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There are indeed a number of sketchy schools and horror stories that you can read on the web about ESL teachers getting stiffed in one way or another. In retrospect, this job in teaching English in Korea was destined to fail from the beginning.

And actually it didn't start with the job, but with a recruiter. I was originally hired to work in an after school program in a public school in Jangyu, just west of Busan, Korea. It seemed like a pretty decent gig at first. The kind of easy going job that I wanted with a lighter schedule working afternoons.

I moved into a new apartment, started teaching there and about a week or so later the recruiter calls and tells me that I have to move.

Say what?

He said he had a better job for me in a public school in Changwon. I was a bit perplexed and knew something was wrong. I was pretty much ready to drop it and head back to Busan, but since my pockets were flat and I didn't really have any other options I went along with it. So he came and helped me move all my stuff to Changwon about an hour away.

I moved into a new not so nice apartment room in a house with vinyl floors. Then I started my new job in Towol elementary school. It was all pretty stressful. First stressful moving from Busan to Jangyu and starting a new job and then a week later doing it again. And this one didn't start off so well either.

The environment was pretty cool being in an elementary school and all. I liked that and it was right next to my home. The main problem with that job started on my first day. I met my co-teacher. It seemed o.k. until we went to lunch in the cafeteria where some of the Korean teachers and I sat down to eat together. And then my co-teacher busts out her prayers before her meal and I thought, ughhhh. She was a Christian.

So it was from that moment on that things went down hill. We didn't get along. She was very pro-Christian and I very not religious. We had some pretty tense talks, her with that God and Jesus stuff which only instigated me to speak my mind about why intelligent people don't believe in her fear based religion.

So to speed this up a bit.

If you're working in a Korean public school your co-teacher usually has the authority. You are an assistant teacher. Some teachers may have more autonomy in their school, yet generally you are considered an assistant. The sad thing was that she had less experience than me. I had already spent more than a year teaching in Korea and two years teaching in Taiwan.

Another thing in Korea is the social hierarchy. Those of a higher job/social status are the ones with the power. Which may seem kinda normal, but it is a bit different in Korea. And those of an older age are also granted more authority and power. She asked me how old I was in the beginning and she seemed to be relieved when she found out she was a year older.

How I got fired

I got a written warning that said that if I don't change my behavior then they will fire me. Some of the reasons they said were due to my inability to follow the Korean teachers orders to sweep the floor, close the windows, etc. Which was true, I am not a maid and I frequently didn't do what she said. So then about a month later I got another letter that said I had been fired and had a month left to finish. This was at the end of the semester. Which seemed to be a pretty convenient time for them.

Why they said I got fired

Some of the written reasons were: that I failed to answer the phone, close windows and doors, I played soccer with the kids during lunch time recess (instead of sitting in my office chair doing nothing), and I was late to work. After I received my first warning I did start to come to work 5-10 minutes late to sit in my office chair. I had been thinking of quitting the job for some time and I knew my "behavior" wasn't going to change and that I probably would be fired.

My final check

My final check contained a letter from the recruiter (there were 2) saying I owed the following. This is a quote from the recruiter.

"Right now, you owe him this months salary for the reimbursement. This is the list of the details.

  1. Housing - 0.48 million (about $500)
  2. Visa run - 0.32 million (about $300)
  3. Replacement - 0.4 million (about $400)
  4. Recruiting - 1.1 million (about $1000)

So they said that I owed them for the rent, the visa run, a replacement fee and for the recruiting fee totaling around 2,300,000 Won (around $2000). Which was oddly the same amount as my salary. The school paid my salary to him. Unbelievable.

I ended up going to the labor board for this, however they weren't a big help. They talked with the recruiter and he said that my contract said that I had to pay those things back if I was fired - which was a lie. My contract didn't say that, so I suspected that he signed my name on a different contract and presented that to the school and immigration for my visa.

After a few weeks I gave up on the labor board and went to the recruiters office and had nice talk with him in person. It was apparently an effective action as a few days later I got all of my money back minus 150,000 Won. So I was done with that. If you want to read more about this story (warning though as it's a rough copy) then you can go here.

In Korea a public school isn't necessarily better than a private school. It depends and a lot of people say that your co-teacher will make or break your experience. You can see that it broke mine. You can also see that there are some dodgy recruiters out there as well. I have thought about putting them on my list about Korea. However, at the moment that list is just about the culture and the big stuff.

Here is a thread that includes a poll about whether anyone has had a bad experience with the EPIK the public school program in Korea.

These sorts of jobs and experiences can be eliminated by asking the right questions. I could of avoided this situation if I had followed my own advice on how to find a good job and if I had not been desperate for a job.

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