Saturday, July 5, 2008

Giving 'er Another Go

In less than four weeks I am leaving my family and friends in Canada to go back to South Korea, a country with which I have a somewhat tempestuous history. Although that history cannot be erased, I am returning again in the hopes that I can at least give a proper finish to my experience over there, an experience I feel was cut short prematurely.

When I finished my masters' degree in English Literature here in Ontario in 2006, I was burned out, exhausted, and indebted. Years of university had made it nearly impossible for me to do the travelling I had so long wished to do. Upon graduating, with no immediate job prospects on the home front, I decided that it was time to travel. I knew that if I didn't do it then, I would soon settle comfortably into working life here and would never work up the nerve to go.

But where to go? My best friend was teaching in Japan at the time and seemed to enjoy it, but the working conditions in Japan didn't appeal to me. I started looking at South Korea and I was fortunate to be offered what seemed like an amazing job at a university. When I went to South Korea, I felt comfortable instantly and settled in well. My students were a delight (for the most part), I made friends easily, and I liked the small city where I was living. I soon knew that I wanted to renew my contract there and stay for a second year. But as the months went by, my job became a political minefield. I was caught up in a conflict between my colleagues that steadily escalated. I have no wish to go into much detail, but the situation was, by far, the most stressful experience of my life to date. In the end, due to a combination of forces beyond my control and situations/people I could have handled better, I decided that it would be best to return to Canada for a while to recover from the chaos.

Korea wouldn't leave my mind, though, and within a couple of weeks I was already considering how I would return. I knew it couldn't be right away - I needed time at home - but I was also sure that if I did go back, I would do it in a way that suited my needs. Thinking about the pitfalls that had arisen at my first job, I made a list of things I required in a new position. I am willing to make sacrifices and compromise on many points, but there are several necessities. If I did not succeed in finding a job that provided me with each of these requirements, I would not go back. It was that simple.

My list:
1. The students had to be the number one priority of the teachers (whether Korean or foreign) at the school. Not politics. Not petty games. The students. I recognize that politics happen everywhere, and on some level you will always have to play the game. But I wanted to find an environment where such schemes would be discouraged as much as possible in the students' best interests.
2. While completely willing to follow a curriculum that might be laid out for me, I wanted to have the freedom to teach to my own personal style and to employ effective pedagogical methods.
3. A reasonable amount of vacation. My previous job had had over four months of paid vacation a year, but by the end of my contract I felt as though I'd put more time into fighting not to have it taken from me than I had actually spent enjoying it. I was willing to take a cut in vacation time in exchange for knowing that what I did have would never be taken from me.
4. An apartment furnished and ready to go. It didn't need to be the Taj Mahal. But it had to be a place where I would feel comfortable living.
5. It had to be in a part of Korea that I liked. By this point I had visited enough cities and towns in Korea to know where I would like to live and where I wouldn't.

I took a look at this list and knew that the only sort of place that could meet these conditions was an international school. How unfortunate for me that, while my masters' degree would make me a highly desired candidate at a hogwon, public school, or university in Korea, I lacked the teacher's license that international schools require.

Something told me to take a stab at it anyway. I e-mailed one of the more established international schools in Korea and was upfront about my lack of teaching certification. I added that I did have a Masters and a year of previous experience in Korea. They wrote back that they might still be willing to consider me and asked that I send my CV along. In the end, I did not get a job with them, but with their fledgling sister school in another city. Although I still didn't feel ready to leave Canada again when I was hired, I've since had four months to further decompress in familiar surroundings. Now I feel ready to go back.

I've felt nervous here and there, but I am far more excited than anxious, which I feel to be a good sign. The contract is for two years (although I plan to spend my two months of summer vacation back here in Ontario). I will aim to learn as much as I can in my new position, and I hope to travel to Thailand and India as well.

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