The Brass ring
Changes in the university ESL job market
By Jean Winston
University jobs are widely regarded as the Eldorados of ESL teaching in Korea. Word is they offer low hours, high pay, endless holidays, great facilities, eager pupils, no discipline problems, and the respect and prestige you so richly deserve. All of this awaits the lucky conquistador who can land one of these rare and exclusive contracts. Could it possibly be a legend?
   Well, yes and no. Universities have been as hard hit by the recession as any of the large companies. Since the economy began to slump about 2 years ago, many students have decided to take time off of their studies in order to delay graduation to a time when the job market is less abysmal. These students do not pay tuition but continue to take advantage of the schoolís resources, often spending their time studying in the library. This trend, coupled with the fact that at least one large private university has gone bankrupt in the last year, has sent nervous tremors through university financial offices across the country. 
   For the ESL teacher this institutional anxiety has had at least one positive outcome. Realizing that a large number of the time-out students are in the libraries studying English, many universities have increased the numbers of native English speakers in their departments in an attempt to coax students back to regular classes. Some schools, lower-ranked private universities in particular, now import and employ 20 or more foreign language teachers and bill themselves as Ďglobal educatorsí to attract confused freshmen with poor admissions exam scores. 
   To hedge their bets, most universities have expanded into the language institute business as well. By offering non-credit ESL classes in the mornings, evenings, and throughout the summer and winter vacations, universities compete with the private institutes for course fees but offer greater convenience for the student and a sense of educational continuity. Some offer kindergarten, elementary school and housewife classes as well, and almost all have an EHD (Evil Hagwon Director) who is even more devious and powerful than most of his ilk. Youíll likely be put to work at the institute for overtime rates roughly equivalent to a managerís salary at Dunkiní Donuts.
   While it may be easier to get university positions these days, theyíre not, for the most part, what they are fabled to be. Some universities, for example, have frozen salaries across the board and do not pay much more than the private English institutes that raised wages to stem the IMF exodus last year. Weekly teaching hours at universities, including those at the inevitable institute, can easily crawl upwards of 25. This does not take into account the number of hours spent marking stacks of student journals and quizzes, or the time you spend engaged in important projects like correcting a speech contest entry for the university presidentís daughter. Summer and winter holidays, once rumored to be worth some 5 months a year of beach time in Pukhet, are increasingly edged out by special holiday programs, 10 month contracts, and hourly wage schemes. You can usually still count on 6 weeks or more of paid vacation but itís getting more difficult. 
   University classes can be dauntingly large and very uneven in terms of student ability. Students often choose their majors on vocational prospects alone, and many who end up in English or Communications courses do not, shall we say, have a flare for languages. The same may be true of your English department faculty. They often rely on your expertise and, as a result, will sometimes give you unbelievable freedom in designing courses:
ďWe want you to teach Composition Expression through Multimedia in Mass Communication English II.Ē 
ďIs there a textbook?Ē 
ďNo. You can use your own materials.Ē
More often youíll be bound by a standardized syllabus and preset grading curves skewed enough to give a professional statistician nightmares. 
   The students are the most interesting part of the job, especially when theyíre bad. Remember the way you remember your university days, a time of intellectual and personal exploration when you learned to really take responsibility for yourself? Now imagine a bunch of twenty-year-old International Relations majors bringing puppies and half-empty beer bottles to class, then giggling, snoozing or writing love letters while youíre trying to teach past participles. Cheating is equally outrageous. Exam answers can be written on desks, walls, wrists and carefully filleted erasers, or viewed through strategically-placed mirrors. Sending other students to take your exams is common enough, and itís surprisingly easy to find some dupe to sit in your chair the whole semester. You have to reach way back to junior high for punishments sophomoric enough to deal with this kind of stuff. Try sending the offender to the front of the class and have him face the board, bend over, and write his name in the air with his butt. Itís a familiar and humiliating punishment, and it works every time.
   Not all students are this bad, of course, but the character of higher education here may be different from what youíre used to. There are also a lot of social rules you have to contend with. Do yourself a favor and get to know right away which students are on the baseball team, have full-time jobs, are related to administrators, are going into the army later in the semester and, most importantly, which ones are in their senior year. Give all of these students good marks in the first week and never expect to see them again. If you donít do this now, someone will try to either bribe or coerce you into doing it at the end of the semester. These kinds of situations, along with the zillion other cultural conflicts youíll have with your department, are best handled gracefully. Save your educational principles for some other country.
   On the other hand, the facilities and working conditions at universities compare favorably to those at private institutes. For the serious teacher or academic, professional development opportunities abound. In fact, almost any idea you have for a lecture series, special class, or student project will be greeted with enthusiasm (though not generally paid for) by faculty and students alike. You can also be reasonably assured of an office of some kind, access to the internet, a photocopier and resource materials, and an office assistant specially trained to deal patiently with short-tempered foreigners. Some departments will even allow you to plan your own schedule. Perhaps best of all, in the libraries there are tons of English novels that you can check out for months on end because nobody else wants them. 
   Joining an English super-department is not as difficult as you might think. Most universities advertise that they require at least Masterís degree but, in truth, a BA, a year or two worth of experience in Korea, and a resume fattened up with certificates and nonsense is usually sufficient. Female teachers, as is the case everywhere, are in high demand. Hiring takes place in January or February and sometimes in July-August for the semester beginning in September. Most hiring happens from within the country and, no matter what anyone else says, you donít need somebody on the inside or a recruiter to help you get a position. Just send or fax your resume to the English departments and then follow up with a call a week later if you havenít heard from them. Itís kinda like getting a real job.
   If you think youíre qualified, go for it. You can learn a lot about Korean society from its undergraduates and get great resumé-building experience. Just accept that youíre probably not going to have too many serious academic debates in your classes and donít for a moment think youíve left all your Korean teaching problems behind you. And for heavenís sake, watch out for the EHD.