Memoirs of an ESL Career

Friday, April 27, 2007


Also known as "It was a Wonderful Career."

Last week was my final one as an ESL teacher. It turned out to be a nice little send-off. It began on Saturday, April 14th, when my foreign co-workers (and a few other friends) came to dinner at Lamerce, a Mexican restaurant near Samsung Plaza in Bundang. Besides treating Heather and me to food and drink for the evening, they also surprised me with some seriously thoughtful gifts. First, Cam, Travis, and Jeremy presented me with an all-expenses-paid weekend in Seattle at the end of June to see the Blue Jays and Mariners. Two games, great seats, and spending money -- it was exactly the kind of gift that I could fully appreciate. Thanks, guys!

Second, Rachel, Matt, and Sam made a funny card to remind me of the fact I was going back to Canada, and then gave me an envelope. Inside was $225 in Canadian bills. Fantastic, and far more than I was expecting when Rachel mentioned there was a little start-up fund inside that envelope. Needless to say, I was quite moved by the generosity of my JLS friends.

The surprises continued into my final week of work. First, Mr. Shin, our team manager (that's what they called him, anyway), put up a poster that said Goodbye Phillip, and as the week progressed, many students put up letters to say goodbye to me. Some of them even claimed to "love" me. Frankly, I was kind of stunned by it all because I didn't think they thought that much of me. Of course, many did it just to be nice, but even that was surprising, and appreciated. By the end of the week, there were lots of these notes on the board, but even more meaningful to me were the faces of some of the students. Some looked genuinely sorry to see me go. Kids can be pretty good actors, of course, but I'd like to think that maybe I did mean something to them in the time I was at JLS.

On Wednesday, JLS had a going-away party lunch for me. And on Friday, a few of my Korean co-workers (of whom I haven't said nearly enough about in this blog) gave me gifts and expressed some sadness that I was leaving. I found myself hugging Soo-ah and Michelle on my final night, and just before my final class began, Mr. Shin gave me an envelope. Inside was a crisp new Canadian $100 bill. Cool.

As I walked toward my final class, I wondered if I would experience the same kind of emotion that I had felt nine years earlier when I completed my last class at Global, which was a sudden wave of sadness that my career would soon be over. I noticed that the lights were off in the room, so I walked in ready to be showered with some kind of surprise. Sure enough, the kids jumped up, fired birthday crackers, and presented me with letters and a cake. We had a party, and we watched Mr. Bean one final time. Then it was over.

I found that I wasn't quite as emotional about the end this time as I had been back in 1998. I knew what to expect this time, so I was able to control it. However, I had a different feeling this time that I had to deal with: the knowledge that I was soon going to be leaving Korea and would be on my own, without wife and kids for the next couple of months. On Wednesday night, as I walked to Wa Bar to meet Jeremy and Cam for our final beers together, the lonely walk immediately cast a premonition-type feeling around me. I would soon be walking alone in Vancouver, waiting for my family to join me in the summer. Then, on Friday night, my absolute final get-together with friends took place, as I met Travis, Rachel, Matt, and Charles (my former student) for drinks. I kept it short -- only one beer. And then I put on my jacket and said, "Well, that's the first step." I looked at my friends, and we all smiled. Travis simply said, "Go." I hugged each and every one of them, thanked them for everything, and then left.

The next day, Saturday April 21st, was the day I left Korea. My wife and two daughters joined me for a McDonald's breakfast. Later, we went shopping for some sunglasses (it was a beautiful day), and I picked up the last of my belongings at JLS. Then we drove to the airport. It was an emotional ride, as my daughter Renee began to cry. And that made me tear up. At Incheon Airport, we had one last meal with Heather's family. Then I had to quickly go to make it through customs and get to the airplane. I figured it was going to be very difficult to say goodbye, so I resolved to make it quick before any emotional meltdowns occurred. I hugged and kissed my daughters, and I told them they would be coming to Canada real soon to join me. I shook my brother-in-law's hand, gave Heather's parents a hug, and then gave Heather a quick hug and kiss. With a lump welling up in my throat, I simply said, "See you soon." She nodded, and then I waved goodbye to everyone and quickly went through the doorway leading to customs.

In the end, in spite of the negative feelings I had been experiencing over the last couple of years in the job, I now transition to a new phase in my life knowing that I had a wonderful time in Korea. I made many close friends and taught thousands of kids. I met my wife here. Had two children. Travelled to many countries. Experienced the World Cup. Earned a master's degree. Received a black belt in hapkido. Learned a little bit of Korean, although not nearly enough for having spent a decade here. I really couldn't have asked for more.

But I have now moved on. Writing this final post from my hotel room in Vancouver, I have already begun my new experience. And in all sincerity, I hope to use this ESL Memoirs blog as a jumping off point for my writing career. Wonderful memories lie within these posts, and that is the greatest reward of all for me.

Good-bye JLS

Friday, March 09, 2007


As my career as an ESL/EFL teacher winds down (fingers crossed), I want to take some time to evaluate this whole experience.

Words that I associate with my time as an English teacher: easy work... fun... perfect for me... good money... ummm... unfulfilled... obnoxious kids... broken English... stuck in Korea... AMBIVALENCE.

Perhaps that last word offers the perfect summary. English teaching (particularly in Korea) offered me so many positives over the past twelve years that I ought to be thanking my lucky stars for the experience. Well, in fact, I do. This has been good for me on so many levels that I couldn't possibly regret it, ever. I met my wife here. I made more money than I ever did (thus far) in Canada. I've met so many interesting people here - expats, especially -- that I was inspired to think about telling stories, which led to this blog, and then to my upcoming experience as a student at Vancouver Film School. I travelled to a number of countries in the Far East. No, there is no way that I could regret the choice I made to come to Korea and teach English.

But I can't ignore the reality, which is that I get no fulfillment anymore out of my job. For a number of reasons, I am able to do this job now without putting any thought into it. I basically show up, do the same lesson I've done for the past five years, watch students ignore me, try to get their attention, yell at them, throw up my arms, and ultimately say to myself, "There has to be more to life than this."

I tend to believe that teaching English in Korea is a scam. Yes, that's the negative part of me, no doubt. However, there is truth to it, for the fact is that language schools exploit the fears of parents that their child will fall behind. You really have to live in Korea to understand this phenomenon, for I'm not sure it exists to such a degree anywhere else in the world. And so what? Is it really my concern how Korean parents spend their money and force their unwilling children to study a language that a majority of them dislike? I guess if I accept my employer's money, then I ought to just shut up and do the job.

But then I think about my own goals, my own self-worth. If I dislike my job in spite of the good pay and the easy hours, shouldn't I just move on for my own sake as well as the sake of the kids whom I teach? Yeah, probably I should.

So now I get ready to move on. In April, I will leave my job at JLS and return to Canada to attend school for a year. But part of me will remain attached to Korea. There's no escaping it, not when you've spent as much time as I have in another country. Just the other day, I spoke on the telephone with a former JLS colleague, Kristine, who went back to Canada last year. She's studying to become a "real" teacher. When I asked her how she was enjoying being back home, she admitted that she was having a difficult time readjusting. And I knew exactly what she meant. She had spent about three years in Korea, and she's still getting used to the Canadian way of life once again. What will it be like for me? Will I find the good life back home, with my Korean wife and kids?

Or might I some day consider the possibility of returning to Korea to teach English?

God, I hope not. And I don't mean that like I would absolutely hate it. No, I just want to move on. I don't think being an English teacher is meant to be a life-long profession. It served its purpose, and most of the best things in life that happened to me happened because I was here. But I still hope to make it some day in Canada.


What, ultimately, have I learned about myself from this experience? I think I've learned that, in life, it is worthwhile to do something that you want to do, even if it means giving up a certain amount of security. The people from your hometown or home country have probably chosen to stay where they are because it is what they know, and it brings a level of comfort for them. Expats, however, love to experience a lifestyle that involves getting a little uncomfortable. Moving to another country, especially one that is so culturally polar to your own, requires you to deal with issues of culture shock, including learning at least some of the new language and customs. You also learn to deal with discrimination to a certain extent because you are the visible minority. I'm hoping that such experiences allow me to be a better person than I was when I first came to Korea.

With such thoughts in mind, now I give up my current level of security to take on a new challenge: career change. I will spend a year at Vancouver Film School in the Writing for Film, TV, and Interactive Media program, hoping to utilize my experiences overseas as a basis for a writing career. Yes, it'll be a period of adjustment, but it is what I want to do at this point in my life. And I'm willing to take that chance.


It gives me satisfaction to know that I have nearly completed what I started almost one year ago. I have documented twelve years of my life. Who is my intended audience? Maybe it's just my family, for I want my kids to know what my life was about during the period that I spent in Korea.

I could also see my friends in Korea reading the stories and remembering the times we shared. Perhaps even people who have taught English elsewhere in the world could enjoy these memoirs. But I'll admit, this is a personal experience, first and foremost. When I'm 70 years old, I want to be able to look back at these words, pictures, and videos, and remember this very special time in my life.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Last Days

So here I am, in March. It is less than seven weeks until I leave Korea. I am just about finished writing my 'memoirs' of a career in ESL. What's the current situation?

Well, the native teacher staff at Bundang JLS consists of myself, Travis, Jeremy, Rachel, and Cam. I haven't talked about Rachel and Cam yet. Rachel arrived in Korea just after the World Cup in 2002, as I recall. After spending a year or so in the head office, she came back to Bundang in 2004 to replace Patrick. She has had a couple of exciting events happen in her life recently. First, she got published in a poetry magazine in Canada, and second, she got engaged to her boyfriend Matt. Word is that they'll be moving to Boston later this year.

Cam has been at Bundang on a full-time basis since replacing Kristine about one year ago. He's a pretty good guy, although he seems to have a fascination with content in Interestingly, Cam and I had a huge blow-up at a Hooter's restaurant not long ago. That sentence seemed so funny in my head that I just had to write it. In the office, we have a good relationship, talking about sports, technology, even teaching (go figure!). But when we drink together, something changes. The civil discussions that we have in the office turn into arguments at the bar. It's too bad, but that's what alcohol can do sometimes.

Word has begun to spread around the office, and into some of the classrooms, that I'll be leaving soon. It's kind of funny to think about all the people who have come and gone from JLS during my time here, and now I'm the one who's going. Right now, I hold the record for longest time served by a foreign teacher at JLS, but both Travis and Jeremy are likely to break my record in the next year. Hmmm.

What is my legacy at JLS? Not sure I have one. I tried to do a lot for this school, and I was compensated well enough for my efforts. But now I'm just kind of going through the motions, trying not to get worked up by the students who fail to do their homework. I show up, do my job, and then leave it behind as soon as I go out the door.

Anyway, I'm having fun thinking about Vancouver and going to film school. I'm enjoying writing this little blog of my memoirs. And with just under seven weeks to go, I'll be getting around to tying up loose ends and preparing to move. My wife and daughters will not be coming with me right away; the current plan is for them to join me in Vancouver in the summer. It will be a refreshing change to move on with my life.

And with that, I think I've just about finished my ESL memoirs...

What The Future Holds

The beginning of 2005 was when I began to think long and hard about leaving Korea. One of the motivating factors was that our daughters would soon be reaching school age, and it has long been our hope that they would go to school in an English-speaking country. However, another motivating factor was that I was burnt out from teaching English. I felt dead inside, like I would rather be doing anything other than teaching.

Then, in the summer of 2005, my family went to Canada for a month. It was fantastic not having to be in a classroom. I spent time at the beach. I barbequed. I went to a baseball game. I met old friends. I went with my dad and his friend for a little boat ride on the bay near my hometown, where we spontaneously jumped into the crystal clear waters for a swim. After the month was up, we returned to Korea. I was back in the classroom teaching English. Well, I was there physically. Emotionally, however, I never returned. In fact, for the first month back at JLS, I was like a zombie. I just didn't care about my job anymore.

So, I began thinking about the future. One option that Heather and I liked was the idea of parlaying my recently-acquired master's degree into further graduate studies in Australia, a country we both wanted to visit. I looked at schools in Sydney that offered doctorates in educational technology because this is what I wanted to study. Later, I shifted my focus to Perth, which had a university that offered a similarly excellent program in interactive multimedia, with the added bonus that my children could attend school for free while I did graduate work. I was so convinced that our future lay in Australia that I began documenting our planned move with a blog, Moving Down Under.

But along the way, my feelings about teaching became so negative that I felt I wanted to go in an entirely new direction. I was no longer interested in possibly remaining in education, even to teach at universities, even in non-ESL fields. No, I had reached the point where I needed a career change.

In the fall of 2006, I applied to Vancouver Film School for a program in Writing for Film, TV, and Interactive Media. I was accepted, and I will be going to Vancouver in April, 2007. This, I absolutely hope, will lead me in the new direction I wish to take. It will be challenging work, but already I am seeing how my experiences in Korea as an English teacher may play a prominent role in my future as a potential screen or script writer. After all, there have been some amazing stories along the way. And this little blog of mine has been an attempt to preserve the memories so that one day I may write the great screen play or script.

Time will tell.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What Goes Up Must Come Down

When I first started at JLS, my intention was to stay for at least five years because I wanted to find out how far up the ladder I could go by staying in one place. After about three years, it seemed like I could actually go pretty far at JLS. Baker indicated that JLS might be hiring at least one foreign teacher as a CEO (which was a rather extravagant title). As many of the teachers who had worked at JLS prior to my arrival began to move on, it appeared that my star was rising. Even Mr. Huh himself seemed to say that such a position -- and the accompanying salary increase -- was inevitable.

To increase my chances of such an opportunity coming true, I took a few steps of my own. In March 2003, I began my graduate studies in Education by doing a master's degree by distance learning through the University of Phoenix. For a brief time, I also contributed some of my time to the new JLS online venture CyberJLS. In addition, I made proposals directly to Mr. Huh concerning ideas for improving employee morale, all with the objective of showing management that I was interested in staying at the school for the long term.

Around 2004, things at JLS began to change. Baker was reassigned to the new Vancouver branch of JLS, and almost immediately the attention that had been paid to the native teacher staff during my first three years began to dissipate. At the same time, other language academies opened up in our neighbourhood. With the extra competition, school enrollment began to drop.

For the first time, when foreign teachers left, they were not being replaced. Our Bundang staff, which had reached a high of 11 teachers in 2003, dropped... to ten, then nine, and so on. The funny thing is, though, that our schedules didn't increase all that much. The school was losing students. Whereas we typically had classes of 30 or more kids in 2003, they were now more likely comprised of 15-20. This was also the period when the school opted to take most of the middle school classes out of our hands. So, really, the native teacher roster was now going through attrition.

The reasons for this attrition have never been explained, but it is my opinion that we have simply been deemed expendable. JLS, like any English academy, benefits from the reputation that students receive lessons from native English speakers. However, the school's primary mission is to help students' test scores because this is what concerns the majority of parents. The Korean teachers are better suited to this task, in my opinion. Consequently, here we are in 2007, and the native teacher staff at Bundang stands at five. Even as student enrollment has recovered somewhat, the number of foreign teachers has remained at five since the end of 2004.

Five years ago, it seemed like the sky was the limit for us at JLS. Apparently, however, the good times were simply too good to be true. Don't get me wrong -- JLS is still one of the best places for which to work. But at this point, it is obvious that there is not much hope of moving up any longer at JLS. Most of us have reached the salary ceiling. We are no longer being considered for upper-level positions within the company. And the overall work environment is not what I would have hoped for. The students increasingly make excuses for not doing homework, and they have become bolder than ever in their insults towards native teachers.

And that, frankly, is why I made the decision that 2007 would be the year that I end my career as an ESL teacher.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

My Good Buddies

I once heard a joke on TV that went something like, If you ask someone how many close friends they have, and they say more than ten, you know they're counting co-workers.

In spite of the joke, I would definitely count a number of my co-workers in the ESL/EFL profession among my closest friends. The work environment in EFL (overseas teaching) is totally different from the experience back in your home country because your co-workers are usually the only people with whom you share cultural interests. When I worked in Toronto, it was very difficult not only to be close friends with co-workers (because we all scattered to our other interests and friends after work), but it was also difficult to meet my actual close friends, all of whom had their own lives and jobs.

But when you teach English overseas, you share the experience with your foreign co-workers. We are living in a different culture, and we are sharing the same types of experiences. We see each other everyday. Of course we are going to become friends.

Not everyone you work with becomes your close friend, but when you realize that you share certain fundamental qualities and points of view with people, you inevitably become close. And you begin to learn about yourself at the same time because these people are, in many respects, your mirror image.

In my seven years at JLS, I would count among my close friends Daniel, Ryan, Patrick, Travis, and Jeremy. I will devote this post to these five individuals -- my good buddies.


Daniel was one of the teachers who was already here when I began at JLS in May 2000. As I mentioned once before in this blog, Daniel was just about the most likable guy you could ever meet. Perhaps to a fault, he took this quality into the classroom, where his students would sometimes not show him the kind of respect he deserved. However, I never knew Daniel to blow up at anybody; he just seemed to enjoy what he was doing, all the time.

Interestingly, it was this quality that made some people question Daniel's sincerity, as if he were deliberately hiding something. For instance, during a short time when my wife worked at JLS, one of the Korean teachers told her, in comparing Daniel to me, that with Daniel you couldn't always tell if he were hiding something. (The implication being, of course, that I wear my heart on my sleeve and hide nothing... which is basically true). However, Daniel did have an interesting side to him. He told us that he had done some sky-diving, and he had worked in the Peace Corps in Africa.

While at JLS, Daniel got married to his Korean sweetie, Hyun-ji, who was also remarkably likable -- what a perfect couple. Hyun-ji and my wife, Heather, became good friends. As a result, we often went to dinner together. Daniel and Hyun-ji live in Atlanta now, but we still keep in touch. I hope we get the chance to see them in North America in the not-too-distant future.


Ryan arrived in Korea in the fall of 2000. He and his wife Grace seemed like a good bet for Heather and I to hang out with, and sure enough we spent time at their apartment playing euchre and eating chicken.

Okay, so the story starts out a little slow. However, Ryan's life was about to get interesting. I'm sure he wouldn't want me to go into details about what happened, so I'll just say that he and Grace ran into some difficulties and soon separated. Eventually, she went back to Canada, and they ended up getting a divorce. In the meantime, I began to learn that Ryan was multi-dimensional.

First, he was a dedicated teacher. He cared about his students, and he often developed his own 'manipulatives' (classroom materials such as flash cards) to help the kids understand whatever lesson he was trying to teach. Also, while many of us were complaining about student discipline, he was trying to maintain the positive approach of rewarding good behaviour rather than punishing bad behaviour. I respected that about him.

On the other hand, Ryan could be as sarcastic as anybody I've ever known. He wasn't afraid to take a verbal shot at any of the rest of us -- all good-natured, of course. He also seemed to enjoy flicking his groin sweat at us just for fun. Yes, you read that correctly. Re-read it a few times if you need to. Recall, also, that Ryan was the one who vomited in the hallway radiator after a Christmas party, plus he had to stop a taxi on a freeway once in order to throw up. Had a hard time holding his booze sometimes.

The other aspect of his character that seemed so contradictory was his interest in yoga and in the Conversations with God books. This latter fact intrigued me because I had read them also and found them quite meaningful in a personal way. On occasion, Ryan and I found ourselves suddenly talking about the ideas in the books in a serious manner. It felt kind of strange to me, almost uncomfortable, but part of me wishes we had spent more time discussing spiritual issues.

A couple years ago, Ryan got re-married to his new Korean sweetheart, Young-ju. During the wedding, Ryan did something very few guys would have the nerve to do: he sang a love song to Young-ju. To me, that moment summed up what Ryan was all about -- a man so passionate about what he wanted to experience in life that he had to express it in his own way, even though his heart must have been pounding hard enough to provide an unintended back beat for the song. I think those of us who were there were stunned by it, and it made my admiration for him grow.

Ryan seems to be much happier with his life now as he has met a woman who shares many of his dreams and ambitions. They currently live in Ukraine, where they both work at an international school. I hope they continue living overseas for years to come because Heather and I hope to visit them and get the chance to see those parts of the world. I wonder if Ryan will sing a song for us when we get there.


Patrick arrived on the JLS scene while I was out of the country, on vacation in Malaysia in May 2001. When I finally met Patrick, I'm not sure what I thought about him. Maybe I simply didn't develop an immediate impression of him in the way I had someone like Joseph. In any event, it took a few weeks to get to know the guy.

What I did learn about Patrick fairly early on was that he had spent a year (I think) in Turkey teaching English. He had also lived in New York City for about six months. He had studied drama at university, earned a CELTA certificate for teaching English, and was currently trying to write a novel. In other words, he had an interesting background. Why he came to Korea only became obvious a little bit later: he was here for the money. Hey, no harm in that... that's what a lot of us were here for. But Patrick would be very open about this fact, going so far as to describe his experience of working in Korea as going to the bank before heading to the shopping mall (which, I guess, referred to seeing the rest of the world).

Whatever he was doing in the classroom, the boss seemed to like it, because he received at least three (maybe four) first place awards in our semi-annual teacher evaluations. Not that Patrick really cared about the recognition, I don't think, but I'm positive he appreciated the cash prize that came with it.

The two of us eventually developed a closer working relationship when we collaborated on the curriculum development committees throughout the year 2002. We created year-long lesson objectives and materials for the TOEFL writing program for middle and high school students. I remember this period as a time when we got to know each other pretty well, and I came to realize that we had similar visions of our futures. Specifically, neither one of us saw this English-teaching gig as the end, but rather a means to an end. And we both greatly appreciated the money we were making at JLS because it was possible that we could get somewhere else sooner rather than later.

In the spring of 2004, Patrick asked me if I had given any thought to investing my money. Frankly, with a wife and two kids, I hadn't really saved up as much money as I would have liked, so the answer was no. He, however, had been investing his money in overseas markets, and now was the time to consider doing something else with his life. Then he mentioned Panama. I, probably like the vast majority of people, only thought of Panama as the place the United States had invaded back in the late 1980's. Patrick had been studying world markets for real estate and banking options, and found that Panama was "it." So I started to think about Panama, too, and so did a few other people at JLS who were tired of teaching English for no more satisfaction than a good paycheck.

By the end of 2004, Patrick had just about lost his sanity with teaching the kids at JLS. He resigned, but with the plan of going to Panama with another JLS teacher (Andrew) to pursue a dream. Before heading to Central America, however, he was going to visit Thailand once more over the Christmas holiday. Heather and I decided to take a vacation at the same time in Phuket, so we agreed to meet up with Patrick, likely in Koh Samui. Well, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami changed everything. While Heather and I were lucky to be on an airplane on the way to Thailand -- and, thus, not on the ground -- when the waves hit the shores, Patrick was just rising from his sleep. Seeing the water rushing towards him, Patrick made a break for high ground in a bid to escape the danger.

The days after the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia saw many reports of death and destruction, and we had no idea what Patrick's fate had been. Finally, I received an email from Patrick -- a huge sigh of relief upon hearing he was alive. He shared with us his rather amazing story of survival amongst a group of travellers from around the world. It sounded to me like they had formed some kind of special support group (a cynic might use the word 'cult'). And I think this experience must have had a profound impact on what Patrick was going to try to do about his dream in Panama.

Patrick and Andrew eventually moved to Panama City and began to scout the country in order to find the right location to start up a backpacker's resort. For the benefit of his friends and fellow travellers, Patrick (well, Andrew too) documented their search with a blog entitled The Panama Project. They ultimately settled on a mountain property in the west of Panama, near the town of Boquete, bought the land, and began building their dream. And now, the Panama Project has turned into The Lost and Found Panama.

I admire my buddy Patrick for going all out to make his dream come true. I am truly looking forward to the day when I can lounge around on one of the Lost and Found's hammocks, sipping a cool drink, and listening to the quetzals singing in the surrounding rain forest.

But for now, back to reality.


What's the best way to characterize Travis?

A skirt chaser? Not so much anymore, as he is now madly in love with Mi

A shit disturber? Although he has made his fair share of enemies in his time, this isn't really a fair characterization. He's actually a very good guy. Just don't take much of anything he says seriously.

Fuckface? Well, that's my term of endearment for him, mostly born out of years of fantasy football trash-talking. But I don't mean that in any serious way.

Travis is a bit of an enigma (no, not enema -- wait, maybe). When he started teaching at JLS in early 2001, he made an immediate impression on our 50-something head teacher Leslie by mentioning masturbation in the office. On the other hand, he tended to dress, well, like a teacher should dress, I suppose -- dress shirt and tie, fully-tailored suits. So, he didn't seem like the typical expat I might have expected to meet at this point in my ESL career.

Travis is an American, and for most of his time at JLS, he's been the lone American in an office full of Canadians (not to mention all the Koreans). In many ways, he has been a flash point for some of the not-so-unusual Canadian vs. American sentiment that pervades many language schools. On the one hand, he is about as easy-going as anybody can be, and I see him as virtually no different from myself in a cultural respect. Yet, he has been criticized by at least one fellow American as being too close to the Canadians, and at least one Canadian teacher has been known to take potshots at him for being American.

Of course, Travis likes to fan the flames on occasion. He knows how to get under people's skin, either by being sarcastic, telling bad jokes, or by being incredibly blunt about anything related to sex or other bodily functions. He is definitely less afraid than most people of saying whatever happens to be on his mind. Nothing is sacred, as near as I can tell.

Travis loves sports, which brings us together. We can talk about sports for any length of time. But he also likes to talk about politics, philosophy, or just about any other intellectual pursuit. The problem is that he tends to give the impression that he's just full of shit when he talks about some of these topics. Often is the time I've found myself discussing something with Travis (usually over beers), and we'll get into a bit of a friendly argument only to realize we are saying the same thing. Or he'll insist that that was what he meant to say all the time when, in fact, he was arguing the opposite. It can be frustrating.

But, overall, Travis is a fun guy to hang out with. And I would also add that he is actually a pretty loyal friend. He has been kind enough to say good things about me as a teacher, even though I don't feel worthy of such praise. I know Travis is the more popular teacher because he has a certain way with students (and usually puts more effort into teaching than I do). One aspect of our job that we both agree with is this: little kids are buggers!

I believe Travis' legacy at JLS is primarily the way in which belching, farting and swearing in the staff room have become commonplace. I'm not judging, mind you. I think the term lowest common denominator has some relevance in the way our expat teaching staff relate to each other. Thank you, T.


Jeremy is my little brother. That's kind of the way I feel about him. I am slightly older than he is, and he began working at JLS exactly one year after I did.

Jeremy has many endearing qualities, in a curmudgeonly kind of way. In fact, I've always thought of Jeremy as a real-life George Costanza. He looks a bit like George, and he sometimes worries excessively about his job. But Jeremy's my boy, and here's why.

He's about as down to earth as anybody I've ever known. There is no pretension where Jeremy is concerned. He never claims to be anything more than he is, but I will say he is a dedicated teacher. Even though he (like Travis and I) doesn't care much for the shitty aspects of the job -- in particular rude children and meddlesome management -- he still takes the time to do his job. He will let his emotions get the better of him at times, but you know he's honest. That really counts for something when you look at someone as a friend.

Many is the time when Jeremy and I have gone for a beer (okay, beers) after work and laid out our gripes about the job. But just as often, we evolve the discussion to say that we both feel very lucky to have found JLS because our lives have actually turned out pretty well as a result of having worked here. Then we discuss non-work-related issues, such as what we hope to do in the future, family life, and so on. While I have made the decision to return to Canada this spring, Jeremy sees himself likely staying in Korea for the foreseeable future.

When Jeremy first started at JLS in May 2001, he had a girlfriend who turned out to be a bit of a loser. She broke up with him not long afterwards, and Jeremy remained kind of bitter about the experience for quite some time. Then, when he met Young-kyung in 2004, I felt happy for him. He is crazy for Young-kyung... totally P-whipped. It's really the perfect Jeremy situation.

Jeremy and I, along with Travis and Ryan, have been playing fantasy sports together for years, and our many staff room conversations about players have surely turned off the non-sports fans like Rachel and Kristine. But we live for this stuff, it seems, and the really cool thing is that even as we begin to go our separate ways in the world, we are able to maintain the friendships by way of playing fantasy sports online. This has been the case with Ryan in Ukraine and another JLS buddy of ours, Colin, who is back in Canada.

The running joke at JLS is that, when I come back to Korea in ten years for a visit, I should stop by JLS to see Jeremy. After all, he might still be there. No matter what, though, just as long as he remains sufficiently grumpy and cynical, he'll always be my little brother.

Monday, February 19, 2007

JLS Students (The Good)

In an earlier post, I talked about one student named Charles who was the best student I taught at JLS. However, there have been thousands of other kids throughout my seven years here. I would like to take this time to write about a few of the cool kids.

I have taught all grades at JLS, from grade one elementary kids to high school students. About two years ago, the decision was made by JLS to assign middle school and high school classes to Korean teachers only, which meant that we native teachers were placed in the elementary school classes. In one respect, I disliked this decision because I felt that I related better to older kids. Indeed, when I worked for the curriculum committees in 2002, I created lessons for middle school and high school TOEFL classes. Other teachers such as Travis and Patrick also preferred the older students for the most part. On the other hand, I couldn't help but notice that elementary school students were more enthusiastic about English than were the middle school kids (and, as for the high school kids... well, they really couldn't have cared less about studying).

So, most of my memories of students are connected to the younger ones over the years. The following pictures show just a tiny fraction of the number of kids I have met at JLS.

One of the pictures shows a student named Hong Su-na. Her English name was Sue. She was a bright little girl who loved to laugh. She went with her family to England for one year, and she came back a more confident English speaker. Later, she participated in the JLS speech contest, and on April Fool's Day 2004, she wrote a letter to me because I said I was leaving JLS to go back to Canada -- it was my April Fool's prank. Here is her letter (click on letter to view larger file).

In early summer 2005, Hong Su-na was on her way to her class at JLS when she was struck by a car. My knowledge of the details is sketchy, but as I understand it, she was either walking or riding her bike when the car hit her. Her injuries sent her to the hospital. Tragically, Sue died a short while later, and this happy little girl was no longer with us. When I heard the news, I was utterly shocked. I am thankful that I have these photos and mementos to remember her. The following video clip shows students in Sue's class doing speeches.

My interest in technology led me to do a team project with two of my Korean colleagues. We videotaped four of our classes doing a role-play activity to demonstrate their language skills. The video was included on a CD along with examples of the students' writing, and each student was given a copy of this CD, which I called a digital portfolio. One class in particular had a lot of fun doing this role-play, in which I played the master of ceremonies.

When the students had the opportunity to view their video, their first reaction was embarrassment. However, they soon became fascinated with seeing themselves on the screen speaking English. When students were then asked to write a self-evaluation of their video, almost all said that it was a great experience that they would like to do again. I was thrilled with the students' responses.

There have been lots of really cool kids at JLS. For me, the 'cool' kids are the ones who actually give a damn about being there, who try to learn English and speak it effectively. I would include students like Bella, whom I first met three years ago in the summer intensive classes. Bella would always try to do the best project and would expect to read from the textbook. Like a number of good kids at JLS, though, Bella has been the victim of resentment by other kids who don't share her passion. These days, as Bella prepares to enter grade six, she is suffering from stress. She is not my student now, but her current teacher says she has been pulling out her hair. Yikes!

Two students from the past year who I practically adore (if that feeling is possible for me) are Jonah and Kate. They always do great presentations, and their energy level lifts my spirits. Funny story about Kate: she came to class semi-drunk one day because her grandmother mistakenly gave her wine instead of grape juice. She spent the class nursing an upset stomach and a headache.

Two of my current students, John and Charlotte, are very similar personalities. They both add a lot of spirit to their presentations by using exaggerated intonation and facial gestures. They participate regularly by volunteering to read and answer questions. They are fun to have in class.

I also have a fondness for students who have unique abilities. For instance, one student named Alex was a contortionist. In class, he would sometimes wrap his legs behind his head or twist his arms in a pretzel, seemingly dislocating his shoulders. Another student, Maria, recently demonstrated her flexibility by doing the splits and a ballet-style leg raise above her head, to the applause of her classmates and teacher.

If I had to vote for one kid at JLS as most unusual, I'd have to vote for Deon. The first time I met Deon, I made the same mistake virtually everyone at JLS made when they met him -- they thought he was a she. Deon had long, shoulder-length hair and a rather high voice for grade six. His physical mannerisms (such as the way he held his hands or covered his face when laughing) totally resembled those of a girl. He even seemed to prefer talking to the girls in the class. When I referred to Deon as 'she' in that first class, the other students told me Deon was a boy. I didn't believe them. When Deon himself told me he was a boy, my face went red with embarrassment. I was still unconvinced that Deon was a boy, however, and I asked the Korean teacher to confirm this fact. She did, but only after admitting that she, too, thought Deon was a girl. Anyway, it didn't matter. Deon was pretty cool. He was just effeminate.

So, yeah, there have been some memorable students at JLS. I wish there had been more because many were far from cool. In any event, I choose to remember the above students, and the ones I didn't like will be left to fade from memory.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

2002: The Most Exciting Year Yet

The year 2002 covered the end of my second year and start of my third year at JLS. By now, I was feeling right at home with the firm. Daniel was still the senior teacher until mid-year, when he moved on to a university position, but I began to take on more responsibilities that I had hoped would eventually lead to a promotion within JLS.

First of all, I was continuing to work Saturdays for overtime pay. Around this time, Mr. Huh had decided to dramatically increase the weekend overtime rate to 50 000 won/hour (roughly $60/hour). Second, I joined a curriculum development committee, where I was to work with Patrick developing course materials for our middle school TOEFL classes. I spent the entire year working on this committee, which not only produced some good materials for us to use, but also contributed to my ever-growing salary. Speaking of which, my third year salary was 3 million won per month. I literally felt like I had fallen into a pot of gold.

Of course, in addition to making money, one of my objectives while living in Korea was to travel, and the year 2002 saw us making three overseas trips. In February, during the Lunar New Year holiday, Heather and I took our baby Renee to Guam. Although we were there for just three days, and the weather was somewhat rainy, we had a grand time experiencing the tropics in the middle of winter.

In August, the three of us once again travelled -- this time to Singapore and Bintan Island in Indonesia. Being located almost exactly at the equator, we experienced intense sun and heat like never before. It was fantastic!

In the fall, Heather and I managed to escape on our own for a visit to Tokyo. We found Tokyo to be extremely enjoyable -- so energetic, yet easy-going in the sense that you could see people being comfortable as themselves. For anyone who has taught in Korea, visiting Tokyo makes for an interesting comparison.

When Baker was with JLS as our supervisor, he was very generous with the teacher get-togethers. Basically, if anyone wanted an excuse for the teachers from the various branches to get together, he was willing to pay for the drinks. In 2002, we had many such parties because the school was getting bigger as a whole (the native teachers at Bundang increased from five to eleven, for example). As I look back through my photo albums, I can see that I took a lot of pictures from these events. For instance, here we are in March and April.

The grandest event of 2002, though, was the FIFA World Cup, which was co-hosted by Korea and Japan. I've never been a big soccer fan, but I can tell you that this was the greatest party I have ever witnessed. At this time, I purchased my new camcorder, and the first event I recorded was the World Cup match between Denmark and Senegal, which I attended with Ryan and Jeremy.

But the real World Cup excitement only began to make itself known as the tournament progressed, with Team Korea winning match after match against top soccer powers such as Portugal, Italy, and Spain. The match against Italy was one of the most amazing spectacles of the tournament, and a number of us joined with a crowd of Koreans at a local restaurant to enjoy the evening.

Towards the end of this action-packed year, our second child was born. It was a fitting way to finish a year that was exciting from beginning to end.

As I think back to the year 2002, this appears to be the zenith of my time at JLS. The school had reached its height in terms of class size; we were partying on a regular basis, and the money just kept coming. And this was also the year that more teachers came to our school, including Rachel, Colin, Kaylene, Tim, Mike, Steve, and probably more whom I have forgotten. In retrospect, I think JLS got too big, and within the next year or two the school would begin to contract.

But it was a great year while it lasted!