By Allen Smithee
As you the reader knows, no teacher ever plans to end up in a failing academy. However, shit happens in this increasingly dicier job market. The dicier the economy the more threadbare are English teacher choices: you’ll grab at anything, even potential stinkers. You do your Internet background check, if the place passes; you dive out the door pushing any misgivings to the back of your mind.
Earlier this year, after two wonderful years of teaching in a public school position, I faced this prospect. My employer had run out of money, rumour had it a retiring government official had embezzled area funds and so the area needed to cut back on expenses. Thanks for your teaching, please don’t name Mr. X in a story and turn in your keys as you leave.
The easy way from there was taken: a recruiter. Heaven was promised purgatory was delivered with deals that fell through and the last minute usual sales pitch of a lovely hagwon, great pay, spacious apartment and well behaved students. Also, we’re sorry you can’t talk to the foreign teacher already on staff. Relax; the female director assured me all is well. And can you be there for next Monday?
Gut said no, wallet said yes and without any other firm offers, I signed a contract. A truck pulled up the next day, a few boxes later, off we went to a small city in eastern Korea. Waiting on the other end was a kind grandmother and the smiling director’s husband, the wife was busy elsewhere that Saturday.
As promised the apartment was great, a two bedroom affair where no one would be bothering me because of its way-out-of-the-way location. The hagwon was though entirely different, it was a disaster of peeling wallpaper, screaming kids and a female director slinkying around the school screaming at anyone and trying to figure out what to do. She and her husband had bought a franchise school from a chain that sold lemons.
Flipping through the text books, I pictured them being written during bouts of late night heavy drinking and bong hits. The few advanced students that came and went took a break from their busy day for what seemed to me a comedy workshop. With joy and uncontrollable laughter they would search for screwball grammar in the books and then laugh as they tested each other and corrected them. The only other foreign teacher there approached me for the first and the last time in the Teacher’s room. “If I had known your number, I’d have warned you”. He was the brooding veteran English teacher survivor type. He moved around the school slowly never talking yet always looking like he was in pain. He explained after his first few months here that the academy had done a cartwheel from a large nationally known chain-school to resurface as a smaller and struggling school with a less known brand name.
My complaining to the recruiter was an exercise in futility. They told me all that was wrong here were my nerves; I was too sensitive. I hadn’t become accustomed to the new job yet. They said this to shut me up so they could collect their fee. In this tough economy, I honestly understand their needing the money. And anyway, the original recruiter that sent me to the place quit and was out of contact. I was on my own professionally and socially so in the interim, I tried to tough it out, bad books, no Korean management back up and students who were perfected off-the-hook horrors. Drop your guard and the two finger poke and the sneeze spray in the face let the teacher know who was boss. Us two foreign teachers had no safe place and no respect, the latter sentiment ran from the top down from the management who always averted looking at the foreigner teacher’s eyes to the kids who either hated or loved us depending on the day.
Here was a school where acquiring English was put in reverse. Sending the kid to this academy probably set them back 3 to 6 months in a matter of weeks. The pupils with brains, they came, they saw, they ran for the door. Useful ideas to actually teach the students were discarded; the teacher’s room stacked with the large library of unused, inherited, dusty English books.
Tension was building; the weekly staff meeting begot more fights than discussions between the director and teachers. The female director would act like she was on intimate terms with the teachers and then fly out the door to take her call. It was all getting dysfunctional in a hurry. Whatever great ideas we had for saving the classes weren’t used, it’s as if the place had spotted an iceberg and wanted to hit it, square on, full speed: the director seemed that out of control and destructive.
The only time the spiteful, condescending director was nice came with the weekends. Drinking Friday nights, if you hit the right bar, she might actually say a liquored friendly `hi’ as she trolled for men with a hoary looking wing woman. Rumour was it was okay, she was in an open marriage, so she had protection from the busy-body attitudes rampant in small Korean cities. In my opinion she wasn’t much to look at anyway; the cat humped my leg the wrong way.
In the wee hours of a Saturday morning, though she more than once staggered herself into an apartment not her own. This witch’s magic came from knowing just when the soju beet red was deep enough to make her look like a racing model, or so she thought. She didn’t care about her farm boy husband, she didn’t care about what her teachers had gotten up to on those nights. Yet on Mondays somehow her and her husband would be in synch and smiling, able to put on a good show for the parents that often visited.
Then her marriage fell through and the rumour mill exploded. Had she found a man who didn’t need soju glasses? No more one night stands? She dropped the school and ran off in a boyfriend’s or maybe even a girlfriend’s arms? Whatever happened to the dragon lady boss and her other partner remains to this day a mystery. She shut off her cell phone, broke contact with any family and didn’t respond to emails from teachers or the student’s parents.
Two weeks later, in the school’s last days, I joked in the teacher’s room the story of her disappearing with her lover had provided the context and the cover for a perfect murder. The director’s camera looked over my shoulder as I joked this, and, coincidentally, the next day, the cuckold told me to find a new job.
The wife’s disappearance had triggered the final days of the academy. The snarling, sarcastic, manic cat-n-heat glue that she gave off and kind of held everything together was gone. No longer were the schedules being properly done, no new books ordered nor the extra evening classes taught. What was left was a mostly clueless husband in shambles and incapable.
Want discipline without a prowling cougar, forget about it. Want a time out after a kid’s ambush tests a painful Taekwondo punch on you, forget about it. Freezing in the classroom, you’re told forget about it. Want to know if your director will be showing up unannounced at your apartment with her own key? I got out of there when everything started to crash just so I could forget about it. I guess it’s back to Dave’s ESL Café.
Allen Smithee is a TESOL teacher in Korea who just wants to survive a few years here and take a long holiday in Thailand.Print This Post