Saturday, January 15, 2005

postal scrotum: Pagoda edition

The following epistle comes from Jason Wright, a former employee of one of the biggest hagwons in South Korea, Pagoda Language Institute. The letter describes just about every foreign expat's experience with hagwons here. Read and enjoy.

Hey Kevin,

Since you began documenting your EC saga on the blog it's like I've turned into Tim Robbins in "Jacobs Ladder." The horrific PTSD memories of the split schedules, the broken promises, the dysfunctional management, and the cold sweat you get after you've realized you went an entire month without learning any of your hundreds of students' names have come back something fierce. Sometimes I wake up completely soaking wet (my wife insists I peed the bed, but I know better!) thinking about what i went through over there.

You see, I once plied the waters you find yourself in. I once taught at Pagoda in Apkujeong while living up the hill from Kangnam Station, and much like yourself I often felt like some furry little mammal, constantly having to think one step ahead of the hounds.

I started off at the Apkujeong Pagoda after living in Taiwan for a few years teaching kids, so I pretty much knew what I was getting into, teaching-wise. But nothing could prepare me for the BS I ended up putting up with in Seoul. After getting sucked in by what was a pretty damn good interview (plus the fact that my then-girlfriend-now-wife worked for the company), I had a pretty good feeling about what I was going to get into. But right off the bat, I noticed how low the morale was among the foreign teachers. Usually, there's a certain percentage of teachers in hagwons who get out their "living overseas" issues by spending a chunk of their time complaining about the school. These guys, however, were different. Each person knew exactly how many days they had left on their contract, how many days left until they could get the hell out of Korea (or find another school to complain about for another year). These foreign teachers (mostly well qualified--it turned out Pagoda prided itself on fucking over only the best foreign talent back then) were the saddest sacks; all were lured over being promised no split shifts, no pre-screening students (that was left to the hapless head teacher), and the promise that the staff were there to support the teachers. With apologies to Robert Shaw, "they had black, lifeless eyes--like a dolllll's eyyyyyes."

As you may know, Pagoda is a big fish in a small hagwon pond. Its founder once spent a very well-publicized night in jail for tax evasion a few years back, and runs his little fiefdom in an truly Machiavellian fashion. Pagoda hires talented Korean teachers and squeeze them for every won they can get out of them. The organization sees its native teachers as lessees who use their classrooms, and charges them handsomely for it. Like at EC, each teacher is under INCREDIBLE pressure to keep registration rates (re-registration rates even more so) up, and to play the teachers off against each other by scheduling the teachers with the best retention rates at the "peak hours." Since they're paid by head, it can get incredibly vicious, and in true "Survivor" style, alliances and schisms inevitably crop up, only to be occasionally brutally put down by the management by firing some of the easier targets in the herd (a good friend of mine--a Japanese teacher--was given her walking papers for being seen talking to the wrong faction leader at the wrong time).

Inevitably, the TV English teachers get the most money, for they attract the largest percentage of hagwon students: those fearless digitalists who want to be able to watch "Friends" on AFKN. These TV English teachers are at the top of the food chain and bring in the most money to the school, so the management pays them insane amounts to keep them around (one popular teacher, who graduated from Harvard, was said to be pulling down around US$100,000 per year with her classes, her self-produced CDs and books, and her trophy Ivy league diploma). The other teachers (like my wife) were constantly struggling to keep re-enrollment rates up, and were always having to take students out for drinks (guess who pays?) right before re-enrollment time every month to bribe them to take the class again. Just brutal.

I happened to start working at the Apkujeong branch in the dead of winter, and I soon realized that Pagoda was saving money by not turning on the heaters in any of the classrooms, which made for excruciating mornings. Students looked to the foreign teachers to get the heat back on, but no dice. The cold, coupled with the split shifts (where the day never ends) wore us down like an overpitched bullpen, and soon people started coming down with pneumonia and the like. I caught a bad case of bronchitis, and was reprimanded for requesting a couple of days off. After 3 months of hanging upside down in the Wampa Cave, I had enough and put in my 45 to jump ship to another school to write mock English tests (another horror story for another time that involves blatant copyright violations, foreign teacher/Korean teacher fistfights in the teachers lounge, and student revolts after the Anton Ono short track skating incident) . Money was never an issue when i left, but at the time I was concerned because the management had been accepting foreign teachers' resignations, but then turned around and refused to sign their release papers (thereby making it illegal to stay in the country and working elsewhere on the same visa). This happened to a few Pagoda coworkers as they attempted to leave.

I guess the point of this story is that money is probably not your biggest concern, nor is the fact that they might try to shitcan you on the smallest pretext---the thing to worry about is whether or not they sign your walking papers.

I wish you best of luck in your last 45. Just make sure you have enough money in your account for an emergency trip to Osaka in case you need to get a new visa. Keep yer powder dry and your head down and you'll be OK.

Pilseung, Byotch--

Jason in D.C.
(aka Lower G.I. Joe)

I don't want my blog to become an extension of the rant boards over at Dave's ESL Cafe, but I felt Jason's illuminating letter might offer my Stateside readers a good overview of how shitty the employment situation can be here.

To keep it all in perspective, though, I have to remember that it's often worse for the Korean teachers, who find themselves under enormous pressure to perform, and who do so, as a rule, for very little reward.

In all, I'm not particularly stressed about my situation-- not as stressed as my posts might lead you to believe. I'm old and tired now; ten years ago, when I was younger and angrier, I'd have thought about suing or taking some other legal approach. Now, however, I find it difficult even to dredge up enough emotion to care. Instead of seething in fury, I'm thinking strategically. I'm better at emotional judo now, much better than I used to be. While I'll never be a master poker player (when I'm truly angry, I can't hide the fact), I've internalized the golden rule that, in an argument, less is often more. So, like Jason says, I plan to keep my powder dry and my head down.


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