Screaming Alarm Bells

What do we EPIKers rate our jobs by? Looking at everyone’s situations – regardless of where they’re placed or what level they’re teaching – the things people having been talking about on my Facebook have been:

  1. Co-teachers
  2. Students
  3. Apartments (but, being a Saffa, I still say flat)
  4. Workload

These are four things that we are all guaranteed to get. Our enjoyment of our time in Korea, while dependent on a great deal of other factors, depends rather heavily on these four things. Some of us have hit the extremes (extremely good or extremely bad) of one (or more) of these areas. Great co-teachers or awful ones. Brilliant students or useless ones. Huge apartments or shitty ones. Working hard or hardly working.

I got one of those EPIK placements that falls on the extremes.

I (somehow) found myself in a foreign language high school. Even I don’t know how this happened, but it did. I can hardly believe my luck, most days.

My co-teachers speak excellent English, they’ve dealt with foreign teachers before, they’re well aware of the contract and my rights regarding it. My head teacher is wonderful – on the days when we’re all sat here doing nothing, she orders us pizza or the Korean version of Chinese food. She’s always mothering us and looking after us. There is a perpetual supply of snacks in our office. It smells like coffee in here. One of my co-teachers practically swoons over my accent (no jokes) and talks to me about Jane Austen and philosophy. She has gotten me to say “Mr Darcy” more than once. The teachers I don’t really work with will still constantly consult me and my co-NETs about various questions. Our experience and opinions are valid and valued. We’re treated (dare I say it?) like real teachers.

The thing that shocks people most is that I have co-NETs. I do. Three of them. I was discussing some more personal issues with a fellow EPIK teacher, and she was saying that this can be a very isolating experience if you feel like you have to keep things from your co-workers – things that don’t affect your work, but that you feel our co-teachers would not be comfortable with. I remember thinking that, if I had any such secrets to impart, I’d probably have told my co-NETs by now, just because I’d feel that someone I work with should know.

My students are (for the most part) lovely, high level, willing kids. Your brilliant, genius student? Probably on the same level as my average student. I can converse with them, and they’re usually eager to learn. They ask fewer inappropriate questions – or they know that they’re less acceptable questions to ask your teachers. For example, one student asked me how old I am, and added “If you don’t mind the question.” They call me Miss M (most of the time). Having to teaching lunch classes annoys me, but getting to discuss books with my students has often been a rewarding experience. My weekend program students are bright and sweet kids – and they give me a chance to use the training I received at orientation. They all find it hilarious and wonderful that I refer to them as “ladies and gentlemen” – a habit I developed while lecturing, and refuse to let go of.

My apartment falls somewhere in between. It’s good, but the welding in the morning and the engine revving late at night get to me. My ‘kitchen’ is tiny, but I don’t do much cooking. My shower is one of those hand held ones, and it would be really uncomfortable if I was taller. I can touch the ceiling without having to stretch. However, it’s all new and shiny, I get internet and cable TV and my washing machine is in a separate room rather than under my sink.

But where I’ve hit the wall is with the workload. Imagine your busy day at work. Imagine it. That’s my average day. The bell rings at the end of the day and you’re outta there, right? I’m usually hanging around – legitimately. In the last week, it’s twice been 8pm before I’ve been able to escape. And your weekends, where you’re travelling around Korea, loving your life? I’m probably working. If I’m not at work working, I’ve probably got a pile of work that needs to be done by Monday, some brilliant new plan to come up with for Monday’s first lesson that I didn’t get the time to work on during the week. Or setting exams. Or regrading speaking tests. Or correcting essays. Or working on stuff for the weekend program. Or… you get the idea.

There are days when working here is like living in a world of screaming alarm bells. I’m completely terrified of fucking everything up – a fear I naturally have as a human being – which made the first months here absolutely fucking terrifying. I arrive here on a Monday, having tried to rest and failed, and realise that something I’d hoped for has not come through, and that I have a million things to do in the space of 20 minutes.

And then the alarm bells start ringing. And I feel like I’ve somehow gotten trapped in something that’s not what I bargained for, but that I dare not get out of because… what would I do? I don’t have the money to pay EPIK back for the ticket. If I do go home, what would I do? I left because there were no jobs available to me, what makes me think I’d find one now? Besides… I don’t want to break my contract. I don’t want to leave. But it would feel so much better if I could make all the noise and all the work and everything just stop.

My brain circles around these issues at a million miles an hour while alarm bells are going off in my head. And then I find out that I only get four vacation days this Summer, and that that time is split up into two long weekends, and I’m so tired that I feel like crying, but I can’t because I have to go teach, and I have to keep going because I can’t fuck this all up. I just can’t.

And there are days that I look at all of you on the internet, planning your trips to all kinds of wonderful places and I… well… I hate you. Or… what I hate is that you got (more or less) what you bargained for, while I got something that’s nothing like it. It can be so, so, so much better. But on the screaming alarm bell days, it’s so much worse.

And then my students will have some fantastic insight into the book we’re doing for bookclub, or they’ll say something clever, or they’ll just smile and say “Hi teacher!” in a way that I know isn’t rote learning, but something that they understand and really mean… and the alarm bells cease to matter.


6 thoughts on “Screaming Alarm Bells

  1. i. feel. you. i FEEL you. i FEEEL you. i’m sorry you experience these screaming alarm bells sometimes. It’s only one year. We can do anything for a year. Then you can leave it to the fates again by applying for a transfer. I’m asking for elementary school. eff that noise


    • We can do anything for a year. I really needed to hear that. I’ll be holding thumbs for you to get placed somewhere you like better next year.
      I’m in two minds about whether to renew at this school or not – I’d be an idiot to sign up for another year of this, but I feel like I’d be as much of an idiot to let go of the fact that I’ve been placed at this school. My feelings toward staying or going are directly related to how much sleep I’ve been getting.


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