I’ve never had a job—or, in my many years of schooling, a schedule—so jarringly emotionally inconsistent as being an English teacher in Korea.
Seriously. One day things will be great: the bus will come on time; I will get to school early and the other teachers will be in a great mood, offering me coffee and treats; my lessons will run smoothly and my students will be engaged and obviously enjoying themselves—giggling but paying attention. Perhaps I will even be invited to play ping-pong after lunch, or offered a ride home after school. At the end of these days, I will leave the school with a sense of a job well done.
And then. The next day I wake up to the sound of excavation equipment and look out my window to see the road outside my apartment being torn up. The bus stop is now isolated on its own island, a gaping hole in the road that once connected it to me. I awkwardly flag down the bus on the side of the road (as close to the bus stop as I can get); the visibly annoyed bus driver slams on the brakes and let’s me on. I arrive at school to find the teachers sulky and quiet, talking coolly to one another and ignoring me. My office computer crashes, deleting the PowerPoint I am working on, and the classroom projector is not working when I get to class. My students blankly stare at me as if they do not have one literal clue what I am saying, and “participate” in activities as if they do not have one literal fuck to give. Time has never passed more slowly, and I still have 3 more classes to teach. On these days, I flee from the school with a sense of frustration and urgency and a strong desire to never come back.
Sometimes it happens that these two days are juxtaposed together in the week: Monday is great and then Tuesday sucks. However, sometimes the mood of the day varies greatly week to week. Just to keep me on my toes, one week Wednesday will be terrible. I declare that I hate Wednesdays, and spend the rest of the week agonizing over going back to that school. And then the following Wednesday is a breeze. Wait, do I hate Wednesdays? It leaves me in a constant state of readjustment, trying to keep up and appropriately prepare myself for the days ahead.
Every day, as I get ready for school, I wonder: “Okay, is today going to be awful or great?” As a usually strong proponent of the idea that your mindset fosters your reality, I try to brace myself for the day with positive thoughts: I’m prepared, the planned lessons are fun, today will be great. But, despite the pep talk, it is really just anyone’s game. Keep in mind that I have worked with kids before. I have worked in a bar with drunk adults acting no better than kids. I have even worked as an English teacher in a foreign country before! And yet nothing prepared me for this.
Adding to the unsteadiness is that I am a considered a traveling teacher in my rural area. This is really common for EPIK (English Program in Korea) teachers. Despite it’s likelihood being incredibly undersold by the EPIK program, nearly every teacher I have met in Korea teaches at multiple schools. During the course of a week, I teach 9 different grade levels at 3 different schools; I have 3 co-teachers with 3 individual co-teaching styles; I have 3 office setups and 3 groups of coworkers. Just when I think I have mastered the set of challenges one school offers, I come back the next week to find that the challenges have all been flipped on their heads. Gotcha, bitch.
While it is exhausting to keep track of, always (trying to be) the optimist I have found some benefits to this setup: namely, it makes the painful days bearable knowing I do not have to come back tomorrow—perhaps not even for another 7 days! That being said, as a generally positive person, I have never been so acutely aware of the stay positive refrain playing on a loop in my head.
After each day, good or bad, I have my routine of self-improvement focused habits to bring me back to myself. On bad days I run harder; on good days, I write more. I am not one who enjoys complaining, but some days I just have to admit: this is hard. I’m trying to take each day as what it is—a slice of this experience—and grow from it: a modest goal that can feel like a giant feat. I look forward to weekends now like I never have before—as a few friends have aptly observed, “Welcome to most people’s feelings about their jobs.” However true, I’m not striving for this mediocrity. Each day I am striving to be better, as if perhaps by improving myself I can improve my reality. Just keep swimming…