I recently signed my “intention-to-renew” paperwork, nearly sealing my fate for one more year at Namak High School.
While I penned these papers not long ago, I happily resigned myself to renewal months earlier. Four months into my Korean experience I began weighing my blessings and my blights. Blessings won in blowout fashion. The scoreboard wasn’t even close.
However, I also learned that the Yeosu Office of Education snipped all high school jobs. While Yeosu is two-and-a-half bus-hours from Namak, the specter of budget cuts loomed in my mental front yard. If they can cut high school jobs in the biggest city in my province, they may cut my job too.
In an attempt to move on from my formerly fatalistic self, I steeled myself for the worst. I envisioned my life as an elementary or middle school teacher. I pictured myself packing my things and moving to a new part of Mokpo or elsewhere in the province. After visualizing these hardships, I still decided that I wanted to stay. Whether through transfer or renewal, I would stay in Korea for at least two years.
Fortunately, my co-teacher thwarted my worst fears.
“Ian, the principal said she’s worried.”
“The renewal paperwork came today. She thinks you may leave.”
“What? No. I want to stay.”
“Great. I will bring you the papers.”
The next day I brought my principal a small cup of blueberries per my Fruit Friday tradition. She beamed when I told her I would stay another year. Fortunately, the principal’s blessing is the single most important criteria for renewal.
Why did I make the decision to stay? What are those blessings that overpowered any complaint? Today I will be that douchebag who brags about his privileged life. If you want to stop reading here, I don’t blame you. Check back in next week.
I say “privileged” because much of my fortunes in Korea are luck-based. My placement was extremely fortunate. The school, co-workers, teaching schedule, location, and apartment all surpass my expectations.
I teach at a high school with no travel schools (many NET’s teach at two to as much a five schools per week). This is an increasingly rare position for Native English Teachers as Korea’s contracting budget forces many education offices to cut positions. Because research shows greater benefit for foreign language learning in prepubescent children, high school jobs are often the first to go. At orientation, I remember only 7 out of 60 new teachers assigned to high schools.
What is awesome about teaching high schoolers? Many students speak English at an intermediate to advanced level. Classes are easy to manage because every student either listens attentively or sleeps. Major classroom disruptions are rare. While some students idly chat as teenagers are apt to do, a simple sharp look or pause in my speaking normally resolves the matter,
Also, due to frequent high school testing, I sometimes come to school to the pleasant surprise of no classes. This gives me substantial time to prepare lessons, write, study online courses, or read for pleasure.
Finally, many high school NETs do not teach directly from a textbook. Instead, I have complete freedom to create the lessons I want. My co-teachers only provided two unspecific guidelines.
“Make the class fun.”
“Make sure they are speaking English.”
That’s it. With this freedom, I can experiment with different lesson ideas. Some lessons contain activities geared around a particular grammar structure.
“Pretend you skipped school for a week. Share with three students what you ‘have been doing.’”
In other lessons, I explore speaking opportunities around a particular topic.
“What are some important inventions you can think of? What are some benefits of that invention? What new problems does that invention create?”
I’m extremely grateful to not only have great freedom in lesson planning, but also supportive co-teachers who at times provide me great guiding advice. As a result, what was a taxing task 10 months ago is now much more effortless and fun.
What is awesome about having no travel schools? I only need to prepare two lessons per week. In the previous semester, because I was new to every student, I only needed to prepare one. This low planning requirement combined with diligence has produced a folder full of unused lesson plans. To date, I have 19 planned lessons that I can implement next semester. That is roughly two months worth of plans. Not all of them are good. Some may never see the classroom. Regardless, I am happy that my early conscientiousness has produced a wide window of possible procrastination. While I have no plans of procrastinating now, shit happens sometimes. It feels good to have ample wiggle room.
The best aspect of my job is the free time. This is true of many Native English Teachers. In my contract, I must work 40 hours per week with a maximum of 22 teaching hours. The remaining 18 are intended for lesson planning. My teaching hours currently stand at 16 and my lesson plans are abundant. This provides me with many working hours of self-directed activities. I have no manager looking over my shoulder making sure I’m doing work-related business. In Korea, showing up is most of the battle. As long as you have materials prepared for the next class and do not disturb your co-workers, what you do at your desk is your business. The amount of time I have to pursue hobbies and intellectual interests may be the single best aspect of this job.
What is great about my location? Almost too many things to name. Namak is the definition of up-and-coming. Fifteen years ago, it was a tiny farming village on the edge of Muan County. However, in 2008, Gwangju became a metropolis. That meant the Jeonnam government needed to relocate. Instead of settling in an established city, the government elected to create a new one – Namak. Once the government offices came to be, the surrounding city exploded.
Now Namak sports most modern conveniences of a medium-sized Korean city – Lotte Mart, McDonald’s, countless cafés, grocery stores, gyms, a glut of restaurants, and ample shopping – all shockingly new, all walking distance from my apartment. Namak also directly borders the city of Mokpo which provides even more opportunities for urban exploration. The border is so difficult to discern that Mokpo and Namak now feel like one city region.
However, despite the convenience and availability of necessities, living in a city could drain the soul if one is not careful. Fortunately, Namak’s suburban nature means nature is close at hand. I can ride my bike for ten minutes and hike a mountain. I can ride for five minutes and find a lovely park with a 1 km jogging circuit. I feel like I get the best of both worlds here.
Someday I will have to leave Korea and move home. Someday I will move on. Even though this place feels like Neverland, I am no Peter Pan.
However, for now, I will continue to appreciate the lucky position I have here. I will plan new weekend adventures, take more online courses, teach more classes, and make more memories. This opportunity may never come again in my life. So I plan to dance in this wonderland just a little bit longer.
I need this shirt when I travel. If anyone finds me lost and crying alone in a puddle of my own piss, they know to put me on the next flight to San Francisco.
I ran into this lovely portrait in another classroom. At least I know I would be a handsome bald man.
One Mokpo park has these lovely intentionally-overgrown gazebos. The natural shade is invigorating.
Just an example of my whiteboard one day. On one side the first graders played a game deciphering instructions by saying “this is how you…”
On the other side, I taught the second graders informal contractions. Some joked that asking “What kinda ice cream do you like?” sounds like “Wakanda ice cream do you like?”
Korea’s appreciation of English shows on its street signs. Nearly every one I’ve seen has both Korean and English script.
Due to my country’s current ineptitude in soccer, I have a new favorite team this World Cup. Korea Fighting!