“Four schools? I have to teach at four schools?!”

At the end of orientation on the English Program in Korea (EPIK), the excitement reached a fever pitch.
Joyous voices expressed relief and delight on discovering their fate. The penultimate day of the training program was the big reveal and for many, the signing of the contract was the realization of all their hopes when they applied to EPIK with that vision of a one school in a big city.

Getting assigned to multiple schools was a fate I never thought possible.

With my application being ridiculously late, I knew I would be going rural. However, as rumours surfaced of three, four and five schools being dished out to fellow late applicants, I felt my stomach twist. The anticipation finally ended as the dreaded reality came to light.

Among the jubilant chatter and laughter, I plastered a smile on and idled between groups. Proffering chat of how I wanted to be somewhere I could save and also learn the language, I was trying to convince myself as much as anyone else.

I had never taught a class in my life, now I’d be the English teacher for four different schools in rural Korea. How the hell was I going to do this?

EPIK orientation
Plastering on a smile after getting our placements at orientation

Here I am now, two years down the line and at the end of my second contract with the same office of education.
I didn’t leave my schools. Sure I was tempted by the allure of Busan or Seoul. I even flirted with the idea of making the move. But ultimately, the idea of having one school in a big city didn’t compare to the reality of my situation in Bonghwa.

I had four schools and I wouldn’t change it. There are definitely pros and cons but I’m happy I stayed put. If you happen to get assigned to multiple schools, no doubt it can seem daunting, but it is far from a disaster.

Here are some things to consider:

PRO – Variety is the spice of life

Some kids are little monsters. There are those who just simply don’t want to learn while others don’t want to listen. Some have no respect for authority and then there are those who just want to test the foreign teacher.

All round, you can be guaranteed to be kept on your toes in this job, no matter what school you teach at. Having multiple schools means you only have to deal with that difficult class or unruly student one day a week as opposed to running the gauntlet every day.

CON – It’s harder to bond

Less face time means less opportunity to bond with the students and staff at each school. To this day I can name just a few of my fellow staff and it took me over a year to get to grips with all the student names across my four schools. There are some little angels and hilarious little souls that truly make the job a joy. However, only seeing them 40 minutes a week blunts the chances of forming real bonds.
It can also be quite frustrating not to have progressed with any of the staff after this length of time and with such a small window of opportunity, often any effort seems futile.

Korean students holding nametags for a photo
Learing the students’ names was an important step towards building a bond

PRO – Time flies

With the variety, things are less likely to stagnate. I have one main school which I teach at on Tuesday and Thursday, with a day at each of my side schools filling the rest of the week. The difference in atmosphere and culture in each school offers a slightly different work environment day-to-day. Teaching at multiple schools makes the weeks absolutely blaze by!

CON – A lot of commuting time

Several schools means several different routes – in my case that’s long, meandering, mountainside bus journeys to the middle of nowhere. If you are placed in a city, chances are your apartment will be conveniently located close to your school. For some people it is a short bus ride or even a leisurely stroll from door to door.

My four schools equate to about fourteen hours of weekly commute time and a monthly bus ticket bill north of 120,000 won. Granted, the contract has allowances for people with multiple schools in rural areas but all that time spent dozing on buses staring at a phone could undoubtedly go to better use in front of a laptop or in a gym among other places.

Me and Korean students in Uljin
Hanging with my home girls on a field trip to Uljin

PRO – Novelty Factor

In the rural countryside, there aren’t a lot of foreigners. The novelty of being the foreign teacher will wear off quicker in the developed, cosmopolitan cities. In the boonies, that aura can linger for a quite some time, especially for the younger students.

While 6th grade get over you and become “too cool for school”, the kids in the lower grades will still find you fascinating every time they see you. More so if they only get to see you once a week.
To this day, a large portion of my classes involve me stopping the students from playing with my hair and staring into my blue eyes.

CON – Fixing the same problem multiple times

Got a dodgy printer? Get a fellow teacher to help sort the issue. Easy. If you have four schools, then you have four dodgy printer problems to sort.

Every school has its issues. It would be great to have one school with one mentor teacher to streamline these little problems. Multiple schools means you get to deal with the same issues over and over and over again. Plus as you only happen to be there once a week, they tend to have less motivation or memory for the problems, so they can drag on and on…

PRO – Trial and Error

One of the best things about teaching multiple schools is that I can recycle a lot of teaching material. There is a considerable overlap between the different schools who use the same textbooks.
Once I teach a lesson in my main school, I can then tailor it and reuse it again in my side schools.

It took me quite a while to get on top of the whole lesson planning aspect of the job. Now that I have it down, having four schools enables me to test drive a lesson in one school and then fine-tune it through the week at the other schools, finding out what works or bombs for various grades or group types. Overall, my teaching methods and know-how for the job has skyrocketed as a result.

With students from Bonghwa, Korea
I was surprised to find my classes cancelled one day and get invited to a field trip to Uljin!

PRO/CON – Korean surprises galore

I’m the last person to ever know what is happening, ever, every time, always.

Therefore I have grown accustomed to the last-gasp bombshells and bonanzas that fall into my lap. I expect the unexpected.
Of course, I put on my best nonplussed face when I’m told all my lessons are cancelled and I can spend the day relaxing. Who doesn’t secretly jump for joy when they get such news a minute before a hectic day of classes?
Having four schools means I get four times the surprises. If one school cancels my classes on account of a ski trip, a curious hope flickers inside as I bus to each of my other schools that week.

No doubt, there are great advantages to have one school instead of multiple schools.

You can bond with fellow staff and students quickly and won’t deal with lengthy commutes.
However, I know plenty of people with one school or even two and their experience of teaching English in Korea has been somewhat soured by poor working relationships at that school. Frayed relations with their co-teacher puts a damper on their job. They deal with it on a daily basis.

Teaching multiple schools is not what I wanted. However, after doing it for this long, I would be cautious about trading for anything else. There is certainly a lot to consider when comparing the two, but one thing is for sure; getting assigned multiple schools at EPIK orientation is nothing to fear.

Have you taught with EPIK? Is one school better than having multiple schools?