NOTE: This is a long, but informative post that is necessary for you to understand a huge part of my life in Korea.
There are many levels of ESL jobs abroad. I think a lot of people back home hear that you’re going abroad to teach, particularly in a popular ESL destination like Korea, and they think that you’re going to do a little bit of teaching and a whole lot of everything else. For Eric and me, it’s reversed (although our load has lightened a bit this year due to having more experience). Our school is a bit unique, compared to most of the other ESL jobs available, and definitely compared to my previous job with EPIK. So, this post is just going to talk about our school structure and responsibilities. Hopefully you can get a better idea of our workdays and understand why some weeks it seems like we’re always traveling or having a ball, and other weeks we seem to have gone into hiding underground.
Our school is CBFLIS: ChungBuk Foreign Language Institute for Students. (Chungbuk is a province in the middle of Korea). It is similar to an English Village in Korea: it is a public institution but not a public “SCHOOL.” Sometimes I describe it as a happy medium between a public school and a hagwon. A hagwon is a private academy which runs as a business. Students get intensive education in a particular subject, but parents must pay and have a huge impact on how lessons are taught. Hagwons can pay a bit more than public school jobs, have small classes, and hire multiple foreign teachers, but aren’t reliable employers since they operate as businesses dependent on student enrollment (and parent satisfaction on how you pamper their child) and the hours are often in the afternoon and night. Meanwhile, public schools are government run, reliable jobs that operate between 8am and 5pm, but only have one foreign teacher per school and pay starts a bit lower (though you can get raises each year). You also must teach alongside a Korean teacher and classes are usually 20-30 students.
So, our school has 8 foreign teachers, 6 Korean teachers, and instead of a principal we have a director. The foreign teachers do most of the teaching alone while the Korean teachers do most of the program coordinating (student enrollment, scheduling, etc.). Each foreign teacher has a homeroom of ~10 students (depending on the program; some programs don’t require homerooms).
Centers like ours have a number of programs throughout the year. Some of these programs are short–students from nearby areas come for a day with their school teachers and return the same day. Some programs are longer–students come by bus or are dropped off by their parents and stay overnight for one or two weeks.
What I Love About My School:
Classroom autonomy. I plan and teach all my lessons by myself, and even create the textbook materials, so there aren’t many limitations or disagreements about how to manage the classroom. We have budgets for each program so we teachers get great materials to do some really cool lessons.
Creativity. Besides planning lessons in the subject of my choice (art!), we also have other responsibilities like writing plays for each grade level, creating activities for evening classes, and even special conversation classes with non-Korean students from a neighboring school who also speak English as second (or third, or fourth) language.
Working with other foreigners. You never know how much you miss speaking English in your normal vernacular until you teach ESL students in a public school all day and all the other teachers around you speak Korean (and you know they know English but they act really self-conscious about it and won’t speak it to you; even if they do you still have to choose your words carefully). This was my life at my public school in Seoul. So it’s also nice when you work with people who understand you linguistically and culturally as well. Also, I work with my husband! Which is usually cool since we understand each other’s work frustrations/achievements and can easily plan vacations together. (There are challenges to working together which I’ll address in another post haha.) Foreign teachers also get separate lunch options that include fresh fruits and veggies, and food other than rice, kimchi, and soup (which are all good….sometimes. But I really do miss the variety of fresh, affordable produce I used to eat back home).
Variety. It’s hard to get bored teaching when you’re constantly changing grade levels and course materials every one or two weeks.
Compensation Perks. Because we are so rural, and our job is more demanding than other public school jobs, we get higher salaries and extra money for food and transportation. We also have many opportunities for breaks throughout the year—these are usually used to prepare for upcoming programs, but after your first year most of your lessons are already planned, so these are prime opportunities for a vacay. I like this set up better than the public school/hagwon way of having 1-2 weeks in the summer and 1-2 weeks in the winter.
Casual work environment. Public schools and even hagwons can be a little uptight as far as dress codes and teaching styles (like strictly adhering to a terribly written textbook). But we have a lot of flexibility in attire and definitely in how we teach, since the goal is exposure to English as well as English-speaking cultures.
Things I Could Live Without but Have Learned to Live With
Being in the literal middle of literally NOWHERE. Yall. Korea has a very developed transportation system. It’s a small country but densely populated, so teaching in a rural public school usually means your town has about 50,000~100,000 people, with stores and cafes within walking distance and buses that can take you anywhere in the country. CBFLIS is rural to the 1800th power. The closest small town is 20 minutes away by bus; that bus comes three times a day and two of those times are while we are at work. So after catching the last bus, you have to take a cab home. The nearest city is a 40-minute drive away, or one hour+ by bus. This bus only comes twice a day, while we are in school, so we have to take the commuter bus (the bus that picks up all the Korean teachers from their homes in the city) after work, which is free, but we have to take a $15-$25 cab back.
Short amount of time to build student relationships. At the most, we get students for 2 weeks. JUST as we’re really connecting with them, it’s time for them to go home. We teachers keep in touch as much as we can via social media, and sometimes we get students who cycle through all of our programs as they age, but I do wish we had them long enough to really establish stronger relationships.
Same people. Err Day. I thought I was in a bubble in college; I had no idea what a bubble even was until coming here. There is a lot more effort needed to meet new people, since we can’t just run into them on the way to work or while taking a walk around the block.
Tons of responsibilities and major learning curve. Because of our school’s unique structure, you get a lot of autonomy but that often means you’re on your own to figure things out. While the freedom with lesson planning and creating skits and activities ARE fun, it’s a lot of extra work that isn’t typically asked of foreign teachers in Korea. The other teachers do what they can to help you adjust, but their plates are full, too. Depending on when your contract starts, your first few months can be really confusing and stressful.
The Korean education system is interesting in comparison to ours in the US, so I’ll be posting more detailed accounts of my teaching experience on the blog (and YouTube!).
More about our Junior High Program: Click here.
More about our Upper Middle School Program: Click here.