“Can I tell you something?”

I’m outside one of my toughest classes, having just been told that the kids inside are crying due to being (justly) scolded.

“I’m so proud that you did your speech this morning. Remember how when I got here, you couldn’t read very much at all?”

This is a student from the class with the following description: can’t sit in a seat for more than five minutes, little to no grit or resilience, five-six years old, one of whom could not find the pages in the book when I arrived (but now can!!!) and one who likes to climb on the table and kick the others in the face. Not hard, but still.

Of course, I love them still.

“Yes….” says the student. She understands everything I say to her, having spent a long time living in the USA.

“I am so impressed with you. High five! Seriously, though. I cannot believe how much progress you’ve made.”

The bright, humble smile this particular student possesses gleams into existence on her face. Only I can see it, in this passing moment between insane amounts of stress.

“I want you to know,” she turns that sunshine on me, looking up into my face from her standing level, around my knees, “This is the whole reason why I love being a teacher.”

DO I love being a teacher?

I do. I don’t. I bang my head on the door of the toilet at the school, in the briefest of moments I can both sit down for fifteen seconds out of a 9.5 hour day and perform a necessary bodily function. I plead. I beg. I shout. I cry (not normally out where anyone can see). I am entering my sixth year of being a teacher, and I am in a situation that reminds me daily of the first time I was called “Miss Coleen.”

In my first school, in Patagonia, I had access to the copy machine only when it had paper and ink. And when I could convince the janitor to copy something. And when it was connected to power. And when the time permitted. And when it was in service.

Let’s be honest. I had no copy machine.

I remember writing out worksheets by hand for my students with a red magic marker. I remember crying in front of my class and telling them that I was a volunteer, and than meant I wanted to be there. I remember them telling me that they didn’t believe I wasn’t being paid to teach them.

I remember paying out of pocket for the services of a print shop down the road from my homestay, feeling my stomach fall out and land near my shoes to be kicked along the pavement at the sight of a stiff, dead, orange kitten outside. It was maybe 6 July 2011, and I was about to leave Escuela 5 (Juan de Ladriellos) in Puerto Natales.

My very first day, I had to bend the law and my volunteering contract to cover a class for my colleague. It was Septimo A. It was the hardest class in the school. Seventh graders are, to this day, a challenge to me. But that day I walked in with no prep time, no lesson plan, no Spanish, and no prior training to be a teacher (excluding the prefunctory TEFL Certificate I had received an A for on the Internet).

I didn’t die, perhaps surprisingly!

But it was a tone-setter. The school was tough on veteran teachers. I was a newb with idealistic tendencies, who was an outsider and also always the good girl in classes growing up. I realised that I cannot easily anticipate the ways that students will go off the rails or try to hurt one another, or subvert my lessons, because I simply never dared to be naughty.

There was a three-day period where I almost gave up in Chile. I couldn’t find the strength to eat or get out of bed. I half-feigned illness and laid in bed, unable to sleep or even close my eyes for days, with the National Geographic Channel on 24/7. At the time, it seemed a perfectly logical response. Looking back, I was in serious distress. I made it through, decided to keep going, and went back to the school.

On my last day, I was mobbed by students who nearly knocked me over in the assembly called to confer upon me an honourary certificate. I remember tearing up in front of everyone, and people cheering my name. In some slow-motion from a movie, I remember the kids rushing me and shouting in a newly-minted teacher’s voice for them to be careful. Don’t hurt each other. Be nice. No, stop that. Be good. Be good. Be good.

In some Korean hagwons, we live a teacher’s nightmare.

There is no time to prepare your lessons, so they turn out like shit. You try to make them fun, and the kids respond by becoming so competitive that they are liable to start self-harming if they believe that there was some small slight to them.

Taking a bullshit, made-up, inherently arbitrary “point” away induces paroxysms of rage and ear-splitting bellows.

Many students carry a mobile phone around their necks or on their wrists, able to text mummy if teacher is even one second late to class or tells them off for being rude to another student. That way, parents can swoop in to watch the CCTV in real-time of our classes, without speaking to us or asking why their student was put in the Time Out Chair. Heaven forbid they should actually ask me about their child’s seeming inability to control himself or what swearword precisely he used to be sent outside. When you ask about why the moms are all so overbearing, you get the response that they are “very sensitive.” Every. Last. One.

Students are expected to be instantly fluent, and instantly perfectly behaved, and instantly copacetic. I have kindergarten students taking a goddamned TOEFL test! Yes, the one for college entrance! A four-year-old who was born in 2012 and cannot consistently use the toilet without assistance should definitely memorise a three-minute speech about animal defense mechanisms and predation behaviour. Yes, even the oldest have not yet mastered the mystery that is shoelace-tying, but they should analyse and regurgitate university-level news articles.

A familiar strain from Chile comes through….we’re often out of paper, and there was until today but one computer shared between six teachers. For a week in December, we had no paper to print or copy, and no books. I said, “Fuck it (internally, obviously), let’s make snowflakes and chat for two hours.” I buy and hoard my own supplies. I save scraps of paper to a fault. I find myself writing out worksheets by hand once more.

But that smile. That light.

It’s true, what I told that student today. No matter how insane it all gets, or how little time I have to pee, or how few pencils I have. No matter how much I feel the muscle knot I carry with me in my left shoulder, remnant of those three bedbound days in Patagonia. No matter how much I kick myself for shouting at a preschooler.

That light is like a drug. I am a teaching addict, and I chase the dragon every day. One second of that light, and it all seems worth it.

TEFL in East Asia Part Three: High Stakes Testing

This is part of a new series on teaching English as a foreign language in East Asia. Now that I have almost three months under my belt in Shanghai, it’s appropriate that I start to compare my new experiences with those of my 2012-2013 stint in South Korea. This is part one. For the other parts, once they are published, click here.

There are glaring differences between teaching in Korea and China, and there are the more subtle ones. In this case, the difference begins as a similarity.

In Korea, test-taking is extremely important. Students cram for more than a decade in some cases for the entrance exams that their parents hope will get them into a top university. I remember the skies going quiet over my apartment in Suwon (near a US air base) in early November, with hundreds of flights into Incheon International Airport cancelled to avoid interrupting the Suneung. Students are often quoted in the Korean media as saying that they have spent their entire lives preparing for the exam, which tests everything from English to history and maths.

Likewise, in China there is palpable emphasis on testing. We arrived in full Gaokao season, the major college entrance exam in this country. It takes place in early June every year, and due to the sheer numbers involved in a country of 1.2 billion the pictures that come out of this stressful week for students are impressive.

In both countries, parents flood into temples in the weeks leading up to these exams. They pray for success, and for the years of hard work raising a child in such an intensely competitive educational environment to be worth it. They wait outside the testing centres in droves. Whole towns and schools show up to cheer the students on as they enter the exam centres. In Korea, the younger students from the high schools make posters and shout their support. In China, they risk pissing off the ayis by temporarily banning public dancing. In both, millions of teenagers sit down with a standardised paper in front of them and attempt to show what they know.

And here comes the subtle difference: the testing culture that leads to that moment for a Chinese or Korean 17-year-old are not quite the same.

In Korea, I never really gave a test. It fell within the realm of the Korean teachers. They would give one test per semester, at the very end of the book. The tests, in as much as I ever saw them, focused on reading and grammar. The results had to be impossibly high. As in, 100% for everyone.

Anything but 100% was considered by many of my students and especially by their parents to be a complete failure. I wouldn’t see me teenaged students for weeks at times, during their middle school exam periods. One student came back from one of those into my book club class, close to tears. She had ‘totally failed’ her exam, she told me. She would never get into college, never get a job, and never be successful. Mind you, this child read and spoke fluent Korean, English, and Russian, and was in the process of learning Mandarin. She had a photographic memory and powerful analytical skills for literature. She drew perfect likenesses in pencil in her spare moments.

She had received a 98% on that exam. 98%. She missed a single question, and that meant that she had ‘failed.’

In Korea, many of the teachers I knew had to fudge tests and test scores in order to protect students from this kind of mentality. It was a not-so-subtle suggestion that if a student actually managed to fail a test at the hagwon, one had to change the score to that they wouldn’t completely give up (or get in trouble). It was pervasive. The test-taking mentality of Korea seeped into the education system in which I worked, even for those students who were only six or seven years old. Giving a student a 50% or lower as a final mark would be completely unthinkable.

China has high-stakes for its students, and huge pressure to perform on the exams that mark the transitions between middle and high school and high school and college. But somehow, the culture surrounding Korea’s ‘100% or nothing’ mentality does not appear to be found here.

I am required to give a test to my students every few weeks. The pre-schoolers have a test every four weeks. The elementary students have one every three weeks. The older students, already a little bit more patchy in their attendance due to other academic obligations, have a test every six-eight weeks. I mark the ones that I give within a week of the test and the results are immediately reported to their parents.

I have students in all of my classes who are genuinely failing. The average mark is about a 75%, with very few scores above 90% even for my most skilled students. The tests are difficult, with speaking and listening accounting for most of the lower scores. All four skills for English are tested, and the older students have to write essays. I’ve not heard any students talking about their parents putting the kind of pressure that they got in Korea. No one is asking me to change my students’ marks (not yet, anyway). The parents that I’ve spoken to in my Parent-Teacher Meetings tell me that although they are disappointed in the lower scores, they understand that language learning is a process. They want the overall learning above all, not just 100% on a test.

This is the interesting thing about living abroad; one sees the subtler differences that a short stopover would gloss over. It would be possible to assume that Korea and China have exactly the same test culture if one just made the call based on the photos of the Suneung and Gaokao alone. But there is a difference, and it’s interesting to be in a new test-taking culture here in Shanghai.

TEFL in Korea: The Bad

Teaching English in Korea is an opportunity that offers all your recruiter will try to persuade you with, if you manage to play your cards right. Whether you are a first-time traveler or an experienced world-conqueror, the ease with which one can move to Korea and teach in either a public school or private academy (Hagwon) makes it one of the most popular places for TEFL professionals.

In nine months of living in Suwon and teaching English at a hagwon, I’ve found that my decision to move here was justified. I’ve finally begun to put away savings (after months of limbo in the Land of Inexplicably Disappearing Money), my apartment has not fallen apart or dissolved in black mold, I’ve learned and grown as a teacher, and I’ve even been able to check off most of the places on my list of things to see in Korea.

But it’s not all fairy tales and soju parties. Life in Korea as an English teacher has its surprises, and not all of them are positive. Although the majority of blogs I read before arriving made ridiculous claims of “death by hagwon” and the tendency for non-Koreans who move here to complain way too much, there are real things that can turn sunny day of kimchi and Starbucks coffee from down the street into a bummerfest.

Here are the annoyances that I’ve experienced since my arrival in February 2012.

1. Culture of Illness

One of my coworkers is currently asleep on her desk in the teacher’s room, her winter coat over her head. She’s been there about two hours at this point, and shows no signs of stirring. I assume that she caught the nasty cold going around, and is ill with the fever I had just two days ago. Because this is Korea, she cannot be home in bed where she probably belongs.

It feels like it looks. Underwear strapped to your face.

This is one of the most annoying things about working in Korea. We’re given a few sick days by law, but it’s hard to actually use them. I got two strains of influenza at once in April and burst into tears in the doctor’s office when I thought that they might make me stay and teach in a sick mask (My worries were well-founded, as they’d done just that to one of our teachers the week before). I could barely stand, much less control a classroom. Mercifully, I was allowed to go home after providing the official sickness letter (5,000 KRW).

The kicker came about two weeks later when a violent gastroenteritis bug seized on my still-weakened immune system. I literally barfed all morning until there was no more to barf, and then threw up on the sidewalk outside my hagwon on the way to work. My coworkers were sympathetic and even took me to the doctor, but going home was never a part of the discussion. I taught in a chair all day and threatened to vomit on my students when they misbehaved.

Being sick, not merely somewhat sniffly but full-blown throwing up high-fever hacking cough sick, is not an excuse to miss work in Korea. This is one of the biggest cultural differences I’ve experienced, and it’s certainly affected my own conception of illness and obligation to one’s work. I didn’t think twice about coming to work with a high fever this week, and the only mention to my coworkers was to ask for a Paracetamol. I’ve adapted.

2. Unexpected Culture shock

You move across the world. The country speaks a different language. The culture is influenced by Confucianism, the isolation of the country and its history don’t always make it welcoming to foreigners, and you are most obviously and visibly not Korean. You’re expecting massive culture shock with Korea and Koreans.

*This* culture is awesome! What do you mean, culture shock?

Yet as is true with every other time I’ve lived abroad, the bulk of the culture shock has been with other 외국인 (way-gook-in, “foreigners”). There are complex circumstances that brought all of us here, including but not limited to the economic crisis that the world is currently experiencing and the fact that Korea’s National Health service kicks the ass of healthcare in the United States. We all come to work, to make money, to save, to learn something, to meet new people.

But perhaps because we are often lumped together as “foreigners” and treated as a cultural block by the country in which we reside, the expectation that we will all have the same cultural ideas and practices seems to come up more often than it should. I’m from Louisville, Colorado. I’ve lived in Italy, Chile, Switzerland, and Korea. I’m the product of a very specific set of socioeconomic and cultural circumstances that are almost entirely different from many other 외국인. And so is everyone else.

I’ve been called anti-American a record five times in Korea (by other US Citizens). I do feel a certain level of conflict with those from my own country in particular, possibly because I’ve been actively outside of it for several years now and this may be the first time they’ve ever lived abroad. It’s unfair of me to try to hold them to the standards I have for myself, because our backgrounds are different and I’ve been lucky enough to explore other cultures in depth already. But it sure grates on you after a while.

I’m working on a post about feeling nationless, which will deal with this phenomenon in more depth.

3. Hagwons are Educational Businesses, Not Schools (Obviously doesn’t apply to teaching in a government school)

I literally pulled this verbatim from the Powerpoint at our last training meeting.

“I know that a lot of you have very academic minds,” the presenter said. “But you should let that go.”

Just like this advert is selling a camera, we’re supposed to be selling English.

They hire people who are trained to be teachers and who have worked as a teacher before, and then expect them to walk the line between educator and babysitting English clown without much direction except to keep the kids and parents happy at almost any cost.

I get it. They want to make money. They want the students to enroll again. The goals of hagwons are currently shifting from a focus on prepping students for international university education to one of inward focus and rubber stamp English scores to add to their massive résumés (in part due to the educational culture of Korea and in part due to the new NEAT test). Parents and students want the illusion that they are getting better at English, and if one school doesn’t give that to them then they will find another. It wouldn’t bother me if I could find the ON/OFF switch for my near-completely academic brain.

At least at my hagwon, we are not asked to falsify test scores in order to make more students pass (Yes, that happens elsewhere). But as the trainer said, the students need to “feel like they are learning.” Note that he didn’t say they actually had to learn. By extension, that pretty much means we are not really here to teach. Candy and puzzles it is!

4. Differences Between Reality and Class Level

Another annoyance comes along with working in an business masquerading as a school. Students are often, maybe even mostly, placed into class levels that do no reflect their actual English abilities.

Supposedly a mid-high level student. Epic, but lacking grammar.

In our neighborhood, there are at least six major English hagwons. Parents routinely drag their children to the other schools and check their placement tests to see if they “should” be in a higher level than the one at our academy. Since all the hagwons are in competition with one another, the temptation to place students on the higher side of the coin is high. If they place higher, they are more likely to enroll.

Even though we routinely check the students’ progress with monthly tests and an annual retaking of the placement exam, ostensibly to ensure all the students are in the correct classes, there are still a lot of students in over their heads.

Yesterday, I discovered that a student of mine literally understands about 5% of what I say in class. It was a mystery to me that he never seemed prepared for class, and never wrote anything in his workbook. Yesterday I caught him with his forehead on the wall, turned away during class. His contribution to the essay contest? Three one-word incomplete sentences.

I asked about it later, wondering how he could have made it into that level without having someone teach him how to write a sentence. The answer? It’s normal to push students into levels they totally are unprepared for just to make it seem like they are making progress. He’d repeated the same level four times over the course of a year, and in order to avoid having him quit (and losing his business), they leveled him up. Thus he’s now literally beating his head against the wall in frustration and I’m unsure how to help him.

5. Bullying

This semester we’ve had a couple of incidents with bullying, culminating in a few students having to write letters of apology. Cookies have been smashed on heads. Names have been called. Apologies have been refused. It’s a little out of hand.

The difference here is not that bullying is more prevalent in Korea or even that it is more visible. The main difference is that the bullying is somewhat the “reverse” of what it was in the place I grew up. The bullies are the smart kids, and the bullied are often the ones who struggle a bit in class. It’s like revenge of the nerds but in a twisted, messed up way.

Because of the huge emphasis on education in Korea and the competitive nature of the schools here, the kids who have trouble in school and may be bullied also don’t receive a lot of attention from their Korean teachers. They are seen as “bad students,” and that occasionally gives the others a pass to treat them like shit.

It’s hard to negotiate the line for bullying, and to battle those ingrained ideas. It’s even harder to bring up with coworkers and explain thoroughly, across a language barrier. As happened for us, the problem sometimes slips through the cracks.


This is the kind of student we all want. Happy, slightly crazy, but learning!

Keep in mind that all things, travel and settled, personal and cultural, depend on one’s response to them and the ability to adapt. Consensus says that I should probably just tone down the whole “caring about shit” thing that I’m so attached to and live a happy and non-stressed teaching life. Unfortunately experience (from Chile) tells me that I am incapable of letting it go, and that I will continue to try to be a real teacher who actually teaches even to my own detriment.

Next week, less pessimism. Wait for the good list.

Wait…I Get to Work Here?

This is my new place of work! Avalon’s Yeongtong Champ campus, which is in the same building as several other hagwons (private institutions). We display our students’ work on the walls, and there is even a large classroom for presentations. They have a computer lab, printers, copiers…it’s so technologically advanced.

If I’d had these resources in Chile, things would’ve been way different.