Korea, Random Rambles
Comments 10

Middle School of the Damned

High rise & korean flag

Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’

I just might tell you the truth

~ Bob Dylan, ‘Outlaw Blues’

I teach in two schools. That is, I “teach” in two schools. At my second one, a co-teacher made the mistake of asking me how my Friday had been. It had actually started quite well, with few murderous or suicidal impulses, but by lunchtime it could’ve gone either way.

(Jeez, better not link to this blog on my CV…)

She started off nodding sympathetically but by the end of my rant she’d almost physically withdrawn. Suddenly she had to run somewhere.

“Better not ask me how my day was in future!” I called cheerfully as she closed the door.

crocs in shoes locker

Shoe locker, main school. I doubt there are slippers in my size in all of Korea — lucky I brought my Crocs

My honeymoon period in Korea is definitely over. I’ve been at an all-time low of late, in fact, and only a decent walk on the weekend can make life worthwhile. This undoubtedly stems from the realisation of just how bad the teaching here can be.

I start each day with a feeling of anxiety. This usually gives way to anger and frustration — at students, staff, the whole Korean education system.

High rise & korean flag

View from my main school

This is the hardest job I’ve ever had. Monday to Wednesday, I sit in the teacher’s room of my main school between classes, until this awful chimed music announces It’s Time.

I exit, sighing, and slump upstairs…

Korean school corridor

The staffroom & the Hallway of Doom, blissfully student-free

..through the chaos of the crowded corridors.

Students seldom go outside. The hallways are their playground and anything goes — except boy-girl talking. Classes are segregated, and I’ve never seen a boy talk to a girl. There’s a wearisome cacophony of shrieking as they fight and chase each other at full speed, perhaps pausing to shout “Hello, teacher!”

There’s always at least one jackass with a “Nice to meet you!” This was never amusing, and grates more with each passing day. I respond only to civil and genuine communication. Believe me, all trace of interest in the language will vanish once they enter class.

Korean school corridor

A rare patch of sunlight in the middle school gloom

Some classes are tolerable. The girls are about five years more mature than the boys; some actually want to learn. The first-years, boys and girls, are sweet, on the whole, though the boys are like tigers squeezed into a budgie cage. The energy and volume, neither  focused on anything useful, is overwhelming. I finish most days with a sore throat.

Their usual English classes don’t help. These kids get 45 minutes a week of me, and the rest of the time they’re learning passive “skills” with their well-meaning Korean teachers. Speaking isn’t tested, and they might well “understand” the present perfect, say, but you will never, ever hear it produced.

Their teachers were taught the same garbage they teach their charges. So every day in response to my “How are you?” I’ll get a chorus of I’M FINE THANK YOU AND YOUs.

English is just another subject to be memorised and tested. It has nothing whatsoever to do with, say, communicating with another human being. Yet every day you hear the tired old “English is very important” or “English is an international language” clichés. I want to scream sometimes (though it’s bad for my throat):



My week “winds down” with two days at another school. I pass the sombre flocks of apartment blocks…

apartment blocks

Forest giants

..and through the remnant farmland surrounding the school:

I put on the regulation footwear (Why? They wear their slippers even outside):

..and climb these stairs to my Fortress of Solitude, the “English Room” where I will hide between lessons:

The other teachers and I never mix. My 10 minutes between lessons are beautiful, calm and silent. I stare out this window a lot…

..and sometimes, when cabin fever sets in, sneak into places like the art room to take some pictures:

store mannequin

At last, a woman who doesn’t run away when I talk to her

That co-teacher did bring me a few English novels, and sometimes there’s action outside:

That miserable music. It’s Time. 

Down the Hallway of Doom…

school lockers

..and a last glance at Independence Mountain…

..and I reach the classroom, where all joy dies.

Classes here are much worse. Every second week I teach Year 3s — and they’re brutal. The girls, when not absorbed in make-up and mirrors, can be tolerable. The boys are useless, obnoxious and exhausting.

school blackboard

Teaching the truth & the So-So Rule outlined

You might glance at these lively lads and think Can’t be that bad — they look harmless enough:

But God, I despise some of these little shits. Lazy, rude, spoiled little spoon-fed mama’s boys. Bring on military service:

Classes typically contain 30-35, approximately two of whom could care less. Before the lesson, no Korean teacher will have checked with me, informed me what they’ve been learning, where they are in the book. They act like we western teachers can just magically produce lessons without any consultation whatsoever.

The teacher will walk to the back and hand over to me. They will occasionally bark at them in Korean to shut the hell up, or translate something I’ve said at great length, but it’s mostly in my capable hands. And check out the material I have to work with:

English textbook

English is all about communication


Within seconds, three or four heads will be on desks. You might hear snoring. The much-lauded Korean computer-games industry keeps these poor wretches up late into the night, and that’s after most attend “academy” — Konglish for cram school — for several hours after “real” school.

Their Korean teacher will usually just let the poor darlings sleep.

Most of the rest are talking, throwing shit, carving erasers, or doing homework. I’ll spend 30 minutes setting up some role play, hand it over to them and they will sit there silently, ignoring their partner completely. Being Asians, they will never tell their “partner” off for wasting their time — they’ll just sit there in comfortable mutual silence, heads bowed. They’ll save their talking for when I’m talking — and it’ll be in Korean.

It’s all I can do not to shout Hallelujah to the heavens when that fucking bell chimes. Back to the Fortress of Solitude I go.

And to think I could have studied law, or become a farmer. Something well-paid, or at least useful…

kindle daniel defoe

Soothing post-school reading

How was your day?

* Outside of ‘Monty Python’, I mean

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. Oh dear, Goat! I thought I’d had only a so-so day myself until I read about yours. Just take a deep breath, lie down in a darkened room and dream about that mannequin, my friend. In fact, tomorrow why don’t you just stuff her under your arm and elope. Somewhere not in Korea. (Maybe some broad-minded place like Stockholm or Amsterdam?)

    I do feel for you. I can now admit that in my youth I was a “Fremdsprachenassistent” in Germany and it was an utter disaster. I also taught (ha!) at two schools like you. The saving grace, however, was that when the one school thought I was at the other, the other thought I was at the one. Result was I rarely went to either. Indeed, most days and (nights) I was drinking myself into oblivion in the seedy dives and underground jazzkellers of Frankfurt.

    I’m off to bed now. I have a headache. And you?

    • Haha, that’s a priceless comment, SW. I can’t tell you how appealing “oblivion in the seedy dives and underground jazzkellers of Frankfurt” sounds to me right now! Nothing remotely as appealing to escape to here, just the mountains and the fish markets! Rather have the oblivion.

      I’ll try to get up the courage to ask the mannequin out tomorrow — it’s just that I’m so scared of rejection…

  2. To me your school experiences are, I’m afraid, all too normal – if a little distant now. I trained as an English teacher at a college in the English midlands (not quite a foreign country to me, but almost) and experienced more or less what you recount during my training in the local schools. Maybe it’s no real surprise, then, that I left college before completing the course. Or, to be more truthful, I was kicked out as a result of my perceived lack of motivation (largely resulting from my experiences). So I sympathise with your current state of mind.

    • All the English teachers are coming out of the woodwork tonight, Nick! I couldn’t be less motivated, so maybe they’ll kick me out too. Unlikely though as they took ages to fill this position (for some reason). I will say the obvious plus about the job is that it lets me travel and live somewhere different…and I honestly don’t know what else to do.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Mm… It certainly doesn’t look like a load of fun. The photos are nice though, so that’s something isn’t it? I still think you should be sneaking up to that school at night and burning the joint down. Surely there will be some down time for relaxing whilst they reorganise?

    There’s a few things in this post. One that stood out is that it appears all those kids go to the same barber. Oh yeah, that barber should be sacked for inflicting so many bowl cuts to so many people.

    ‘You’d better not eat ice cream’?! That made my day in a sort of tragic way!

    Face it. You’re doing time and you’ve got to sit it out until your parole on December 31st…

    • Yes, I’m doing time alright — one reason I don’t eat lunch in the school cafeteria is it’s all too prison-like. Arson is a comforting thought but I fear they’d just move me to a new institution…and I’ve seen how quickly they can build things over here!

      Time for some yoghurt for desert. Not game to touch any lethal ice cream…

  4. Carl says

    First single 88, first album 89, open Reading 91, headline Reading 92, dead 94

  5. Dear Lord Goat,

    You should have gone to Croatia or Nicaragua!

    Seriously though, you are getting paid and experiencing, intimately, a culture. And, unlike people who go to Korea (or wherever) for a week or even a month holiday you can actually say you have lived there and have some understanding of the culture, even if it doesnt suit you.

    Isn’t that what life is, in part : collecting experiences?

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