This is the post I’ve been meaning to write for awhile now. It’s not the easiest thing to write about but I will do my best. I think it’s good to share, but be warned: this will be a long one!
Back in January, Kevin and I signed a 1 year contract with a hagwon in Cheongju, Chungcheongbuk-do, Korea, to begin on March 1, 2015 and end on February 29, 2016. We knew it would be a difficult transition, not just because of an obvious language barrier, but because of cultural and professional practices. There are a lot of horror stories on the Internet of ESL teachers being scammed and taken advantage of just because of their foreigner status in the country. We were very aware these things could happen to us or anybody, but it wasn’t enough to deter us from seizing an opportunity to experience life abroad in Asia. Neither should this post serve as a warning not to experience it for yourself. I will always recommend it, as long as it’s the right decision for you at the right time, and you are smart about it.
Soon after we arrived and started meeting other expats, it became very clear that our school had a reputation about it. We were told the previous teachers complained a lot and didn’t trust the director. It’s one of those schools that can only hire new teachers from outside the city because everyone in the city knows too much to be willing to work there. You’re basically working more for less. I’m all about “paying your dues” but there are also plenty of new teachers who are able to find jobs with better hours and conditions. That should be your goal.
I really did believe in the mission of the school. Even though it required a lot of work on our behalf, I thought it was wonderful for kids. They got so much out of it, and seeing them smile and laugh makes it worth it – to a point.
The first red flag we got was after our first paycheck. Our director admitted to taking out a 50,000 KRW “recruitment fee” from both Kevin’s and my paycheck. This was to be monthly to total 600,000 KRW, or rather, “half” of the total recruitment fee he owed to Adventure Teaching for “finding” us. It is common knowledge that the recruitment fee is between the director and the recruiters. The recruiting agency does not charge the teachers to use their service, and nor should the school. It was not in our contract and was simply unacceptable. We kindly asked if that could not be deducted since it is not in the contract, nor common practice, and he obliged, but only after it was taken out twice. We only got repayment for one. Sure, he told us about it. Sure, he repaid us for one. But the fact he’s willing to do something like this from the beginning speaks volumes. Our relationship with him began on a sour and distrustful note. For ~$50, he decided to lose our trust instead of earn it.
Next was the inconsistency of our pay. I would calculate out the contracted deductions from our pay to get the total we should receive. We were consistently below what the final pay should have been, and our director was unable to tell us why. He could never furnish a paystub. The accountant was always “on vacation.” What was happening with our money?
Then came pension. Please refer to this post I made for more specific info on the pension benefit. We can safely assume that our pension deduction was coming out of our gross pay per the specified percent of our total pay, if not more than that. Every time we called the pension office, they told us our salary was registered at a number lower than our actual pay, meaning the money submitted from our paychecks would be less than what was deducted from them. Only our director could make the change. What was happening with the extra money taken out of our paycheck and not being submitted to the pension fund? When we confronted him about it ( and let’s not forget our director is fluent in English and grew up in a Western country, despite being ethnically Korean), he told us that by the pension being registered at a lower amount, we were actually saving money; it was “lunch money.” Um, what? He told us it was being deducted from our paycheck based on the lower salary as well. But he still couldn’t furnish a paystub to prove this and my calculations sure made it seem otherwise. Honestly, we just felt insulted by this. We both have business degrees and I was a property manager before this. I understand business and budgets. We felt very lied to.
Additionally, we witnessed the way he treated one of our co-workers. Without going into much detail to respect his privacy, we were disgusted with our director’s behaviors and words toward him. That he would say the things he said left us angry that he could be the kind of person who truly doesn’t care about the well-being of any of us.
Moreover, was the relationship between the Korean teachers and the foreign teachers. There was such a divide we tried to bridge but to no real avail. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of them are truly wonderful and I wish we could have hung out outside of work, but a few ran with the stereotypes of foreign teachers and always treated us as if we were lazy, unmotivated and underqualified (though who can argue with the latter based on the requirements of the job? That doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard to do our best!). The feedback we would receive from the head teacher and from the director were different and this communication barrier caused a lot of strife. And let’s not forget when one of the Korean teachers yelled and cursed at Kevin in Korean because he expressed his opinion on the grading of the exams for a specific class, which was different to her own. We quickly learned that in certain instances, our opinions were not valued. The work environment was rather negative. You are always told when you do something wrong but never when you do something great.
Kevin and I both came here after working 4.5 years at our respective companies. We are used to work environments where employees are treated with respect and recognized for achievements. Where everything is straightforward and nothing is hidden. Where we aren’t cheated out of pay that is rightfully ours. These examples above are just some of the aspects of our work environment that led us to be unhappy. We really wanted to embrace the culture but there are just some professional practices we couldn’t stand behind. We came here because we wanted to, not because we had to. Add on the other professional nuances and other random things, like figuring out what in the [Korea] to eat for dinner without rice, and the disgustingness of our apartment, and honestly, it just wasn’t worth it to us to stay a year. We accomplished so much in our 6.5 months and totally got out of the experience what we wanted. We formed bonds with the children and really tried to experience what the country has to offer (a lot!), often taking weekend overnight or day trips. But we needed to regain control of our situation. We feel fortunate to have had the experience and don’t regret it at all. 6.5 months was enough time for us to capture that.
Some people might say, “Why didn’t you just transfer schools or suck it up for a year and get a better school next year?” Well, it’s not that easy. To transfer schools mid-contract, unless you are on an F-visa, like our other coworker who quit because of the negative environment, you need a letter of release from the director. Because 1 teacher already left during our year, I’m not sure we could get one. And if we did get one, we’d have to work for a whole other year to earn the end of contract bonus equivalent to 1-month salary. We went to have the experience for 1 year, not longer. So at the end of the day, we had our experience, both positive and negative, we are grateful for it, and we are excited to return to a sense of normalcy.
Since we left, yet another teacher has departed the school mid-contract. I hope that after losing 4 foreign teachers this school year (and there are only 4 foreign teachers total…100% turnover), the school can learn and become better from it. I still think about the kids a lot. They left a huge imprint on my heart and taught me so much! Once I am re-settled into my new job and home I’ll be applying to be a “Big Sister.” Looking forward to what’s ahead and appreciating what’s behind!
TL;DR: We couldn’t form a trusting relationship with our school director & the very negative school environment made us unhappy (and the other 2 teachers who also quit), so we decided the best course of action for us in the long run was to cut our contract short. We made the most of our time and are grateful for the experience. If you are considering teaching ESL in Korea, don’t let this scare you (this is the least horrific story out there – there is MUCH worse), just be prepared for anything and know what you want out of it! A good sense of humor goes a long way. 🙂