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The Work Attitude of (Some) Expat Teachers

perfect university(A PERSONAL ESSAY)

I started teaching here in South Korea in 2013. For six years now (going 7) that I have been working with expat teachers from different parts of the world, mostly from countries where English is the native language. Rarely do South Korean universities hire Asian ESL teachers (like me).

Those years I worked with my fellow expat teachers gave me the opportunity to witness first hand their brand of professionalism (or the lack of it). I saw them work, I heard them talk, and I witnessed how they behave as persons and as professionals. My being given by the university where I am teaching now the privilege to be a head professor for three (3) semesters a few years back allowed me also to have an access to information about them. In addition, for the past four years, I have been a member of the university’s   hiring committee and I have literally gone over hundreds of résumés of ESL job applicants. A few of those applicants were first-timers and the majority were attempting to transfer from other universities here. That enabled me to scrutinize their academic and employment background. I discovered that MANY of those moving  from other universities are not teachers by profession and it was their first time to teach when they were hired as ESL teachers here in South Korea. In the job interviews where I was assigned to be a member of the panel of interviewers, I came to know more about the expat teachers.

Sometimes, even without me asking, tactless birds from the grapevine would tweet to me a thing or two about my fellow expat teachers. I am also a member of an organization of Filipino professors teaching in different universities here in South Korea and during our meetings I would be getting more information about ESL teachers from different countries in their respective workplaces which kind of confirmed my overall perception and observation about them.

I have become so awkwardly familiar with my fellow expat teachers’ behavior in the workplace. I can describe vividly their work attitude. And this personal essay is exactly that – an exposé about the work attitude of some expat teachers here in South Korea.

Anyway, these are just my personal observations. I may be wrong. But what if I am right?

Before I proceed though, let me just clarify that MOST of the expat teachers I worked with in the past years (and those who are still with me where I am currently teaching) are very good ones – personally and professionally. But as you may have noticed, I used MOST, not ALL, for the obvious reason that there are a FEW bad apples.

Yes, there are a FEW bad apples. And you know how the saying goes – “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.” For the bad decisions they make as persons and professionals, there is a possibility that employers will think that all expat teachers are like them. That’s my worry.

I hope that Koreans wouldn’t think that expat teachers are alike. MANY of us are serious with our work as ESL teachers here but those FEW who don’t might be creating a negative perception about us.

I witnessed how certain policies were changed in my workplace in response to the bad decisions some of my former colleagues did. Remember that when school administrators implement a new policy or amend an existing one in response to the wrongdoings of one bad apple, the changes will affect all expat teachers and not only the one who did something wrong.

There are expat teachers everywhere who complain a lot about what they perceive as imperfections of the universities where they belong. Some of them would say things like “In my country, this is not the way we do things.” Others would make some unnecessary comments about this country and its people as if they themselves, their respective countries and their countrymen  are perfect and blameless. If that is the case, why did they decide to leave their countries and work here? If their universities back in their countries are the best and most ideal why didn’t they apply for teaching jobs there? Why are they here in South Korea? Did they come here to whine?

This reminds me of what one of my former colleagues from the US said sometime ago when he got so frustrated about the complaints of our fellow expat teachers – “Why can’t this people accept the fact that the reason they are here working as ESL teachers is because they couldn’t get a decent job back in their own countries.”

The problem with the expat teachers who have a lot of complaints about the policies in their universities, and granting that their complaints are valid,  is that when their employers offer them a contract for the next school year they would sign their names on the dotted lines. They would come back and still teach in the universities that they malign so much.

Is that a dignified thing to do?

If these expat teachers think that the system in the universities where they are currently working is rotten, why do they keep coming back? (I personally know some of them.) Is salary the reason? Is it the reality that back in their countries they will not be able to earn the money they are being paid here? Would they even qualify to teach in their universities (or are competent enough to be chosen among qualified applicants)? Is it the fear that should they not accept the contract their present university is offering them they may not be able to convince another university to hire them?

These expat teachers claim that they are complaining because they want to change the system. Really? When will the  Don Quixotes  stop fighting the windmills? Okay, if they insist, here is my advice – They should request a meeting with their respective university Presidents and present to them their complaints and the reforms they want to implement. Let’s see what happens. If they are really the idealists that they are seemingly trying to  project themselves to be, they should do this.

These expat teachers should express their grievances and suggest the reforms they want, not to their colleagues during meetings, but directly to university officials who have the power to implement changes. Or better yet, go either to the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Labor and file a complaint against whatever is it that they think their university is doing wrong. That is if aside from barking they are also capable of biting. That is if they got balls. If none, they’d better keep quiet and just work. They should not waste the time of their colleagues listening to their whinges and whines.

One thing that I have noticed that most of the expat teachers I met who are fond of complaining are the teachers who are not “trained to teach” but are “forced to teach.” They are not “real teachers” but “pretenders.” Please click this link if you want to know how I differentiated the “real teachers” from the “pretenders.

The way they conduct themselves as professionals, deliver instruction, treat their students, and comply with the requirements of the job are telltale signs that they have no formal training as teachers. And truth be told – SOME expat teachers here in South Korea were not trained to teach. They have no degrees in education. They were lucky to have been hired. Well, they trained as teachers on the job. Hopefully, they eventually became “real teachers,” no longer “pretenders,” after a year or two. But wait… did they?

What is so frustrating is the ones complaining a lot are not doing their job the way they ought to. I witnessed how SOME of them sweep  their incompetence under the rugs of their complaints. They thought that they could hide their inability to perform and deliver by verbally assaulting school policies and administrators who are not present to defend themselves.

I have some colleagues who voice their discontent about policies but at the same time perform their functions as best as they could.  Their students never complained about being shortchanged. They know that whatever disagreement they have with policies, it’s between them and the school administrators. The students should never be caught in the crossfire. They help in solving issues that could be remedied.   They are professionals and I admire them.

I could go on and on and say a lot more about the work attitude of SOME expat teachers here is South Korea, but I need to stop at this point.

Let me just give the following parting shots: Expat teachers should perform in such a way that nobody would accuse them of being “mercenary teachers.”  And if they think the universities where they are currently working do not measure up to their personal core values and standards of excellence, what should they do? Nobody is forcing them to stay. They should go and find their perfect university.




During The First Day of Class

(A Personal Essay)


Each meeting with my students is important but it’s the first day that I consider very special – the most strategically important. It’s the day that I would attempt to accomplish one of the hardest things to do in education – to shatter the students’ image of the classroom as a prison cell, with them as  prisoners and the teachers as nasty prison guards. It’s the day when I begin to lay the foundations of what  every teacher should endeavor to forge between them and their students – a good rapport. The entire semester is a long haul and I know that winning their hearts – making them comfortable in my presence – would make our journey together as enjoyable and productive as it could be. If I succeed in making them trust me, especially since I am not the native speaker of English they were expecting as an ESL teacher, half of the battle is already won.

There’s nothing very special about the way I conduct my first meeting with my new students. It’s just a bit unconventional.

My introduction would always include telling my students the nickname which I adopted with the intention of eliciting laughter whenever I deliver a talk – Tonitonipoponibananananapoponinomimayfofoni. (That’s inspired by the song “Name Game.”) Amazingly, when I tell my students that and jokingly threaten them to memorize it if not they would fail in my subject, they would try very hard to repeat it after me and laugh at themselves if they wouldn’t be able to say it.

Then I would add, “Whoever could say my nickname correctly will get an A+.” I don’t mean it of course. Luckily, up until this time, no one among those who tried succeeded. It was me who would always succeed – in getting their attention.

From there, I would give them the necessary information about me as their teacher. The most significant of those information (as far as I am concerned) is the number of years I have been teaching. It currently stands at 30 years. The point I wish to drive home for highlighting to my students how long I have been teaching is – I wouldn’t stay this long in the academe if I don’t love my job.

The next part of my first-day-of-class script would touch the boundaries of philosophy.

I would be delivering something like an “eve-of-battle” speech. The way they do it in movies.

I would ask my first question: “Why am I teacher?”

Puzzled, the students would grope for an answer.

I would give  follow-up questions after that – Would you call a woman a mother without a son or a daughter? Are your mothers and fathers mothers and fathers without you as their children?

Amid their “aahs” and nods I would then say, “I am a teacher because of the students. My reason for being a teacher is each of you. Without you I am not a teacher.”

That’s my way of telling my students that the most important stakeholder in a school are them. Schools exist because of them. School administrators and teachers have work because of them.

That’s my way of telling them that I exist (as a teacher) to serve their interest.

I would end that part with the following statement: “Thank you for having me as your teacher.”

After that I would show them a videoclip from the movie “Collateral Beauty” – that part where Howard Inlet, a character played by Will Smith, delivered a speech in a gathering of his employees  at the beginning of the movie.

He said “What is your why? Why did you even get out of the bed this morning?   Why did you  eat what you ate? Why  did you wear what you wore? Why did you come here?”

I would pause the video clip after each question and would ask them to give an answer.

Then I would ask them follow-up questions. (These were the only questions I asked when I was not yet using that movie clip.)

Why are you here in school?

Why do you want to finish your studies?

The last question I would ask – Why did you enroll in this class?

I never failed to ask the said questions because I want my students to understand that for them to succeed not only in their studies but in all their present and future endeavors, they need to set goals. They ought to know their whys. They must know the reasons why they do what they do, say what they say, and think what they think.

I would tell them also that the worst “why” to have for studying is to get A+  – that grades are not the be-all and end-all of schooling.

All of the foregoing would be finished in twenty to thirty minutes.

I would then ask the student to introduce themselves.

After all of the foregoing , that’s the only time that I would present the course syllabus – explain the course objectives, give the topics to be discussed weekly, and tell them what activities will be done in the class and how they are going to be graded.

It’s not surprising to see the students frown when they see the course requirements on the last page of the syllabus. That’s the time that I would deliver the last part of my “eve-of-battle” speech.

I would ask – “Is learning fun?”

As expected, majority would say “no.”

My next question would be – “Is work fun?”

Of course the students would say “no” again. And every time I would ask that, one or two would say “My father always complains about his job.”

Then I would go on and tell them the following:

“Nothing is to be given to you in a silver platter. You need to work hard to achieve your dreams. Studying and working would require effort – you have to exert mentally, emotionally and physically. But something could make studying and working fun – your attitude. Your attitude towards studying will be dictated by your whys. Your whys put together is your philosophy.”

I would spend another minute or two to explain something about “personal philosophy.” At the end I would tell them that each teacher has a personal teaching philosophy and mine is as follows:

“The classroom is my playground. The students are my playmates. The subject is our toy.”

How surprised they would be whenever I say that when I come to class I don’t work, I play. Work is hard. Play is fun.

And that’s how I found joy in teaching – to not consider it as just another job. It works for me.

As we end the first meeting I would tell them, “Come back next week and let’s play.”

Just imagine – I play and get paid handsomely for doing so. The remuneration is just the icing on the cake. Which one is the cake? It’s the happiness; the happiness that I derive from doing what I love doing – teaching.

On To My Seventh Year in South Korea


(A Personal Essay)

            This year (2019) marks my seventh year here in South Korea. I am forever grateful to God for this opportunity, to Gyeoungju University where I taught in 2013, and to Hanseo University where I have been teaching since 2014.

             When I decided to accept a job offer from a university here in South Korean way back in 2013, I was ready mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually – and of course professionally. I majored in English and I am licensed teacher. I didn’t come here not knowing what to expect and what to do.

             I calculated the benefits I and my family would get from my being employed here (in South Korea) and weighed them against the challenges and sacrifices I need to face and make. There’s no measuring scale to determine if getting all those benefits was worth all the difficulties and hardships I could be contending with and the fact that I would be away from the warm embrace of my wife and son.

            Some of my friends and loved ones considered my move as risky personally and professionally. I had a flourishing career as a school administrator and I might start from scratch again should my working in South Korea not turn out well.

             I was aware of such risks but I know how to play my cards well. What I consider as my strongest suits are my strong faith in myself and in God. I fully know what I am capable of doing and I know how amazing is God’s grace. I never doubted my abilities, more so His grace.

            What made my resolve to work here strong (aside from the personal reasons I mentioned in an essay where I explained why I decided to work in this country)  was when I read the contract sent to me after  passing the interview. It indicated a working period  that is approximately 60% less than what is required in the Philippines yet the pay is (approximately) 300% higher than my pay at that time. More than the salary though was the difference in the number of hours that I would be required to render work – 12 hours of teaching and 4 hours of office. I could use the extra 24 hours (on top of the weekend) to pursue my other interest – writing.

            But the downside was – I was not used to being away from my loved ones. I was not used to not seeing my wife and my son for a very long period of time. I also couldn’t cook and I hated doing the laundry and cleaning the house.

              I was also told that homesickness and boredom could kill me.

            But the die has been cast. My resignation as principal of that school at that time was irrevocable and so was my decision to pursue a teaching career overseas. Even the tears of my wife could not drown my resolve to accept the job offer of Gyeongju university.

         And here I am… on to my seventh year as an ESL teacher here in South Korea. There’s no trace of regrets whatsoever for the decision that I made in 2013 to come over. I can say that I have gained tremendous personal and professional growth since that time. True enough I was able to use the spare time to write not only stories, poems, and essays but research works as well. I had the studies I conducted presented in international conferences and published in “indexed” journals.

             Now I am maintaining two websites – Hardpen’s Portfolio and Mukahang Poet – where I publish my works in both English and Filipino. Had I not worked here, I doubt if I could have written those studies I completed and created and maintained my two websites.

              I also learned to cook and I have no choice but do my own laundry and house cleaning.

            What about homesickness and boredom?

            I am too busy with my work and my writings that I could not find time to be bored. And when I am not working or writing, I either go to the gym or hike in the mountain or watch movies and NBA games.

            And why would I feel homesick when upon waking up in the morning I would call my wife, either through Facebook messenger or Skype, and we talk all day and night when I am not busy working and during weekends. Even if we have nothing more to talk about we don’t end the video chat. That way  I could see her and my son moving around our home while I also do what I ought to be doing. I could hear them talking, my dogs barking, and our neighbors’ roosters crowing and hens clucking.  Hearing all the sounds in our neighborhood that I got accustomed to make me feel as if I’m home.

              Consider this – we have approximately a total of  5 months off between the two semesters. That allows me to visit my family in the Philippines after every 4 months and two weeks and stay with them for at least 40 days. I just have to make sure that I would be able to attend the spring and fall commencement exercises. We’re paid for 12 months in a year which means that even during semestral breaks we receive salaries. That’s a huge blessing.

          For those considering ESL teaching in countries like South Korea, Japan, and China, you wouldn’t regret should you try. Just make sure that you really are qualified to teach. It is a disservice to the teaching profession should you assume that because you could speak English you could teach it even if you are not trained to be a teacher.

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