I’ve been talking with a few other EPIK teachers as of late and some people have told me how hard it can be some days. I’ve heard during orientation that the turnover rate of EPIK teachers was rather high (which is probably why we in Busan get our entrance allowance so late). This led me to think: Am I fit to be a teacher in Korea? Will I be able to persevere living on my own in a country I don’t fully understand?
There are a number of situations we may face in Korea as Native English Teachers, and some of them include a language/culture barrier. I have a decent amount of knowledge of Korea so I may not understand how hard it actually is for those who don’t. I have the benefit of knowing what others around me are saying, whether it’s my students in the classroom or my fellow teachers and staff. But, some other friends have said that it’s been difficult when the teachers speak strictly Korean around each other and that they feel left out and ostracized because of it. Others say that they can tell when other teachers are talking about them and how demeaning it can seem as well.
Some other problems include feeling left out. For one, the teachers at my main school are more distant. They don’t chat with me often other than my main co-teacher, who usually only does so out of necessity, and one new and young social studies teacher I met the other day. I feel intimidated in that kind of atmosphere and sometimes I just don’t know what to do with myself. At my second school, I feel a much more open environment. Teachers are always feeding me and asking me about all sorts of things and even the principal and vice principal attempt to speak with me, even in English if they feel particularly daring that day. They also tell me what they expect me to teach, whereas at my main school I’m kind of just left hanging and not knowing if I did what I was supposed to or not. Even if I ask I don’t get clear answers from them.
It’s been exhausting and stressful, for sure. But there’s one thing that makes me feel as if I want to work harder, to keep trying: the students. The students at both schools, to me, are endearing. They may not listen well, they may not have a perfect attention span of 45 minutes, and they may not know a lick of English. But, I’ll be damned if I don’t try my best for them. They’re what I’m here for. Yes, I want to have fun, play with my friends, and explore Korea. But my first and main goal as a teacher is always the students.
I’ve heard other people talk about how difficult it is for them to get along with their co-teachers- and I feel them! I think that even I should make more of an effort to get along with them, but coming to Korea has made me realize how incompetent I actually am at real conversational Korean. But it’s made me want to learn. Others have talked about how they are afraid of their lessons bombing or of how students are highly unmotivated. I feel the same fears. Will they see me as a teacher? Will they respect me as a teacher? Will I be able to teach a classroom of students with a low level of English by speaking only English?
All of these worries gnaw at me day to day, but as soon as I enter the school I try to wipe these thoughts from my mind. If I don’t, not only will my students and teachers sense my hesitation and doubt, but I will also fail to make their time worthwhile, to teach them anything worth learning. Yes, a brilliant lesson plan is an excellent foundation for a good lesson, but it means nothing if you haven’t built what I, and many others, call the “teacher persona/mask.”
Ever since learning about putting on a different persona in the school, or “teacher mask,” I’ve felt a lot better about standing at the front of the classroom. All of the problems I’ve mentioned earlier are indeed ones that can make you feel sad and depressed. You may even want to quit and leave. But when I’m in the classroom, I try to see the best in everything and make goals for myself.
- My lesson bombed? I can reflect on it and think about how to improve it for the next class- a habit I formed from my grad school days.
- My students were unmotivated? I can invent new activities that will get them engaged in class.
- My students weren’t listening? I can force myself to create a tighter classroom management plan, and I can force myself to become more confident so that they hear what I have to say.
- My students seem bored and I think they don’t like me? I bulldoze on with my lesson anyway. I imagine that they’re fully alert and ready to learn and don’t let my fear show. Plus, I feel happy when students run up to me outside of class and say hello, give me hugs, or even smile when I look at them. How they behave in the classroom isn’t their entire being, so I should strive to improve rapport with them both in and out of the classroom.
- The teachers around me can’t understand me or don’t communicate with me? I can see now that my Korean is not proficient and I can work on improving it. I can force myself to create connections with these teachers by reaching out to them.
Now, all of this is a lot easier said than done, I know. But just having this mindset, and just putting on this “mask” as soon as I enter the school, really helps me in creating a stronger mental fortitude. Yes, teaching is hard. But there’s no way I’m giving up now. Just look at how many areas I can improve upon! Imagine what I can become if I fulfill all the objectives I make after some self-reflection. It may sound like I have the mental strength of a warrior when I type this, but God only knows that I have my own share of personal problems. The only difference is that I’m not going to give up. Look at what I’ve given up to come here! Three entire years, a whole lot of money, and more.
I know that I won’t be able to accomplish all of the goals I’ve made. But if you’re wondering about coming to Korea, think back to all of the problems I’ve mentioned. If you feel threatened, if you think teaching is too hard, then maybe this job isn’t for you. And maybe I’m just sounding self-righteous when I say this, but if you can’t endure and you instead focus on everything bad happening, then of course you feel like giving up. So ask yourself this: Is there really nothing good about teaching in Korea? Is there nothing worthwhile?
Gandhi once said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” So, TLDR: I have doubts and fears about teaching. But once I’m in standing in front of the students I suddenly feel happy, even if this is an emotion I force upon myself. I feel even hypocritical when I type this because even now, I have that deep, inner fear of not being a good teacher. But the die have been cast. I’m here. The students are here. What else is there to do but endure and give my very best for them?
I want to add onto something my friend said: Find a support network. It’s so important to find a group of people so that you can help each other during particularly difficult times. Even if you’ve had a bad week, being with your friends is a great way to blow off some steam. I found a group of friends during orientation, so I recommend you find those few people you can rely on to be with you. There are also plenty social meetups that my friends have gone to and they’ve even made some Korean friends!
On another note, when all’s been said and done, and you’ve given your best but you feel like teaching in Korea just isn’t for you and you eventually decide to give up: I’m not going to say that it’s wrong or that it’s not wrong. That’s not for me to say. Everyone’s paths and abilities are different and the final decision ultimately lies with you. BUT, whether it’s a mistake or not depends on what you do upon deciding to quit. If you decide to regret and mope around about what happened, then maybe you should have tried harder. If you dust yourself off and find something else to challenge, and you keep on at it, then maybe this experience, though halted in its progress, was a mere stepping stone for you in life. So what I’m saying is just this: Don’t quit halfway if you aren’t prepared for what lies beyond. Do your best and I’m sure you’ll be okay.