When One Door Closes, Smash in a Window

Leave it to me to make this beautiful website only to never write anything for it. über fail. To cut to the chase, I feel that my life here has just now started. I’ve crawled out of my cave and into the light.

Here’s why:

For the past three months I worked at an intense Korean hagwon (private academy) which specialized in students who had either lived abroad or were going abroad. I taught preschool in the mornings ( 10 AM – 2 PM ) and reading, writing, grammar, science, and a sort of living skills class called “Me and My World” in the afternoons. My days started at 9 AM and ended at 8 PM, at which point I headed home to either grade vocabulary quizzes or complete report cards.

I had only three kids in my preschool program. Three 5-year-olds for four hours. That’s a long time with three tots. I learned quickly that childhood education is not for me. It was hard for me to admit at first, but there was just no denying it. I didn’t have the patience needed to work with kids, nor the background in child education that I think someone should have. I inadvertently treated them like mini adults, but I didn’t know how to stop. They had such a dependence on me and needed an approval that, for some reason, I had no desire to give them. So basically, I felt like a huge bitch for three months.

In the afternoons I had 50 minute lessons with 8-10 year olds. They came to my school after their regular elementary school for their English lesson. While I enjoyed how much faster the time went by with them, these lessons had their own set of issues.

Koreans are in school for an unbelievable amount of time each day. A “hagwon” is just a private academy- it can be academic or non-academic. Most of my kids went to three or four different hagwons after their elementary school finished for the day. These hagwons could be for anything from English, math, robotics to taekwondo, piano, or even Lego-building. They get homework from each one, plus the added stress from their families to be the best at each skill and to be compared to all their friends.

Naturally, this led to a class environment full of kids who were either immensely afraid of making mistakes or who were too burnt out from their long day to care about anything that went on in the class. Any time I had an assignment requiring them to use their own brains to formulate responses (now, come up with your own sentence using the vocabulary words!) I was greeted with blank stares and one giant question mark on each of their foreheads.

I tried the fun-teacher route, the scary-teacher route, games, extra homework, one-on-one help after class, anything that I thought might motivate them or scare them into just trying. In the end, though, the school was just like any other business and the lessons had deadlines and parents had to be pleased. It didn’t matter if a student didn’t understand the material. I had to move on to the next unit.

So, I started having a guilty conscious working there. I don’t like to do anything half-heartedly and I could feel myself caring less and less. My own motivation plummeted and I put less effort into the job. I became as indifferent as most of the kids. I couldn’t possibly understand how the other teachers had worked there for so long.

It was very black and white to me: the only reason I would continue to stay was for the money, and I refuse to ever let money dictate my life. So I quit my job. I have since learned this is rather rare to do here mid-contract, as it takes a lot of work on the employees part regarding immigration, could be costly, and of course means uprooting from the oh-so-malicious comfort zone.

It was worth it.

Now, I work seven hours a day and I live in the heart of Gangnam, Seoul. My students range from 18-60 years old. They’re university students, business professionals, Samsung execs, video game designers, fashion designers, engineers, officers in the Korean army, or are heading abroad to places like England, New Zealand, or America for work or to get their MBA.

They come because they genuinely want to. Either they want to improve their English skills for personal development or because it will benefit them in the work place. So, they have a lot of motivation. Sometimes I teach group business, writing, and free talk classes, but they are mostly one-on-one. My students seem extremely comfortable with me, as if our lessons are almost a safe haven for them to talk about issues or topics they may not feel comfortable talking about with friends.

They share their greatest fears, their insecurities, their issues with family, their deepest ambitions. It’s infatuating. While at times the cultural differences between myself and my student can make for great conversation, it’s as equally fascinating to recognize our similarities. Although they have grown up in a country miles away from my own and in a completely different culture, we are, in the end, simply humans. Our curiosity brings us together.

These lessons are also much more language-focused than with children. We can talk about the in’s and out’s of linguistics, which completely satisfies my nerdy obsession with it. My coworkers are from all over the world (causing me to contemplate what wondrous place my next move might take me…but that’s for another post).

To sum it all up, I’m exactly where I want to be. Now to just enjoy this wild ride.

Questions, comments, suggestions, inquiries encouraged.

0 Comments When One Door Closes, Smash in a Window

  1. Max July 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Sounds like things are getting better and better. Can’t wait to hear what’s next. . . or maybe see for myself.

  2. Greg July 12, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Glad you wrote again, and I’m glad you followed what your instinct told you to do. I can’t get inside your head, but I’d like to think the lapse in time from posts doesn’t matter. It just shows that you waited (and got enough time/motivation) to actually have something relevant and important to write about in your life.

  3. sohaila July 12, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    It’s wonderful to know that you are enjoying your “ride”. You’ve had a great hands-on experience and got to know yourself. I look forward to hearing more about your life there.

  4. Venancio Carmo July 18, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    Hello Shireen, You are a very interesting woman! I do admire the one’s that are brave enough to look outside the cave & not to fear the shadows of fire inside the cave ruled by cultural traditions!

  5. Rachel Pate July 26, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Shireen please keep writing because I will be reading! Miss you!!

  6. Shireen July 31, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Will do Rachel. Thank you, means a lot!


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