Disclaimer: This represents my PERSONAL views about teaching English. This is based on my personal experiences. Many teachers at my school, and in Korea, love teaching. This also represents my experiences at one kindergarten and may not reflect how other schools are operated. Also, before formally teaching in Korea, I taught college students and adults, so there are huge differences in learning and teaching styles. Please read my other blog post What I Loved About Teaching in Korea for another side of the story.
If you were to ask any teacher at my school, it was not a secret that I struggled while I was there. I had my own personal reasons which certainly contributed to my difficulties, but there were some cultural differences that I struggled with.
What Kind of School Did I Teach At?
I taught at an English Kindergarten. It consisted of 3 grade levels for 4-6 year old (American age) children. Most classes were taught in English, and children were expected to speak in English while at school. Each homeroom had one English Teacher (American, British, Canadian), and one Korean teacher. Kindergarten ran from about 9:30am-3:00pm. At 3:00pm, the school became an after-school hagwon for elementary school children.
Why Was I Unhappy?
Parents quite simply were a nightmare. By the end of the year, my class’s parents had become quite infamous amongst the teachers. The parents were highly competitive, and often compared their children to other children in the class. They were more concerned about grades and test scores, than actually seeing their 5 year old speak amazing English.
My children took an English test designed for their age group, and one of students achieved the highest score in Seoul. What do you think his mother say? Go ahead, take a guess. She said, “Why wasn’t his score higher?” Now imagine the shocked look I had on my face after I heard that.
Parents would often meet with the director of our school. Something my co-teacher and I came to fear, because as soon as a mother left the meeting we were called to the director’s office to hear the complaints against us, and once again, we were forced to change our teaching methods or class structure.
We were constantly subjected to the desire and whims of the mothers who wanted their child to outshine all other students in the class, but we weren’t supposed to show favoritism. We were often accused of favoring one child over another, while at the same time being forced to favor each child.
I lived in constant fear of the parents and their constantly changing demands.
2. Sick Days? No way!
Before I start, at our school it actually was very hard, if not impossible, to have a teacher fill in for you all day. All teachers were given scheduled breaks that varied each day of the week, so there is no concept of a substitute teacher that can fill in all day for you.
Now that being said…considering the difficulty in having a substitute teacher, we were often encouraged to teach even while ill. We are also expected to maintain our energy, and are discouraged from sitting around too much. I spent almost a whole day feverish, shaking, and ill before my boss finally agreed to let me go to the doctors office down the street. Turns out I had severe dehydration, and had to be placed on an I.V for over two hours. As a result, I wasn’t able to return for my afternoon classes and my boss actually had to fill in for me. Which, I’m sure, inconvenienced her greatly.
I know one teacher had caught a stomach bug, and despite frequently running to the bathroom, remained to teach. In my one year of teaching, I heard my boss has fainted several times.
3. Despite being in my contract, overtime pay was NOT a thing
I believe this is a culture difference. I’m American, so when my contract says working hours are 9-5, then I take that to heart. Don’t take me wrong, I’m more than willing to work after hours if needed, but we all have our limits.
Everyday we clocked in and out in a folder on the main desk. My contract definitely stated that if I worked more than 40 hours a week then I would receive overtime pay. After my first two months, I never received any overtime pay, despite staying after hours many times. It wasn’t a huge deal to me, but I thought to myself, “Then why do I need to stay here after 5?”
Kindergarten teachers, as you can imagine, spend a lot of time preparing crafts, worksheets, and things that can easily take up a lot of time. So I decided that I would rather go home and do my prep work in my pajamas while watching Netflix, instead of sitting at my desk at work. However, I later heard that my boss thought I was lazy and she couldn’t understand why I went home exactly at 5. I had to go out of my way to explain to her that I did my prep work at home since it is more comfortable and I usually used my breaks to prepare, instead of resting like many teachers did.
4. I felt bad for the kids
Each day had it’s own schedule of classes. Classes consisted of Journal Writing, Language Arts, Math, Chinese, Korean, Music, Gym, Science, Reading, and more. Bear in mind, my students were not even 5 years old. They spent most of the day in uniforms at their desk or table. Each week had a theme that classes were based around. I initially liked to do a lot of drawing and story telling. I thought it helped the kids express their ideas and imagination. Their parents did not like that.
At the request of their parents, I had to do more worksheets, spelling tests, grammar tests, and homework. Something that I personally believe 5 year old children do not need in large doses. I had one student who broke out in tears because he wrote his name with a lower case letter instead of an upper case one. When I asked him why he was crying he said, “My mom told me if I do it again she will get mad at me. Please don’t tell her.” It really broke my heart to see a 5 year old so stressed out about a simple mistake.
I had one student who, bless her little heart, rarely spelled a word correctly on a spelling test, and her mom was just so pleased to see her writing in English, but I had another mom who forced her daughter to write her spelling words over and over and over and over. When her daughter got it wrong on the test, she would get very upset with her and made her practice more. That little girl often told me she hated homework because her mom would get mad at her while doing it.
For me, it was just heart-breaking to see and I really struggled with that on a daily basis. I often faced stress and pressure from the parents, which I believe I pushed onto the students as well. I hated that I did that to them. I felt so sorry to them, and about half way through the year I realized that I had to tell students “Good job! You’re so smart. You did great,” and many other words of encouragement.