Quitting the international school I worked at in South Korea was the best decision I made in 2015.
Prior to that year, the word exploitation was distantly discussed in class, read about in newspapers, or seen from the comfort of home on TV. My spotty exposure to it was closely accompanied by unease and the urge to look away. I didn’t understand how anyone could be indifferent or cruel towards another human (or animal, or worm – Emi, thank you for humouring me on our Save-The-Worms-Post-Rainfall Missions as kids). How was it possible to take advantage of others and, more often than not, for a profit?
Then we met face to face. I didn’t recognize it at first with its cunning mask and my naivety mixed with denial and stubbornness. This cloudy recipe prevented me from seeing through the fog. I willed it to walk with me through hopeful second chances and then around wary thirds. Calling it “exploitation” seemed dramatic and excessive, even though outside help insisted it was true. This once distant word became familiar and suffocatingly close while working at an international school overseas. I couldn’t comprehend it.
To Write or Not to Write
5 months after transporting life across the world to Asia, I moved home finally having quit. I was exhausted mentally and physically. Bewildered with how to digest everything, I needed to figure out what to do next. Some days it still feels like my experience is from a book instead of real life. I have been writing and stalling and re-writing this post since returning almost a year and a half ago, fingers and mind buzzing with anticipation of release. The continuous internal wrestle crashes in waves back and forth with the possibility of backlash from speaking up vs. the hope of preventing this situation from happening to someone else has been going on long enough.
Initially after moving home, I spoke with friends and family about how to communicate my experiences and handle the situation. The words needed to explain it had difficulty exiting my mouth; my teeth and tongue barring any departure towards listening ears. Eventually I retreated to an inner dialogue to let the dust settle, to mull over my thoughts, and to forget – the easiest non-option.
People at home were kind and sympathetic to the Cole’s Notes version I hastily learned to say and (still) repeat on autopilot when asked why I’d returned so early; the notes rapidly shrinking over a short time. My inability to quickly process and clearly communicate the “whys” drained all energy I had recouped. Except for a handful of close individuals who weathered many tearful and frustrating Facetimes, no one knew about or could relate to my previous life. I felt like the physical island I’d lived on overseas had become me.
There was a void between the real story and the elevator soundbite I fumbled through. Part of the communication struggle was self-inflicted. Instagram displayed the seldom enjoyed moments, a smile consistently present. This blog only hinted at the issues for fear of retaliation from the school and colleagues. The Social Media Life Filter, full blast while away, smacked me in the face at home.
My Role at an International School
My position wasn’t the familiar “teach-ESL-in-a-Korean-Hagwon” job. As a Residence Teacher Don at an international school, I thought I was safe. Little did I know that I was soon to be teacher/mentor/tutor/big sister/mother/confidant/friend/motivator/rule and safety enforcer/activity planner, etc… Beyond positive I’d avoid the horror stories of Midnight Runs (worth a Google search), illegal contracts, lying principals and so on, I signed the papers and prepared to begin my international teaching career. Naively, I placed these schools on a pedestal of impeccable education, abundant resources, and unparalleled commitment to learning and student development. Within a week, the flawless bubble I had envisioned exploded.
If It Sounds Too Good To Be True…
The sales pitch in my interview was a mentorship year for newly-certified teachers. I learned a little too late that the sales pitch is strike one – if they’re selling hard, run harder in the opposite direction. They said as a co-teacher I would be able to grow professionally, obtain IB certification, travel every 6-8 weeks, and pay off student loans. I had hit the jackpot and holy macaroons did I feel lucky…but it turns out clichés aren’t to be ignored. If it sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is.
Unknowingly, I packed up life and friends and family gathered to wish me bon voyage. I zipped up carefully over-packed suitcases and my passport itched for more stamps. Trusted professors and teachers who had been employed at international schools were sent numerous pre-departure questions. I spent hours researching expat living in Korea and my soon-to-be employer. I corresponded with a woman who had held the same position the previous year. And still, it wasn’t enough. What I couldn’t have prepared for was being in the grips of an employer with zero regard for health and well-being. Not only that, but they also threatened future professional opportunities, and were smug about their deception.
An Awkward Arrival
A trio of employees, including the person who interviewed and hired me, picked me up at the airport. Their welcome remarks emphasized how much I was going to hate my job and want to leave. What an odd welcome I thought. I brushed it off and responded with a smile that it was sure to be a fantastic year.
Thankful my new employers were flexible, I arrived after the other first year staff. Months later when applying to other schools, I discovered by accident that I wasn’t IB certified because of 1 missed day of introductions and icebreakers. I received no response when offering to make it up on my own time and in the end, was lucky to receive a letter stating partial attendance at the workshop. It wasn’t the strong start I had envisioned.
The other all-female dons ranged from freshly graduated university students, starry-eyed with their first Real Job or first time overseas, to well-educated women with various employment backgrounds. Some were certified teachers, though oddly, most were not. We later discovered the sales pitch varied; non-teachers were sold on a gap-year adventure, teachers were convinced it was a necessary professional stepping stone. It became obvious early on that the difference in age and experience was a fracture in our group, cracking us further apart the more we tried to unite on how to address the issues thrown at us.
The Main Issues
Three glaring issues plagued our working and living conditions, which were one and the same: hours worked, an irrelevant contract, and a cancerous mixture of bullying and poor communication.
Sleep deprivation was the toughest obstacle I struggled through and also the most destructive. I noticed it most when it hindered my ability to think and communicate clearly on a consistent basis. It was startling to hear myself speaking incoherently. It was my first indication that this was more than “being tired”. The other symptoms were subtle, or at least I thought so. Loved ones disagree and I continue to learn about the ripple effect it had today.
A poster in the residence detailed the importance of getting enough rest. I was averaging 4 hours a night and scoffed half-heartedly as I checked off every symptom on the list: constantly cranky and moody, short on patience, quick to cry, and on and on. My appetite diminished and I lost 12 pounds the first month despite eating 3 meals a day. I knew it wasn’t right, but I also knew I could push and scrape through 1 more day. For 5 months I “powered on”, and then I had enough.
I accepted the position on the written understanding I would work about 50 hours a week. Shifts in the School would be from 8am to 12pm twice a week but never, I was reassured, on the alternating weeks we worked overnight in the Residence. Hours in the Residence would be from 3pm to 9pm during the week helping the girls with co-curricular activities and homework. Instead, my schedule looked more like this:
In reality, my smallest work week was 72 hours and the largest was 105 hours. To put these numbers in perspective, there are 168 hours in a week and if you sleep the suggested 56 hours a week, that leaves 112 to work/eat/live. On weeks with overnight shifts, my 2-hour midday break consisted of napping and showering – luxuries needed to try to recoup sleep and enough sanity to forge on.
I shoved the knowledge that my salary equated to less than $5 an hour out of my mind to keep from growing more frustrated. I hadn’t been paid that low since doing odd jobs for pocket change as a 12-year old. Held powerless in the tight grip of white collar exploitation I was furious and embarrassed. How was this reality?
Overnight shifts were simultaneously the most exhausting and the most rewarding part of the job. My room was Homework Help Central for the 100 grade 9s and 10s in our residence. The girls would congregate in my tiny living space, at times until past midnight or in the early hours of the morning before school, requiring help with projects and assignments, but mostly the English language needed to complete them. Many were at a severe disadvantage due to lax entrance language requirements and it showed.
More “aha moments”, smiles, and confidence boosters were witnessed in those wonky hours than at any other point in the day. Texts and emails to my parents spilled over with gratitude and appreciation for the hours they spent with us on schoolwork growing up; somehow the roles were now reversed and I found myself as the adult helping the child. The girls in residence didn’t have the reliability of home and 24/7 support a parent provides. Bewilderingly, our bosses refuted that we could ever work past 11pm (“lights out” – though it rarely was). Come 11:01 we should be asleep ignoring the knocks of frustrated, sick, upset, or stressed out teenage girls.
Bullying came from the top down. More than once we were threatened by multiple levels of administration. If we did not continue to trudge through whatever was thrown our way, our future professional opportunities would be at stake. Some employees arranged individual meetings in addition to the group conferences we requested to address concerns. In one of these, a colleague asking for clarification on misinformation they were provided prior to accepting the position was proudly told by an administrator that they could “sell snow to an Eskimo” they were so good at their job. Insult piled onto injury.
During a fire drill, our direct supervisor matter-of-factly stated that if we did not remain in the burning residence until every last student was out, we would be jailed or “taken down” if there were legal repercussions. On another occasion, we requested first aid and mental health training. In Korea there is no such thing, we were told. The word “suicide” is forbidden so as to not “implant the idea” into a student’s head. The irresponsibility of the school concerned us. In order to learn how to address situations or recognize symptoms of students in need, we would need to “take initiative” on our own time, as if we had some to spare.
We were told to report everything to residence administration yet nothing would be shared with dons if students were tagged as at-risk. We were dumbed-down mules of information aimlessly stumbling through potted fields of distrust. The environment was toxic, and quite frankly, terrifying.
Shortly after the red flags started waving furiously in my face, I re-read my contract. Acquainted with the job, the stark contrast between reality and the document I signed was alarming. Most glaringly, the word “residence” was nowhere to be found and the contract was labelled “teaching staff”. Considering most people in our position weren’t qualified teachers and our focus turned out to be primarily residence, this didn’t add up. Similar to our concerns with our working conditions, our appeals for a revised and appropriate contract were dismissed. Despite its irrelevance, we were bound and gagged – our only other option was to leave and risk the consequences of breaking a teaching contract.
Issues with our role in the classrooms and the absence of communication between administration, teachers, and dons presented a daily struggle. None of the school teachers seemed to know why the dons were in the classroom, let alone to be co-teachers. Months into working, another teacher was shocked to find out that some dons had teaching credentials and experience. In 5 months, I taught less than a handful of lessons and spent most of my time observing. The rare time a teaching opportunity was discussed I was too sleep deprived to be able to put any effort into teaching, planning and preparing lessons. My hopes and plans for a productive year of professional growth were swiftly hurled into the garbage.
Supplying was another issue. The school often asked unqualified dons to fill-in for absent teachers. This was clearly at odds with the prestigious teaching faculty it boasted on its website. Students and families paying tens of thousands of dollars a year had no idea. In addition, supply teachers were paid a fraction of the day if they had residence duty.
Safe on the Other Side
Employment at that school was many things, few of which I had planned or hoped for initially. Emerging safe on the other side, I gained a new perspective on what “quitting” means. Growing up in North America and playing team sports, quitting is taboo. “Push through”, “brush it off”, and “only losers quit” are examples of the mentality that permeates our lives. Shame and guilt whisper doubts and point their gnarly fingers at the selfishness of letting others down or not being strong enough to continue through tough times.
Quitting equalled giving up, until the moment it meant breaking free.
After months of bookmarking articles, surveys, and opinion pieces on how, why, and when one should quit, I unconsciously decided to leave. A month before giving notice, I packed up my dorm to see how it felt. The heart knows before the head sometimes.
When at home in Canada for Christmas, I let family and friends know in person that I wasn’t returning to Korea. This was mostly to avoid their (well-meaning) questions and to allow room for reflection. My parents found out before then for two reasons. First, I would need to move back in with them for a while as I sorted out life and recharged. Second, was to relieve their worries.
I wanted to believe that under the shiny brand-new state-of-the-art campus and the professional-looking website that there was some decency. A few individuals I met were good people, but it wasn’t enough to stay. Finally, I accepted the corruption for what it was and handed in my resignation. The tumour engulfing the campus and those who worked there was all-consuming. I refused to participate any longer and broke my contract.
Lessons From Quitting an International School Job
I am grateful for kind colleagues, the resiliency of the students who didn’t have the freedom to leave, and for the support from home to do what I needed to do in my own time. The largest lesson I have gained is the importance of drawing boundaries, trusting instincts, and knowing that walking away can be the right choice.
Overwhelmingly, the response from the other dons was that they were envious and wished they were leaving too.
Many felt backed into a corner, for various reasons, and were resigned to living there another 6 months. One don emailed the night word got out of my departure and asked in confidence how the meeting went. They were leaving too and unsure if it was better to give notice or just leave. Another don joked I had “opened the floodgates”. In the end, two dons, the majority of the Korean EAs, some administrative staff, and two teaching faculty who parted on a Midnight Run, left the school before Christmas break. We were all better off for it.
There’s a time and place for everything – quitting included. That school was toxic and its problems systemic. The individuals in charge should not be granted the privilege and responsibility of shaping young lives. Leaving that school was the best choice I made that year. I finally fulfilled the school’s mission of “empowering women”. Following my intuition and leading by example was the best way to demonstrate to the students what empowering meant. If I left my girls with anything, I hope they believe in themselves enough to do what’s right. You always have a choice – to be safe, to be valued, to be heard. You are worthy of nothing less and you are strong.