Or: Why it seems that the public school program no longer provides job security
A couple of months ago, news of a major blow hit the EFL teaching community in Korea. Incheon had decided to reject all of the incoming EPIK applicants. Now, there were only nine of them, but many people saw this as a sign of things to come – Seoul had already cut down their intake to only elementary school teachers, and where Seoul leads, the rest of the country tends to follow. Incheon, for instance, had been instituting the same policy.
The scaling back of teachers has a process that is usually as follows:
- Elementary school teachers are given the option to renew at their current schools.
- Middle and High school teachers may renew, but will be transferred to elementary schools.
- In some cases, middle school teachers have been allowed to stay, but in the knowledge that if they leave, their school will not receive a new native English teacher.
This… this was not how Incheon handled it this time around.
This letter went out at the end of July. The majority of teachers this affected were up for renewal at the end of August. So that left two months for the people who had previously planned on staying (albeit at an elementary school) to sort everything out, either by getting another job (probably at a hagwon) or by leaving Korea (to teach elsewhere, or to go home).
Basically, thanks for all your hard work! You have two months to rearrange your life and make brand new plans! Goodbye!
I don’t think this came as much of a surprise to anyone, but I didn’t think it would affect my school at all. As a foreign language high school, all the rest of the drama involving NETs had largely passed us by. The four of us probably had the only secure high school positions in all of Incheon… but this appeared not to be the case. One of my coNETs was set to leave at the end of her contract in August, and we were informed in July that she would not be replaced. Fortunately, we received a replacement at the last minute from a teacher who had been hoping to stay at her middle school. Let me tell you, the difference between an ordinary public school position and a foreign language high school is HUGE.
Why did this happen in Incheon?
There are a multitude of factors leading to this happening.
For one, the reason for the delay of this message was the fact that a new superintendent was being elected, and the status of the public school NETs in Incheon depended on his decision. A similar situation – i.e. problems with the budget being finalised – is currently going on in Seoul.
Another is the fact that Incheon as a city is on the verge of bankruptcy. The recent Asian Games did nothing to help this situation. Unfortunately, areas like education are bearing the cost of this – and NETs are some of the casualties.
But this just Incheon, right?
Well… this sudden dropping of applicants and non-renewal with no other options appears to be unique to Incheon, but this scaling back has been happening for ages. So, no. This isn’t just Incheon. Public high and middle school jobs are rapidly becoming practically impossible to get, especially in the cities. Seoul and Busan have been cutting back on those for a few years already. In some of the provincial offices of education, this has happened as well. Jobs have been cut drastically and teachers have often been given very little notice of the fact that they won’t be able to renew. In several cases, people had already signed contract renewal forms (or, at the very least, been told not to worry), only to be told that their jobs no longer existed
And now there’s Daegu
This is part of what prompted me to write this post. The scaling down of NET jobs in Korea has been happening all the time I’ve been here. However, unlike the majority of the public school programs, Daegu MOE has generally tried to keep the number of NETs in their city quite high. When I arrived in Korea, most people I met at orientation were going to Daegu. They were also still able to get and renew middle and high school jobs. Unfortunately, this news came earlier this week. That’s right! Even Daegu is going to drastically scale back on the number of NETs and remove middle and high school jobs. Remaining NETs are much more likely to have to work at multiple schools.
Daegu is part of the reason I decided to write this post. The situation in Incheon didn’t surprise me, but the fact the Daegu is scaling back at such a rate came as something of a shock. Due to the number of teachers that it had been accepting and its commitment to keeping those jobs open, I was genuinely surprised by the recent news.
Why is this happening?
There’s a heap of speculation as to why this is going on. The truth is fiendishly complicated, but based on my observations, and those of other NETs, these are some of the possible reasons I’ve surmised:
1. Schools don’t know what to do with NETs
One of the major complaints from NETs and Korean teachers alike is that native teachers are not being used effectively. They often end up teaching the same lesson repeatedly, for students who don’t care about learning English at all. NETs classes are treated like they don’t matter, and are cancelled at the drop of a hat, in favour of non-learning activities.
The co-teaching system works well when both parties know what to do and are willing to cooperate with one another. However, when this isn’t the case, it can collapse on itself. I’ve only experienced co-teaching for myself during this year, and I can firmly say that this is the case. On the one hand, it’s amazing! You and your co-teacher are working well together, you share the class time, the kids are benefiting… it’s all great! On the other hand, if you and your co-teacher have trouble cooperating (for any of a multitude of reasons), then it’s a fucking disaster!
Is what the kids are learning from NETs truly effective? Do the students learn well? Are teachers being used to their full potential?
If the answers to the above were all yes, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now.
2. We cost too much money
Let’s face it… the fact that EPIK teaching jobs pay well isn’t hurting people’s decision to come here. And there are all those delicious benefits… they were some of the factors that pushed me to teach in Korea rather than elsewhere. It’s not just salaries, it’s rent for apartments, and furniture for those apartments, reimbursed airfare, exit allowances, settlement allowances, renewal bonuses… And when one contrasts what schools and offices of education are putting in, they’re just not getting enough value out of NETs (due to reason 1) to justify having so many of us.
3. This was the plan all along
There’s a reason that many NETs teach teachers’ classes. The idea has been (for ages) to raise the English level of Korean English teachers so that they would be able to replace the need for NETs. And when one considers that teaching is geared toward testing, most notably toward 수능 (the be-all and end-all, once in a lifetime, future determining test), there’s some truth to this. I have learnt a lot about grammar during the time that I’ve spent in Korea. I never knew how many things I didn’t know about how my home language functions.
If one takes the goal of English education to be achieving higher scores on English tests, then Korean English teachers are way more qualified than NETs to teach in the way that is needed. However, this means that the communicative function of English education is often neglected.
Furthermore, there are Korean teachers who are being specially trained to teach conversation. In the long run, perhaps they will be more effective than native English teachers. That’s certainly the goal anyway.
4. NETs are part of the problem
Some of the complaints about NETs in Korea (public and private) has been that they are under-qualified and inexperienced. I’ve encountered teachers who, when explaining grammar rules, will say “That’s just the way it is,” rather than trying to find out if there’s a rule that applies to the situation. I’ve met teachers who have decided to make their summer and winter camps as boring as possible so that the kids will drop out. Many teachers out there avoid making their own lessons at all costs, and only use premade lessons.
Finally, and perhaps to my greatest annoyance as someone who has issues with vacation time (and who therefore cannot go globetrotting at every opportunity), people are hired as teachers, but are actually here to be tourists. Teaching is what they do to raise money for another trip. Now, one of the greatest benefits of this job is that it affords one the opportunity to be able to travel to fascinating places much more cheaply than would have been possible from one’s home country, but when this becomes more important than one’s actual job, there may be a problem.
5. There are too many issues involved here for there to be a single reason for this
NETs have horror stories about their Korean co-teachers. Korean teachers have their horror stories about native English teachers. Some schools are wonderful. Some are awful. In some places, you’ll work your ass off, and in others you’ll spend your days twiddling your thumbs. Most jobs fall somewhere in the middle.
What kind of job you will get largely depends on chance. Some of us are lucky, and some of us are not. And there’s no way to tell which you’re going to be.
Is there one single reason why this is happening?
“I still want to teach in Korea! Does this mean I should give up on EPIK?”
I’m planning a post on public school jobs vs hagwon (private academy) jobs, but for now I’ll tell you not to give up.
However, be aware that EPIK is no longer the easy ride, guaranteed job that you may have been led to believe it is. Do a lot of research – there are a lot of blogs out there – and find out what situation would suit you best. Be aware that you will have even less control over your placement than I did when I arrived, which was a lot less control than the people who arrived before me had. Be aware that there are fewer positions available than before, but probably still as many applicants.
If you would like to teach abroad, Korea is still a good option. It’s still a fascinating country and you should still pursue teaching abroad, if that’s what you want.
There’s only one thing I would add to this is that you should get some teaching experience. Actual teaching experience, not an online TEFL certificate that isn’t worth the paper its printed on (I get to say that. I have one such certificate and ‘qualification’). I found the hours I spent actually teaching were a great deal more useful to me than any theory I ever learnt.
One more under qualified, inexperienced native English teacher is not going to convince anyone that the program is worth investing in.
Care to weigh in? Please leave a comment below.