Leaving is Easy

Hallway at school.
Hallway at school.

Written on February 7, 2014:

Two weeks are all I have left of desk-warming at the middle school where I spent my first year as an English teacher in South Korea. It was a year of adjustment, wonder, disappointment and opportunity. As the school year ends, it has me feeling reflective and anxious.

I am biding my time until I start my new gig at a new facility with EPIK. I started to wonder why I have no pictures of my school to memorialize such an epic experience of moving to Asia to live, and starting a new career as an English teacher.

Thinking back to the EPIK orientation last February, new intakes spent nine days learning about Korean culture and a small part of its education system: our role. The trainers implored us to focus on speaking with our students as that is why we were brought here, as native English speakers, and is what the students needed most, to practice speaking English. They insisted that we create and teach our lesson plans with our co-teachers, involving them in the process and debriefing with them on whether or not a lesson was successful.

On my first day, I arrived at school eager and nervous. But after about the second week of teaching, I realized that I wasn’t there to educate. I wasn’t there to make a difference; I was there for the idea of it, the image, a routine. I taught strictly from the textbook, and was instructed not to steer too far from it, and when I encouraged a group of students who were poor at English to speak, I was told that they were sleepy,  tired or hungry, and to ease up.

However, I’m not making any general statements on what teaching in Korea is “really” like. Every teaching experience is different. Your experience will depend on several things, such as the school itself – if it is a hagwon (after school academy) or public school; your co-teachers; vice principal and principal; and you. I enjoyed working with many of my students. Their energy and smiles motivated me to do my best. Coincidentally, it was the disengagement and bad attitudes of other students that made me not give a damn. This was the working dichotomy that persisted throughout the year – particularly the second semester when all of my level A classes were traded in for level D classes; level D students were barely making the grade in their Korean classes, so teaching them English was not only a joke, but a very frustrating waste of time.

My desk.
My desk.

Additionally, from my very first class, I was THE teacher. My co-teachers were there to translate when necessary. I was the main communicator in taking them through the textbook exercises, and even keeping order and enforcing discipline. All of that was fine with me.  But because the students weren’t motivated, and my role wasn’t being taken seriously, the magic had faded. I was no longer eager or excited. I was bored with the lessons, and so were my students.

So if I answered why I didn’t capture the scholastic moments of my first year abroad honestly, I would have to say I didn’t have an emotional connection that conjured any sentimentality or fondness of my time at this middle school. As they say in the streets, “it’s been real,” which means, it is what it is: indifference.

As an avid picture-taker – to the point of being obnoxious, I’m sure some of my friends would say – I was a little shocked I hadn’t at least captured the everyday, real life moments of teaching in a Korean school – like the layout of Korean food in the lunchroom; the classrooms; my co-teachers; my office; my school; MY STUDENTS!

Me taking a selfie at my desk.
Me taking a selfie at my desk.

The few pictures I have are no more than shameless, random selfies. Sure, I may have remembered to take a picture here or there, but they are either very lonely in singularity or have been deleted to save memory space on my phone. To underscore my rolling apathy, I missed my students’ graduation. How? By having a mild interest in seeing the little people who were nothing more than familiar faces – smiling, blank or mischievous – to me exit one important phase in their life. In other words, I got caught up on Facebook.

The truth is, when there is no emotional connection to a person, place, or thing, there is no reason to hold on to the memory. My co-teachers were pleasant, and didn’t create drama, unlike some of the other native English teachers’ experiences, but there was also no effort – on either end – of getting to know one another. (Quite frankly, they avoided me so they wouldn’t HAVE to speak to English anymore than necessary.) Bonding definitely isn’t a contractual agreement for teaching here, but not having a meaningful connection with anyone – my students or co-workers – makes it very easy to say goodbye.

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2 comments

  1. So sorry for your less than enthusiastic teaching experience in Korea. I learned that every culture is different and we have to adjust. It can be hard, but in the end, looking back, I was happy I did it. You will too because you learned to survive in a very different place. It made me stronger. I taught in Africa and they were very suspicious of me being there. It was Rwanda, as the “genicide” began and I had to leave. USAID sent me to teach library information access using a laptop and a CDROM. I am so glad I went, I never knew I was courageous.

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