Exploitation used to be a faraway word discussed in class, read about in newspapers and magazines, or seen on TV from the comfort of home. Much like a looming storm on a thick muggy day, my spotty exposure to the word growing up was closely accompanied by unease and churning in my gut. I didn’t understand how anyone could be indifferent or cruel towards another human (or animal, or worm – Emi, thank you for humouring me on our Save-The-Worms-Post-Rainfall Missions as kids). How was it possible to take advantage of others and, more often than not, for a profit?
Then we met face to face. I didn’t recognize it at first; its cunning mask and my naivety mixed with denial and stubbornness prevented me from seeing through the fog. I willed it to walk with me through hopeful second chances and then around wary thirds. Calling it by name felt dramatic and excessive, even when help on the outside insisted as they tried to clear the haze clouding my judgement. The foreign and distant word had become familiar and suffocatingly close while working at an international school overseas – and I still couldn’t comprehend it.
To Write or Not to Write
5 months after transporting life across the world to Asia, I moved home finally having quit my job. I was exhausted mentally and physically, bewildered with how to digest everything, and needing to figure out what to do next. Some days it still feels like my experience is from a book instead of real life. I have been writing and stalling and re-writing this post since returning almost a year and a half ago, fingers and mind buzzing with anticipation of release. The continuous internal wrestle crashing in waves back and forth with the possibility of backlash from speaking up vs. the hope of preventing this situation from happening to someone else has been going on long enough.
Initially after moving home, I spoke with friends and family about how to communicate my experiences and handle the situation. The words needed to explain it all had difficulty exiting my mouth, my teeth and tongue barring any simple departure into listening ears. Eventually I retreated to an inner dialogue to let the dust settle, to mull over my thoughts, and to forget – the easiest non-option. People at home were kind and sympathetic to the Cole’s Notes version I hastily learned to say and (still) repeat on autopilot when asked why I’d returned so early; the notes rapidly shrinking over a short time. My inability to quickly process and clearly communicate the “whys” drained any energy I was recouping. Except for a handful of close individuals who weathered many tearful and frustrating Facetimes, no one knew about or could relate to my previous daily life. I felt like the physical island I’d lived on overseas had morphed into me. The ever-present chasm of trying to adequately translate 5 exhausting months of struggle into an elevator soundbite was also partially self-inflicted. Instagram displayed the seldom enjoyed moments, a smile consistently on my face. This blog only hinted at the issues for fear of retaliation from the school and colleagues at a time when no resources or supports around me were available. The Social Media Life Filter, full blast while away, was hitting me in the face when I returned home.
My position wasn’t the familiar “teach-ESL-in-a-Korean-Hagwon” job. I was employed as a Residence Teacher Don at an international school, run by anglophones from various countries. Little did I know that I was soon to be teacher/mentor/tutor/big sister/mother/confidant/friend/motivator/rule and safety enforcer/activity planner, etc… Beyond positive I’d avoid the horror stories of Midnight Runs (worth a Google search), illegal contracts, lying principals and so on, I signed the papers and prepared to begin my international teaching career. Naively, I placed these schools on a pedestal of impeccable education, abundant resources, and unparalleled commitment to learning and student development. Within a week, the flawless bubble I had envisioned exploded.
Getting the Job
The sales pitch in my interview was a mentorship year for newly-certified teachers. I learned a little too late that the sales pitch is strike one – if they’re selling hard, run harder in the opposite direction. They said as a co-teacher I would be able to grow professionally, obtain IB certification, travel every 6-8 weeks, and pay off student loans. I had hit the jackpot and holy macaroons did I feel lucky…but it turns out clichés aren’t to be ignored – if it sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is.
Unknowingly, I packed up life and some wonderful friends and family gathered to wish me bon voyage. My carefully over-packed suitcases were zipped up tight and my passport was itching to be stamped all over. Trusted professors and teachers who had been employed at international schools overseas were soaked with showers of questions pre-departure. Hours of research on expat living in Korea and my soon-to-be employer were logged. I corresponded with a woman who had held the same position the previous year. And still, it wasn’t enough. What I couldn’t have prepared for was being in the grips of an employer with no regard for employee health and well-being, who threatened future professional opportunities, and who was smug about their deception.
Arrival & Colleagues
I was picked up from the airport by a trio of employees, including the person who interviewed and hired me, whose welcome remarks emphasized how much I was going to hate my job and want to leave. It was an odd welcome I thought, brushing it off and responding with a smile that it was sure to be a fantastic year.
Thankful my new employers were flexible, I arrived after the other first year staff. Months later when applying to other schools, I discovered by accident that I wasn’t IB certified because of 1 missed day of introductions and icebreakers. I received no response when offering to make it up on my own time and in the end, was lucky to receive a letter stating partial attendance at the workshop. It wasn’t the strong start I had envisioned.
The other all-female dons ranged from freshly graduated university students, starry-eyed with their first Real Job or first time overseas, to well-educated women with various employment backgrounds. Some were certified teachers, though oddly, most were not. We later discovered the sales pitch varied; non-teachers were sold on a gap-year adventure, teachers were convinced it was a necessary professional stepping stone. It became obvious early on that the difference in age and experience was a fracture in our group, cracking us further apart the more we tried to unite on how to address the issues thrown at us.
Three glaring issues plagued our working and living conditions, which were one and the same: hours worked, an irrelevant contract, and a cancerous mixture of bullying and poor communication.
Sleep deprivation was the toughest obstacle I struggled through and also the most destructive. I noticed it most when it hindered my ability to think and communicate clearly on a consistent basis. It was startling to hear myself speaking incoherently. It was my first indication that this was more than “being tired”. The other symptoms were subtle, or at least I thought so. Loved ones disagree and I continue to learn about the ripple effect it had today. A poster in the residence detailed the importance of getting enough rest. I was averaging 4 hours a night and scoffed half-heartedly as I checked off every symptom on the list: constantly cranky and moody, short on patience, quick to cry, and on and on. My appetite diminished and I lost 12 pounds the first month despite eating 3 meals a day. I knew it wasn’t right, but I also knew I could push and scrape through 1 more day. For 5 months I “powered on”, and then I had enough.
I accepted the position on the written understanding I would work about 50 hours a week. Shifts in the School would be from 8am to 12pm twice a week but never, I was reassured, on the alternating weeks we worked overnight in the Residence. Hours in the Residence would be from 3pm to 9pm during the week helping the girls with co-curricular activities and homework. Instead, my schedule looked more like this:
In reality, my smallest work week was 72 hours and the largest was 105 hours. To put these numbers in perspective, there are 168 hours in a week and if you sleep the suggested 56 hours a week, that leaves 112 to work/eat/live. On weeks with overnight shifts, my 2-hour midday break consisted of napping and showering – luxuries needed to try to recoup sleep and enough sanity to forge on.
I shoved the knowledge that my salary equated to less than $5 an hour out of my mind to keep from growing more frustrated. I hadn’t been paid that low since doing odd jobs for pocket change as a 12-year old. Held powerless in the tight grip of white collar exploitation I was furious and embarrassed. How was this reality?
Overnight shifts were simultaneously the most exhausting and the most rewarding part of my job. My room was Homework Help Central for the 100 grade 9s and 10s in our residence. The girls would congregate in my tiny living space, at times until past midnight or in the early hours of the morning before school, requiring help with projects and assignments, but mostly the English language needed to complete them. Many were at a disadvantage due to lax entrance language requirements and it showed.
More “aha moments”, smiles, and confidence boosters were witnessed in those wonky hours than at any other point in the day. Texts and emails to my parents spilled over with gratitude and appreciation for the hours they spent with us on schoolwork growing up; somehow the roles were now reversed and I found myself as the adult helping the child. The girls in residence didn’t have the reliability of home and 24/7 support a parent provides. Bewilderingly, our bosses refuted that we could ever work past 11pm (“lights out” – though it rarely was). Come 11:01 we should be asleep ignoring the knocks of frustrated, sick, upset, or stressed out teenage girls.
Bullying came from the top down. More than once we were threatened by multiple levels of administration. If we did not continue to trudge through whatever was thrown our way, our future professional opportunities would be at stake. Some employees arranged individual meetings in addition to the group conferences we requested to address concerns. In one of these, a colleague asking for clarification on misinformation they were provided prior to accepting the position was proudly told by an administrator that they could “sell snow to an Eskimo” they were so good at their job. Insult piled onto injury.
During a fire drill, our direct supervisor matter-of-factly stated that if we did not remain in the burning residence until every last student was out, we would be jailed or “taken down” if there were legal repercussions. On another occasion, we requested first aid and mental health training. In Korea there is no such thing, we were told. The word “suicide” is forbidden so as to not “implant the idea” into a student’s head. The irresponsibility of the school concerned us. In order to learn how to address situations or recognize symptoms of students in need, we would need to “take initiative” on our own time, as if we had some to spare. We were told to report everything to residence administration yet nothing would be shared with dons if students were tagged as at-risk. We were dumbed-down mules of information aimlessly stumbling through potted fields of distrust. The environment was toxic, and quite frankly, terrifying.
Shortly after the red flags started waving furiously in my face, I re-read my contract. Acquainted with the job, the stark contrast between reality and the document I signed was alarming. Most glaringly, the word “residence” was nowhere to be found and the contract was labelled “teaching staff”. Considering most people in our position weren’t qualified teachers and our focus turned out to be primarily residence, this didn’t add up. Similar to our concerns with our working conditions, our appeals for a revised and appropriate contract were dismissed. Despite its irrelevance, we were bound and gagged – our only other option was to leave and risk the consequences.
Issues with our role in the classrooms and the absence of communication between administration, teachers, and dons presented a daily struggle. None of the school teachers seemed to know why the dons were in the classroom, let alone to be co-teachers. Months into working, another teacher was shocked to find out that some dons had teaching credentials and experience. In 5 months, I taught less than a handful of lessons and spent most of my time observing. The rare time a teaching opportunity was discussed I was too sleep deprived to be able to put any effort into teaching, planning and preparing lessons. My hopes and plans for a productive year of professional growth were swiftly hurled into the garbage.
Supplying was another issue. The school often asked unqualified dons to fill-in for absent teachers, despite the prestigious faculty it boasted on its website to recruit students and families paying tens of thousands of dollars a year. In addition, supplies were paid a fraction of the day if they had residence duty.
Safe on the Other Side
My employment at that school was many things, few of which I had planned or hoped for initially. Emerging safe on the other side of my experience and the world, I gained a new perspective on what “quitting” means. Growing up in North America and playing team sports, quitting is taboo. “Push through”, “brush it off”, and “only losers quit” are examples of the mentality that permeates our pop culture and, later, our working lives. Shame and guilt whisper doubts and point their gnarly fingers at the selfishness of letting others down or not being strong enough to continue through tough times. Quitting equalled giving up, until the moment it meant breaking free.
After months of bookmarking articles, surveys, and opinion pieces on how, why, and when one should quit, I unconsciously decided to leave. Family and friends weren’t told until I saw them in person, mostly to avoid the (well-meaning) questions and conversation that would follow and also to allow space for reflection. My parents found out for two reasons: I would need to move back in for a while as I sorted out life and recharged, and to relieve their worries. One afternoon a month before I gave my two week notice, I packed up my dorm, if only to see how it felt. The heart knows before the head sometimes.
I wanted to believe that under the shiny brand-new state-of-the-art campus, the professional-looking website, and the school prestige that there was some decency. A few individuals I met were, but it wasn’t enough to stay. Finally, I accepted the corruption for what it was and handed in my resignation. The tumour engulfing the campus and those who worked there was all-consuming and I refused to participate any longer.
I am grateful for the kind colleagues I got to know, for the resiliency of the students who didn’t have the freedom to leave, and for the support back home to do what I needed to do in my own time. Perhaps the largest takeaway from this is how important it is to draw your own boundaries, to trust your instincts, and to know that walking away is the right choice when enough is enough.
Overwhelmingly, the response from the other dons when word got out that I was leaving was that they were envious and wished they were leaving too. Many felt backed into a corner, for various reasons, and were resigned to living there another 6 months. One don I wasn’t close with emailed that night asking in confidence how the meeting went. They were leaving too and unsure if it was wiser to give notice or just leave. Another don joked I had “opened the floodgates”. In the end, two dons, the majority of the Korean EAs, some administrative staff and two teaching faculty who parted on a Midnight Run, left the school before Christmas break. We were all better off for it.
There’s a time and place for everything – quitting included. That school was toxic and its problems systemic. The individuals running it should not be in charge of shaping young lives, nor should they be in positions of power to bully employees and students. Leaving that school was the best choice I made that year. It was the first time I felt I fulfilled the school’s mission of “empowering women” – by following my intuition and leading by example for my students how to take hold of your own life. If I left my girls with anything, I hope they believe in themselves enough to do what’s right, especially when the odds are against them and it seems like there is no choice. You always have a choice – to be safe, to be valued, to be heard. You are worthy of nothing less and you are strong.