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The State of Public School Teaching in Korea

The title of this article is admittedly grandiose for its contents. I knew at some point I would address the issue, but I hadn’t thought that it would have such an immediate and dramatic impact on the future contents of the blog. 

Last spring, I re-applied with EPIK to transfer to another province in Korea. I wanted to teach in Seoul, but there weren’t any job openings there in September, so I opted for Incheon. It’s an hour’s ride from the capital on the subway, connected directly via the Seoul Metro.

Seoul IncheonImage from Google Maps.

Applying to work in another province means repeating the EPIK application process. From last February until the end of last May, I submitted an online form with a letter of recommendation, held another Skype interview, sent in my paperwork, and was offered a position with the Incheon Metropolitan Office of Education.

A month later, that offer was rescinded. 

In an apologetic E-mail, the staff at EPIK explained that, due to the recent election, Incheon had a new superintendent who changed the program. It later came out that he’d made some big promises to get elected, for which he needed big money, which he got by cutting the English program. EPIK offered to put me in a different city in Korea. By that point I decided I preferred staying at my current school.  

As it turns out, positions were being cut all over the country. Incheon was first, but soon Daegu, Gyeonggi, and Chungcheongbuk were all announcing changes.

Provinces_of_South_Korea

In teal: Incheon (4), Seoul (1), Gyeonggi Province (8), Gangwon Province (9), Chungcheongbuk Province (10), and Daegu (3). 

Not even my own province was spared. This last November, EPIK teachers in Gangwon received an E-mail from the higher-ups detailing the following changes:

  1. All high schools were being cut or downsized.
  2. Schools would only be allowed one EPIK teacher. (On some occasions, they had two or more.)
  3. Schools in the mining districts—Taebaek, Samcheok, Yeongwol, and Jeongseon—were being significantly downsized.

After years with EPIK, some of the program’s biggest sources of funding in Gangwon Province are pulling their support. Given the cost of maintaining an EPIK teacher—flying her in and out of the country, paying apartment rent on top of salary—many sponsors don’t see much result for their money’s worth.

More than that, I suppose there’s a certain amount of impatience with the program; the government seems to believe that the mere presence of a native English speaker will allow students to improve their speaking ability by osmosis. There’s little organization or consistency across the province in terms of educational roles, so most schools just put the EPIK teacher wherever there seems to be a space.

PC138968Sort of like this wheelchair lift in the Seoul Metro (Sangsu Station, line 6). I’ve complained about these before, haven’t I? 

There are plenty of economic and political factors mixed in here, as well. Korean President Park Geun-hye has made promises to support social welfare programs, which comes at the cost of educational resources. Incheon hosted the very expensive (and very under-attended) Asian games in 2014, and Gangwon Province will host the winter Olympics in 2018. 

We spoke about this concern at an educational symposium in December, where the head of the Gangwon EPIK branch explained the changes in detail. When my school got the news about the budget cuts, my co-teacher called the Provincial Office of Education to see what would be happening to my job. The report I got was that I’d have work until the end of my contract, which led me to believe that I would stay at my school.

Then, on vacation in Tokyo, I got an E-mail saying my job had been made redundant by the Office of Education, and I would be relocated to another city and school in February. They didn’t know where I would be going yet; could I send them my preferences ASAP?

Despite how it sounds, the Gangwon Office of Education has been decent about it. Even if it means moving people six months into their contracts, they’ve promised to give every one of their employees a job at least until the end of their employment terms. From early on, the POE has been forthright with us about the changes to the program and the impact it will have on its long-term teachers. I just feel bad for the teachers who arrived in August or September and received this news a few months later. 

I had to inform my school about the change in plans, since they heard about it a week after I did. Two weeks after I had that fateful E-mail, I received my placement results.

And that’s how I wound up moving to Gangneung.

 

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