(This post is part 2 of my two-part series on teaching English in Korea and Mexico. Part 1 focused on the differences between the students. This part will focus more on my role, my responsibilities, and the working cultures.)
I like being a teacher. I really do.
While I can’t deny that I originally did a teaching course to fund my travels, I quickly discovered that it’s something I really enjoy doing. I get a kick out of it and I love working hard at something I’m passionate about.
Being a teacher for a language school in Mexico City and a high school in Korea are two very different things though. Where do I even start?
Schedule – Mexico
It’s been two years since I worked at the school in D.F. so I don’t have exact copies of my timetable any more but this is generally how it went:
Work started at 7am. I’d leave my house at around 6am (sometimes a little earlier) to travel across the city to a large office building. That first class – held in a meeting room – would usually run from 7am-9am. Perfect timing for students to get in a bit of learning before work started.
Most of them would come in with coffee cups and a little something for breakfast but I don’t ever remember them looking too tired for class.
There were some beautiful sunrises and views from the windows of those early morning classes.
After class, I’d head home to work on something for their next class (usually in the next 2 days).
Somewhere between 11am-midday, I’d leave my house and head out to another office across the city. These lessons would run somewhere between 1.5-2 hours (depending on how long the students had for lunch). That’s right – they’d use their lunch break to go to English class.
When that class finished, I’d head back home again to grab some lunch of my own and work on more lesson planning.
If the lunchtime class had run for only 1.5 hours, I’d head to another office to teach my 3rd class of the day (somewhere between 3.30pm-5.30pm).
And then at around 6.30pm, I’d head over to the school itself to give my final class of the day for 2 hours (which always ran from 7pm-9pm).
This was pretty much the schedule from Monday-Friday. On Saturdays I’d come into the school to teach one class from 9am-12.30pm.
Four classes a day doesn’t seem like much but you have to remember that each class took an average of an hour to get to and another hour to get back from. Mexico City’s one of the biggest places in the world and the school I worked for wasn’t about to let anyone miss out on lessons just because they weren’t in the area.
I lost count of how many peseros, subway trains, and metrobuses I took each week but it wasn’t such a bad thing. That travel time meant you could get on with work, catch up on reading, or even catch a few winks.
Schedule – Korea
In Korea, my working hours run from 9am-5pm. But, on Thursdays, I’m usually at the school until 7pm because I give after-school classes. This is my current schedule:
On Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, I’m at my beauty school. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I’m at my horticulture school. There’s 50 minutes for lunch between periods 4 and 5.
When I don’t have a class, I sit at my desk in the teacher’s office. I only see each class once a week.
My Role in Mexico
In Mexico City, my official job title was ‘EFL Teacher’ and I taught for a total of 25.5 hours per week. I taught alone and my class sizes varied: Sometimes classes held as many as 18 students; Sometimes I taught one-to-one.
As the language school was a business, my job was to ensure that these students learnt as much as possible from the course so that they could pass their final exam and move up a level to the next course. I planned lessons around textbooks, I created extra activities to challenge them (there was no Waygook.org to save your arse at the last minute; You had to be a little more creative), I gave homework, I wrote and graded exam papers, and I wrote end-of-course reports for each and every student.
Every now and again I was asked to come in and invigilate other classes while they were taking exams. Teacher meetings were compulsory and often included extra training in specific fields.
My time in between classes was spent planning for the next one because I usually saw each class twice a week. Each class was usually working with a completely different textbook and syllabus to the others so I could very rarely recycle materials.
And, even though the school was first and foremost a business so there was pressure from the head director to ensure the students passed everything and paid for the next course, the teaching itself was good.
In Mexico you shouldn’t expect to get paid much but I’ve since learned that the school I worked for may have taken advantage of inexperienced teachers who didn’t know any better. They offered incredible opportunities for training and progressing your teaching career but they underpaid everyone. And all those different trains and buses to get to and from your classes? Not covered.
I don’t teach for the money. But after a year of dedicating yourself to a job you love that also sees you struggling to pay for a 5 peso metro ticket during the week before payday – let alone fresh water for your house or a bag of rice to ensure you’re actually able to eat -, you start to get a little overwhelmed. (My bad for not having any savings.)
(I’ve since learned that there are hundreds of schools in D.F. that offer much better salaries for this kind of work. I would still recommend my former school to new teachers though; They really know how to help everyone get started.)
Eventually I started teaching private classes on a Saturday afternoon to earn a little bit extra.
I hated that my priorities had come down to money because that’s not why I started teaching. But, y’know, that’s real life. You do what you have to do.
My Role in Korea
In Korea, my official job title is ‘Native English Teacher.’
I see 16 classes once a week and plan my lessons around some sort of listening activity from the book. I plan 5 lessons a week – two for my 1st graders; two for my 2nd graders; and one for my after-school class.
Now that this is my 2nd year at these schools, my workload has been cut down quite a bit. I’m able to recycle and adapt material I worked on last year with the previous students and it rarely takes more than an hour each.
During my classes, I work with a co-teacher who is there to translate anything difficult and to help discipline anyone who’s getting a little too boisterous or lippy.
Most of what I teach will not end up on the exams but, at the end of every semester, I am given the opportunity to hold the speaking tests and grade each student on their abilities.
That’s pretty much it. I don’t have to worry about paperwork; I don’t write or grade exam papers; And the only lesson plans I have to submit are for my after-school classes.
There’s a lot of free time. When classes are cancelled, I sit at my desk. When exams are on, I sit at my desk. When the school is on vacation, I sit at my desk. Deskwarming is a huge part of teaching in public schools in Korea. There’s barely any responsibility.
And there are two types of native English teachers at the public schools:
1) Those that get fed up of having so much deskwarming time
2) Those that tell the first group to shut up and just enjoy getting paid to do nothing.
The second group have a point but I do wonder if they’re part of that expat crowd who treat their time here like one big holiday (more on that in my next post).
Deskwarming’s fine for a few hours – Sometimes it’s nice to take a break – but I love teaching. I came here to teach; Not sit at my desk.
I guess you’re expected to use that time to study and improve your teaching skills … which is a joke. I learned very quickly that any skills I’ve picked up from my teaching course or past working experience clashes with how schools are run here. I don’t see my students enough to try out a lot of techniques and most of my co-teachers want fun activities and games rather than a proper lesson.
I’ve learned how to use my deskwarming time productively though: I take online Korean lessons and I’m currently doing a course in Forensic Psychology.
So there’s that.
The truth is though, that compared to my last teaching job, this one feels more like assisting. Or entertaining. Or babysitting. And, a lot of the time, it’s really not that stimulating anymore.
When I first arrived, I struggled and worked hard at trying to get through to these kids. Once I found a way to alter my lessons, it got easier. And now it’s a breeze.
Quite a few people describe the role of a native English teacher here as more of a ‘walking audio box.’ You’re kind of there as a way for students to come into contact with someone from another culture and hear how people speak English fluently. Our classes aren’t necessarily there to learn the things they’ll need for exams (the most important things of all); They’re there to practice English, pick up a new phrase or two, and play games.
And it’s certainly not a priority.
When I’m teaching, I enjoy it. I love interacting with my students because most of them are hilarious. Outside of the 50 minute class though, you’re given so little to do that you can start to feel restless.
Of course, it goes without saying that these are just my experiences. I’ve only ever taught at public high schools in Korea and I’ve only ever taught at a language center in Mexico. Teaching elsewhere might give you different results.
Will I eventually move on to a different job? Absolutely
But, for now, this is what it is.
And, even though these roles are very different. I can’t complain. I’m in an incredibly privileged position.
While the work here isn’t that challenging, it’s still a job and I couldn’t be more grateful for how lucky I am. I’m getting a good salary, I have excellent holiday time, and I live in a rent-free apartment. I’m also getting the opportunity to challenge myself in other ways by living in a new part of the world, learning a new language, taking care of old finances, and studying things in other fields.
And even though I know I won’t stay at this job forever, for now, it’s those crazy kids who turn up for those 50 minute classes that make it all worthwhile.