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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 the 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. They do not comply with all the requirements. And with some of the tasks perennially performed by teachers, they still had to bother their colleagues for assistance. 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 attacking school policies and administrators who are not present to defend themselves or refute what they (the whiners) are saying. There were times that I had to call the attention of a few of my fellow expat teachers for taking the floor too long during meetings to needlessly complain about something. This made me unpopular to them. The exchange between us would usually get heated. I had to do it to prevent meetings from dragging too long.

How surprised was I when one time a few of my fellow expat teachers complained about reading long (job-related) emails. Let’s say that it would take an extra 5 minutes to read an email that is longer than usual. What is an extra 5 minutes when compared to the more or less 5 months in a year that we get paid while vacationing and doing almost nothing job-related?

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. They are not whiners. I listen when they talk. They were times that I disagreed with them and we had healthy discussions.

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 must reject a contract extension should it be  offered  to them. They must leave and find their perfect university.

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