A broken workplace culture: Episode 1

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.

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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.

Notes: 

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.

4) Here is part 2

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17 comments

  1. mikecorea

    commenting on my own blog but not in a response to anyone else is strange but here I go.

    I used the word professionalism a few times above and I feel sort of conflicted about this. I don’t know what the #word really means to others or what it means to me for that matter. I find this problematic and worthy of some inner conflict.

  2. Alan Tait (@alanmtait)

    A good read, Mike, if a sad one. I think you were right to tell the tale though.

    There are some truly awful schools/institutes to work for out there, and I think younger teachers should be able to find out what other teachers have to say about them. I know this will mean naming names, at least on the net, which most of us would be reluctant to do.

    There is a tefl blacklist out there on the net BTW – http://teflblacklist.blogspot.com.es

    • mikecorea

      Hi Alan!
      Thanks very much for reading and commenting. I am worried/wondering now if I painted too bleak of a picture of things in order to add to the drama or story (though everything is in fact true). I think you make a good point about naming names and how this can benefit others (and of course how some might be reluctant to do so). I think a lot of times a bit of research (assuming the info is available) can go a long way.
      Thanks for sharing the list.

      It makes me sad that Korea is often known for having dodgy workplaces. When I worked in Japan this was something people frequently mentioned. I guess the people that got paid on time and were treated well were not really online shouting about it but it is still sad that this is the case.
      I think i am about to get very far off topic here so I will stop. 🙂
      Thanks again for commenting and sharing.

  3. anthonyteacher

    I have heard lots of horror stories about terrible workplaces. It seems foreigners in large groups is a bad idea. I work in a small office if 4, and I’d say its the best environment I’ve ever been in. Our conversations in the office are split 50/50 with one 50 being teaching. We are very cooperative and share materials freely. I’ll qualify this by saying there is no competitive advantage, but even if there were, I’m sure our office would remain collegiate.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for commenting, Anthony.
      One thing I didn’t quite manage in the post is that the teachers were mostly male and mostly in 20s and early 30s. This could have been a factor as well.

      I am always confused when people don’t share resources, I mean…it doesn’t do any good being hidden away as far as I can see.

      Nice to hear that you have a nice working environment and also interesting to consider the factors that might make it so.

  4. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    Some deplorable practice there, but stuff that is fostered by the administration, rather than nipped in the bud.

    “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.” Funny how the sharing of materials would have actually helped everyone out in ensuring their jobs were more secure, but instead it created competition.

    Teachers have more power than they think if they just come together instead of fearing this.

    • geoffjordan

      Another splendid post, Mike. Good to air these things, and to do so with such insight and directness. I’ve been there (well, somewhere near there) and I know thousands (sic) who have too. I think the blacklist Alan mentions should be widely shared.

      • mikecorea

        Thanks very much Geoff. I am very happy you liked it.
        On a semi-related note I have to admit that I have been thinking about your post about “Should I do an MA TESOL?” more times than I’d like to. 🙂

      • mikecorea

        Ahh sorry I wasn’t more clear. I meant more in general in terms of the field and people thinking about MAs in the field and how “worth it” it really is. I don’t regret doing mine but I do think people need to seriously consider what they are getting into.

      • geoffjordan

        My mistake. I thought after I hit “Reply” that you must have an MA already. But, yes: people really should think what an MA in TESOL or AL will get them. If you want to chance it it academia, then you need an MA to do a Ph.D., but, otherwise, well, we’ve already discussed it. Actually, I think, if you pick the right programme, and you have a clear area of specialisation you want to get into, it’s worth doing.

    • mikecorea

      Hey Tyson,
      Thanks very much for commenting. I think you make a great point about sticking together. You are totally right about how the competition actually worked against everyone, especially the students (customers). I do think it is easy to fall in to negative patterns of behavior and thought and from my view this place surely did so. The second post is a bit more cheerful! 🙂

  5. Pingback: A broken workplace culture: Episode 2 | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  6. Kristin Walters

    This was really interesting, Mike…I’d actually love to also hear the stories people might have of where they were happy in the workplace and what contributions were made to achieve such a place….ala your comment to Anthony above.
    I am at ground zero of a new workplace and am looking forward to participating in building a new identity for the school together with my colleagues. http://teachinglearningandblogging.blogspot.com = a first (kind of!) go at recording some of this new-ness.

    • mikecorea

      Hey wow, I was just reading your blog today! 🙂
      What an exciting opportunity! I think it is very interesting to think about what went right in certain places and I would love to read more about this.
      (hint, hint everyone!)

      Best of luck and nice to see you around online.

  7. Pingback: #KELTchat Slowburn – Communicating with Colleagues (Tuesday, May 20th 10 am-10 pm) | #KELTChat

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