An EPIK take on girl's middle school
by Jeff Lebow

We all go through life with a series of assumptions. When I was a hagwon teacher I had a lot of assumptions about Korean schools, most of which were based on my own experience in American schools. No one ever really sits down and explains exactly how Korean schools work to a hagwon teacher. Your Korean co-workers and your students just expect you to know, and occasionally you pick up information. But I never saw the full picture until I started working in a public school. 

After the relative simplicity of life in my small, quiet, corrupt private English institute, I found middle school at first to be a vast and confusing world. I was hired to work for the Korean government in their drive “towards globalization”. You may have heard of EPIK. It's a government-run program that recruits foreign teachers, trains them en masse, then disperses them to schools around the country. 

I was placed at Susung Girl's Middle School in Daegu. When I arrived at my new job, two of my six fellow English teachers met me and I soon learned that the school had never employed a foreign teacher. They were excited to have me in their school, but obviously didn't know what to expect. I was embarrassed by how much they bent over backwards to make me happy. First of all, since the government money for my housing hadn't materialized, my school took out a loan in order to move me into my apartment. Then, although not obliged by contract to provide even one single spoon for my apartment, they proceeded to ask and supply me with what I needed. (Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, big expensive appliances like a stove, refrigerator, and washing machine immediately popped into my mind.)

Adjusting to life in this huge school was more of a challenge. It's definitely different from my own junior high experience. We wear slippers, not shoes, in the school. The students each take about thirteen different required subjects and there are no electives here. Their schedules constantly rotate. Classes considered important, like Korean, meet five times a week, English meets four, they have Ethics twice, and Dance only once a week. Each class averages about 45students. I teach only the 7th and 8th grade students, and since both grades are divided into nine sections I teach each section only once a week. The students have their own homerooms, since it is seen as easier to move a handful of teachers than it is to move gaggles of girls. I also have my own “language room” where I teach extra classes for the most interested students. These classes are more about having fun with learning English, and understanding cultural differences.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is teaching other teachers. There are sixty of them, excluding myself. Imagine this: you are a minority, young, a woman, and new to your job. You have just been told to teach approximately 10 teachers. They are all older, have more teaching experience, and suffer from at least a few bad speaking habits. Sounds a little hairy if you don't want to tread on toes, right? Well, add this to the mix: the oldest male with the poorest English is your immediate supervisor. Now even in American culture it would be extremely awkward to expose his lack of ability.

Fortunately as time has passed we've all become much more accustomed to each other (and my old supervisor has retired).My regular classes are much less complicated. All my students were extremely interested to find out I had a brother near their age. “Is he handsome?” they choked out from behind their hands, blushing. The news that he had hair longer than me was almost a cause for collapse. After all, Korean middle schoolgirls are required to keep their hair above their uniform collar. This rigorous rule-keeping can be misleading though. Back in my hagwon days I thought that students in the schools must have that perfect behaviour I'd heard lauded before I arrived in Korea. What a joke! They are not mindless info sucking automatons sitting in neat ordered rows looking intently at the teacher. If I don't keep class interesting and change activities fairly often they will begin to “sneakily” do homework, write notes, or hide an open comic book in their lap. The girls have abilities which range from mildly retarded (yes, they attend normal classes) to genius level. It is a huge challenge to teach 45 students speaking and listening skills simultaneously (the other teachers cover reading and writing skills) and it's much harder since many will be bored cause it's drastically too easy or too hard for them.

Since they have to wear a uniform, their entire sense of style is expressed in non-regulation accessories... especially ones that can be quickly hidden when they see a hard-line teacher. They would have to be very hard pressed to mouth off to a teacher, but that doesn't mean they aren't grumbling and truculent. There are many things expected of them that I can not imagine a student doing when I was in school (and as long as a teacher isn't watching, they often don't do them either). For example, we don't need a janitorial staff-we've got students! That includes gathering the fallen leaves of autumn and scrubbing out the toilets in the bathroom used by the male teachers and administrators. When I was a student I never had to worry about being whacked with a rod if I was screwing off. But although corporal punishment was outlawed in Korean classrooms a couple years back, it is still fairly common particularly among the older instructors.

All in all I love being a public school teacher. Yes, there are masses of red tape and I am required to be here from nine to five every day. On the other hand, unlike my co-workers, I don't come in on Saturdays. No one ever changes a book on me halfway through the course, I get paid on time, and I have a lot more job satisfaction than I ever did back in my hagwon. I've got large classes, but I don't have to worry about students dropping out and the boss getting all bitchy about it. Most of my co-workers can't speak much of any English, but they treat me fine as long as I conform to their ideas of propriety.

Working at a middle school is not a dream job, but it's a good life. I'm just glad I'm one of the teachers and not one of the students.

This article originally appeared in The Exit, June 1999, and is reproduced here for educational and informational purposes. Please contact the author for re-publication information.