Guest post by Stacia Bach
Picking up the pieces of my life after teaching English abroad took time. I spent my first three months home binge-watching Netflix and absorbing tabloids. I returned from Seoul, a cosmopolitan city of nearly 10 million, to an economically depressed town of 35,000. Fortunately, Korea had imprinted itself on me, galvanizing me towards academic achievement. It altered my life path and laid the groundwork that led me to my present situation.
Korea wasn’t my dream country, but traveling the world generally appealed to me. At the age of 12 I asked my grandmother for luggage for Christmas. When I opened my gift and found a carry-on, one of my family members teased, “Where are you going?” I replied, “Everywhere”. My interests in traveling, experiencing foreign cultures and languages, and in taking risks were the impetus to me living and teaching in South Korea. And by working through the process, I was able to connect the dots to achieve my goals after teaching English abroad in South Korea.
Setting the scene
Finding hope in an international medical-humanitarian group, I traveled to Vietnam to deliver medical supplies and visit orphanages. The trip was funded through the sale of my securities, which were rapidly losing value in the 2008 market crash. Vietnam opened my eyes to a world of occupational opportunity. I realized helping people heal from their physical wounds was akin to giving a person a fish, but that changing policy and systems to benefit the hurting would do far more on the macro level to effectively reach more people. Upon returning to the States with my newfound truth, I promptly transferred from my nursing school to a university which offered international affairs.
Teaching as a hobby
Vietnam was the trailhead of my path to Korea. My new university had an intensive English program for international students. Because I longed for diversity and to be around other cultures, I started volunteering at the program. I tutored students from all over the world in conversational English, and my students taught me about their respective cultures. During my undergrad, I studied in Costa Rica for five months then completed a qualitative research project in Honduras, living there for one month. Every time I returned to Maine, I contacted the English school to volunteer. It was important for me to not only teach conversational English, but to also maintain a global perspective in a state that lacked diversity.
One of the instructors of the program encouraged me to become Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certified so that I could teach overseas. After completing the TEFL certification course, I began applying for English teaching jobs.
Choosing to teach in South Korea was decided by a coin toss in a Starbucks parking lot. I had extensively fleshed out the pros and cons of working in Peru vs South Korea but couldn’t decide. The coin dictated Peru, but I simply couldn’t ignore the cost benefit analysis comparison, nor my curiosity of East Asian culture. South Korea was ultimately more financially viable, but most importantly, the culture was so interesting and unfamiliar to me. I had lived, studied, and backpacked in Central America, knew Spanish, had friends from Peru and was familiar with the culture. But I wanted to be thrust into an experience where I knew nothing and nobody. Other than my one time experience of eating kimchi and japchae, I was completely illiterate in Korean language and culture.
Year one: My gateway to Korea
At my first job in Korea, I taught kindergarten in the morning and elementary school aged children in the afternoon. Ages are different in Korea than in the States. I was promised I would be teaching kindergarten children ages 5 to 6, but my youngest students were actually between the ages of 3 and 4. And some were not yet potty trained. I had no experience with children that young and was completely out of my element. On top of that, there was no support. The hagwon was on the 8th floor of a building. There were horizontal bars across the windows to prevent accidents. Once, I turned my back to write on the board, when I turned back around, the children were climbing the bars like ladders. The afternoon kids were older, elementary aged. They were mean though – calling me fat, not listening. It was awful.
Teaching at this hagwon was difficult. Prior to accepting the job I had read negative reviews about it online, to which I paid no heed. How bad could it be? Right? Three months into my contract, I wanted to return to the United States. I had no experience with children, I was not a teacher, and I was improperly trained. I was constantly weighing the pros and cons of staying vs leaving.
I lived for the weekends, finding refuge in Seoul – I came to love that city. I loved the culture of Korea, the food, the cleanliness, the quirkiness. I wasn’t ready to leave, and I knew if I broke my contract I would be blackballed. Plus, I needed to fulfill my obligation to achieve my goal of living and working in Seoul. The hagwon cut my contract a month short. I was so thankful. I had another job lined up in Gangnam teaching adults and was ready to explore greener pastures.
Year two: My inspiration
Teaching adults is poles apart from teaching children. Adults can behave, regulate their bodily functions, and already know how to talk. Classroom management is much easier in adult education in comparison to early and elementary education. At Coach Park’s English Training Center, I primarily taught conversational English through movies and songs, and phonics, but also contributed to the school’s self-published textbooks and voice-recorded phrase sound-bytes. Coach Park’s ideology centered around motivating students to pursue their dreams. Many students were required to learn English in order to pursue their dreams. One student wanted to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Australia, but needed English fluency first. Another painted the backdrop of the Spongebob show but wanted to advance her career – mastering English was a critical step. There was also an academic researcher, a Motorola executive, a gamer champion. All dreamed of expanding their careers beyond Korea. All of their dreams required English fluency.
Each class started with karaoke. It was such a fun time. In one of my classes we were “studying” a movie where the characters were eating an American dish, I think it was macaroni and cheese. My students lamented that they had never tried it. One day I made some and brought it in. Another class said they were craving popcorn. I made that and brought it in, too. In one class we were watching a Christmas movie, and the students wanted to know if the Christmas decorations in the movie were realistic. My family goes all out for Christmas – literally decking the halls. I shared photos of my family’s Christmas celebrations and told stories of us going to the tree farm and cutting a tree to confirm, yes, many Westerners do deck the halls. Also, I introduced my students to Urban Dictionary – crucial for balancing their polite English with words they may hear colloquially.
At the end of my final quarter teaching at Coach Park’s, I gave my homeroom students an English dialect test. I was proud as the results revealed they spoke English like New Englanders. They knew how to colloquially say “no suh!”, “ayuh”, “wicked pissah”, and “can’t get theah from heah”. If you get an opportunity to work at Coach Park’s English Training Center, take it! The job requires a lot of work, but it is fun and the students are the best!
As fun as Korea was, I knew I couldn’t stay there forever. I was not a teacher. Some of my students corrected my spelling. I didn’t have a deep background in pedagogy, and at the end of the day, I didn’t like teaching. I had no problem getting up and singing karaoke, but when the students asked grammatical questions or about concepts of language, I was like, “ya just do! It is what it is, ya know?” And for people paying a $10,000 tuition for a six month course, my answers just weren’t good enough.
Career options after teaching English abroad
I wanted to stay in Korea, but I didn’t want to teach. So, I knew the only way to live and work in Korea and be happy would be to go back to the States and work on my intended goal of working for the federal government. I had met an American couple who were civilians employed by the U.S. Department of Defense. One worked in Human Resources for the U.S. Army at the Pyeong Taek base, and the other worked as an office administrator at the base’s daycare center. This was my way. I left Korea inspired by my students to apply myself and reach for my dreams, and by the American couple who found a way to work on the base as civilians. It was time to begin life after teaching English abroad.
After teaching English abroad: Dream educated
With this understanding, I returned to the States and immediately zonked out on TV and tabloids for three months! It was a cold New England winter, bleak and without opportunity. I had no car or phone, my friends had left my hometown and were entrenched in their careers. I felt like I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. I felt a desire for greatness, but didn’t know where to start. Reality sank in. My life after teaching English abroad had begun.
I ended up returning to a retail job I had held part time one holiday season during my undergrad, and reconnected with a friend who, at the time, was pursuing her MBA. She encouraged me to get back on track with my dreams. Not realizing the plethora of degree options outside of an MBA, I started again down the road of business school.
Developing my skills
My dream required fluency in maths and technical skills, concepts not strongly emphasized in my undergrad courses. In Korea I had recognized my academic deficiency and, taking note from my students, began to self-study. While in Korea, I spend my week-day evenings in study cafes to self-study math and economics on the Khan Academy website. My students inspired me to become a better student. Once stateside, I took this practice and enrolled at the community college, taking macro and micro econ, statistics, and business writing. I knew I would have to prove my technical and math skills in order to qualify for a quality grad school program.
Because I valued my education above my retail job, I ended up being fired – in the words of my childhood friend Chill-Will, this was a set-up for the step-up. With no job, a degree in International Affairs, and only professional experience working overseas, I had difficulty finding relevant work in Maine. I scoured the internet for “international” and “Maine”. The only job option that populated the screen was an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer position that paid below the poverty line. However, it was the only job that aligned with my skills. I VISTA volunteered at a nonprofit that provided services to migrant agricultural workers. Believe it or not, there is a pocket of Spanish-speaking, year-round residents and migrant workers in Downeast Maine.
Connecting the dots: From AmeriCorps to grad school
AmeriCorps was my ticket. It would help me to gain traction in my career after teaching English abroad. The project I worked at sharpened my Spanish skills and AmeriCorps’ training opportunities honed my professional skills. I became certified in meeting facilitation, developed a scholarship program, created content for a website featuring my cohort, and garnered national recognition for our efforts in Maine. I strongly encourage anybody returning from overseas to consider AmeriCorps. Skills acquired while teaching overseas do not always transfer to the American job market. The correlation is not always obvious to hiring managers, especially for people who do not want to teach ESL in the States. AmeriCorps is an excellent segue between teaching overseas and breaking into the domestic job market. For me it was the right career opportunity after teaching English abroad in South Korea.
Upon completing an AmeriCorps VISTA year, volunteers are awarded non-competitive eligibility when applying to jobs for the federal government. When my AmeriCorps year was up, I was recruited by a federal agency. I worked at the agency for three years, attaining tenured-federal employee status, and, in Fall 2020 I enrolled in grad school. I am mastering in public policy and program research and analysis and have a 3.8 GPA- an academic feat when compared to my 3.1 GPA in my undergrad. Upon graduation, I fully intend to return to federal service, perhaps in Korea!
Advice to others wanting to teach English abroad
I strongly recommend: 1. Only trained educators, linguists, or people naturally gifted in teaching – teach in Korea; and 2. If you start – don’t quit. If I had given up three months in, I never would have met the wonderful adult students who taught me tenacity. These students were at the school for 10 to 12 hours a day, some commuted two hours round trip. Without witnessing their drive and perseverance, I don’t think I would be where I am today.
- The US Census Bureau reports in 2019 the average Maine household earned $57,918 compared to the National average of $68,703. The US Census, 2019, https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2020/demo/p60-270.html https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/ME/HSG010219 back