I am a used car [Guest Post]

Mike says: I received the following from a long-time native English teacher in  South Korean public schools. This teacher wanted to share his/her feelings about the experience. 

The other day I was thinking about how I would describe a career as a foreign EFL teacher in public schools in South Korea. With so many ways to think of it, I could only come up with one that truly describes my personal feelings after nearly 7 years in the public school system working under contract with local and provincial education offices. My position leaves me feeling as if I am little more than a used car to those that are “in charge.”

rusty car

Think back to the purchase of a new car if you have ever made such a purchase. You get the car and it is all shiny, clean, and perfect. That was me as a new teacher in Korea. I was shiny and clean. There were no dings on my body and no scratches on my paint. The owners, the office of education and school, were so happy and they wanted to take care of me and show me off to all of their friends. They wanted to maintain me with regular servicing in the form of pay increases, ample vacation time, and a schedule that didn’t put 100,000 km a year on the odometer.

As time has passed, they have taken away a large majority of the regular servicing in the sense that vacation time has decreased by 50 percent, pay increases have stopped, the number classes has increased, and employer provided housing has taken a hit. Like a used car, they see little need to maintain us. They want to drive us harder and faster and then they want to take us to the scrap yard and get a new model.

I am not saying that this problem is unique to Korea and that it doesn’t happen in other places. I would be naïve to think in such a way. I also understand the way that Korean contract teachers are treated. Many of them are treated as if they don’t matter and they are forced into doing everything that the “real teachers” don’t want to do. During my time in Korea, I have worked with some contract workers who have English skills and teaching knowledge that surpass that of a large majority of the “real teachers.” Unfortunately, they were unable to pass a test, which many of the older “real teachers” never had to take, or their major was something other than English and they will be confined to the role of a disposable used car like many of us.

Many of them will never receive the recognition or benefits that they truly deserve. A clear case of this can be seen in the following statement that was published in a recent article in The Korea Times. “The government has refused to recognize that two part-time teachers at Danwon High School, who perished in the ferry Sewol sinking, died while on duty because they were not full-time teachers who are categorized as public servants.” So, they were not on duty because they were only part-timers and not “real teachers?” Do they not deserve any recognition for their service or sacrifice? According to those in charge, they don’t.

Some will say that this is life and it happens to everyone. I cannot deny that this is life and it happens, but does it have to happen? Would it hurt the people in charge to give a few more benefits and treat people with a little more respect based on their time of service? I feel like it wouldn’t hurt them at all and the trade-off between a greater expense and the quality of employee work would probably come close to evening out for all involved parties.

In closing, I would like to say that the things I have written only reflect my views on how some NETs and Korean contract teachers are treated. In general, Korea is a decent place with a lot of nice things to offer and a large number of people that are good and hardworking. However, until the “owners of the car” decide to maintain their automobiles better, the junk yards will become full and harder to keep out of sight.

scrap vehicles


  1. punster30

    I was in Korea for 2 years. I enjoyed my time in public schools, but didn’t want to stay longer as they offer no professional development opportunities, and I lacked job satisfaction. The fact that they are cutting the benefits just compels things further. Sounds like you’re not being appreciated – jump ship and move to another country? Seven years is a lot of experience…

  2. paulwalsh

    Hi Mike,

    Nice post! My reaction: even “owners of the cars” have to respect the laws of the land, and road traffic rules and regulations.

    Maybe teachers (NEST & NNEST) should get together and try and change the rules by which the owners of the cars drive over everyone else?

    Teachers as Workers Special Interest Group may be one way of doing this, feel free to join in the conversation: https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/100289506962281954100

  3. Rob Dickey

    The discussion for the “Sewol teachers as public servants” is quite a different question, a different issue. That’s not a question of “hero” it’s a question of work status. Like saying “a terrorist killed me, I should get military benefits.” Sorry, the form of death does not dictate the benefits.

    • David Harbinson

      I’m afraid I disagree. Your comparison with the military does not make sense. Those two teachers were sent on the trip by the school. I’m guessing they did not have a choice. Maybe they didn’t even want to give up their free time to go, but they did. If you’re killed by a terrorist just going about your day-to-day business, then of course you don’t deserve military benefits. However, these two teachers were not going about their day-to-day business. What would people be saying if they had decided to get off the ship leaving the students there, saying “we’re not on duty, we’re going to save ourselves”?

      Actually, this comment makes me angry.

      • Rob Dickey

        David, I’m sorry the argument makes you angry. I see you hold an LLB. Intellectually, you understand the argument, even if you don’t hold with it. Whether or not the contract-teachers deserve financial benefits is a separate question from whether or not they are career government employees – all kinds of government benefits differ – pensions, insurance, etc… Lots of my former students work in these non-permanent teaching positions at schools – some as full-year/full-time substitutes who have passed the licensing exams but not gotten hired as a permanent employee. (My wife, too, progressed through this as a non-teaching staff in national university.) If we clarify the argument I presented, those working for private security companies in the Middle East who are killed by terrorists as they work alongside official Army – they aren’t entitled to government benefits.

  4. Rob Dickey

    Compensation and workload for foreign teachers in Korea has been tied to supply and demand. Economics 101. We can trace this back for 20 years, since they started hiring larger numbers of expats in the early 1990s. The economic crisis of the late 1990s, where the exchange rate went crazy, meant salaries skyrocketed (in local terms) as expat teachers fled. A few years later, as things stabilized, salaries fell, and some expats left, rejecting the pay-cuts. But there were plenty of North Americans looking for overseas work, the supply seemed limitless. Salaries have continued to be flat, or even fallen, since 2004 while workloads increase. And now standards are climbing – universities demanding MATESOL/related degrees, EPIK demanding Certs with face-to-face practicum, etc.

  5. Marc

    You could use the economics argument over and over but at the end of the day, you have teachers with acquired local knowledge being driven out of a job because the opportunity to develop has been removed. A lot of teachers want to be classroom teachers and get better at that; not everyone is looking for promotion.

    It’s similar in Japan but our opportunities for development in-house are zero and it has almost always been such. Add in Lehman Bros. fallout as an excuse to drive salaries down and this is where we are now.

  6. jdslagoski

    This is definitely not a phenomenon unique to Korea. It’s frightening to see greater similarities between the Korean and American education systems. I left Korea 10 years ago, and what was culture shock for me as a new teacher in Korea is now common in the United States with greater emphasis on testing and the many ways for all stakeholders to game the system. Where are the working conditions better for English language teachers? I think it’s institution by institution now rather than country to country. Seek out institutions that support genuine professional development.

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