It was a real shit show. I was shocked as I had pretty high expectations of the place¹ when I took (got?) the job but I learned quickly there was something of a broken workplace culture there. I think this went beyond (but was surely related to) the silliness of the curriculum, hiring practices and management strategies.
It wasn’t quite as bad as entering Shawshank Prison but it was pretty bad.
I already mentioned hiring practices but there is something important I need to add here. There were about 20 foreign English teachers there and every term they hired 4-5 new ones. That is a pretty high turnover, which is also telling. Anyway, among the 4-5 new teachers each term, one of them was pretty much guaranteed not to survive the 6 month “probationary period” and would be let go. Nearly every term I was there one of the new hires was let go. Not an ideal working situation from my perspective. Teachers working under the stress of
getting sacked not surviving the probationary period. The rest of the staff knowing that at least 20% of the fresh meat would not be around the next term and also knowing there is a good chance they themselves would be moving on. Continuity, collaboration, and caring are not words that come to mind when I think about this situation.
A few C words do spring to mind, however. Competition among teachers was a huge factor in creating the culture. Part of the reason for this could be attributed to how new teachers were essentially competing with each other to avoid being the one that got let go. As you might imagine this didn’t exactly promote helping others or sharing ideas and materials. Another factor was that large bonuses (roughly equivalent to half a month’s wages) were (at one point prior to my arrival) given to those who “scored” the best student on evaluations. So that means that the “top” was competing for the monetary rewards associated with high rankings (and the more favorable schedules that came with those rankings) and the “bottom” was competing to stay on the job. I don’t believe this helped much in they way of morale. I also don’t think it motivated teacher to do much beyond making sure they tried to keep their jobs.
The classic story regarding competition and pettiness was how one teacher, let’s call him Patrick, received an intentionally bad suggestion on which coursebook to use for a particular class. Can you imagine? As a new teacher he asked some of the vets something like, “What would be a good book for listening for level 1B?” and was told a book that was far too difficult for that level and had been trialed and determined not to be a good choice for any listening course. Yep, they intentionally told him the wrong book just to screw with him, just for the lulz and just to watch and giggle as he had a hard time with it. I had a hard time believing it when I heard this story. Collegial the atmosphere was not.
I just mentioned what I think is the classic tale of the broken workplace culture but there were plenty of other stories. As one might expect there was a story about inappropriate touching between a teacher and a student. No, not that kind.² Apparently one teacher punched a student in the face in the classroom after classes had finished for the day one time after a disagreement had escalated. Quickly. This was before my time but maybe such an extreme lack of professionalism is something that lingered for a while.
I feel that by highlighting the “classic” stories maybe I am not really doing justice to the all the minor points that contributed to making the workplace culture broken. Lingering memories and feelings include something like high school where the cliques are already in place and as new teachers we needed to proof our worthand staying power before veterans would choose to spend their time developing relationships with the newbies.³
Another lasting memory is that people never seemed to talk about teaching in the staffroom. It was just not the done thing. Politics, sports, investments, culture, students’ attractive qualities and a variety of other subjects were standard but talk about teaching and learning was almost taboo. Complaining about the management (which was admittedly woeful at times) was another common topic of conversation.
The pervasive lack of trust and continual perception of injustice and disrespect teachers felt from management was surely a cloud that hung over the place. I think there was a sort of learned helplessness that had overcome the workplace atmosphere and it was not really pleasant environment. Looking back on it now after 5 years I think there was a viscous circle of a lack of trust and a lack of professionalism.
In my next post I’d like to highlight some of the changes I saw and offer some thoughts on how these might have come about.
Spoiler alert: I am not the hero of the story.
(More of just a slightly useful participant observer.)
Thanks very much for reading. Any comments, including tales of broken workplaces are welcome.
As I put the final touches on this post it occurs to me that this could be a decent BLOG CHALLENGE! Detail a crappy work situation and then share how it improved. At this moment I don’t think that simply wallowing in the crappy situations is enough but I think some mention of how things improved could be helpful and productive.
1) This was a “unigwon,” a hogwon attached to a university. This was all part of an Intensive English Program at a prominent university in Seoul. The students were divided into levels (across a very wide range of abilities) and were there studying for 30 hours a week. If hogwon is an unfamiliar word for you perhaps this recent post of mine will help clear things up.
It is very much beyond the scope of this post but I have been thinking for a long time that the name brand of this unigwon actually hindered development because students (customers) came because of the name and not the quality of the program and this at times prevented necessary innovations and developments.
2) Well, there was actually that kind too.
3) This is very much a generalization and there were very clear exceptions to this as well.