive difference in the lives of my students. This is a learning experience for all of us--- teachers, students, and administrators alike. So why not take the time and do things the right way? We NT's can't do this alone. We need the help and cooperation of everyone, from you and your office, the parents of our students, and even the politicians in the Blue House.

Our students are relying on all of us for that.

Until then, I remain,"

Steve Schertzer.

And these are the good schools! These are public schools. I'm all for higher standards in the TEFL industry. I'm all for checking people out to make sure that the teacher's qualifications and experiences are real and legitimate. But there are some very important questions that need to be asked and answered.

Must we put up with these unethical, irresponsible, and incompetent boobs? Must we noble warriors of the TEFL industry put up with this irresponsibility? Is it unreasonable for us noble warriors to expect of these people that they bring dignity and integrity to the recruiting and hiring process? Who is holding these people responsible for their reprehensible behavior? Who is holding these people accountable for their actions, or lack of action? And how can we dedicated and qualified TEFL teachers justify going to a country like South Korea when, even after all these years, the situation seems to have not improved one iota?

With Principals who can't keep a promise and government employees in the Provincial Ministry of Education who refuse to take any responsibility for the failures of their own recruiting process, this industry seems to be getting worse with each passing day. Us noble warriors are being dragged down to the level of these irresponsible and incompetent fools who seem to have not the slightest inkling of how to properly recruit native English teachers. While the standards, expectations, and demands of TEFL teachers by many employers are increasing all over the TEFL world, there seems to be very little reciprocity on the part of those making the demands.

No doubt that it's high time that this industry clean up its act. Checking references, background checks, and expecting TEFL teachers to behave professionally on and off the job is certainly not too much to ask. But perhaps my mistake was thinking that the public school system is somehow better than private language schools. That they are somehow more professional and responsible. But in this case I seem to have forgotten a very essential fact. A Korean is a Korean is a Korean. Regardless of whether they work in the public school system or a private language school, they were all raised in the same society. The problem is not that people are failing within their system; it's that their system is failing people.

Judging by what has happened in the last month, reforming their system so that it will conform to universal values such as the adherence to the rule of law and treating those who are coming to their country to perform a valuable service with the dignity and respect that they deserve, seems a very long way off indeed. If these reforms by Koreans themselves are not forthcoming then the educational system, and all those working within it, are doomed to fail.

As I write, I'm corresponding and negotiating with another public middle school through a recruiter in the Southern Korean city of Busan. We'll see how that turns out.

I said at the outset that this column and my experiences this past month is not about me. And it isn't. It's about all of us, including me. I believe that just about all of us noble warriors would like to look back on our overseas teaching experiences with pride and come to the conclusion that we did well. I don't know anyone of us who wants to look back at their experiences in anger and disappointment and conclude that they failed.

Becoming TEFL certified, acting in a professional and responsible manner, and rightfully demanding of the Koreans the very same things they are finally beginning to demand in us is a good place for us to start. Adhering to the rule of law, and acting in an ethical, professional, respectful, and responsible manner towards us TEFL teachers is a good place for Koreans to start. Like I told Mrs. Park in my letter to her, our students are relying on all of us for that.

Steve Schertzer, esl_steve@excite.com
April 1, 2006.

For those who want to email either Mr. Shin, the Principal, or Mrs. Park mentioned in this column to let them know how you feel, then by all means, go ahead. Also feel free to email government officials and politicians at the Blue House in Seoul. If anyone out there has anymore email addresses, please let me know.

Mr. Shin Yang-Ung, Principal
Sookmoon Middle School, netceo@netenglish.co.kr

Mrs. Park Jeong-Sook, Supervisor in charge of hiring
Chungnam Province of Education, namupark@cnoe.or.kr


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