Talking about talking about teaching (Volume I.)

Blogger’s Notes:

  • Wow,  it has been a month since I posted last. I don’t know exactly where the time went but here we are.
  • I am somehow aiming to write 4 posts in the next week (at around 1,000 words or so each).
    This is not a 100% guarantee but it is a goal.
  • I had a bad (few month!) streak of not responding to comments but I finally managed to catch up recently. I hereby swear to respond to comments on this post in a timely manner (within 10-14 days). This is as close a guarantee as we should make on such matters.
  • There are discussion questions at the end of the post.
  • Some of the stuff below I have written or talked about before but I hope it will be slightly new and slightly interesting in any case.
  • Please expect even more meandering than usual and even less coherence (in the layperson and linguistic meanings of the word I suppose) in this series of posts. 
  • There are occasional footnotes where I added more detail or some witty commentary . These are marked by letters.
  • I said above I will try to blog 4 times in the next week. They will all be on a similar theme, talking about teaching. Hopefully this series of blog posts will help me organize my thoughts a bit for an upcoming presentation.
  • Now that these exciting notes are out of the way and suspense has been created here comes the post…

I first came to Korea in June of 2000. (a) (b)  I was armed with white skin, a BA in history, an at-times affable personality, curiosity, and a desire to do a good job (c).I suppose I can say that I have (had?) a good work ethic. I don’t really taking money without doing a good job and my first job was no exception. This first job was working in a cram school, or hogwon, where I taught students of all ages and levels. I didn’t really get much training aside from shadowing a colleague (the man I’d soon be replacing, in fact) for a day or two. This was actually quite helpful and more training that other people in similar situations receive so I cannot and will not complain. (d) 

I enjoyed this job from the start and I feel l learned a lot in those early days of teaching. There was so much to learn and so much to think about. So many critical incidents were crashing into my head at that time. I can remember learning a lot about teaching, the world and myself during those times.

In that first job I developed nice relationships with my co-workers, (e) some of whom taught Japanese and others who taught English or TOEIC. After the first little while (when the person I shadowed left) I was one of two “native speakers” at the school. I became very good friends with the other native teacher but it was much more of a social thing and was not really focused on our work or professional lives.

I don’t really remember too much about the teaching aspect from back then. Regarding discussions with my coworker I am not really sure because I don’t think we spent much time talking about teaching or beliefs or what was happening in our classes on anything less than a superficial level. We probably talked about funny utterances from students or management problems or just the themes of the day but I don’t think there was much time spent talking about teaching in what I’d now consider a productive manner. (f) We might have shared an activity from time to time or how we handled the occasional classroom management. We compared notes on students were challenging or hot.

The story I’d like to relay here actually has nothing to do with this coworker or my particular job at that time. (g)  In those early days in the small city of Jinju (h) there were not a lot of foreigners foreign teachers around, or at least I didn’t see them. If I ever happened to see such a person I’d always say hello and often strike up a conversation.

I remember one such conversation very well. I literally almost bumped into Tina on the street of the trendy side of town and we ran through the standard chat on like place of work and hometown and reason for being in this far-away place. She struck me as a sincere, kind and intelligent person. I’ll never forget what she said just before we said our goodbyes. By way of an invitation she said, “You should come to the Mediterranean Sea bar (i) on Friday nights around 10. We all get together and bitch about our work.”

This struck younger me as bizarre and terrible and maybe even sad. I had an immediate and strong reaction to this invitation. It sounded like a soul killing and time wasting endeavor. I couldn’t see any need to get together with people who happen to have the first language as me just to bitch about our teaching situation in a country that we chose to come to. Why would we choose to engage in such negativity? What would bitching actually solve? Why not just get on the soju and have a nice time laughing and hanging out and talking about fun stuff? I figured there was No need to ruin my chill by engaging with complaints about students, other teachers, admin, curricula, or whatever.  I decided I’d never allow myself to turn into a person who spent Friday nights bitching about my job.

I’d like to say that I never succumbed to the allure bitch fests in my time as a teacher, but that would be a lie. I will have to leave this for another post.

My questions:

  1. Have you found bitching about teaching to be helpful or at least cathartic? Under what circumstances? What made it so?
  2. Do you think this sort of bitching in any way particular to Korea? Is it all particular teaching? Are accountants and plumbers doing the same thing?
  3. What do you consider “talking productively about teaching?”
  4. Have you had opportunities for productive talks about teaching? When and where? What needed to happen for these opportunities to exist?


a) Yes, I am that old.
b) No, I have not been in Korea the whole time.
c) That line is not completely fair to myself. I had taken a grad school class in TESOL and written my honor’s thesis on topics in the field. I’d also studied Spanish to some sort of level. I don’t know if these things mattered to my employer but they are things that I think helped me in my journey.
d) Actually I don’t know much about the typical training procedures in such situations or how clear the rules and roles are made to new teachers. I suppose it could be quite different from place to place.
(e) Oh, speaking of co-workers, here is something I wrote over on the iTDi blog about this topic.
(f)  I suppose at some point I will have to define what I mean by this.
(g) It’s already been almost five years since I shared some “Reflections on Teaching, Learning and Lesson Planning” and this time period is mentioned a bit.
(h) Gyeongnam represent!
(i) That bar sucked! What a weird place. I am not sure I ever had a good time there. Well except that one time that lady propositioned me in front of here date. Actually that was more weird than fun. Anyway, it seems like I am digressing from my digression so I will stop here. 


  1. livinglearning

    Hi Mike! Thanks for writing a thought-provoking post. I think that ‘bitching about teaching’ is not necessarily unproductive. I think it can often be a starting point for a productive conversation, depending on the listeners. More importantly, I think it can be really helpful to know that other teachers experience the same challenges in their day to day teaching. I also think that teachers mostly can’t help themselves when it comes to advising other teachers who have challenges they’ve already overcome. I’m not saying it’s always productive or advice is always good, or it ever becomes reflective. But I’d rather teachers complain together than not talk or think about teaching at all. Just my 20원.

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks for the comments, Anne!
      “Bitching about teaching is not necessarily unproductive” sounds like an excellent blog post or conference presentation.
      I like your points here about the possibilities of bitching leading to productivity and also about the idea that complaining together is potentially better than no talk about teaching at all.

      I also thought your points on advice were good too. One thing I have picked up in the last past few years is a question like, “Are you just complaining and looking to be heard or are you looking for advice or….?” which I think can be a nice way to make sure signals are not crossed

  2. Emma Gore-Lloyd

    Hi Mike
    Your post made me think about this kind of stuff has affected my attitude to my current job. To answer 3) I’ll tell you about where I used to work. Productive talk about teaching was most definitely encouraged. There was a fortnightly staff meeting/professional development session (where you could also bring up any issues to do with school that weren’t about teaching) and there were also social opportunities. Yes, we used to complain about things too, but this happened far less and often there was something that could be done – and in that respect (1), I think it can be useful, as long as people don’t indulge in it – or do it near new teachers. I was lucky enough to live with two other teachers, and we often helped each other out with teaching issues, like classroom management, how to teach something and lesson planning. Having space to talk about something also meant that it was easy to reflect on one’s teaching. I didn’t realise how much I learnt from my old companeros until I left that situation and came to work in another school in another city. So to answer 4), I guess for productive teacher to talk to happen, you need willing ears, positive attitudes and for the school to encourage or facilitate it. At my new job, there are no staff meetings, PD sessions are often held when you’re teaching, half the staff work Saturdays so can’t attend conferences, and I often hear people bitching or whispering around and about the office – this makes me want to spend as little time there as possible. (I’m aware I just bitched about it too. But I’m trying to be constructive in answering your questions! And I’ve been holding onto that for 4 months!) Suffice to say, I feel far less inspired. Either that, or the DELTA is taking up too much of my time!

    With regards to 2, I’ve never been to Korea, but I think it’s unlikely you’d find any business anywhere where people don’t complain sometimes. I’m not sure about meeting up solely to do so, though!

    • mikecorea

      Hi Emma!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I appreciate you taking the time and also coming close to bitching in order to answer my questions! Your comments and comparisons about places of work was very helpful for me to see some potential ways we can consider making talk about teaching more productive.

      I think your point about negativity limiting your time around the office is a good and instructive one.
      You wrote, “I guess for productive teacher to talk to happen, you need willing ears, positive attitudes and for the school to encourage or facilitate it” and I think this is very well said. It also makes me think because my first instinct is always that this sort of thing an just happen organically and not through management decisions or actions. Perhaps I am re-thinking this belief.

      I also like your point about how something like DELTA could take up your time and cut down on opportunities for productive talk.

      Thanks again for the very helpful comments!

  3. ven_vve

    Hi Mike,
    Just to make sure – you compared notes on whether the students were challenging or hot…or was that supposed to be challenging or not? 🙂
    In any case, I think teachers would have to be saints not to bitch about their jobs occasionally, but meeting people in a social setting with this express purpose sounds a little unusual. This is not to say that I’ve never met teacher friends in social settings and ended up complaining about work, but I can’t recall any meetings where it was openly said that this was the (most important item on the) agenda.
    I think Anne makes an important point when she says it’s the listeners who can turn bitching into a productive conversation. I see this as any conversation that makes the participants feel at least mildly positive about working as teachers, even if at the end of the day we don’t come up with a solution to what we were complaining about.
    As far as opportunities for productive talks go, I very much enjoyed the talks with the teachers at the school I used to run. For instance, post-observation chats. Of course, this could just be me – the teachers could still be recovering from the stress. I hope that’s not the case. The languages department where I currently work is also an environment conducive to productive chats – as well as complaining. 🙂 These usually happen unplanned, if someone happens to be in the office at the same time I am.
    Anyway. Thanks for the post – I think I’ve said before I like these posts where you ask interesting questions at the end!

    • mikecorea

      Hello Vedrana,

      I am very happy my questions were interesting to you and that you responded. I think you and Anne and others are helping me see complaining as not quite as bad as I might have originally thought. I also think your are right that, “teachers would have to be saints not to bitch about their jobs occasionally.”

      I like your examples of productive conversations you have had and enjoyed. Perhaps having something specific to talk about was helpful in this regard as it gave a clear starting point on something to talk about.

      Thanks again for the comments!

      ps- I can assure you there was no typo on my line about who was hot or not. 😉

  4. Rebeca

    Hola Mike!
    1- Cathartic, kind of. Helpful, no. So-called educators who earn a fortune yet don’t give a damn (excuse my French). And people in general who have the power and influence to change things but can’t be bothered. 2- Everybody bitches everywhere. It’s wrong and we shouldn’t do so. We should makes constructive criticism instead. And your post is a great starting point! Thanks for making us reflect 🙂 3- Implementing in our own lessons what other professionals do well. Also kindly suggesting ways to improve to others. 4- Yes. CPD courses and workshops. Twitter, too. Open-minded practitioners happy to share know-how and experience. I’m thinking of #weirdEDE #aussieED #sunchat etc. and teachers and educators in general who blog.
    Anyhow, those are my views. Thanks again for your post. Loved the “I am digressing from my digression”. It was a very enjoyable (and insightful!) read throughout. I look forward to Volume II!
    I hope you are having a good week,

  5. klloyd05

    Bitching is cathartic. In a controlled situation it helps us to release any anger that has built up and stops us exploding. I say ‘in a controlled situation’ because in a big group of people who don’t know each other that well, it can create a negative spiral, especially when people, start to truly believe that they are owed better, or that the grass really is greener for others. I bitch with my boyfriend at home. We are both teachers, at the same school at the moment, although it’s the same when we are at different schools. We both know that it’s just to release the negative energy, and once bitching has stopped, we look at it constructively and think about how to deal with any actual problems (this morning we had a rant about why students won’t wear glasses when they clearly can’t see the board. Nothing you can do about that, but it feels better to have let those feelings out). It’s been the same in all jobs, and before being a teacher we were scientists and worked in the civil service/industry.
    So I guess in answer to number 4, bitching can create productive talk. I agree with Emma, there needs to be the environment for it to blossom. Where there is a platform for teachers to share ideas and help each other e.g. a practical and useful PD program, this positivity will grow into the teachers’ room.

    Oh, and Emma, much of the bitching my boyfriend and I do now is about the delta, so I feel your pain! (Positively of course).

  6. Mike Harrison

    I know I’ve certainly engaged in ‘bitching sessions’ before. I think like others who have commented that it can be cathartic. It can also help if you get in such a difficult situation (which DOES happen, much as we wouldn’t like to admit it) when everything goes wrong. Sometimes the only way to elicit a bit of advice from coworkers is to engage in this kind of despair.

    I think I was really lucky in my induction into the teaching world. Before my formal training I had a year to try out things as a language assistant in Spain. Did I do a good job all the time? Certainly not! But it did give me experience and a chance to try out a few things. Then when I did do my PGCE I was lucky to be based in a college for the whole year, have a CELTA tutor as my mentor (so I got little bits of CELTA-type input as well as the PGCE) and I was teaching ESOL, so I had to adapt resources and consider things which probably aren’t typical of most EFL teaching contexts.

    Thanks for the post – looking forward to reading this series of talking about teaching thoughts from you 🙂

  7. Pingback: #KELTchat: Making sense of experiences (June 9 2015, 11am KST) | #KELTChat
  8. Pingback: Catharsis and Teaching - DreamreaderDreamreader

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