Saturday, September 24, 2011

My School

[Ed. note (6/27/12): Working in a hagwon can be very stressful. Please forgive the, uh, "testy" tone of this post.]

Prior to signing a contract with a hagwon, it is wise to request a phone conversation with one of their current foreign teachers. I neglected to do this. 

I showed up at school on a Monday morning. I shook hands with my co-workers and sat down in the break room.

"So, how do you like this place?"

A silence. They exchanged glances.

They softened the blow as well as they could, but the message was clear. Here for a year? Oof. Poor bastard.

I've mentioned this before, but I came to this country, this job, more or less on a whim. Mike had done it, a bunch of people seemed vouch for it, it was only a year, I needed money, and I had nothing better to do. When the contract came, I signed.

When I pictured life here, the novelty factor colored everything. I knew the job might be difficult, but, in my stupid brain, I assumed the mere fact of being so far away from home would render me too detached to care. I tried to imagine a Korean superior being angry with me. It didn't seem very scary. 

That changed quickly. 

I will give my school credit: many hagwons are shady fly-by-night operations that pay employees late and shut down without notice. My school is legitimate, reputable, and has always paid us on time.

Still, that's part the problem: the school presents itself to the world as a prestigious institution, but, meanwhile, it hires people like me, off the street, with no experience, and puts them in charge of a class of fucking 3 year-olds. The parents are fed a steady stream of lies about your experience and qualifications, and you are left to play some serious fucking catch-up in order to maintain the ruse. The bosses observe this pageant with zero sympathy and only a little patience. Any and all mistakes are met not with: "I know this is difficult," but with: "Why are you having so many problems?" You spend a large part of the first three months confused, pissed off, and scared.  And the angry Korean boss? Better in your head, trust me.

Yeah, my boss. Well I have two I guess. Boss #1 is the director of the school. She is an icy and attractive middle-aged woman who speaks very little and looks constantly disapproving. I have very little one-on-one experience with her (I have yet to formally meet her, in fact) but she is, in everyone's estimation, a psychopath. 

There is a tiny room with glass walls near the front of the school. If you ever anger the administration enough to warrant a "talk," our director prefers to conduct the meeting in this room, I guess to maximize the embarrassment of the victim. I have fortunately never had one of these meetings and, again, have never really spoken to the woman, but I have seen her action, and that is one truly scary motherfucker. A big fan pounding desks, screaming, and being deeply disappointed in people, she has made every single person on the Korean staff cry multiple times.

Still, she's not really my boss. It's kind of like an Emperor/Darth Vader thing; there's one person who's cartoonishly evil and who's barely ever there, and there's another, much more present person who's an asshole but at least has some complexity. That's Boss #2, the teachers' supervisor. She answers directly to Boss #1 and is basically the instrument through which that lunatic tries to enact her vision for the school. That means she's on your case a lot. 

A lot of my co-workers come to Boss #2 whenever they have questions or suggestions but I decided early on to avoid her like bed bugs. I have gone weeks without exchanging words with Boss #2, and those were good weeks. The more you get in the habit of talking to her, the she more gets in the habit of talking to you, and let me tell you, I have NEVER had an exchange with that woman I didn't want to undo. You always end up with your responsibilities tweaked slightly or, worse, augmented. Take it from me, best to linger in your classroom for a second while she makes her way down the hall. I'm even at a point now where I've basically trained HER not to talk to me, so that whenever she has a message to pass down, it's transmitted through one of the other Korean staff members. I am happy about this.

Anyway, you spend most of the first six months overwhelmed. But things change. You start to get the hang of things. Suddenly you CAN maintain that crazy ruse, and you are better able to recognize and anticipate all those things they aren't telling you but will be angry at you later for not knowing. At this point your attitude begins to change. The anger you felt before transforms into a weird sense of pride. I RAN THE GAUNTLET MOTHERFUCKERS.

And that feeling sustains. For a while. Then some other BS will come down the pipe and you instantly revert to "I can't believe I work here" mode. It ebbs and flows. I don't know. Someone put it well elsewhere: "There are things you enjoy doing, and there are things you enjoy having done."

Which is this? Well, there are times when I love what I'm doing. When Robinson struggles but tries his best to explain something to me, in words that I taught him, I just about weep when that happens. The job can be really rewarding, and it can be really fun. I have more than one awesome moment a day. But there are other moments, many of them, that are not awesome. I work on a ship helmed by Asian Captain Bligh, and that situation can really sap the fun out of things.

I don't know. I have five months left. We'll see how it goes.

If my phone rings, I think I'll just ignore it. 

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