Poker Takes a Holiday

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Well, as they say, a tiger can’t change its stripes. I am spending St. Patrick’s Day 2005 as I have in the past — at home. Today is a Thursday which is our “traditional” poker night, but we ran smack into a holiday: and not just any holiday, but a drinking holiday. Color me cynical, but there are not a lot of Irish here in Korea. Even so, in a land where drinking seems to be the national pastime (among locals and foreigners alike), such an excuse for imbibing cannot be missed.

I stayed home in part because I did not want to disappoint those who might show up; consistency is sometimes a virtue. As it were, only one person called to see if the game was on, and I had to tell him that it was not looking too good. Next week for sure.

So in lieu of poker night I will talk of my week teaching English to Korean children. There is much discord among the teachers because this month’s schedule is atrocious. First, all of our contracts stipulate that we are committed to teaching 120 hours per calender month. In addition, we must attend meetings, prepare for classes, etc., as necessary. Rarely does a teacher’s class hours approach 120, but in March, several of us [not me :)] are scheduled from 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM two or three days a week. Breaks of thirty minutes or an hour or an hour and a half are interspersed in this time frame so no one is going over their “teaching hours” limit. Needless to say, this splitting of hairs does not go down well with my Western-raised and educated colleagues.

Before dwelling on the negatives I should point out that there are many, many horror stories about agreeing to move to a foreign land to teach English. I direct you to for more than your fill of negative experiences. In fact, I brought up this site in a conversation with the academic director of my school when interviewing for this job. I noted that many of the pitfalls described there were the fault of the applicant. There are unscrupulous employers everywhere, and if you do not do your due diligence you will get no sympathy from me. As well, much of the 20-25 year old demographic does not have the experience to understand what a truly “bad” job is all about.

In the plus column, our school does not fire teachers in the eleventh month in order to save themselves a few thousand dollars. Employers of foreign teachers will promise to buy return air tickets upon completion of a contract, and as well, local laws require the payment of one month’s severance for any employee working for twelve months. So if you are fired in the eleventh month, none of these expenditures are required. Also in the plus column, my school’s directors speak adequate English, and my school employs 12 foreign teachers. Many schools have one or two foreigners, and the owners speak little English, so resolving problems or finding like souls to commiserate with is difficult. As for myself, I must admit that although I am working as many hours as anyone at my school, they are not so spread out: teaching five hours in a row is tough, but is infinitely better than teaching five hours spread over eleven hours in a day. That said, even my situation at the moment leaves a lot to be desired. After three months, I received my first negative feedback.

In South Korea the new school year begins in March so we have had a lot of parents (read: MOMMIES) observing classes these last couple of weeks. One class of mine in particular (I will call “S4”) has five students aged 12 to 14. This is a “Scholar” class indicating that they have been studying English for many years. I was “observed” on Monday for this class. On Wednesday I was called aside by my Academic Director and told that we had a “serious situation.” At first I thought she was going to confront me about the physical abuse I have been serving out to my students who do not listen. Instead, she said that the parents (read: MOMMIES) of four out of five of my students in my S4 class have threatened to pull their kids out of the school because I am not both entertaining AND strict enough. Yes, I must both entertain the children AND treat them like unworthy minions of the Third Reich (in local parlance: “be a Hitler”). The regular schools in S. Korea are notoriously strict, and this strict regimen is “the” selling point of our school. I should explain that the child whose parents did not complain is the nephew of the owner of the school. Also, he is the worst troublemaker of the group. No surprise there.

Now, any other day this criticism would have rolled off me like water off a duck’s back, but this week I became acquainted with the infamous “Jack.” I had heard of this urchin in the staff room over the last few months. He had been a kindergarten student for the last few years, and his latest teacher (whose contract ended in early March, bless her heart) held him in the utmost disdain. For the record, that teacher wasn’t the ideal person to work with children so I took her complaints none too seriously. Woe to me.

Well, because Jack was in the Kindergarten program for three years he was promoted (with his compatriots) to Reading 2. I took them over this week — in their second week of the advanced curriculum. Monday – their third actual day — was hectic, but not unretrievable. Tuesday was one for the books. There are two miscreants in this group: Jack and Maria. Maria is immature, and needs to grow out of her “kindergarten” phase. Jack needs Ritalin. I am aware of the over-diagnosed syndrome in the U.S. of ADD — Attention Deficit Disorder. If you’ve got a problem student, he or she is ADD and all you need is the correct dose of medication. I now know that it is a real syndrome. From day one, Jack was always fidgeting. Not merely drumming his fingers and what-not, but getting up and walking around. He would rearrange his books. He would go and check the contents of his backpack. He would get up and look at the papers on the desk or bookshelves – with no warning or provocation.

On Tuesday, after 40 minutes of his (and Maria’s) constant interruptions, I looked left and saw him with his jeans around his ankles. Fortunately (small miracles?) he had sweat pants under his jeans. He stood there tucking his shirt, pulling up his sweat pants, and “adjusting” his privates (not actually a new phenomena). After a few beats, I told him to pull up his pants. I did not want to over-emphasize his actions — aka, reward his misbehavior. Then I stepped in, and pulled up and buttoned his trousers. With this in mind, I accepted with great equanimity his actions twenty minutes later when he made a weak attempt at giving the finger to the kid across the desk from him. That is, he got the general hand motion correct, but not the actual “finger.” To his credit, though, his “Fuk you, Fuk you” was spot on.

Later in discussion with my colleagues I was informed that I should have called “Mr. Park” immediately for the cursing. “I would have,” they said. For myself, after the dropping of the trousers, this seemed relatively tame to me. So, the next morning when I was told that I was not “entertaining” the 12-year-olds adequately, I was a bit incredulous. I took it all as best I could, but was not quite inspired to improve my practice of educational pedagogy.

I should point out that this “serious situation” is truly serious in the mind of the for-profit director. Coming in late, coming in drunk, etc. can be overlooked, but displeasing the MOMMIES is fatal. We are not here to educate, but to appease. As an aside which deserves much more exploration, this is now my number one argument against publicly funded vouchers for education.

Those who know me know that my commitment is absolute. To a fault. Many, many years ago I committed myself into a corner when I agreed to two events in one weekend. I was active with the Boy Scouts — specifically with the Order of the Arrow (OA). The OA is a selfless subset of a selfless organization. On this particular weekend, the Lodge was inducting new members at a camp in Yorkville, IL. On that Saturday I had also agreed to go to a party hosted by an old friend in Champaign, IL. So on Friday night I drove from Lombard to Yorkville and stayed up late to help administer the event. Then I awoke early Saturday and worked all day painting, digging, administering, etc., until banquet time. Once work ceased, I got in my car and drove to Champagne for the party (on the way I talked my way out of a speeding ticket — the Scout uniform helped, no doubt). I did not enjoy the party all that much, but, dammit, I fulfilled my commitment.

So with this in mind (and the superficial way that they treat drunk-for-class teachers in Korea) it never occurred to me that I would not fulfill my twelve month contract. On the other hand, there is a line that cannot be crossed. If my employers do cross that line, I will say — in the immortal words of 8-year-old Jack — “Fuk you, fuk you,” and I will be on the next plane to the States.

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