Teaching in Korea-Is it All about the Money?

Teaching in Korea-Is it all about the Money?

I Like Shiny Things

Remember the Golden Handcuffs where I talked about how working at a Korean university is like wearing a pair of them. They’re shiny and pretty and they glitter hard. A safari in Africa, a backpacking tour around SE Asia, a jaunt through Europe and you’re caught, trapped, with almost no willpower left to escape. Except that working in Korean universities is not ideal for quite a few reasons. Anyway, that was a post from days gone by.

Is Jackie a Terrible Person?

In response to that post, a few of the people in the Korean Internet world who love to hate me, but secretly kind of love me (why else would they spend so much time and effort responding to all my stuff?) said that I seem like I’m a terrible person because I actually expect to be rewarded for the time and effort above the norm that I would potentially put into my teaching. And, isn’t teaching students and helping them learn all the reward one needs in order to put forth the most stellar of efforts?

“It’s not Like We’re Handing out Free Malaria Pills in Africa”

Let me just start off by quoting an anonymous friend of mine who sent me a PM on FB as all the golden handcuff chaos was going down, “In the world I live in, student progress is important but it’s not like we’re handing out free malaria pills in Africa.” Now, I could leave it there, but you know, I like to give some value to my readers.

Here are a few thoughts about teaching in Korean universities and money and how they’re related. 

Don’t all Teachers Come to Korea for the Money?

Let’s just say that I’ve met very few teachers who come to Korea NOT for the money. If you didn’t care about money, you’d go to Eastern Europe, Thailand,Laos, or South America and probably have a way better time than in Korea. Sure, I love Korea and it’s grown on me, kind of a like a barnacle over the years, don’t get me wrong but like isn’t there a reason they have to pay so much to attract teachers? It’s just not a prime teaching destination.

Okay, I do realize that the Korean wave is taking over the world these days, and K-Pop and Kimchi are getting popular or whatever. So, I do grant that almost none some of the newer teachers perhaps did come here partly for the culture. But, anyone who has been here longer than 5 years? Definitely not. Doubtful.

Lack of Reward for Stellar Teaching

Now, I’m not complaining about the salary I make for the amount of teaching I do. It’s actually a freakishly high amount and I certainly don’t deserve that much, nor does anyone else working in a Korean university most likely. Unless you happen to be doing something like 20 hours a week with unpaid camps during the breaks. Then, you deserve that much and I hope you can get a better job.

What I am complaining about is the lack of reward for stellar teaching. The everyone gets paid the same thing, no matter how good or how bad you are. In most cases, there are very, very few rewards for being the best teacher ever. Not to get all ranty about unions and communism or whatever, but isn’t this like one of the major downsides of them? Everyone gets the same so nobody really puts forth their best effort? Can’t fight the system, you know?

Avoiding Punishment is the Main Motivation

Now, I’m no industrial psychology expert, but from my very perfunctory understanding of the field, it seems like positive reinforcement is a whole lot better than purely negative. Call me crazy, but like isn’t the main motivation in Korean universities simply to not get fired? At least at my current one, it’s all (by all, I mean 100%) about student evaluations and making sure you’re on the right side of the line (by right side, I mean in the top 50% ranked against your peers) so you can get your contract renewed. If you’re in the top say 5% of teachers with regards to student evaluations, there’s no pay raise, no bonus, nothing. There quite literally is no structure set-up to reward the top teachers in any way whatsoever.

Oh, wait, once at my previous uni I was the top teacher based on student evaluations and they gave me a 30,000 Won gift certificate to E-mart. But, they also made me do an hour-long presentation to my co-workers. Who came out on top of that one?

Aren’t there a Million more Rewarding Teaching Situations than in Korean Universities?

Call me crazy, but like isn’t teaching freshman English just about the most demoralizing teaching situation one could torture oneself with? Sure, Korean students are generally sweet, respectful and cute. But, they’re all totally burnt-out from high school hell, have extremely low levels of spoken English, meet your “hello” with a chorus of nervous tittering and would rather do just about anything than sit in your English class.

If you’re looking for rewarding, get yourself another job. Say teaching refugee children. Or, perhaps in an orphanage. You could also consider teaching anyone who has some motivation to learn English that does not consist solely of passing your class so they don’t have to take it again next year. My theory about why people stick with this pretty grim situation, year after year, after year? Because it pays a ridiculous amount of money for the actual number of hours worked, leaving plenty of time to do other stuff like have a hobby, or travel the world, or write a book.

Now, not to get my hate on because I don’t actually teach the mandatory freshman classes these days, thankfully. My job is actually quite fun, and rewarding most days and I have excellent, highly motivated students.

The Law of Diminishing Returns and Lesson Planning

As you know already I’m sure, I’m all about the money and one of my favourite economic principles is the Law of Diminishing Returns which states that at some point, additional inputs will result in diminishing outputs. I use this principle for just about everything in my life.

For example, the stocks I buy. I could spend 100’s more hours searching around on the Internet for that secret stock that nobody knows about and get, perhaps a slightly better return than if I had just bought 3M, Coca-Cola or Chevron, which is what I actually do. However, those countless hours spend cruising around the ‘net only provide me with a little bit more money in my pocket at the end of it so it wasn’t really worth it. Or, a plane ticket. Sure, put in a couple hours to get kind of a baseline price and then just buy it. If you spend an extra 20 hours, it could save you 50 bucks, but was it worth it? Likely not, because of the law of diminishing returns!

Now, let’s talk lesson prep. in Korean universities. Here’s what I said about that, “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.”

The law of diminishing returns states that after a certain point, more hours of lesson planning is not going to result in an equivalent amount of English class awesome. So, wouldn’t anyone who goes beyond that point be somewhat foolish and just wasting their time? Sure, I could put another 100 hours a month into planning lessons and meeting with students and making wicked cool PPTs, but if that only results in 5% more awesome for my classes, well, I have better things to do with my time. And, sure, it might push me up from the top 20% of teachers into the 18th percentile, but again, that hardly seems worth the time and effort. And, sure, maybe that one student in my class could learn an extra vocabulary word or two through my super diligent effort but will that actually make a difference in her life?

Okay, can You Sum it Up for Me?

Sure, I can do that. Just remember these 3 things:

“It’s not like we’re handing our free malaria pills in Africa.”

“The law of diminishing returns proves conclusively that Jackie is not a terrible person for spending her free time writing a book, traveling the world, or going surfing instead of doing lesson planning, after a certain average amount of said lesson planning.”

“Anyone who says they teach in Korean universities for purely altruistic reasons is living in some sort of alternate reality, perhaps. Treat with suspicion and question further.”

Speaking of Money and Writing Books

If you want some financial awesome in your English teacher life, you’ll need this book: The Wealthy English Teacher: Teach, Travel, and Secure Your Financial Future. All my secrets, revealed!

3 Comments

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