January 24, 2012 Enter your password to view comments.
January 19, 2012 8 Comments
It’s been a long time since I wrote about anything relating to the actual name of this blog, but a couple incidents in class this week begged to be retold.
Korea is so different from North America in so many ways, it’s impossible to talk about all of them, but I’ll talk about one. People go out of their way to avoid confronting you directly about issues that could bear some conversation, but will hasten to say things to you that just don’t need saying. Like the time one of my students intoned that I needed to go on a diet, or the time a random lady walking by me in a subway station looked over at me and made a gesture to indicate the largeness of my belly or all the other entirely un-subtle indicators I’ve been given that I am waaaay larger than the Korean idea of normal. And I’ve lost weight since I’ve been here. It’s just always open season here on letting you know that you could stand to drop a few. Younger, hipper Koreans won’t tend to do it, but the sorta old and the very young will. With my elementary students, the youngest ones will say things utterly guilelessly. The ones old enough to know better won’t dare say it to me, but I’ll tell you what they do.
In one of my classes on Monday, we finished the lesson a little early so I let them play Hang Man while I finished some marking. Usually I control such games in a pretty draconian manner but I decided to relax and let the kids run the game. One of the boys asked if he could write a whole sentence instead of just a word and I said sure, as long as he could keep track of the spelling. As the sentence started to materialize on the board behind me, I saw one of the girls’ names, Dina, was part of the solution. I realized blessedly quickly that it was going to be a disparaging comment about her weight, so I shut the game down and gave the boy who’d started the puzzle a bit of a verbal lashing.
The boys in that class constantly go for the jugular with Dina, calling her pig or just otherwise making comments on her size. In addition to being a little heavy (not much, mind you) she’s one of the tallest people in the class and is very likely to just lengthen out someday–assuming she doesn’t fall into some death spiral of eating her emotions and actually end up with a real weight problem. But for the moment, she’s significantly bigger than everyone in that class, male or female.
In another class that same day, I had the kids working on a series of chain stories. Each student wrote a sentence to begin a story and then left their notebook open on a desk. All the students then wandered the room adding sentences to every book to create a story. It’s one of the few times that the kids have an opportunity to be creative so I was letting them write down just about anything that popped into their heads. I participated as well and, incidentally, a lot of stories centered around my dying, going to hell, farting or otherwise coming off less than positively. As I wandered over to one book the boy writing clamped down his hands so I couldn’t see what was on the page. When he finally left, I took a look and it was a long sentence about one of the girls in class and how she is so big, with her proposed weight in kg and some indication that she’s a bad person as well.
This particular girl, Jenny, is one I actually worry about a little. I’ve had her in at least one of my classes for as long as I’ve been working at the school. She’s a bigger girl who’s a bit boyish. She’s got a sweet core but she’s a bit hapless and her way of coping with that is to be overly aggressive. In an essay about her best friends, she wrote repeatedly that her friends were all pretty and thin and that she was fat and ugly. Now every girl may feel this way in 5th grade but I get the impression she feels a bit more keenly because she gets that direct feedback from the other kids. In a bid to be “the teacher who changes her life” I wrote in the comments of that essay that I thought she was pretty. I’m fairly sure it had zero effect.
When I saw the sentence I erased it and told the boy it wasn’t appropriate. Even when the sentence was erased though, two of the girls hovered over the paper trying to make out what had been there before and as they were deciphering it, read it loudly enough for Jenny to overhear. She is usually hard to control in a classroom but that knocked the wind out of her sails for a while. Which just hurt my heart.
In both cases, the boys doing the teasing are not ones I consider to be the worst of the pack by any means. In fact, the boy in the writing class is one of the brightest, hardest working, most well-behaved, and nicest students I have. Also in both of these classes, there are boys who are a little fluffy around the edges as well but they don’t catch flack for it at all–maybe because they lack the height to stand out.
While I didn’t have a full on flashback in the classroom or anything, all this did remind me of the unpleasantness of my teenaged years being around a mother who had me terrified that I might get fat and convinced that nothing in life could be worse. I was actually a perfectly reasonable size for my age if incredibly buxom, but I managed to think I was fat for all the years that I wasn’t, until I actually got fat. Now as a fat adult, I deal with North Americans who have a purely aesthetic problem with fatness attempting to render their dislike righteous with a pretense at caring about the health of random fat folks and concerns about the beleaguered health care system that they suddenly have so much concern about, or Koreans who just don’t have any filter. I know what mental gymnastics I have to do to try to not eat my emotions, to focus on being healthy at my current weight (and not go on crash diets to become “acceptable”) and to like myself as I am. But I wasn’t equipped to do those mental gymnastics as a teenager, and as 11 and 12-year-olds, I highly doubt these girls in my classes are equipped to do so either. I have no idea how they’ll be affected by the taunts they’re dealing with right now. I hope they’ll fare better than I did. But whose to say? They are both beautiful girls and I really hope they figure that out if they don’t know that now.
A couple things are for damn sure: kids are cruel no matter where they’re born and it still isn’t safe to be a big girl.
January 4, 2012 4 Comments
I was told by a fellow who had taught in Korea for about 10 years, that Koreans consider the employment contract the “beginning of negotiations, not the end.” I didn’t believe him. I was an idiot.
I’ve heard horror stories of people not being paid on time or at all, unlivable accommodations or a work load that bore only a vague resemblance to their contracted workload. I know two teachers who are treated shamefully by the Korean staff at their school because they agitated about getting *half* of their contracted lunch break. I have suffered nothing like that. The company I work for has a chain of schools and is a multimillion dollar enterprise, so getting paid has never been a problem. My initial accommodations were fine but then I was moved a few weeks ago (albeit incredibly inconveniently–I was told Thursday at 9:45pm to be ready to move by Friday at 1:00pm) to a much better, newer, cleaner apartment with an eat-in kitchen and heat that works properly. Definitely a win. My workload hasn’t ever been out of control (though I can’t say the same for all the teachers here–there’s one middle school teacher, Mike, who teaches a third more classes than almost anyone on staff). Mostly I don’t have any contract issues but a couple things have come up: working hours and vacation time.
According to my contract I work Monday to Friday 2:30-10:30. In real life I now work some Saturdays as well. The middle school department doesn’t have enough foreign teachers (or teachers period, it seems) and so instead of being allowed to hire another teacher, the director is trying to cut costs by using the manpower he has on the ground. At first they (I say “they” because our director doesn’t speak any English so it’s never clear who’s making decisions) tried to wrangle one of us foreign teachers into working every Saturday for three months and we all balked at that. We don’t have much of a social life apart from the weekends and working every Saturday would effectively cut all of us off from most of the other people we’ve met in Korea. So we managed to push back a bit and say we would rotate the schedule so each of us worked one or two Saturdays a month. The $15 an hour (or something like that) we’ll be paid really doesn’t compensate for the hole that’s blown into prime weekend time though.
Vacation time is another weird issue. Contractually we all get 10 vacation days with 3 of those being during the time when the school is closed for summer break. So essentially you’re left with 7. But you can’t take any more than 3 days at a time. So unless you can combine them with a holiday it really doesn’t give you a lot of time to go anywhere far. One of my colleagues asked to take off her 3 days in conjunction with the Lunar New Year only to have the director say no, based on the fact that the kids would be doing term testing. I don’t know if he’s been paying attention but that’s actually the easiest time to have a teacher away because we don’t need all of the staff on duty to do the testing. We actually all got a free day off during the last testing period. Eventually he reversed his decision and said yes but that took three weeks while the cost of her plane ticket increased steadily. Watching that craziness unfold I’m not sure if I should bother trying to book vacation time or just avoid the debacle and make sure that I get paid out for it at the end of my contract.
These aren’t massive encroachments but I do fear that the fact that we’ve kind of “taken it” on these issues means it’s going to get worse in the next seven months. At just under five months in we’ve already been pushed on this stuff and I wonder how much more we’ll let them push on. It doesn’t feel like we have much leverage though. If we want to work elsewhere and we break our contracts we do need the school to sign a release to move our visa to another employer. It doesn’t seem like breaking one’s contract is a great idea unless you plan to leave the country. At the end of the day threatening to quit does seem to be one’s only recourse and that would be pretty financially risky for me (read: disastrous) so there’s not much point in my making a threat on which I can’t or won’t follow through.
I’m not up nights worrying about how things will go for the next seven months. But maybe some nights I fall asleep more slowly wondering what things will be like by the time I leave this place…
That last sentence was actually written about a week ago. I started drafting this post around December 15th and I still felt the same way on December 27th, even after the text-book writing insanity (producing multiple 25-page texts in a week during Christmas). But I’m adding to this post because today they managed to finally push enough to piss me off. Not just annoy me or irritate me, but royally piss me off.
As of this week we start a month of classes during which the kids are on vacation from school. We start earlier in the day and offer extra classes (the ones we had to write the texts for–oh and the Korean staff just photocopied their pages out of existing books–nice job). Our schedule for this month is 1:00-9:00pm which I actually prefer. I find it easier to get to bed at a reasonable hour even if I have less time in the morning to get things done. I was here for this type of work load and schedule in the summer so I know what’s coming and I’m ready for it.
When I came in today I saw the lead (Korean) middle school teacher, James, talking extensively to the lead (Korean) elementary teacher, Cathy (to whom I generally report). As soon as I saw that I thought “that’s not a good thing.” And I say that because James is a manager of the worst type. He teaches fewer classes than any of his staff but doesn’t seem to make up the extra time doing anything to support his staff. The one foreign teacher who works full time in middle school, Mike, teaches about 28 classes a week compared to about 20 for all the other–read Korean–middle school staff. Two of us elementary foreign teachers have had to cover some middle school classes during the week and all of us are pitching in on Saturdays and still, James sees no reason to increase his own workload. He’s the guy who yells at teachers for letting out students five minutes early when he’s the one who gave you a schedule with incorrect times. He’s the guy who seems to genuinely enjoy meting out corporal punishment with the kids. While most Koreans avoid conflict like the plague as a cultural thing, this guy is just kind of a two-faced asshole. He’s worked for years outside of Korea so he gets foreigners better than most, but he certainly doesn’t act like it.
Anyway, I saw them conversing at 1:00pm and heard nothing so I forgot about it. At 9:00pm, as we’re all getting on the elevator to leave, Mike tells the rest of us foreign staff that we’re now expected to come in from 12:30-9:00 for the month, as of tomorrow. This is what that conversation between Cathy and James was about. Already seething, I asked why. The reasoning: we need more prep time.
Really? See that’s funny because no one asked me about my prep time needs. I came in early on Monday, of my own volition, to prep because we weren’t given our new class schedule until 9:30 Thursday night last week (we weren’t in on Friday) so there was no time to plan for Monday’s classes. But I haven’t come in early for the past two days because I haven’t needed to. For James to suddenly start deciding my prep time needs when it means I have to now work more hours, makes no bloody sense to me. And the fact that Cathy knew all this at 1:00pm this afternoon but avoided the conflict all day, telling Mike to tell us as we’re walking out the door, utterly chaps my ass.
I think when I wrote the first part of this post, part of my fear was that that I’d never push back on anything; that I’d walk away from this experience feeling as pushed around as I have felt my entire life. I think I feared that I’d end this year feeling as powerless as I’ve always felt in every conflict situation. And the first couple times that they pushed on the contract and I didn’t come out swinging, made me feel a little freaked out inside. I wondered if I wasn’t so much “picking my battles” as much as just avoiding a scary conflict. But what I’d forgotten was that I have a deep, deep well of rage that tells me when I need to push back. A rage that sometimes comes in very, very handy. And one of those times is now.
So my plan is to talk to James and Cathy tomorrow and sort this shit out. Because that half hour is worth more than $7.50 to me. One of my foreign colleagues has kind of backed away from the whole thing–ironic, since she’s the one staff member who has commitments every day before work and if the schedule starts any earlier she’s screwed. But I’ve started to get the impression she likes conflict even less than Koreans do. The other foreign elementary teacher was screaming bloody murder with me all the way home tonight about this issue and then texted me later to say he didn’t think this was a battle we should pick. I think his sudden fear comes from the fact that, even though he thinks he led the charge to make sure we didn’t have to work every Saturday, he didn’t, and this would really be the first battle that we’ve picked (though amusingly, he was gung ho about my talking to the Korean lead teachers solo). I texted back that I’d be certain to mention that I was only speaking for myself.
I’m not sure what I’ll do tomorrow. Maybe I’ll wimp out or maybe I’ll go in guns blazing. Ideally I’ll calmly draw a line in the sand and they’ll respect it even if they don’t respect me. One thing I think I can say with sad certainty, I’m sure this won’t be the last attempt at a breach of contract.
January 4, 2012 Enter your password to view comments.