***Friends, family, random Internet strangers who ask me all the time why I’m leaving Korea. This post explains everything, kind of.***
All Things that Glitter
The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about Korean university jobs and he mentioned that they were like having a pair of golden handcuffs on. The second he said it, I knew that it was the most perfect description of the job that I’ve been doing for the past 8 years and I wish that I’d thought of it myself years ago. Working in a Korean university is like a shiny, gold toy that catches your eye as it glitters in the sunlight and it lures you in. And it glitters hard, let me tell you. But, once you’re in, the handcuffs go on and it gets harder and harder to escape as the years pass you by. The cuffs get tighter and soon, you’re trapped in an extremely lucrative dead-end job and the key is somewhere at the bottom of the ocean in the Sea of Japan.
It’s not Exactly Prison to say the Least
Now, don’t get the wrong impression. My job is sweet and I am under no crazy illusion that I’ll ever have as good of job no matter where I go or whatever industry I get into. Let me tell you about the Korean university job awesome:
- 5 months PAID vacation
- $3000 USD per month salary
- Lucrative overtime opportunities-many months, my salary is closer to $5000
- 9 contract hours per week-usually 3-4 days
- Minimal prep and administration
- Nobody actually cares what I do in the classroom
- No staff meetings
- A boss that I quite literally NEVER see or interact with
- Great students who actually speak English quite well
- I get to live in one of the best cities in Asia (Busan) and go surfing all the time.
- Staff parties that involve all you can eat and drink blow-outs.
Let’s just say that I’m certainly not suffering and even when I begin to dislike my job, I simply have to remind myself that my next 10 week vacation is coming soon enough, so not to worry. These golden handcuffs sound pretty darn good, you might be thinking to yourself. Jackie wrote a book to help you get those golden handcuffs on: How to Get a University Job in South Korea.
WAIT! All that Glitters isn’t Gold
A year or two of that happy English teaching awesome and the cuffs go on. You go to Europe, check out Africa, take a backpacking tour around SE Asia, all the while you’re getting paid your full monthly salary, so it’s kind of like you’re taking a free vacation. Heck, I even made money while I was traveling around Africa, going scuba diving and going on a safari to see the hippos and warthogs. Then you do it again 4 months later, and again 4 months after that. It’s addictive, but it’s also a trap from which it’s extremely hard to escape for the following 5 reasons.
Reason #1 it’s a Trap: No Academic Integrity in Korea
Over the years, I’ve seen the most ridiculous things that would fall under the category of academic integrity misadventures. In fact, it may be the subject of my next book, once I leave Korea. Kind of a “tell-all,” about what it’s really like teaching in a Korean university and how ridiculous it all is. At first I was shocked by the cheating, plagiarism, lying, grade-fixing, diplomas to anyone who will pay for them, bribery, and paying for academic appointments, but no longer. Now, I mostly just play the game because it’s way easier than fighting the system. Koreans have mostly given up too and they know that the system is screwed up but they feel powerless to fix it.
I used to fight and give that senior an “F” who never showed up for a single class, nor did a single assignment and skipped all his tests. What did it get me? Harassment, and stalking from the students and very little support from the admin in regards to the actual grade as well as the stalking situation. Now? Here’s your D buddy, don’t let me stand in the way of paying for your diploma. You paid your tuition, so it doesn’t matter how much you actually studied. Good luck in the real world.
Reasons #2 it’s a Trap: No Room for Advancement
No matter how stellar of an employee you are, when teaching in a Korean university, there quite literally is nowhere to go but sideways or down. It’s impossible to get into any sort of admin position and if you can get a “head teacher” position, it usually involves a lot more work for no extra pay. More work, no pay? Sign me up for that “promotion” right now!
Reason #3 it’s a Trap: No Pay Raises
In Korean universities, the pay that you get is the pay that you get. To further compound the problem, you’ll often get the same pay as the newbie, fresh off that hagwon or public school boat even if you’ve been teaching in Korean universities for years and are teaching way more advanced level classes. You might get a cost of living pay raise if you’re lucky, but there’s generally no such thing as a merit based pay raise.
Demoralizing? YES. No matter how hard I work, I’m not going to get rewarded. Now, I know that some are perhaps just better people than myself, but like when this is the case, I put in a decent effort but I’m no teaching superstar. I certainly could be, but money talks, you know? Working extremely hard for no reward just isn’t my style and I’d far rather write a stellar book or go surfing, or hang out with my friends than make the most amazing lesson plan ever. There’s just nothing in it for me.
Reason #4 it’s a Trap: Brain Atrophy
Teaching ESL isn’t rocket-science. Sure, you should plan your lessons and do a decent job of it, but let’s just say that by the 54th time you’ve taught the simple past, or the 37th time you’ve done the “movie” unit, you can do that crap in your sleep. After 8 years, it kind of feels like my brain is slowly rotting from the inside out. I walk around in a kind of fuzzy daze. It’s not just a hangover (I never drink on a school night!), but it’s the brain rot from working at a job that is just so easy. There quite literally is nothing new to learn, no expectations from anyone, no pressure to get something done right, no collaboration, nothing. I get kinda depressed even typing this. Actually, not gonna lie. I was already depressed about this before I even started writing this post.
Reason #5 it’s a Trap: Korean Perceptions of Foreign Teachers
Koreans generally think that foreign teachers are kind of like these ridiculous English speaking clowns, who are there to entertain, but not actually teach. Leave the real teaching to the Koreans we get told. Media reports come out every few months, trashing the “unqualified,” disease-ridden, drug-addicted foreign teachers, lumping us all together with the one or two bad apples (often Korean-Americans not even here on teaching visas!) and it kind of makes me feel like trash. I try not to let it get me down, you know? But, like year after year, it just kind of starts to seep into my brain. I talk to Korean English teachers and they say things like, foreigners can’t teach grammar or anything of substance. You’re just here for conversation and let’s just say that it’s pretty damn insulting to someone like myself who is both highly qualified and highly experienced.
Does that Clear Things Up?
Korean university jobs: enter at your own risk but don’t think your’e going to be happy doing it for 20, 10 or even 5 years. Despite the fabulousness of the benefits, it grinds you down, relentlessly-picture yourself as a little cog in a machine that’s running a 24-hour shift, ever single day, forever. Korean Universities: the best dead-end job ever!
I do sincerely hope that explains a little bit about why I’m making my break to Canada. I hope the brain rot hasn’t taken over completely and that I can recover. I’d seriously rather live on rice and beans in a hovel then teach another year in a Korean university. Thankfully, I have a large pool of money and the cats and I could perhaps survive a decade of unemployment, should it come to that.