You are the solution
what foreign teachers don't want to hear
It seemed so easy. In last month's column, "Losers To The Right of Me, Morons To My Left: Why I'm Quickly Becoming TEFL's Number One Enemy", I outlined some suggestions to the problem of why many teachers are so miserable, and some solutions as to how to get their lives back on track. I'm sure some people got it. But others didn't as witnessed by some of the responses found on a few of the various websites where I posted my column. This doesn't surprise me. After all, we're not dealing with a bunch of Einsteins here. To repeat: You are the solution. Be thankful for what you have. Rise above the human fray. Do your best for the students. Or, to quote Mahatma Gandhi: "Become the change you seek in the world."
Is that too difficult to understand? For some it is. For some people, these solutions are frightening. Why? Because it shifts the responsibility for change from others on to you. Foreign English teachers here in Korea, and elsewhere, are so quick to blame their hosts for just about everything. Especially for the fact that they hate change or anything that smacks of change. People love the status quo. That's nothing new. Yet these very same foreign teachers that bemoan that fact on open forums, are themselves extremely reluctant to change, whether it be their attitude or their way of doing things. Many forget that they're not in Kansas anymore, and demand that their hosts adapt to them rather than trying to find a middle-ground where a reasonable compromise can be reached. If many foreign teachers are the problem, (and they are), then they are also the solution.
I recently had dinner with a friend in Bangkok, a teacher with whom I used to teach at AUA. He had a very poignant, yet important way of seeing this universal truth. To paraphrase him, don't see every confrontation or potential confrontation with your school as a problem. See it as an opportunity. An opportunity for compromise; an opportunity for growth; an opportunity to learn; and, most importantly, an opportunity to turn a potential lose-lose situation, (in which a confrontation will inevitably lead), into a win-win situation, (if the two parties are rational and smart enough to see beyond their own limited world view.) Now this guy is no idealistic, Pollyanna backpacker. He's 57 years old and has been around the block a few times. Admittedly this isn't easy, and I wish I would have practiced this years ago. But it's well worth it if you want to avoid huge problems, and value working in a comfortable and relatively stress-free environment.
As I mentioned in last month's column, I teach in EPIK, a government program which places foreign English teachers in South Korean public schools. The program has potential, but it is riddled with problems from head to foot. Since the program is run by paper collecting, pencil pushing administrators and bureaucrats at the municipal level, (although this keeps changing. EPIK was recently handed over to the Ministry of Education in Seoul), EPIK currently has teachers ranging from 20 something year old newbies to 50 something year old professionals. That's fine if the program wants an eclectic mix of teachers with individual characters and styles. There is something positive to be said for this. But there is no national standard for EPIK. Never has been, probably never will be. That is something each teacher must deal with at his or her own school.
For those teachers who arrive in time for the beginning of the school year, (EPIK hires through recruiters all year round), teachers new to the program receive a three day orientation. (According to EPIK, this will be expanded to 10 days beginning on September 1, 2007.) What teachers think of this orientation varies from somewhat helpful to totally useless. For the most part, teachers are left to their own devices. After years of being micro-managed at various schools, I find this hands-off approach to be very refreshing. Since starting with EPIK in April 2006, I, as well as many other teachers, have been given complete freedom to experiment and to implement their own educational program to help the students learn. This freedom does come with responsibilities. Far too many foreign teachers still see themselves as "edutainers", preferring to play the class clown rather than taking their jobs seriously. One Busan EPIK teacher in a Yahoo chat group for teachers openly bragged about doing nothing in class except for playing Jeopardy. A very constructive way to spend taxpayer's money!
I am concerned, however, for many of the newbies in the program who are serious about teaching and who want to give their best where the students are concerned. They are the ones who really need support and are not getting it. A mentorship program matching new teachers with veteran teachers should be implemented as soon as possible. This mentorship program can happen on its own, without the help of EPIK as friendships among teachers are naturally formed. The trick here, of course, is to avoid the foreign riff-raff that has a tendency to parade itself in and out of Korea on a regular basis. It should be noted that this freedom in the classroom was not given to the foreign teachers out of the goodness of EPIK's heart. The truth is, EPIK has absolutely no idea what to do with us--- in or out of the classroom. To many Koreans, we are a pack of ET's who simply took a wrong turn somewhere and are looking for our mother ship to take us home. I have no problem with that perception. As long as the foreign English teachers know what to do when put in a classroom situation.
Which brings me to another problem with the EPIK program: Co-teaching with a Korean teacher. It can either be heaven or hell. A big problem here is that neither the Korean teacher nor the native English teacher has been trained on how to work together in the classroom. The vast majority of Korean teachers in elementary schools and a significant majority of Korean teachers in middle-schools are women. Traditionally, women in Asian societies have received little respect. If they do receive any respect, it is usually in the classroom where teachers in this part of the world have been held in high regard for centuries. So it is understandable, though not acceptable, that many of these Korean teachers tend to view their classrooms as their own little fiefdom.
Now let's throw a foreign teacher into that classroom. It doesn't really matter whether he's a trained professional with years of experience or a young backpacker. He will, most probably, be resented by many of these Korean co-teachers simply for being there. If he's young and inexperienced, he may cower in fear and intimidation by his co-teachers. If he's older and more experienced, like myself, he may tell those co-teachers where to go. Either way, this complete lack of training, and quite frankly, a total lack of concern for this matter on the part of EPIK has created a pseudo-marriage of convenience between the native English teacher and the Korean co-teacher for the sake of the children. A few months ago I spoke with an district EPIK supervisor in Busan about this, and other problems many of the foreign teachers are currently facing, and she had no idea about any of these problems and concerns. Or she claimed to have no idea. Many of the supervisors simply don't want to know.
As I write this, I am currently in Thailand on a six week vacation. It is a paid vacation, just like the Korean teachers. Six weeks in the summer and six weeks in the winter. So far, so good. I'm thankful for what I have and do my best to become the changes which I seek in others, but I do realize that not everyone in EPIK has it this good. In Busan, the city in which I teach, six week paid holidays twice a year are the norm, and those who want to teach in a three week summer or winter English camp receive extra pay. I chose to do the camps last year, but chose not to this summer. But it isn't the same in other parts of the country where school principals and administrators have chosen to follow the contract to the letter.
Just about all EPIK teachers have similar contracts. Mine states that I'm entitled to ONE week paid vacation in the summer and one more in the winter. It also states that when teaching in a summer or winter camp, that teachers are NOT entitled to extra pay. But principals and education administrators in each region are free to interpret the contract as they see fit. Confused? You should be. This is now what's happening.
Remember, in Busan I still receive full paid vacations and extra pay when doing English camps. If or when that is taken away, then it is time to seek employment at another school or in another program. A friend, who taught in a middle-school just around the corner from me, recently finished his contract. Since he had a few problems at the school, (specifically with co-teachers), and because he wanted to be closer to Seoul, he transfered within the same program to a high-school in Incheon. A few weeks before transferring he met with an EPIK administrator at the national level in Seoul. He was promised fully paid vacations and a nice apartment within walking distance of the school. Once he got to the school he was told (by the school) that there was no nice apartment, (for the first week he lived with a Korean teacher until a one room studio apartment was found), and was also told by the school that he had to report to school every day of his summer vacation. There was, in fact, no vacation. Because of this experience, he has written a letter of resignation and plans to leave Korea on September 1st.
His first mistake, of course, was believing this idiot who promised him everything under the sun. After all, he'd been in Korea a little more than a year and left his first school because, as he put it, "people kept lying to me." For me, the apartment was neither a problem nor an issue. It was brand new and free. That this lying administrator and the school never spoke with each other to either confirm or deny the administrator's outrageous promises, (which he probably had no intention of keeping), is also not surprising.
Do these foreign English teachers really expect honesty here? Are they that naive? Do they really expect the EPIK bigwigs to say, "Hey listen Johnny Englishteacher, you can work at a public school but let me be honest with you. You'll probably live in a very small one room apartment. There's a pretty good chance that your co-teachers will resent you from the moment you step into class, and will not want to help you either with lessons, lesson preparation, or with classroom management. Vacations? Yes, one week in summer and one week in winter. But you'll have to report to school everyday and twiddle your thumbs. Summer and winter camps? Oh yes, we have those. And the best part, Johnny Englishteacher, NO extra pay! So you'll be spending your summer and winter holidays working for nothing! Isn't that wonderful? Aren't you happy you came to Korea? Now here's a pen. Sign the contract."
Before you start laughing, (if you aren't already rolling on the floor in fits of hysteria), the truth is that these pencil pushing administrators have a quota to fill, and they'll say anything to get you to sign on the dotted line. Surprised? Here's another truth: Hundreds of people have already signed this contract and are still signing it as I write. There is no other EPIK contract available. Now here's the trick. Don't follow it. The Koreans aren't. Sometimes they do when it suits them. Like when foreign teachers complain about every little thing under the sun and have proven that they can't be trusted. For thousands of years, Koreans, and other Asians, have not relied on contracts to conduct business. The Chinese sign contracts then start negotiating only AFTER the contract has been signed by both parties. That's how you play the game here. For years foreign English teachers have been fighting for contracts as if pieces of paper will somehow magically transform their dull and mundane lives into something magnificent overnight. "Give me a contract", they demand. "Before anything, I want to see the contract." Well, now you have a contract. Happy now, you dummy? Obviously not. Does the adage, "Be careful what you wish for" mean anything to these teachers?
On the EFL open forums, teachers are now blaming Koreans for "forcing" them to work at summer camps for no extra pay. Forcing them? Are guns being held to their heads? Are their arms and legs being broken by goons wielding baseball bats? No one is forcing anyone to do anything they don't want to do. It's a choice. Just like I chose to spend my vacation in Southeast Asia. What's next? Being forced to cut the heads off chickens if they want dinner? Being forced to wrestle alligators in their underwear? I shouldn't joke about this since these are serious allegations, but why blame Koreans for this? They are just doing what millions of people have done for thousands of years: Get some people to work for nothing. You have to admire that. I'm not sure whether I should be pissed off or impressed. Americans can't even get Mexican migrant workers to work for nothing. I've been lambasted for calling many foreign English teachers losers and morons. What's more moronic, Koreans who have gotten foreign English teachers to work for nothing, or the foreign teachers who have chosen to do so?
My friend, who says he's now leaving Korea on September 1st, told me that some teachers are actually being threatened with a loss of pay if they don't show up to school during their vacation. This is absurd, not to mention against the law. Now who knows whether this is accurate. I'm sure that the Koreans making these threats have their own version of the story. They like to call it a "misunderstanding" or a "language barrier." In my six plus years in this country and ten plus years in this profession, I have experienced my fair share of "misunderstandings" and "language barrier" problems. Everyone has their own version of the truth in this part of the world.
There is nothing wrong with teachers volunteering some of their time either teaching or helping out with extracurricular activities, if that's what the teacher chooses. That's what dedicated and caring teachers do. But it must be of their own volition. It must be voluntary. A teacher must never be threatened or coerced in any way when it comes to the giving of their time or energy.
My friend also mentioned that whenever he meets his fellow English teachers in Incheon, many of them seem so downtrodden, so depressed, so forlorn. It's as if they have been beaten down by the system. It's not the system that has defeated them. They had no will to begin with. No backbone. No spine. No balls. The Koreans who run this program have won the war without firing a shot. It's as if they have gone out and actively searched for the best possible people for the job: Docile and naive English teachers who won't fight back under threat. Cowards who run and hide under fire. Recent university grads to afraid to speak up because of massive student loans to pay back. This is the REAL tragedy here: Not that the foreign teachers have lost their voice. But that perhaps EPIK, with the help of their recruiter minions, are actively seeking those with no voice to begin with. After all, those with no voice or money are a lot easier to control.
If this is the case, (and it's a very big "IF"), then those of us remaining must expose this nonsense for what it is and shine a light directly on it. If this is not the case, (and I'm inclined to believe that it's not the case at all), then this nonsense is nothing more than bullying on the part of some Koreans. And if it's nothing more than bullying on the part of some Koreans, then obviously many foreign English teachers have forgotten what it was like in high-school. What do we do when picked-on by a bully? We fight back. We don't ignore him in the hopes that he'll go away. We don't give in to his threats. We don't allow him to take our lunch money and punch us in the nose. We fight back. Regardless of whether the bully is a clueless administrator, an ungrateful principal, an idiotic supervisor, or an uncooperative co-teacher, we fight back. We show him that we're not afraid. Bullying and threats should never be tolerated. I've fought back when under threat and I'm still here. The bully may not like it, but at least we get some respect.
A friend, whom I mentioned in last months column, likes to say that many Koreans have no business acumen. They have no idea, he claims, that in order to attract more customers, you have to please them. You can't lie to them. And you certainly can't piss them off. All true. That's how a lot of business is done--- in the WEST. Remember, these same Koreans that my friend rails about, have gotten at least dozens, perhaps a couple of hundred, (no one seems to know for sure), native English teachers to give up their vacations and work at summer and winter English camps for no extra pay. That sounds like damn good business skills to me! I wish I had those business skills. And those people who rail against this only wish they had those business skills too.
Here's more: On May 16th, 2007, EPIK teachers received a newsletter in our email from only God knows where telling us about all of the positive changes coming soon, like employing a national ombudsman to answer teacher's complaints and concerns to extending the orientation and training program. Included in all of this "great news" was a promise to pay each EPIK teacher 100,000 won (about $110.00 U.S.) for each teacher we get to sign on the dotted line and become a part of the EPIK family. It's interesting to note here that EPIK pays recruiters 10 times that amount or one million won for every teacher they recruit. One hundred thousand won. Wow, what will I ever do with that?
This shows great business acumen. It really does. Remember, this from the same organization that has gotten foreign English teachers to give up their summer vacation and work at a camp for no extra pay. Why should the teachers complain about this, (which many of them are), when 100,000 won is 100,000 won more than they're getting for doing the camps? This is Korean logic and business acumen in action. Deal with it! And if teachers don't want to deal with it, then say "NO!" Teachers can't allow themselves to be taken advantage of and then blame those who took advantage of them. That's insane.
I remember reading on one of the teacher's websites how one teacher, upon reacting to working the camps for no extra pay said, "Well, at least we get our regular pay." Ya! And employees at McDonald's get a discount on their happy meals. Does that compensate for flipping burgers? Perhaps someone should tell these idiot teachers that bending over with your pants down around your ankles is perhaps not the best position to be in when attempting to negotiate.
For those who have the audacity to ask why some Koreans are doing this: BECAUSE THEY CAN! Because some native English teachers have allowed them to get away with this in the past and continue to allow them to get away with this now. People will always attempt to do what they think they can get away with. This is human nature. Didn't mommy and daddy teach their little darling EFL teachers this before they left for Koreastan? Didn't they learn this in PC university back home? Don't they know that if they continue to bend over with their pants down, someone, somewhere is eventually going to stick something up their ass? Now some EPIK teachers are deathly afraid that even our vacation pay will soon be taken from us. And why wouldn't they be afraid. These idiot teachers with their pants around their ankles have set a dangerous precedent. Don't blame EPIK. Blame these idiot teachers who seem to be saying, "Screw me now; screw everyone else later."
Here's a life lesson brought to you by Dr. Phil. We teach people how to treat us. That's right. EFL teachers are not only responsible for teaching English, they're also responsible for teaching our adult hosts how we want to be thought of, perceived, and treated. Our actions speak louder than words. If some teachers behave like an idiot, then he deserves to be treated as such. If some teachers behave in a professional and mature manner, then he deserves to be treated as such. It all starts with the teacher. It starts with how we choose to behave. You are the solution.
History is replete with examples of the so-called innocents being led like lambs to the slaughter. Should we blame the sheep or the sheep herders? The exploiters, or those who allow themselves to be exploited? If foreign English teachers continue to allow themselves to be led down the well-worn path towards their own exploitation, then they have no one to blame but themselves.
Nothing will change unless the teachers themselves change it. You are the solution. Instead of taking to the open forums and ripping each other apart, grow the backbone necessary not to allow yourselves to be led down the well-worn path towards your own self-destruction. Instead of being angry at me for exposing the real problem and the solution, get angry at yourselves for not standing up to the bullies who want to take your benefits away. Instead of sitting back and waiting for someone else to solve these problems, take a proactive stance and become the problem solver. Like I said last month, and for so many months before that, change your attitude; rise above the human fray; become not the problem but the problem solver; see a problem as an opportunity for growth; learn the art of compromise and negotiation; become the change you seek in others; and always remember, you are the solution.
As for those who can't handle all of the responsibilities inherent in becoming the solution, then go ahead and continue to poison the EFL forums with your venom under the guise of anonymity. Continue to rip other English teachers apart on open forums instead of looking into yourselves to see where the real problem lies. And don't forget to mention me.
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