I had decided, while in Mongolia with lots of nature and sand dunes and space to think, that I was going to return to Norn Iron for a few months at the end of my contract in February. A combination of factors, really – wanting to see my family and friends… uncertain if another year at a hagwon would be too much, but not sure if I wanted to leave the job of teaching little children for the huge, overcrowded classes and vacant teenage stares of public schools… wondering if perhaps the ‘adventure’ had worn off in terms of my Korean experience, and it was time to try somewhere fresh and new…
Less than a week after I reached my decision, my director asked me to renew my contract. While I’d been prepared for this, it was the first moment that I’d considered the reality of leaving, perhaps never to return given the rising difficulties with getting a teaching job (never mind a visa) from outside of the country. No, I’m leaving, I said as firmly as I could, and she threw down her first card, flattery. Are you sure? Because we want to keep you – you are good teacher. Parents ask if you will stay. I want to keep working with you. She looked dolefully at me – emotional blackmail being a perfectly acceptable business negotiation tactic in Korea – and added faintly, And if you leave, I have so much stress to find new teacher!
Sorry… no, I really am leaving! I replied hurriedly, trying not to obey the voice of Old Me (who would have done whatever anyone asked just to make them like her). I began to back away, but she clutched my arm and played her second card. We will cut your classes down to how they were when you first got here…
Before you practically doubled them with no compensation? I asked sarcastically. No, I didn’t really. Actually, I paused for a moment and then shook my head decisively. Sorry, Jennifer! Honestly, I only went in to use the photocopier.
Pay rise! she almost shouted, thrusting a contract into my hands and pointing at the part with lots of numbers. I shrugged slightly, unimpressed. But pay rise starting next week! she added – ‘next week’ being 6 months before the end of my original year-and-a-half contract.
Honestly, I really do need to visit my family, I practically groaned, trying to make her take the contract back. I won’t have seen them for a year and a half!
Flights! Extra holidays! she threw in desperately as I made it to the door, and I paused. Sensing that she’d played a trump card, she began babbling. We will give you 9 days at the end of February… we will pay for flights to Ireland and back… we will pay for flights to anywhere else if you want to travel…
9 days?! I asked incredulously. But as stingy as it may sound, you should know that that’s pretty generous holiday leave, by Korean standards. Which made me think that perhaps they wanted me enough to negotiate.
Which, in turn, is how it came to be that I have a month off at the end of the year, and am getting a paid-for trip back home to spend Christmas with my family, relax and recharge, and come back to work in the job I can’t bring myself to leave, for at least another year. And I have to say, I feel great about it! I think I’ve finally, at the age of Almost Thirty, found a career that I want to pursue (is singing songs with 5-year-olds and gluing lollipop sticks a career?!). My difficulties and struggles for control in the classroom are now mostly a thing of the past – and even on a bad day, something happens to make it worthwhile.
As I write this, for example, I have a big smile on my face because of a little girl who refused to do her work in one of my last classes of the day. I was tired, she was whiny. We fought for a bit, my tone getting progressively firmer and less tolerant as she glared and huffed and covered her book with her hand, pushing my hands away repeatedly. Seeing I was on the verge of sending her out of the classroom, she started to wail – tearless howls designed to evoke pity rather than express fear or sadness, because she knows perfectly well I can’t send a crying child to sit on her own on the corridor floor. I gave up in frustration and left her to it.
Anyway, an hour later I finished my final class, and found her waiting outside my classroom door. Hello, Dorothy, I greeted her with a smile (I’ve had to train myself not to hold grudges or anger against 5-year-olds – yes, believe it or not, it was natural for me to continue being angry with them every time I saw them when I first started this job!). She looked up at me with a sad, anxious expression, and beckoned me down with her hand. I crouched – for she only comes up to the top of my leg – and put my ear close to her face. I’m sorry, she said in a whisper. I’m angry… she paused, and corrected herself. I was angry because Ryan, not angry because teacher. I’m sorry.
It is an indication of my current values and priorities when an apology is an utter delight to hear because it’s in the past tense. Seriously, I grinned from ear to ear. It’s OK. I love you! We hugged and made up, and she went on her way, a tiny little figure who is learning to speak in English right before my eyes.
And Terri, my colleague (and now good friend) had some wise words for me when I worried about getting stuck in a rut due to the newness and sense of adventure having faded: You travelled around Europe for a year, you lived in various places trying to make a living as a freelance writer, you had some good experiences and one horrible one, you came across the world to Asia, you started a job you knew nothing about… I think it’s OK to spend a year or two just enjoying being in a familiar job and a familiar place with familiar people. It doesn’t all have to be new and daunting in order to be rewarding, or even exciting.
Yes, I think I’ve made the right decision. Looks like Hails is Hayley Teacher for the foreseeable future!
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