Ten things you need to know to survive at a Korean public school.

This is really a sort of love letter to my co-teachers. I've spent a lot of time talking with them about various things, and they've been really good to me over the last 18 months. They've gone out of their way to explain things, help me to understand, and been patient as hell with my strops and my struggles with Korean work culture. They're dealing with a lot. And I feel like we really owe it to them to be as understanding in return as we can manage. But you can't do that without knowing and understanding all of the things they're up against, as well as a few things they don't always know how to explain to us properly, because they've never experienced our point of view.

So here are ten things you need to know to enter the Korean public school work environment and not have about a thousand aneurysms per hour in your first few months.

1. They didn't know either.

They didn't know that you actually would have summer camps this year. They also didn't know that you would be teaching a parents' class starting next week. They didn't know that you're both expected to attend a "business trip" this afternoon, which means you won't be getting home until 7 pm (and they don't have to just cancel their coffee date with a friend -- they have to find a way to get their kids home from school, fed and off to hagwon in their absence). They didn't know that you have a school dinner tonight that will probably go on until 9 pm. Nobody bothered to tell them, either. And they get to call their grumpy, overworked spouse and inform them of this, right after they have to tell you and deal with yet another chilling dirty look and lecture from you about how you can't be expected to rearrange your schedule at the drop of a hat, and how you can't believe they're just now informing you of this.

Once you start speaking enough Korean to understand the messages that pop up on your screen all day long, you'll start to find out exactly how much notice the Korean teachers get for things (about thirty seconds more than you do, in general).

2. Your sick days are imaginary.

This one made me really, really angry when I first caught on to it, as well, so I don't blame you for getting really self-righteous when you read this one. But I did eventually just get over it. I don't really know how.

Teachers in Korea don't take sick days. Ever. They will push themselves and push themselves until they end up with a serious medical condition. Then they will take a leave of absence to stay in the hospital for a month. I don't know. Don't ask me. But they're dragging their pathetic, sick asses to work, and they will, generally, expect you to as well. Or, on the other hand, if you do call in sick, they will assume you are actually dying. Because that's what condition they would be in if they called in. They are not familiar with our culture of concern about spreading viruses and the idea that a good solid day's rest in bed is the best cure for most things, or the concept of a little rest now being better than having to take a long rest later. They largely have not lived or worked abroad. They're just not aware of it, and they don't understand it. So try to be understanding of that.

If you call in sick, this is what you can expect:

1. Come to school and the school nurse will take care of you.
2. Come to school so the principal can see that you're really sick.
3. I am coming to your house to take you to the hospital.
4. I am coming to your house to bring you food.
5. I am coming to your house to bring you food, bring you to school so the principal can see you're really sick and the school nurse can evaluate you and then I'm taking you to the hospital.

Just start getting over it now. It's not going to change just because you don't like it, or even because it actually doesn't make sense.

And, just so you know, this is all coming from your principal. Your co-teacher doesn't give a rat's whether you come in or not. Sure, they may have to teach two extra classes that day, but that's not what it's about. It's about the fact that the VP and P are going to be breathing down their necks about the entire ordeal, and they are expected to get answers, and they are put in the incredibly uncomfortable position of forcing you into work when you are genuinely sick and don't want to go, because the principal told them to. And in Korea, when the principal tells you to do something, you do not say no. They are not enjoying this ordeal anymore than you are. In fact, they not only get to deal with the VP and P, and cover your classes, but they get to spend any free periods they may have left picking up juk to bring you at your apartment, driving you to the hospital and translating an uncomfortable conversation between you and the principal.

3. Your co-teachers have six jobs (your "handler" has at least ten).

Yes. Your co-teacher forgot to tell you that classes start at 8:40 on Wednesday instead of 9:30. What a bitch, right? How hard is it to just let you know something as crucial as that?

What your co-teacher is also not telling you is that she has been at work until 11 pm every night this week writing a 100 page curriculum book for each of the three leveled classes your school now has to present to the parents on the upcoming open class day, which she was told she needed to have done by Friday on Monday. She also isn't telling you that she's had to arrive at school at 7 am every morning this week to act as the fucking crossing guard. The order form for new materials for the EOZ is due this afternoon, she just spent her entire lunch period doing the paper work for your vacation time, and now she's running over an inventory list of all of the items in your apartment to submit to the MOE. She has a student who's parents abandoned him and his three little siblings during the night, who she is expected to find care for. High school applications are due in a month, and 20 of her students have yet to decide where they want to apply, and it's her responsibility not only to help them to decide, but to help each one of them fill in the applications, prepare for all the various school's entrance exams and finish portfolios. She will also be taking a number of them on school visits this month after work in her "free time". She's teaching four after school classes a week, and she's in charge of the English Club that meets every Wednesday.

Are you getting the idea? So yeah. She forgot to tell you about the schedule change. Why don't you just blow up at her about it and complete her day?

4. Korean teachers don't eat their brought lunches in the cafeteria, either.

This is going to seem like a really odd thing to address, but given the number of times I've heard foreigners completely flip their shit over this one, I thought I'd throw it in here.

If you don't want to eat the school lunch (which I highly advise you just do, no matter how awful you think it is, at least for a while, because food is a huge part of community in Korea -- see number 10 on this list), you are likely to be asked to eat your lunch in the teacher's rest room (literally rest room -- not the bathroom). I don't know exactly why this is. But I do know that Korean teachers, if they are bringing their lunch, will also take them to the rest room. I know that it has something to do with being respectful, although I can't tell you why exactly. They are not singling you out or trying to ostracize you because you're not eating the school food. It's just what they do. Don't have a panic attack about it.

5. Yes, the schedule really did just get set right this very minute.

I know the schedule your co just handed you says that your first class finally started two minutes ago, after you've spent 45 minutes milling about the office, listening to the school song on repeat and wondering where the hell everyone is. Welcome to School Playground Meeting Day. It's a chance for the principal to talk into a microphone and feel like a mini-dictator for about half an hour every month or two. The meeting doesn't end until the principal finishes talking, and then the students finish duck walking around the sand pit as punishment for not being able to stop themselves from conducting all levels of nonsense while the principal was talking. The ladies downstairs in the office just sent out the cool message with the day's schedule (which was just decided, depending on when the afore mentioned activities ceased) attached. No one else is in class yet either, and won't be for another ten minutes. Don't worry about it.

6. Exams trump all else. Including your class.

If you get wind that exams are coming (and, it would seem, most of the year they are), start preparing yourself for all kinds of random, hectic last minute changes to your schedule and class cancellations. You'll figure out the pattern eventually, but you can trust that in one form or another, it's in the post. Teachers who are behind in the material (and they almost always are) will need your class periods to get the students caught up before the exams. The students can't be tested on material they haven't been taught. That means that, as much as the little darlings may love your classes, they're going to get yanked. And in a really random, haphazard manner as well (one co-teacher may be finished already, while another may be three weeks behind and start asking for your time as far ahead). They'll also push the time limits on this one, seeing if they can actually finish before having to yank your time, because they don't want to be disrespectful. Which means you may not find out your class isn't coming until five minutes ahead of time.

They're not trying to fuck with you -- in fact, they're trying not to fuck with you. But it comes out all wrong sometimes. Just be patient, and, if it really bothers you, ask them if they can let you know a little further in advance next time. But don't be surprised when they don't.

7. It's Model Airplane Flying Day!

It's Bottle Rocket Day! It's Physical Exam Day! Congratulations. Surprise. You have no classes. I don't know. But you don't get a whole hell of a lot of days off. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

By the way, the calendar they put there on your desk? Check it for red days every month. And if there's a red day in the middle of the week, ask your co-teacher about it. You may have several days off in a row. They're going to forget to tell you all of this at times because, to them, the red days are coveted, expected, well-known and looked-forward-to. They can't believe everyone in the world isn't already aware of the red days. If you miss a red day on the calendar, you can expect to show up to locked doors and an empty school in the morning. Without exception, you don't have work on red days.

Also, ask about National Exam Day. A lot of schools close, but some don't. Ask about it and find out.

8. Yes, your co-teacher is ALWAYS FUCKING LATE TO CLASS.

So are your students. Welcome to Korea. This is called "Korea Time". It's always running anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes later than the rest of the world. It's okay. You can be five minutes late to class as well.

No, Liz! That's setting a bad example for the students! They should be in their seats and ready to start learning when the bell rings!

Go ahead and try to stick to that if you want to. Good luck with it.

Look -- students in Korea spend anywhere from half to three fourths of their lives at school (way more if you factor in hagwon). Their homeroom teachers are like their mothers. They even have chores. It's a homey environment, and I, personally, really like that. That means that the bells are much softer than they are in our less personal Western school system. They're just not as uptight about it as we are.

Also, your co-teachers have homeroom classes. This means they have 40 little cherubs they are responsible for sorting out in the ten minutes between classes. Last period, ten of your co-teacher's little angels decided to gang up and perform a coup in the math teacher's class. She's expected to collect them from the four corners of the earth, round them up in the office, sufficiently lecture them, call all of their mothers and give them apologies to write. And at the last minute, a student comes in to tell her that Seonghyeon just shattered the classroom window with a baseball, and Woohyeok broke his arm sliding down the staircase banister. And now her cell phone is ringing because Joonyeop's mom would like to know why he did so poorly on the history exam. So yeah. She was ten minutes late to class. Again. Give her a fucking break, will you?

9. I think Common Sense is something different in Korea.

I don't really get it either yet, but it seems to be symptomatic of the culture as a whole, so you might as well just get used to it. What I mean is that, really really often things seem to be explained to me on a case-by-case basis, when someone could just give me a whole bushel of information at once and be done with the confusion. But it just doesn't happen that way. Pretty much ever.

Here's an example: Right now, my classes are divided by level. This means that I am not only teaching in the English Only Zone, but also the classrooms. It's divided like this: A level classes are in the EOZ. B level classes are in rooms 7-12 of the divided combined classes. C level classes are in rooms 1-6 of the divided combined classes. Those are the places I need to be at those times. It's pretty simple when you have it explained that way. Instead of explaining it that way, however, I was handed a schedule with things like 3-6B written on them. Now. Given that 6 is the number written on the paper, I assumed 6 was the number of the class I needed to be in. Not so. So, for two weeks I had to ask my co-teacher every period where my next class was. I had to try to remember to write it all down when she told me, but sometimes in the rush between classes, I would forget and have to ask again. Each time, my co simply answered that one question. Finally, I asked her just to give me a list of which classroom each class meets in. She said, "Oh, it's simple." And gave me the explanation I gave above. Why didn't she do that in the first place? I don't know.

The only answer to this one I can think of is that information in Korean work culture is often given to subordinates on a need-to-know basis, and "need-to-know" in Korea has a slightly different definition than in a Western workplace. That's my best guess. I really don't know. But it's going to happen over and over and over during your time here. Just accept it now and get used to trying to think of simplifying questions ahead of time.

The other part of this is that you're a foreigner. You don't know the Korean school system at all, and to the teachers who have been working in it for years and sometimes decades, as well as having grown up in it themselves, a lot of things that seem really obvious to them are going to be completely out of your sphere of information. For example, it took me ages (or months) to work out that the school year in Korea is opposite of in the US, meaning it starts in the spring and ends in the winter. That would seem to be important information to give the foreign teacher, right? But if a Korean teacher showed up at your school in the US, given that you've never stepped foot on Korean soil and don't know a damn thing about the Korean school system, how would you know to tell the Korean teacher that our school starts in the fall and ends in the summer? Examples of this kind of thing are endless. To you, it will seem obvious that someone should have told you this. To the Korean teachers, it seems obvious that they would have no way of knowing they would need to tell you this.

10. "Should" means "have to".

In Western culture, we follow rules. We do what we are told we have to do. In Korean culture, you do what you should do. "Should" does not mean the same thing to a Westerner as it does to a Korean. This is going to be a source of a lot of conflict and confusion in conversations with your co-teachers. They generally don't understand why, after telling you you should do something, you've decided not to. You generally won't understand why, after being told you don't have to do something, you're still being told that you don't have to do it, but that, basically, you have to do it. Just start translating it in your head from the beginning, and things will end up being a lot clearer. Of course, you should not allow anyone to exploit or take advantage of you. I'm not saying that you have to do things that your contract doesn't cover -- what I'm saying is, when you hear your co-teacher say you should do something, you need to start operating under the assumption that they are trying to tell you that you have to. Starting from that basic place of understanding (without going too crazy with it and getting bent out of shape before you know what's up, in each individual case) will generally save you a lot of trouble and miscommunication.


Anonymous said...

Ah, the should one, I'd forgotten about that. Definitely one for the list.

I find it more funny when English speakers who have been in Korea for a long time start to use these Korean Englishisms without thinking about it.

Burndog said...

Great list. Do you mind if I pilfer some of it for my speech? There are things that the new GEPIK teachers should hear...and I haven't got them in my speech (who can remember everything all of the time??).

Random said...

This is an awesome post. And...

"Common sense is something different in Korea." <--- true at all schools

CeilingofStars said...

This post is completely and absolutely brilliant. I've only recently started to realize how tough the other teachers at my school have it, and I feel really bad when I get stressed out or annoyed at them for changing my schedule at the last minute or forgetting to tell me something or not being able to drop things right there and help me out.

In the states, your teacher might say, "I'm really busy with this exam right now; I'm sorry I can't help you. You can ask _______ or come talk to me after 6th period."

But here, the teachers don't have the luxury of a. directly refusing your request, b. shoving you onto someone else, c. knowing what their future schedule entails, or d. having any real free time to help you at all.

Anyway, my point is - excellent post. I think it should be required reading for all new teachers in Korea.

Btw this is Reise-ohne-Ende from Dave's ESL if you're wondering. :P

Diana said...

And "why don't you try...?" from a superior or older person means "have to" also. Don't forget that one!

I'm no Picasso said...

Asdalthought -- The should/have to think took a while. My friend Mike, who was teaching here with me last year, and I had a good laugh one day after work because his co had told him he should do something. We had already caught on to the implication of this word, so Mike asked, "I should or I have to?"

His co sucked air in through his teeth, tilted his head to the side and said, "Almost have to, Michael. Almost have to."

Burndog -- Help yourself. I figure the more the new teachers hear this kind of stuff, the happier they'll be in their new work environments. And the happier our co-teachers will be with us. And the happier our reputation will get. Good all around.

Random -- Haha thanks. And I think it's just true everywhere in Korea.

Tiffani -- I've been wondering about you! How are you settling in?

Yeah it helps a lot to try to see things from their perspective. For whatever reason, they seem hesitant to bring up all the stress they're under until they know you better, so it can be hard to understand why all this stuff happens, and there's no explanation or excuse offered at all. There are reasons for it -- they just don't like to complain all the time by giving them.

Stephen Beckett said...

Your comment above reminds me of something that was once said to a friend of mine. His head of department caught him as he was leaving the office and informed him of a meeting that he was about to commence. Being as he was ready for home, he asked if attendance was mandatory. 'Somewhat...' was his edifying reply.

Great post, by the way.

t-hype said...

Wow. This post is SO choice.

This is the 2nd year at my school and I really hadn't gotten the depth of point #1 until this time around when a couple of new English teachers got hired. I asked them if they were going to lunch in the cafeteria and they're like, "Wha...we have a...where's..." Right. So no one even mentioned there WAS a cafeteria. The poor girls had been trekking out to a restaurant every day. Can't blame it on the language barrier. They're both Korean!

As for the lateness, I don't bother my coteachers about it, but I've started getting my girls for it. If they wander in late--and boy do some of them wander--they have to stay 3 minutes extra after class. I make them write their student numbers on the board and write them down in my notebook. If I were to notice a pattern with a particular student, I can let their homeroom teacher know. It's been pretty positive so far. When the girls see I'm not exactly incensed or anything a lot of them try to chat with me a bit. Bonding with students + English conversation time = win-win! ^_^ (And the lateness has decreased considerably.)

MikejGrey said...

Almost have to. MhmmmmHHHmmmm

Did I ever tell you about the fight one of my co-teachers had with the principal over the yearbook?

It always made me feel better that the korean teachers were just as disgruntled as I was/am.

CeilingofStars said...

Liz, I'm doing really well! My school is really great, all things considered. I'm so happy I remembered to add you to my RSS feed; your posts are so great. :3

You can follow me on http://reiseohneende.tumblr.com . But as a warning, I tend to only write when I'm pissed off about something, so sometimes the posts are a little...ranty. :P

Good to catch up with you again!

james said...

Great article. I am a teacher trainer, so I'll be passing this on to a whole bunch of Korean teachers. Hopefully that'll help everyone understand each other a little better.

I'm no Picasso said...

Stevie Bee -- There definitely seems to be a hesitance to make "have to" issues explicit, although they most ceratinly are explicit. Who knows.

t-hype -- In general, I will harrass the students about coming in late, the standard line being, "Congratulations! You found the classroom!" Which always gets a few guffaws. But, at least at my school, it's an uphill battle when teachers think nothing of holding students in the offices/classrooms past the bell for all manners of reasons. You have no way of validating who is or isn't telling the truth about that. You just have to watch for patterns, and get the ones who are obviously just meandering in whenever the fancy strikes them.

Mike -- That's the really important thing to remember. That 95% of the time the Korean teachers think everything is just as stupid and annoying as we do. It will just take them a while to start openly talking about it to you.

Tiffani -- God knows I've done my fair share of ranting, especially after just having arrived. It's only natural. You'd explode otherwise. I hope things are going quite well for you though, for the most part. Where are you at?

James -- that's great. Thanks so much for the compliment. And hopefully this can help the Korean teachers understand us a bit better as well. You might want to do a thorough sweep for four letter words though, before you hand it out. I tend to be a bit...

CeilingofStars said...

Things are definitely going well. I'm in Busan, near Seomyeon. Where are you??

I'm no Picasso said...

In Incheon, on the whole other diagonal part of the country. We'll have to organize a meetup somehow, sometime.

CeilingofStars said...

Absolutely. I'll come visit you, and you're always welcome down here - whether you're living in Korea or not. :)

iPod said...

This part is funny:

"1. Come to school and the school nurse will take care of you.
2. Come to school so the principal can see that you're really sick.
3. I am coming to your house to take you to the hospital.
4. I am coming to your house to bring you food.
5. I am coming to your house to bring you food, bring you to school so the principal can see you're really sick and the school nurse can evaluate you and then I'm taking you to the hospital."

I super like this post and I also agree with all of these.

Anonymous said...

Lumped in with the "They didn't know either"/six jobs/always late thing is that your coteachers have the same problems that you do, sometimes. I had a lot of interactions with the head teacher at my visiting school that I thought were infuriating for a host of reasons, mainly that she pretended to understand me when really she had no idea what I was saying.
But I kept it to myself for the semester, until one day close to Christmas, my coteacher witnessed one of these exchanges, and afterwards patted my shoulder and said, "She is very difficult." I shrugged and said something about how I should study Korean harder, and she laughed and said, "That won't help. She is very deaf, but does not tell anyone, so it is very difficult to talk with her."

Chanel said...

This post was very good and very funny, as I myself have experienced many of the same thing in the elementary school. Sometimes I still don't understand why a schedule can't be made ahead of time; after all, that is why the word 'planning' was created... right?

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled upon your blog by accident, and I'm glad that I did.

This is a great post, and I agree completely with all of your points... especially the part about checking the calendar for red days. I also requested a copy of the school calendar and keep it beside my computer. Just by reading at it at the beginning of each month, 90% of potential 'surprises' have been eliminated.

My middle school has two foreign teachers, an American guy and me. He's a great co-worker but unfortunately he's leaving in February, and I'll be getting a new co-worker. If they happen to be new to the public school system, this will be the first thing I'll show them.

Thank you. :)

Flint said...

I never taught in a public school but most of what you said can be applied to hagwons. Good advice.