It ain’t all swan boats and picnics!!!

After enjoying such an amazing weekend at Bomun Lake we started a new week happy, enthusiastic and positive about our lives in Korea.

Unfortunately with the ups there are always the downs.

On Monday after teaching 3 classes, Dan’s director took him aside. With a very pained face she told him that she needed to talk to him about a serious matter.  She explained that she had received some complaints about his “not being happy to the students” and that because of him her hagwon was losing its reputation.   She said that while he was a ‘good teacher’ and a very ‘good person’ that he didn’t smile enough and with his beard and long hair some of the children were scared of him.

She also had a problem with the fact that when children didn’t know the answers to something that Dan wouldn’t immediately provide them with the answer.  Instead, he was eliciting the information from the children (i.e. doing what EVERY TESOL class ever will tell you do and try and get the children to figure out the answers for themselves first!) and, well, that was just a big no-no.

In a nutshell students were leaving because of him and all the problems that her and her school were having were entirely down to him.  Maybe he should have shaved!!!

This came as an absolute shock to Dan. His classes were going very well and the students were having fun and learning lots from him. Obviously there were some ‘bad apples’ – the ones hitting, talking too much and distracting other students – that Dan had to be hard on but this wasn’t to say that he was shouting or using other favoured Korean discipline techniques including hitting children with sticks…

This conversation turned into the possible non-continuation of his contract which for a foreign teacher that has moved across the world to work for a business (and work hard we might add) this predicament was quite daunting.

Dan left school that day very worried and alarmed. He arrived home and after much stressing, pacing and discussion with H-J (his ever wise and calming influence) he decided to approach the situation in the morning by having a very civil conversation to outline the issues and look to find a solution.

Dan got to work and no one was there. He organised his classes and waited for the director to show. When she did arrive she scuttled around avoiding Dan making sure that everything she could do that wasn’t in the teachers office would be done. Dan scribbled out a page of his thoughts in his journal while he waited. 30 minutes went by and Dan decided that when he finished his page in his book he would go and find her have the chat.

Dan and the director sat in the staff room and Dan began talking about how he was sorry if there was any problems in his teaching and that he was interested to get some feedback to become a better employee. The director wasn’t enjoying this conversation and started to feel threatened.  Instead of understanding that Dan wanted more support from her, she thought he was blaming her for all the problems of the school. The chat came to a peak when after this heated discussion ended with Dan asking “so will I have a job?” and her saying “I don’t know…”

Very scary for a Kiwi in Korea with no other support network…..

Dan went to class feeling very stressed. He taught his kids and made sure that the whole class he was smiling from ear to ear (thanks to Allen Hall, Otago University Theatre department $30,000k student loan well spent!).

After class he went to the staff room where he found the following email from the recruiter who first hired us…

Hi, Dan.
How are you?
I just got the call from your director that she wants to give you fire notice for one or two months.
She explained that several things for the reason.
1. Many students are scared about your class and not excited.
2. For the reason, Their mothers have been complain to the school continue.
3. Several students are quiting for your class.
Previousely When the students told her about you , she has been have no regard.
However, currently mothers complain is becoming bigger about your class.
The school is not a public school, just private school. Mothers paid to the school a lot money for learn the English.
If the class is not excited and their students don’t want to learn from you, they definately call the director and complain it.
It was not first time for the complaining.
The complain has been started from last year when you start to work.(almost 6months..)
Finally now the director has been get several damage for your class.
If many students quit the school, she doesn’t have any reason for work her business.
The school is her business.
So she decided to give you the notice for firing.
On the contract,

12. Modifications and Termination

1) In case of modification, or termination, of the contract both parties must give 30 days prior written notice after mutual agreement between both parties.

3) The Employee can terminate this contract in the event the Employer does not follow this contract as stated herein, or in the case that the Employee is assaulted verbally, physically, and/or mentally by the Employer.  If the contract is terminated by this case, the Employer shall give the Employee his/her release form.

4) After Employee is notified with the termination of the contract, the Employee must finish all her/his duties before the contract is actually terminated.

 The director wanted to discuss for it with you for quiting.

However, she said that you just were angry and didn’t want to hear about her speaking.
I hope you understand her situation and you discuss well for thie quiting with the director.
What the?????
So they wanted Dan to work for 30 days and leave for not smiling and being a bit stern on some students. Naughty boy… He should be punished.
Working the rest of the day was very hard.  A bit later on Dan had another quick chat to the director showing her the specific parts of the contract that showed that she was totally in breach of her legal obligations.  He arranged a meeting the next day with H-J as a witness with the director to maybe sort out the issues.  It must be pointed out that these issues had never been raised with him prior to this!  If she had 6 months of grievances, perhaps she should have raised them a little earlier…
We arrived to the meeting and Dan was straight away chastened for being “too emotional” the previous day.  No shit!  You fired me VIA A THIRD PARTY EMAIL for not smiling enough!
After a bit of back and forth, the director skirting around any direct questions (such as “have I been fired or not?”) it became clear that she was denying having fired Dan at all, blaming the whole thing on a misunderstanding with the recruiter.  She could not for the life of her understand at all why the whole incident might be slightly upsetting.  She agreed that all problems could be worked through but that she wanted Dan to be “happy and smiley” and that was as far as the advice or support she was prepared to offer went.
What the f*&k?  New email from the recruiter.
HI, Dan.
You  director told me that you and she got good conclusion that you will stay continue and you will work harder than current.
I hope you have a good teaching experience from there till you work the school.
Have a good day!
Dan and his director headed back to school, having a chat on the way.  He was told that he should just be nice, smile lots and not to ever be angry at kids (even when they are hitting each other or being out of control) and – this is the best bit of all – to “leave the teaching to her”…
This goes someway as to explaining why the word “runchee” (lunch) is so prevalent in “English” spoken by Koreans…
To make matters worse, on top of all of this, H-J was having massive issues trying to decide whether her latest ailment was yet another cold bought on by germy Korean children, or a severe allergy to the overly-scented toilet paper we had just bought.  It turned out to be a combination of both.
What a couple of days…Now we have six more months of smiling, saving, and working as not-teaching-English-English-Teachers before we can put on our fisherman pants, uncover our tattoos and explore India and South East Asia.
There are a few morals to this story:
1. TESOL/ESL teachers working at hagwons in South Korea are often there merely to provide the prestige of having a foreign teacher.  We are there to improve the hagwon’s reputation, NOT the childrens’ English.
2. Accordingly, the English that children learn at these sometimes very expensive academies is taught not by native English speakers but by Korean teachers who often don’t speak it very competently themselves.
3. That if you are to embark on an adventure as a hagwon teacher you have to be prepared for the fact that you probably won’t be changing any lives or inspiring children a-la Dead Poets Society but merely providing a White Faced Babysitting Service.  This may or may not be demoralising depending on your outlook.
4. Don’t buy over-scented toilet paper.
Categories: Korea, Teaching, TravelTags: , , , , ,


  1. Oh, HJ, wow, when you told me you had had a hard week, I had no idea. Thank you so much for sharing all this, my heart goes out to you both. And, what a wonderful response. What a lesson you teachers have learned. If only the students and principle could learn, as well.

    • Its been a learning curve all right – unfortunately all the lessons were fairly uncomfortable ones! Never mind, we’re just watching our backs now and will paste smiles on our faces and keep on plugging away at the contract that WE are determined to honour. And after such a stressful week we reckon we’re due a few fantastic ones!!!

  2. This is a great post of a very tough story. Wow!

  3. What the …………………by the way, I’m now an Australian, Brisbane based, will catch up by way of email soon but left realy fast and still sorting my shite….

    • Yeah we have a certain way of attracting “interesting” employment situations, LOL!!! Great to hear from you and intrigued to hear about the fast move and what you’re up to!!! Brisbane is an AWESOME holiday spot so make sure you have a spare room 🙂

  4. Wow .. I could barely understand Mary the recruiter’s e-mail. Maybe they should give themselves a long look in the mirror before acting the way they do (but they don’t otherwise their face would fall off … sad affliction they have throughout Asia 😛 )

    • Yeah her response was kinda a great example of the result of not letting native speakers actually teach the English, haha. Its funny, everytime we meet someone in Korea that speaks good English (which isn’t that many) we ask them where they learnt – and not ONE of them has said “oh, I had a really good hagwon”…some say they just learnt at public school, others university and more often than not, the best speakers are the ones who have travelled to English speaking countries. And funnily enough, been around loads of native speakers.

  5. Hi H-J and Dan,
    This sounds so stressful and ridiculous. I’m really sorry to hear about your hideous ‘teaching’ experiences. I just hope one day you can look back on it all and laugh.
    Hugs and kisses,

    • Definitely a stressful experience!!! We are already laughing about it…what else can you do when you have to start each day knowing it could be your last if you don’t smile enough?! Lol. At the end of the day once you have this “system” figured out and develop coping mechanisms, its a very well paid baby-sitting job requiring only a 25 hour work week. So we’ll suck it up and, hey, it gives us something to talk about 🙂

      Hope your school experiences are the complete opposite and that you’re enjoying life!

  6. The whole thing sounds totally ridiculous! Seems like you handled it very well though. Well done for keeping your cool. I think I would’ve flown into a rage at being trated so unfairly and got myself permanently fired….

    • The whole thing WAS totally ridiculous…and so easily avoided in the first place just by having a civil conversation!!! Oh well, you live and learn. Put your head down, smile a lot and hope to make it to the end of contract completion bonus 🙂

  7. What a horrible and (as many others have said) ridiculous experience. I do think that what you say about them using native English speakers more “for show” is true. I am TESOL qualified and taught here in Spain for a while but may of the younger students thought my English wasn´t “proper” and that I was too tough…clearly someone who doesn´t really speak the language gives them an easier ride! Stay calm, grit your teeth and “smile” then when the time comes you can do your own thing and have fun!

    • Urgh that gets my back up – we too have been told to speak “proper” English…UM, WTF??!!! Or that our accents make it too hard for people to understand. I think that makes it abundantly clear that English is not going to be used for a lot of these children in any context actually involving native speakers and they just want the on-paper proof of study. Its sad.

      But yes, onwards and upwards! Smiles on, demeanour cool and off we go toward our goals!

  8. Can’t imagine how stressful this must have been for both of you; sorry to hear you had to go though this, though glad to hear you won’t have to leave Korea early or have to look for some other type of employment in the meantime!

    • Thanks for your message 🙂 Yes, was definitely stressful as we have no real support networks here so things felt a little uncertain and out of control for a few days! We went into that meeting with lots of ‘what-if’ contingencies but actually obtained the best outcome which for us was staying put, finishing our current contracts and picking up our big, fat contract completion payment! Starting all over again would have been a quite de-motivating but at the end of the day that is a reality for a lot of hagwon teachers here. The industry is rife with tales like ours and a lot worse. So smiles are firmly pasted, voices lowered and off we go toward saving for hopefully not having to work for a couple of months later in the year! YAY 🙂

  9. I’m so sorry to hear about this horrid treatment! It all sounds like a bunch of BS to me (getting fired for not smiling enough? Really?). These parents must have some unrealistic expectations, or they’re blowing things out of proportion… probably easier to blame the foreigner. Ugh, makes me feel sick 😦 Kudos to you guys for handling it so professionally and sticking it through. I hope the next 6 months goes smoothly!

    • Agreed, potentially a combo of unrealistic expectations and ‘keeping with up the Jones’…it was definitely an eye-opener in any regard! The situation we could deal with but what shocked us was the lack of humanity that Dan’s boss showed throughout the whole episode. She kept saying, “its business, its business” – yes, its business but part of being a manager is HUMAN relations. And she refused to accept that emotions were part of being human or that we might possibly be a little bit upset/frightened by what was happening.

      Anyway, we’re on the metaphorical way down the other side of the hill now and still determined to have fun and explore our surroundings! Oh and keep smiling! Haha.

      • Totally, the lack of humanity is awful… I think that’s the major flaw in Korean business – the lack of human relations. To them, it really is just business and they don’t seem to care who they hurt, as long as it helps the “business” (the means justifies the end?). You two are awesome, though – love that you’re determined to have fun and keep smiling 🙂

  10. Oh my, that must have felt horrible! I, too, am dealing with a challenging ‘old culture’ here but would not want to be in your situation right now. I hope it will get better from here on.

    • Things are all settled down again now…its not an experience we would like to repeat but certainly provided a bit of an eye-opener about the extreme differences in our cultures toward dealing with stress, haha. We’re laughing about it but also somewhat counting down the days till we can secure our bonus and head toward the next adventure!

  11. Oh my goodness, Korean schools can be so ridiculous. Can you even IMAGINE what would happen back home if someone tried to fire you and cited your BEARD as one of the reasons?? Sometimes Korea makes me sad, it can be so backwards, and it can be so frustrating to work here. I have a friend at a private school here and her boss tried to fire her because she called him out on something shady he was doing with her paycheck, and the only reason he didn’t end up firing her was because he found out that he would have to pay the airfare of her replacement. Keep your chin up, and your sites set on SE Asia!

    • We hear some horror stories about what some teachers go through at hagwons here…but its so tough to fight these battles when you don’t speak the language so the people in charge clearly have the upper hand. Which I think they totally exploit in many cases…I hope your friend got to the end of her contract and managed to get everything she was owed!

      But we’re tough as old boots and while it was a stressful couple of days, we’re still on track and having fun. And our future plans are pretty exciting so that’s always in our minds 🙂

  12. Oh gosh I’m so sorry! What a roller coaster of emotions. I’m glad he still has a job, but what a load of bullshit to deal with. I hope your week gets better.

  13. wow, what fun!! (<–sarcasm, of course) Hopefully once the work hat comes off, you get to keep enjoying the rest of your day, and let this experience be one of the past soon enough in your next home town! Yep – I'll vouch: in our TESOL class, we were also told to ask other students for the answers if one student didn't know it. I did a 3 day nutrition fair last week, and saw much better results from the kids when I made them work for the answers a little more. When I just gave it to them, they were less likely to recall it when I asked it again later. Kudos for TESOL training!

    • Heaps of fun! LOL. Yeah, its hardly rocket science, eh – make kids try and learn and they’ll actually retain stuff, rather than just tell them what to memorise! Its just highlighted that hagwons are more about keeping up appearances than anything…

  14. Yeah, things like this…geez. I had some similar experiences my first year here at a hagwon and I’ll never work at one again (my bosses did things like LITERALLY stealing money from me). Public school is the way to go.

  15. WOW. Makes me happy I work for an elementary school!!!

    I’m sorry you had such a bad time! 😦


    • So many hagwon teachers have similar, and much worse, experiences…we’re just lucky we’ve come out relatively unscathed! A friend of ours here was saying she’s had similar treatment FOUR times! It kinda comes with the territory it seems.

  16. That really does blow 😦 sorry to hear its been a super tough week got you both Snd the way I see it, is their loss is someone else’s gain! It’s just life asking you both to see the new opportunities on other horizons! Hope the week gets better soon!

    • No loss – he kept his job, his boss called it a misunderstanding but I reckon she just freaked out and realised how badly she was handling everything, haha. This week has been relatively chilled with a lot of our older students occupied with exams and camp. Fingers crossed it stays chilled 🙂

  17. Wow, cultural shock. Maybe the director was looking for a scapegoat for bigger issues going on at the school. Easier to blame someone else. Sigh.

  18. How stressful! Your recruiter should have given you some cultural background, as Koreans do not have a good view of facial hair. Times are changing, of course, but beards usually means very old grandfathers, dirty beggars or oddball artists. I know many people in the States that have shaved their facial hair before heading to Korea to teach English. Some choose not to, of course, but at least they have some advance notice from their school or the recruiter about what they are getting into. Good luck!

    • Haha I don’t know anyone that has received any kind of useful information from private recruiters! You’re kinda just thrown in the deep end…actually, no one has had a problem with Dan’s beard – the kids love it and come up and touch it on a daily basis. I think she was just throwing it out there as she really had nothing to go on…

  19. What an awful experience. I guess you’ve heard that a lot. We have some kids from China at our school. And there are such wide cultural differences. Its a learning process.

    • Not our favourite moments in Korea, haha. But yes, the cultural divide is huge and its all something to write about at the end of the day! We’re feeling pretty good about the rest of our time here, just gotta keep that smile pasted on at school!

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