Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My First Column

When I went to Korea for my second year, I began a column reporting on teaching and travelling in Korea and the surrounding countries. These stories first appeared in The Chautauqua, which circulates in Central Alberta. I'll be reprinting these columns here and in Stig's Silly Walks. The stuff about Korea will appear here, and the stuff about other countries will be found on SSW, unless I'm channeling Flint that day, and do the opposite.

Teaching English in Korea (February 1, 2002 Chautauqua)

By Alan E. Johnson

In the summer of the year 2000, I was working as a security guard in Calgary. I had graduated from university, but was unable to find a job that suited me. Security paid the bills, and gave me time to read. But it was a dead end, and I had been looking around for something better for quite a while. I had tried to get jobs teaching English in Europe and China, but they fell through.
Then I met another guard who was going to Korea. He gave me a handout that answered questions about applying for a job, the various procedures to go through to work in another country, and an address to contact a recruiter. A lot of the work can be done via the internet, which makes it easy for people in different countries to communicate quickly.
In no time, I had a variety of offers from recruiters in Canada, the U.S, and Korea. Eventually I settled on what seemed to be the most straightforward of the offers, and got my papers together. I had to submit copies of my university transcripts, a certified copy of my diploma ( the Korean Embassy in Vancouver handles that), and a copy of my passport. Koreans put great importance on a person's appearance, so a photograph is a must. No one seemed put off by my appearance, and a contract was faxed to me.
There is a website run by the Canadian government that offers some advice about working in Korea. They make it clear that a lot of what you do is at your own risk. Koreans don't see contracts as something that they have to adhere to completely. They place more emphasis on the personal agreements that people make face to face. A contract is just a guide that can be ignored if better terms can be arranged.
There was a lot of work to do before I was ready to leave the country. I had to quit my job ( that was a lot of fun!), put some of my things into storage, sell the items I no longer needed, and move the rest to my folks'. My parents were an invaluable source of help and inspiration in this. They were very happy to see me get out of the rut I had been in. It was a very emotional farewell.
I must admit to a certain amount of trepidation as I flew half-way around the world. Wandering around the airport in Seoul ( my pick-up was late), I wondered if I had done the right thing. That feeling never really left me the whole time I was there. A new teacher is not really given any extensive training - at least I wasn't - before being placed in a classroom.

Taegu from the southwest. Taken from the "mountain" behind my first con-apt.

The school I landed at was in the city of Taegu, the third largest city in Korea ( approx. 2.5 - 3 million population). It was part of a chain of schools that go by the name of "Wonderland". When I arrived, there were three other foreigners there. I was rooming with one of them, another Canadian by the name of Phil. He gave me a lot of useful information, but he was wrapped up in personal problems, and I had to learn a lot of things for myself.
I was given a couple of days to watch the other teachers in various classes before I was given my own students. There are no words to describe the fear that grabs you in that situation. A lot of what I did in those early days was made up as I went along. To tell the truth, Taegu Wonderland is not a very good school. Their curriculum is poorly organized, and there is not a lot of support for a new teacher to rely on. A person has to look inside for the resources he/she needs.

Taegu Wonderland (3rd and 4th floors)

The main reason that foreigners are there is to provide a resource for the children to listen to. All I had to do, really, is go into the classroom, start talking, and not stop until class was over. The children needed to hear English being spoken in order to get used to the rhythms and be given corrections about pronunciation. The hard rules about grammar points and spelling would come from the Korean staff.
The Korean teachers were young, pretty women. There were four kindergarten teachers, who did not speak very much English at all. Their task was to get the children used to the school rules, where the bathrooms were, when lunch is; the usual day-care sort of tasks.
The pre-schoolers (cute as buttons, all of them) came to the school in the morning, and were there from 10:00 until 2:30 in the afternoon. At that time, the elementary and middle school kids came in. Those classes went from 3:00 in the afternoon until 7:30 at night. The same kids were not there all that time. There were three sets of kids who changed "shifts" every 90 minutes. In those 90 minutes they had two classes, one with a Korean teacher, and one with a foreigner.

Changwon Wonderland in building indicated.

There were a variety of textbooks that were used, and the Korean teacher usually controlled how fast or how slow the books were used. After a while, I began to rely less and less on these books, and on my own resources. The books became a guide as to what I was teaching, and I grew more confident about discarding the less helpful parts and giving the children more substantial instruction.
In the time I taught in Wonderland, I saw a complete turnover in the foreign staff. The teachers who were there when I arrived moved on when their contracts were completed, and sometimes before. The act of leaving early came to be known as "doing a runner". I knew five different teachers who for one reason or another decided to move on before their contracts were fulfilled. Some were a bit overwhelmed by it all, and decided to return to the "real world". Some were merely taking some time to travel and experience a bit before they took up "real" jobs.
Living over there became easier as I became accustomed to travelling around the city by myself. I really began to enjoy my time when the new teachers arrived to replace the old. We formed a gang, and we relied on each other to help us through the tough times. We found that we could get together and talk shop, take instruction in the Korean language, and generally have some fun. It was a lot like being back in school. There was less "responsibility" in our profession, and we were able to have some fun with it.
Exploring the country, experiencing a different culture, is just one of the perks of the job. I was able to see the remnants of a civilization that flourished at the same time Christ walked the earth. I was also able to see first hand one of the few remaining places that the Cold War is still being fought.
The Korean people are very friendly once you get past their initial reserve, and I made some good friends that I am looking forward to seeing once I return. Yes, I am returning - if I can sort through the many jobs available - and I hope to see the people who I came to regard as my second family. One of the jokes I heard before I left was that I would probably bring back a little Korean wife. That didn't happen, but who knows who'll come back to Canada with me the next time? I'm working on it.

Well, there you have it. My first year in Korea, encapsulated in just so many words.
It left out just how difficult those first months were, and just how bad it was, working for Wonderland. I came this close to doing a runner myself, but I stuck it out and was glad I did. By the time the year was over, I began to feel comfortable in the classroom and in Korea.

1 comment:

  1. "One of the jokes I heard before I left was that I would probably bring back a little Korean wife."

    I wonder how many guys heading to Korea, or any other country, hear that. I heard it too.