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The Shabby Treatment of Native English Teachers Living in South Korea

Posted on the 25 May 2013 by Smudger @ChristopherSm73
The Shabby Treatment of Native English Teachers Living in South KoreaA few months ago a friend of mine asked my advice about working in South Korea.  He said he had read some horror stories and general stories of discontent on the internet and was worried about coming.  At the time I reassured him that all was not that bad, and very often it is not, but the Korean government's plan for native teachers and the attitude within individual schools is at present poor to say the least.
Following on from my last post where I complained generally about the problem of not understanding people from other countries in Korean culture, this post is going to examine the issue related to the job the vast majority of Westerners find themselves in when they come to Korea.  I think every foreign teacher living in Korea knows about the drawbacks of the system the country puts in place for teaching English to its young people and its limitations regarding it use of native teachers, but here I will focus mainly on the problems of inflexibility and understanding.
I think most native teachers brush-off the problems they have with their schools as cultural misunderstandings, however annoying they might be, and that it is all part of the 'backwards land' experience.  Some, of course, are genuine misunderstandings and communication problems that can't be helped but a great many issues go much deeper than this.
I have written before that the treatment of all workers within Korea is poor.  It is especially bad for Koreans themselves and I have focused on this aspect rather than native English teachers and other foreign workers.  Even though I accept that foreign teachers probably have things a lot easier than their Korean and particularly South East Asian counterparts, things are still unacceptable.  This also affects the reputation of Korea itself as it causes a fair amount of bitterness in people who have visited Korea for work.  Word has got around and the amount of negativity from former workers in South Korea can be felt in discussion forums and general comments on the internet and in everyday chinwags with friends back in their own countries.  This message is this; Korea is a backwards, rude, uncaring, and in many cases morally bankrupt, but if you are lucky you might just make a wad of cash there.
The Shabby Treatment of Native English Teachers Living in South Korea
The people who do say this kind of thing are the out and out doomsayers, the people who can say nothing good.  There are some great things about living in Korea and many fantastic aspects of the people and culture, as I have mentioned before.  When it comes down to relations with work colleagues and employers, however, I can't help but think that there is a great deal of truth to what the negative-nellies are saying.
I have lived in Korea for over 3 years now - on and off - and I have a had a great deal of experience within my schools and heard of friend's experiences within theirs.  I can tell you that the horror stories are true, as I have known people personally who have had them and nearly went through one myself, where the fact that I had a Korean family probably saved me from losing an awful lot of money, but didn't prevent me from having a truly awful 9 months in a job.  The general aches and pains are also true, I experience them often even in my current job, which I quite like.  What really annoys me is that in most of the annoying situations, cultural difference is simply not an excuse worth entertaining.  It is a cop-out, a reason to treat you badly, a reason to treat all employees badly, or a reason to remain ignorant and should not be accepted.
A classic story comes up time and time again from teachers all over the peninsula and this is the school changing their minds about vacation dates, even after they have confirmed things with you and your flights are all booked up.  Koreans are culturally famous for being rather last minute kind of animals, in schools they pull last minute classes and other duties on teachers all the time, but behavior of this kind is simply tantamount to the abuse of an individual's rights.  No understanding at all is given to the native teacher's life.  I rarely hear of refunds being given to teachers for flights, hotels or other bookings, not to mention the mental stress and strife of it all. 
In my own personal experience my school regularly comments on what a wonderful teacher I am, how 'diligent' I am (they love that word), and sometimes even how much they 'love' me.  However, when it comes down to helping me out, or even just performing their duties as written in my contract, I am given the cold shoulder and I have to fight tooth and nail to make them do anything for me.  Simply asking for a pay slip (stub), organising dates for holiday, or even have them sign a piece of paperwork feels like I have asked them to donate one of their kidneys to me.  I am incredibly independent in my job and I have a Korean family, so there aren't too many things I bother them for but when I do I am made to feel like a self-centred ass. 
If actions really do speak louder than words my school, as much as they talk a good game about me, the evidence seems to show that they have very little regard for me whatsoever.  I have to make my own meaning in my job and my students are the best.  Ironically, (from a Korean viewpoint at least) I have far greater respect for my students than I do for the vast majority of my co-workers because their actions do convey value in me as a teacher and as a person, something the so-called 'adults' at my school don't tend to achieve.  I genuinely respect my students, I just pretend to respect most of my co-workers.
I become more embittered by my school's lack of regard for my welfare when I think about how things would be if the situation were reversed and I was a Korean who was teaching Korean in England (not that this would actually happen, but join me in a thought experiment).  I am convinced that workers at schools in England would bend over backwards to make sure that their overseas teacher was well-informed, well-looked after, and was valued.  The higher amount of planning and organisation generally would also help. 
The difference is pure effort and a willingness to think about and try to understand another individual's feelings.  The 'Golden Rule' comes to mind here, 'do as you would be done by' or 'how would you feel in the same situation'.  This way of thinking seems remarkably absent in many Korean people, but not some much in young people who in my experience have a much more natural urge to value things like fairness and are less obsessed with dutes, status and petty jealousies (emphasis on 'less' especially with status and jealousy).
The Shabby Treatment of Native English Teachers Living in South Korea
The problem is foreign teachers in Korea are individuals, they are different and many Korean people make this very clear to us all everyday.  They then turn around a minute or two later and treat us as part of the group because it is convenient to them.  This is an extreme double standard and is a great reason why a culture that values the group over the individual has some issues with regard to morals.  In my experience most Koreans do this 'picking and choosing'.  They single out foreigners as different when it suits them whilst at the same time demanding that we behave as part of their group and the way a Korean would behave.
Of course, it is not only a non-Korean that meets the criteria of an 'outsider'.  This can be met by other Koreans who act differently or are even new to a job.  The whole attitude in the workplace is detrimental to the rights of individuals and always only works in favour of the old and powerful.  This must change; the average Korean workplace is immoral, unfair, and a very real dictatorship.  There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and co-workers who will buck this trend and care for others well, but the situation in workplaces is generally unacceptable for all in a developed country and let's not kid ourselves that this is all about cultural difference and brush it under the carpet.  Yes, it is a cultural difference but it is a divisive one.  When you fail to recognise, understand, and care about individuals, those in power are favoured and those under them suffer every time.  In this respect the native English teacher is very much in the same boat as the majority of Koreans, except we perhaps have a harder time accepting it.

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