If you’re someone who’s well organised, a perfectionist or German then working in South Korea might just be the thing which drives you off the edge. The Korean working environment is no doubt a professional work place but their last minute culture will turn you into a flexible teacher in no time. Your class schedules are set and it’s very well planned out and half the time things are going according to plan. But it’s the other half that makes teaching in Korea all the more exciting.
I’ve summed up the Korean working environment into three parts: the plan, the changes and the let’s not tell the English teacher anything part. We’ll skip the plan for now, it won’t matter that much anyway. The changes however, are something which you need to note. Changes to class schedules are constant. You might be sitting at your desk facebooking, sorry I meant researching creative approaches to teaching ESL to kindergarteners, thinking you have a free period and then bam! Your co-teacher bursts into the staffroom panicking as to why you’re not in some other teacher’s class. “Huh? But I haven’t got a class now” might be your initial reaction. And then you’ll get a perfectly reasonable Korean answer which would be something along these lines… Mr So & So had to do something because of such & such and now the kids have to get English and you are already 5 minutes late. Great. So you get to class and the kids have been waiting for about 10 minutes for their English teacher to arrive. “Ohh teacher late!” Yep, according to them you are late and since you don’t have a lesson plan, because chances are you weren’t supposed to teach that class that day anyway, you have now become incompetent too. But don’t worry, they’re kids and they’ll forgive you. If you don’t speak Korean, like most new teachers who haven’t yet grasped the language, you won’t know much about the day to day events until it’s actually happening. And most times, you don’t need to. You are responsible for English lessons and English camp and that’s about it. Your colleagues have an excellent work ethic as well so they don’t have time to baby you and report back to you on the school’s events as they are extremely busy. I’m giving Koreans the benefit of the doubt here by saying this is the reason English teachers aren’t informed about schedule changes and school events. But when there’s an English competition, you’d expect at least one of your co teachers to inform you. After all, you are the native English teacher. Who better to help the students than you? If you’re lucky, they’ll let you know a day in advance so that you can prepare the students to put on a great show. On the plus side, I do recall a number of my classes being cancelled due to schedule changes so hey, you win some, you lose some. One day I arrived at school to find out that all classes were cancelled as the entire school would go on an excursion. This was great news! When we got to our destination in the midst of the village, we had to get on what looked like a hand crafted raft made out of narrow tree logs. It was a stunning location; the village’s main tourist attraction and it was a place I had wanted to visit ever since I arrived in Yeongwol aka No Man’s Land. The only thing that kept me from jumping up and down out of sheer jubilation was the chunky heel on my boots, not to mention my mini skirt! And then I realised everyone else in sport’s gear dressed to be in the wilderness. But I let go of my tantrum child stamping her feet shouting, why didn’t anyone tell me about this! Which by the way, was very similar to my who doesn’t tell the English teacher about the English competition tantrum I had going on with myself. I probably spent half my time starring at my colleagues with angry eyebrows throwing tantrums in my head. But I wasn’t going to let this upset me. I just walked carefully onto the raft, found a good spot to relax and took it all in. The scenery was incredibly beautiful and the boat ride was a rare opportunity. I felt like I was floating through nature. It’s one of my most memorable experiences whilst living abroad.
In time, you’ll become accustomed to the last minute culture and though these situations might get your blood boiling at the time, they’ll soon become great stories. You don’t need to prepare a hundred Just In Case lesson plans or write blog posts about your inabilities to handle changes maturely (cough cough). In time you’ll learn how to let go of your ego and accept that things are done differently elsewhere. Cultural awareness would help you a great deal in not only understanding a new culture but also accepting the culture for what it is and respecting your co-workers for their way of doing things. Sure, you might be the one embarrassed at the end of the day for showing up like Elle Woods to a day on a raft but that’s part of the journey. It’s what makes your experience unique. So own your Legally Blonde moments and have fun with it. Life’s too short to be a bore.
Find more on teaching in South Korea here!