Thursday, January 31, 2013

Introductions... and stuff

Hello. As this is my introductory post, I suppose I should do me some introductoring (...what?). In about a few weeks, I will be setting off to the land of South Korea for at least a year. This blog will be one way to stay in contact with friends and family, as well as keep a log of my adventures.

The title of the blog means a few things. First, I have a very dry sense of humor--sometimes to the point people (who don't know me well) don't realize I'm not being serious. As for wet land, this has a double meaning. First is the snow and rain (and typhoons and whatnot) it seems to get that I'm not quite used to. Second is that it's a very alcohol drinking-based culture (and I'm not really a drinker).

My current plan is to, at the very least, do weekly updates here (once I have stuff to update about, anyway). And those updates should be video-based. So after this, I hope to chronicle everything via camera. But first... how did I get to this point?

How Did This Even Start?

My first three years as a high school teacher was a terrible experience. The second year, I wanted out. And I almost did leave, but I didn't have a job or know what I'd do next. Then I heard about how a lot of teachers left the field and became physical therapist assistants. I read up on that and decided it sounded good. Unfortunately, I still needed 2 more classes that I hadn't already had before I could apply for the program. So as I started my third year of teaching, I started taking the first college course. And I passed pretty splendidly. However, I missed the start of registration for the spring semester, and after a long and grueling process (to make this story short), I realized I was not going to be able to take the second class I needed, which meant I wouldn't be able to sign up for the program that fall, which meant I would have to wait a whole other year to try again. And I couldn't do another year of teaching high school.

I don't really remember where I stumbled across the notion of teaching overseas--probably just surfing the internet for job ideas or something. But it's now January 2012, and I brought the idea up to my parents. They (reluctantly) gave their blessing. And so the research began. Where to go? How to do it? After hours of looking about the web, I discovered that the most jobs and the biggest market for ESL teaching abroad was in South Korea. But there were two types of teaching jobs there--public schools and private schools (hagwons). How to choose?

Public Schools vs. Hagwons

There are many, many, many blog posts and videos about this topic, and every single one of them says the exact same thing: Go Public.

When you think private schools, especially in America, you think of a generally stronger education. They have higher standards, there are fewer of them, they have smaller class sizes, though teachers get lesser pay. In Hagwons, only one of those things is true--smaller class sizes.

There can be hundreds of Hagwons on any given street in Seoul. These are after-school cram schools. Students spend all morning/early afternoon at their public school, have a short break, and then (especially if they wish to better their English education) they go to Hagwons for the rest of the afternoon and even to as late as 10 or 11 PM.

Look at all those Hagwons in
one building!
Hagwons are run like businesses rather than education systems, so 99% of the horror stories people rant about on the internet about teaching in South Korea come from those who taught in Hagwons. Teachers at Hagwons get more pay, sure, but they get almost no benefits (health or otherwise). They get ripped off on their vacation time. They can't really take days off because most won't have a steady co-teacher to help them out (and they don't do substitutes). The owners can hold your paycheck if the Hagwon isn't doing well. The Hagwons can close without warning, leaving the teacher without a job or even a place to stay (as the school puts the teacher up in a place). And there have even been stories of owners firing the foreign teachers for little reasons a month before the end of contract so they wouldn't have to pay the closing contract bonus or any of that.

Needless to say, it was clear I had to go public school. It was slightly less pay and the class sizes were much bigger, but everything else was far superior (and a better bet in general). The only difficulty is that there are far fewer public school jobs than Hagwon jobs, and it would be difficult to find a job in one on my own. All I needed to do was find a little guidance.

Side Note: EPIK, GEPIK, and SMOE

No, these aren't the three Korean Stooges. These are three programs that you can go through to get public school positions in Korea. SMOE is the most competitive--it places you directly in Seoul. So, of course, it offers the fewest jobs and has a ton of people applying for it. Then there's GEPIK, which is teaching in Gyeonggi-do, the province around Seoul (all the other little towns in the area, all of which are typically no more than 30 minutes away from the city). Finally, there's EPIK, which seems to be the most popular as it offers the most jobs. It's for everywhere else in Korea.

KorVia Consulting

After more research, I decided to go with a recruiting company, and I discovered a lot of people bringing up KorVia. It had mostly positive reviews, and they offered quite a few perks if you went through them. They specialized in public school positions, as well. Now, to teach in public school, you need to have a TESOL or TEFL certification, which is basically a certification to teach ESL overseas.

So I went with a recommended online company that shall remain nameless... because it was literally one of the worst class experiences I've ever had. The grammar of the lessons was terrible (which is not good considering what it's there to certify you for). The assignments were ridiculous, and 80% the time they had nothing to do with the majority of the unit reading. Or it asked you questions where the answers cannot be found in the reading whatsoever. They gave my B's in all the grammar assignments telling me (famously) that I only have a "fair grasp of grammar." Oh thank you. I'm glad to know 4 years of college, a BA in English, three years as a university writing tutor, and three years as a high school English teacher only gave me a fair grasp of grammar. Not to mention, on top of everything else, the majority of everything I had to learn was stuff I already knew since I have a degree and experience in the field.

Anyway, I ended up getting the certificate just fine (and an A in the course!). By this point, I've been done teaching at the high school and was back as a writing tutor for the semester. It's about September. (If you're wondering, the Korean school year actually starts around March/April, not August/September like American schools.) I decide now that I have the certification, I can apply to KorVia and start the process.

The First Recruiter

I won't mention her by name--not because she was terrible or anything, but for reasons that might become clear as I go on. Before I can do much of anything with the company, I needed to have a phone interview with this recruiter. It was about 9 PM for me, which was 11 AM the next day for her. I was on my cell phone, and she spoke some broken English--so it was a bit of an awkward interview where I had to ask her a few times to repeat herself or clarify a question.

But it turned out well. She told me during the interview that she would sign me up for the EPIK program, though she said she was sure I wouldn't get in (for some reason... I'm still not sure why). And then we'd continue on and try GEPIK and work from there. So after applying for EPIK, I wait for about 3 weeks before she decides to inform me that I didn't get in to EPIK and I should now apply for GEPIK. Gee, thanks for making me waste almost a month for something you told me would happen anyway.

I end up having to apply to GEPIK twice because of some application and program changes. And I also have to make an introduction video of myself that they will send to the schools to help entice them and sell myself. Well, I'm good at video editing and all that jazz, so I recorded something, put it together, and sent it off. And then... nothing. It's mid-October at this point, and I don't hear anything until Thanksgiving Day, over a month later, when she tells me she found two schools.

What I didn't realize at the time is that she just apparently found a couple schools, not that I had interviews with both of them. She just sent both schools my resume and stuff. And it's not for another week, around the 30th, that I hear from her again telling me the other schools decided to choose somebody else, but she did find yet another school, this one in Pocheon City. But, you guessed it, I still don't hear back from her until December 9th when she tells me that school has an interview offer.

(Let me reiterate this. I was accepted by the company in mid-September. I don't get my first interview until mid-December. That's a huge wait. I learned later why there were some issues, but I'll get to that.)

She tells me it'll probably be about a 20-30 minute interview via Skype and gives me some potential questions to look over. Of course the interview is at like 9:30 PM or something like that for me, so I'm nervous all day. And then I get an email a couple hours before saying it will be postponed for another 50 minutes and won't be until about 10:20 PM. The interview itself went fine. It was a foreign teacher and his co-teacher. The interview lasted only 10 minutes at the most. A few days later, I get a response from the recruiter saying the school wants a few extra days to think over their decision, but she wasn't sure how long that would take, so she was going to keep promoting me to other schools in the meantime.

And, yup, don't hear anything back until December 26th when she decides to tell me that, for personal reasons, she was leaving the company at the end of the year and all of her clients would be going to a different recruiter starting at the end of that week.

While this first recruiter wasn't necessarily bad--just very poor communication problems, slow response time, and lacking results--she was always kind. And I really want to chalk it up to something personal going on in her life that was keeping her distracted from work. And then I moved on to my new (and current) recruiter.

The Second Recruiter: Sasha Cho

(Before I start, I just want to say how fantastic Sasha has been.) At first I hadn't heard much from Sasha. I sent her an email introducing myself. I also asked about the school I had previously interviewed with, since I never got the results of that back. But she eventually told me that she figured the previous recruiter had already let me know that I hadn't gotten the position and was sorry she hadn't gotten back to me sooner. She told me they were trying hard to get me interviews, but apparently the majority of schools wanted people who already had experience in Korea and were already in Korea. She also mentioned that my introductory video was making it a little difficult, as it came off like I was targeting higher-level schools.

As another brief side-note, the job I would get would be elementary school, as high schools are considered more college-prep and you have to have a Masters degree to teach there. On top of that, GEPIK apparently changed their program this year and was not hiring teachers for middle school and high school anymore. So as it turned out, my teaching experience was actually what was hurting me, because it just so happened to be high school experience rather than elementary. And they assumed I wanted to stay with high school. Because of this, their situation wasn't easy, and finding interviews because of the GEPIK rules changing was becoming increasingly difficult.

This is where I started to become disheartened. It was already January 6th. The school year (for most schools) started March 1st. I had only gotten one interview so far. I would still need to send so much paperwork and go through this big process before flying over. Not to mention the prep I would still need to do here to be physically, mentally, and emotionally ready for this. It just felt like time was running out, and luck was not on my side.

On January 7th, I received an email from Ann Park, the director and co-founder of KorVia, telling me about an interview offer in a city called Yongin that would take place the next night. I interviewed on the 8th, and I thought it went alright. There were a few awkward moments, but it wasn't too bad. On January 10th(!), Sasha already informs me that the job was offered to somebody else.

Then, on January 15th, I get another response from Sasha with not one, but two interviews. The first is a school in Uiwang. The second is a repeat of the Yongin interview--they apparently wanted a second interview, which is pretty unheard of... and a pretty good sign.

But it wasn't going to be easy.

The Tooth Problem

I had begun to notice the gum above my front right tooth hurt if it was pressed on, and had been that way for a little while. This, of course worried me. Why? Rewind back to Spring Break of 2012. That Friday of Spring Break, I leave school/work with a bag of corn nuts that the administration had given all the teachers (they would give us little snacks and whatnot every week with punny motivational phrases to go with them). I'm driving down the road when I pop one in my mouth, bite down, and it feels like I get a piece stuck on a bottom left tooth, which comes out after some fidgeting. Though it's a little too crunchy. And then I noticed the blood in my rearview mirror. I pull into a parking lot trying not to freak out as I get a closer look and see a chunk of my tooth broke off.

Of course, my dentist is closed on Fridays, and it's a weekend ahead of me. So I wait it out until the next week and go in on an emergency notice on Monday. It turns out to be some rare (or at least very uncommon) issue where, for some unknown reason, the pulp in the tooth begins to grow and eat away at the inside of the tooth, rotting it from the inside out. The tooth can't be saved, and they have to pull it.

Long story short, I apparently have incredibly strong roots, as it was a very difficult extraction, and they had to numb me about 4 different times because the numbness wasn't sticking or strong enough and I could feel all the drilling and whatnot. But it healed up fine despite the fact they actually had to remove little bits of my jaw bone to get the tooth out.

Fast forward back to the current time and I'm trying not to worry. I'm hoping it's just a cavity and not this rare pulp problem again. So I make an appointment to go to the dentist. They do a scan and all that and decide it is, in fact, just a cavity. They numb me up to do a filling at the gum line. Two seconds later, he stops. It is, in fact, the rare pulp problem again. The tooth will need to be pulled. But because it's a front tooth, they'll want to give me a fake one in there.

However, I tell them I'm planning on leaving the country in a couple months and don't really have time for the process of an implant (which can take 6+ months and thousands of dollars). So they decide to do something a little more... temporary. They take a cast of my mouth and teeth and all that and tell me it'll be a couple weeks before the thing comes back from the lab.

I get a call from the dentist office the next week. They tell me the thing is in, and they want to set an appointment with me the next day to pull the tooth and stuff. Great. I set the appointment. That night I get a voice message and an email from Sasha telling me I have not one, but two interviews the next night. One of which is a second interview, which is unheard of. Hahaha... great.

The next day comes. It's another very difficult extraction, though they only had to numb me twice this time. The whole process ended up taking about an hour (yeah, an hour. To pull a tooth). They set into place what I learn is called a dental flipper and tell me not to take it out until the next morning.

So I'm in quite a bit of pain. I'm taking these pain pills that actually worked wonders... but I couldn't eat anything, so I was taking these pills on a stomach that had been empty for 24 hours just about. Fortunately, the insane bleeding doesn't last for days like it did with the previous pulled tooth, and I can quit with the gauze after about 3-4 hours.

And that's when I discovered... I couldn't talk.

The Two Interviews

If you don't know, a dental flipper is basically a mixture of a retainer and a denture. So I have this big uncomfortable foreign object against the roof of my mouth. And I can't form words properly. I mean, I can't even figure out how to swallow properly much less speak without sounding like I was playing Fluffy Bunny (look it up on YouTube if you don't know). The worst part? These interviews were almost entirely audio-based. Korean interviews are different in that it's not really what you say, but how you say it. And the how was my biggest problem. And I wasn't allowed to take the flipper out until the next day--doctor's orders.

I emailed Sasha about it, and she called me later that night before the first interview (which was for the new school I hadn't yet interviewed for). She said I sounded fine and wished me good luck. The first interview was via telephone rather than Skype, so it was based purely on the sound of my voice and how I spoke.

This was, I felt, the worst interview I'd given thus far. It started out with the interviewer being under the impression that I'd already had a year of experience in Korea (a miscommunication? Sasha fudging a little just to get me an interview? Who knows. Point is, she thought I had already taught in the country before). So I had to do a bit of damage control there. Parts of the interview in the middle were good, especially when she found out I had been in a play in college (I was in the Greek tragedy, Medea). But then again, at the end, it seemed to end on another rough note. And all-in-all I felt really bad about the interview and didn't expect to hear back from them again.

Before the second interview, Sasha wanted to talk with me on Skype. So we talked, she asked me some questions, and she gave me some pointers on how to sound in an interview. She was very enthusiastic about how I came off in the conversation and thought I sounded fine. She was very nice and helpful for doing that.

So I wait... and wait... and the time for the second interview (which was with Yongin again) comes... and goes. I message Sasha, and I end up finding out that the school asked to postpone the interview until that Thursday night. Well, good. That would give me a couple days to get used to the flipper and see if I could talk any better by then.

Thursday night rolls around. I do the interview--this one, like the very first school interview I had--was with a foreign teacher and who I think was his co-teacher. The foreign teacher (who I believe was Australian) did almost all of the talking. This was, by far, my best interview. I thought it went spectacularly. And with it being the rare second interview with the same school, I just knew I had that job.

I didn't.

The Wait/The Change

Sasha sent me an email on the 20th asking me to go to a webinar that talked about the new GEPIK changes, but that also allowed for a Q&A afterwards for any other kinds of questions. I went. It only lasted maybe 20-30 minutes, and it was alright. There were a few things people asked that gave me some information I hadn't already known.

When I woke up on the 22nd, I saw an email from Sasha. I had a job offer! And no, it wasn't the Yongin position. It was for the Uiwang position--the one I felt I did a really poor interview with the very same night I had gotten a tooth pulled and couldn't talk right with a flipper in my mouth. What are the odds, right? But I'm excited.

So now, to wrap this up, I've been sending off my paperwork and am now playing the waiting game. My next step is applying for my visa. And once that's in, all I have to do is get a ticket and fly over there. The job originally wasn't to start until April 1st, so I thought I had time to get ready. I've been in shopping mode and prep mode for the last week or so. I thought I had a month and a half.

But then, tonight (January 31st), Sasha contacted me about how the school switched my position with another open position more suited to my abilities. Now I begin on March 1st, which means I leave in just a few short weeks! My stomach dropped at the news, but I've started to come to terms with it. And now I'm back to prep mode. And in just 3 very short weeks, I'll be off to Korea!