School Tension


I’m going to present what happened in as objective and factual a manner as I can muster, and I’d love to hear your opinions on this.

I’ve been applying for jobs back home to start once my contract here ends, and in mid-March I was informed about an assessment day that KPMG wanted me to attend on 11 April, a Wednesday and a public holiday here. I thought there wouldn’t be much chance I’d be able to get the time off work, but I decided to test the water and ask for two days, Thursday and Friday. This was granted by my vice-principal so I looked into flights, but there were none leaving after work on Tuesday that would get me into London early enough on Wednesday morning, so I asked for the Tuesday off as well. This too was okayed and I booked flights from Seoul on the Tuesday morning.

Up to this point all my dealings had been with my co-teacher and Native English Teacher “co-ordinator”, thanks to the system of hierarchy (and language barrier) that prevents me from speaking directly to anyone superior to him. Over the next few weeks we had a few brief conversations about how I would make up my hours and what would happen to the three after-school classes I’d miss. Then, on the Monday morning, he asked me if I was looking forward to going home and when my flight was. I told him 8 o’ clock.
“In the evening?”
“No, in the morning”.
“From Busan?”
“No, from Seoul”.
“When will you go to Seoul?”
“Tonight, after school”.

After classes finished that day at around 3 he took me to the vice-principal, advising me on the way to tell her how important this interview was for my future. She looked furious and spoke in rapid angry Korean to my co-teacher – I wasn’t allowed to say a word. Apparently she’d changed her mind and I wasn’t allowed the time off work. As he and I discussed what to do, another co-teacher, who’s quite outspoken and prepared to speak out against authority, unlike many Koreans, found out about the situation. She promised to have a word while I waited in the English office. After half an hour the vice-principal stormed in, delivered a withering vituperation to my co-teacher and left. At 4 everyone in the English office attended a regular Monday afternoon meeting – I was told not to go home until it had been concluded.

Meanwhile, I rang the MOE for advice. I was told that there was nothing I could do and referred to my contract – vacation can only be taken during specific intervals and I had an obligation to 22 hours of teaching a week. She didn’t seem to understand I was bothered about the timing and the capriciousness of the situation, and when she offered to phone my vice principal I politely declined her help and hung up.

After the meeting, two further co-teachers took me aside and advised me to go without the vice-principal’s permission – the worst I could expect to receive was a warning and four months of hostility and frosty looks – assuming I didn’t want to renew my contract or ever return to Korea to teach. After some time pondering other possible solutions – finding a replacement, ensuring the vice-principal was aware I’d make up the hours (on Saturdays if need be), ringing the principal – I decided to go, based as much on principle and the desire to avoid having to ring up my sisters and tell them I wasn’t coming home as on thoughts about my future. I thought that was the end of it and went home to pack.

Over the next few hours between leaving school and leaving Ulsan I received six or seven phonecalls from my co-teacher (once after every time he recevied a call from the vice-principal). I was now allowed two days off work but not three, could I change my flights? If I didn’t come back into school on the Friday the vice-principal would make my – and my co-teacher’s, which I felt bad about – life hell. Each call ended with me explaining how expensive and impractical it would be to get back to school for Friday, if it were even possible, and then a “see you on Friday” from my co-teacher. In between all this my family rung me, checking I was ready for the flight and expressing how excited they were to see me. As I boarded my plane back I was scheduled to come back for Friday, but was supposed to ring school on Thursday explaining that I’d missed a flight, or couldn’t change mine, or some other contrived excuse.

Anyway, I came back into school on the Monday of the following week, today. This morning I was ushered into the vice-pricipal’s office (where I do all my photocopying, unfortunately) with wrapped presents from home. Again, furious, she spoke only in Korean and only to my co-teacher, and I left without saying a word (or giving her my present). We then went to find the principal, who sat there asking about my trip home and my family with a grin on his face and who happily and graciously accepted my gift.

My co-teachers, who all fought my corner last week, have said that the vice-principal has calmed down and hasn’t punished anyone but my co-ordinator, who deserves it for the confusion. I assume that’s confirmation that he forgot to ask the vice-principal for the third day of work for me until the day I was due to leave. It seems like everything’s going to be okay at school now with everyone but the vice-principal, who probably just didn’t like being disobeyed from someone much younger (and less powerful) than herself. I’ll just not be doing any photocopying for a while.


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