Thoughts From Floor Seventeen, or How I Learned To Stop Hating My Job

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Oh no!
“Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! I sent the rude kid out of the class, and I told off the kid who walked in ten minutes late and now they all think I’m a bitch and they won’t listen to me and they’ll switch classes and be behind and…”

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.

So much of feeling like a llama in a puddle in the rain. Oh the melodrama.

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:

But with wine.
But with wine.

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:

yes doctor martha

Or that one student that shyly said, “I like being in your class, miss…”

I didn’t actually attack hug her, but I really wanted to.

Or when I started to notice a marked (but not suspicious) improvement in my students’ work:

And then I couldn’t stop grinning

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.

I’ll be around for hugs and unsolicited advice.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Thoughts From Floor Seventeen, or How I Learned To Stop Hating My Job

  1. Thank you for the advice, I will definitely keep it in mind being a first time teacher. I let things get to me and take it personally so I am trying to not let it happen as much. Hugs and advice are always welcome! As for cultural differences I am not as worried about that having been exposed to the culture previously. Though I’m sure I will be learning something new as well.

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    1. I’m not that worried about cultural differences to be honest. Every time I read a blog complaining about it, it’s usually about age and hierarchy that they don’t understand. All I can think is: “What were you expecting? Didn’t you do any research?”

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      1. I have a similar response to a lot of the Debbie Downers. “The ajummas think they own the place!” “I hate the food!” “What is this desk-warming bullshit?! It’s like they’re expecting me to earn my salary or something!”

        Like you said – didn’t they do any research?

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      2. Lol. I have those same questions for people who complain, as a lot of that info is pretty accessible to us. And a lot of cultural norms are displayed in TV, Korean Dramas or Movies. Research is key.

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  2. Great post with some excellent advice! I too am pumping myself up for some tough days but going into it knowing that it won’t all be sunshine and rainbows is a good start. I think most of the people who rant online about all the negative aspects of teaching went into it with unrealistic expectations. It’s a tough job and the lows can be really low, but in turn that makes the highs feel that much higher. I needed a new challenge in my life and I am so excited for this job, with all the challenges and rewards that come with it!

    Oh, and cheesy jalapenos on a stick are basically the answer to every problem in life. Solid. 😉

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