I fly in eight days time. Eight more sleeps, as we used to put it when we were kids. I’ve bought all the things I need to, I’m partially packed and having minor panic attacks about whether or not I’ll be able to fit everything in my bags and not go over the limit. Right now, I doubt it, but I’ll keep trying.
But what I’m really thinking about right now are the reports from current and past ESL teachers in Korea that talk about all the negatives – things like the fact that one’s students do not actually want to learn English, and how much of a barrier this presents, and the fact that your co-teachers may not actually regard you as a ‘real’ teacher, not like they are.
The thing is, while reading these posts, I remember the first few months of lecturing at TUKS. It was miserable. I hated my job so much, and myself as a consequence. Teaching was much more difficult than I’d expected, and I hadn’t bargained on two facts:
- My students really did not want to be in my class, nor did they believe that they needed it. This meant that getting them to respond, turn their work in on time (or at all), or even just to turn up was a struggle.
- When lecturing EOT, I often felt as though I wasn’t a ‘real’ lecturer, and that neither my students nor staff from other departments regarded my subject as a real subject, and they didn’t regard me as a real lecturer either.
The fact that my office was on the 17th floor felt a bit like a cruel joke, and a very real invitation. I don’t say this lightly – my job made me suicidal. I genuinely felt every little jab from my students – every time they came in late or were rude, or when I’d notice that class attendance was lower than it had been the previous week – it all felt personal. Every mistake I made was catastrophic.
Every single one of these things affected every other part of my life. I couldn’t focus on anything other than how miserable my job made me. I dreaded leaving for work, I had to force myself to get out of my car in the parking lot, I had to psych myself up for class. I hated my students, and I hated myself for hating them. And this lasted pretty much all of my first semester.
When I look back on it, those months were not really as bad as I felt they were. The way I felt about my job was compounded by the fact that it was all somehow my fault. And if it was my fault, I was an inadequate teacher. And if I was an inadequate teacher, I could by no means let anyone in on this fact. Two of my friends lectured in the department, but I was too scared to ask them for help, because I was afraid of how useless I thought I was.
When I later got over this feeling and was explaining it to the friend who’d suggested I apply for the job, she told me that hating yourself and the job is normal.
And then she told me something else – when she had stormed out of one of her classes, and had contemplated quitting, a friend told her that it wasn’t bad that she felt so terrible. It meant that she cared. And caring is the first step toward being a good teacher. If she was a bad teacher, she wouldn’t care.
Also, I know now that I made it worse by not speaking to anyone about how much I hated my job. My self esteem had taken such a knock that I was sure that if asked for any help, I’d simply compound the situation, because my friends who worked in the department would realise I was useless, and I couldn’t have their opinions confirm what I already felt like. When I eventually managed to explain how much I disliked teaching, and my students, and such, their response was a bit more like this:
So I keep reading the posts about how difficult it can be moving to Korea and teaching there, and I take this as they come. I’m going to be teaching, and that in itself is a difficult thing to do. But I’m not going to let it colour my views of the rest of the country and my experience.
And then there’s something else:
Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.
– Baz Luhrmann
Therefore, here’s some advice to all the first time teachers I know:
1. Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to those of us who have taught before.
Not talking to my colleagues or asking for advice was far and away the stupidest thing I did. I have never met a group of people who are as willing to share their professional experience as teachers are. I cannot emphasise this enough. If you feel miserable, you are not alone. Other teachers will be willing to share ideas, listen to you complain about your classes and coworkers, and happily swap stories with you. Take advantage of that.
2. Remember that teaching can (and will) be magnificently rewarding.
However much difficulty you have in the beginning, and however tiresome your classes may be, teaching still finds ways of rewarding you. It doesn’t come in massive doses, but you’ll recognise those moments when they happen for you. For me, it was seeing a class grasp something that they didn’t before:
Or that one student that shyly said, “I like being in your class, miss…”
Or when I started to notice a marked (but not suspicious) improvement in my students’ work:
In fact, any of dozens of moments make teaching worth while. No matter how much I hated lecturing, these are the moments I’ll always remember about it. They outweigh all of the other bullshit I dealt with from my students.
3. Don’t neglect your life outside of teaching.
Teaching is draining. It tends to leave you wound up and on edge and if you don’t let go from time to time, you will go mental. And jump out of a window. Two of my colleagues and I went out on Thursdays. We drank pink tequila, ate cheese filled jalapenos (on a stick) and bitched and laughed. We called it Thursday on a Thursday (though sometimes it become Thursday on a Monday, and that one time they switched the timetable days, and it was really Thursday on a Monday). There was also the invention of marking parties, where we got together to do what is (to my mind) the worst part of lecturing – marking (literally) hundreds of exams. Those kinds of things I know I’m going to miss about the UAL.
Don’t neglect yourself, or your friendships. Things look less bleak when you have friends and good times to look forward to.
4. If things really start to look shit:
Remember that teaching is still a tough job. There are going to be days when you will hate it, and your students, and yourself. I would say “Don’t let it get to you,” but I’m still working on that myself. Try not to let it get to you. Don’t jump out of a window. Hold in there. Things get better. That much I can promise you.
PS. The other main concern that bloggers address is cultural differences and always feeling like a foreigner. I can’t address that yet, but I will once I get there.