A crescendo of wailing voices and thundering feet rumbled down the corridor, wrenching his attentions away from the computer screen. He stared disbelievingly at the classroom door as it burst open, giving way to a rowdy 5th grade class who bombed in and took their seats, textbooks open, faces smiling and bright eyes staring in expectation at the very confused Irishman before them. His attempts to explain that he wasn’t due to teach for another week were futile. The Korean students shrugged and waited for the show to begin.

Unfortunately that Irishman was yours truly. I had heard of ‘Korean surprise’ at orientation and now it had just walked through my door.

Fortunately, I had my introductory lesson prepped and just decided to roll with it. About ten minutes in, my mentor Ms. Jang showed up and pulled the plug, apologizing for the mix-up as she ushered the students back out through the door.

Adapting to last moment changes or challenges is something that any ESL teacher in Korea will have to become accustomed to. It comes with the territory. At the EPIK orientation, a tutor advised us to simply embrace the ‘Korean surprise’ and roll with it.

A few days after the impromptu lesson episode, Ms. Jang greeted me early one morning at the entrance to the English classroom.

Ms. Jang – “Today, we’re welcoming Jim”

Me – “What’s that? We’re welcoming Jim? Jim who?”

Korean surprise for the blindfolded girl, walking into tables
Teaching in Korea can feel like this at times

MJ – “Welcome, in the gym. Whole school”

Me – “Ahh, ok.  Welcome for me? Whole school you say?”

MJ – “Yes”

Me – “Do I have to speak?”

MJ – “Yes, little bit. On stage”

Me – “Ohhhkay. When?”

MJ – “20 minutes”

Me – “Ohhkay, eh, thanks for telling me!”

Wonderful. A Korean surprise dropped in my lap first thing in the morning.
No sooner than she left had I scrambled to quickly google and rehearse a 2-minute spiel, half-Korean, half-English, half-arsed.

I took the stage and blew them all away to rapturous applause, and in the ecstasy of the moment I launched a running stage-dive on to the sea of little hands that carried me aloft and out through the door while the Principal gleefully blasted champagne in people’s faces like a crazed firefighter dueling a dragon.

OK, so perhaps they weren’t that amazed, but I did alright.

As the foreigner, any English teacher in Korea must get used to being the last to know about everything. Every time. As the months passed, I’ve dealt with one Korean surprise after another and for the most part, I’ve managed to knock them out of the park with aplomb.

Last-minute staff dinners? I’ll be there. Yearbook photo time? On my way. Impromptu kindergarten classes? Sure, as long as you pay me extra! (Yes, really, it’s in your contract!)
I’ve even had classes leave half-way through to quickly get dental treatment before they run back in complaining of the horrible chemical taste in their mouths.

My favorite type of Korean surprise is when I arrive in the morning and a teacher approaches me with very limited English. I engage in charades with them and learn from all the pointing, head-shaking and the odd word of Korean I understand that my classes are all cancelled.
A day of silence and solitude lies ahead. I feign mild disappointment at the fact I won’t get to teach today and then concede a solemn nod before walking to my classroom, secretly delighted to have time for my own interests.

There’s the wave of school trips and swimming lessons that will surely derail lessons if not an entire day’s worth of classes. Once one school is hit, the rest will follow. Fire drills, earthquake safety lectures, practice for nuclear attacks from North Korea, the list goes on…

On the flipside, I’ve had some curveballs thrown at me. Not every Korean surprise is golden good luck.

My first six months in the job were a tough adjustment. Research and rave reviews will lead prospective teachers to believe they will share a classroom with a bilingual Korean teacher. At EPIK orientation, this myth is further perpetrated and many new English teachers in Korea will arrive to their new school, fully expecting to have a helping hand in the classroom.

My first Korean surprise came within a day of arriving; I would have no co-teacher.
I would be alone. This was a pretty scary thought. I had never taught before and could barely speak a word of Korean.

Kid helping firefighter with CPR demo
Always be prepared

However, six months down the line, I was more than used to it. In fact, now I wouldn’t have it any other way. Unfortunately, we don’t always get what we want.

Last March, my main school brought in a specialized co-teacher for me – a Korean native who had trained to teach English.
My style and methods were compromised and I suddenly I had to try and forge a working relationship with the new teacher. It was moderately successful although I had my gripes about being shunted to the side-office with the ancient computer while the new teacher took my old desk.

But we soon began to find a rhythm and I was loving having someone to translate in the room. No longer did I have to doodle on the board and do theatrical charades to get my point across. I also had a second pair of eyes to watch the students and a little more authority in the room with a Korean teacher present.

An open class loomed and with preparations underway for a demo class in front of the principal, teachers and parents, the last thing I needed was a Korean surprise.

Alas, that’s exactly what I got.

The day before the open class I arrived to find my co-teacher packing her stuff up. Apparently she had accepted a new job and had to go. Immediately.

I would have to teach the open class alone, one which she had largely planned to acquiesce the desires of the Principal, who wanted some form of arts and crafts in the demo English lesson. The joint-demonstration English class would now be me on my own, trying to teach a crafts project without a clue how to do it myself, or any help to translate to the kids.

Somehow, I managed to pull it off. The kids enjoyed it, the parents were amused and the feedback was good. The Principal showed up for all of four seconds before realizing he didn’t understand a word I was saying. He left before the art project started.

But I was flying solo again and delighted to be so.

Dusting off my charades and brushing up on my Korean skills, I stepped off the sidelines and assumed centre stage once again at Bonghwa Elementary School.
The new 3rd graders had saw me as the funny foreign assistant until then, but now I was to teach them…somehow.

The worst Korean surprise I received followed the departure of my co-teacher. The day she was leaving I actually arrived with a surprise of my own. I had my spiel prepared when I found her packing her bag.

My friend wearing a wolf mask
Things aren’t always what they seem

I had initially declined on renewing my contract with EPIK and informed my school I would leave in August at the end of my first year in Korea. The reason being that my sister was getting married in Italy.
I had informed my school of the dates six months in advance and my flights were booked. There was no way I was missing it. Not a chance.

However, I did want to stay in Korea. After my co-teacher received an impromptu farewell ceremony, she was ushered out the door.
Needing to discuss my own issue, I hunted down my once-removed mentor Ms. Jang. I explained that my sister’s wedding was August 24th and if I could take my vacation around this date, then I would be happy to renew my contract.

She was delighted at my change of heart and assured me that it would be no trouble for the school to accommodate my wishes of taking summer vacation on the dates specified. I simply wished to push my 8 days vacation time to the end of the current contract. I would fly to Italy, go to the wedding then return to begin my new contract. Easy.

Ms. Jang is an astute woman, very by-the-book. I also get the feeling she works harder than any teacher should without alcohol. I always feel a little guilty putting any requests or tasks on her shoulders as I can see the pressure she is under.  In any case, this was her role again now that the official co-teacher had departed.

I believed she understood me and thought we had an accord, so I signed the contract and we shook on it.
Shortly after she left my classroom, I booked my return flight to Korea from Italy. It was official, I would be returning to Korea.

Baseball game in Seoul - mid-game the players doing random exercises
Sometimes it is hard to know what is going on

Some months passed, by which time, Ms. Jang withdrew to her own role and the mentor baton was passed once more to Mr. Im – a young man set to leave in August to complete his military service. He was a nice guy and spoke as much English as Ms. Jang.

Mid-July rolled around and as I worked in the teachers room at my Friday school, I received a call from Mr. Im. He wanted to talk about the vacation period. Immediately, I tensed up. Leaving the teacher’s room, I walked out to the corridor and turned the volume on my phone to the maximum.

I listened intently to his methodical speech. It seemed that I was expected to choose vacation dates within the specified official school vacation period – at the beginning of August.

Korean surprise! You can’t have the days off to go to your special family event! You must now choose between your job in Korea and your sister’s wedding!

Those were not his exact words. I managed to keep a lid on my frustrations and anger but made it abundantly clear that this was a discussion had many times, many months ago. Of course, I explained it was a prerequisite to my renewal. Obviously, I explained Ms. Jang assured me it was no problem. But it seemed to be a losing battle. I already imagined how I was going to have to throw the towel in and jump on a plane to Italy, bitter and resentful.

There was some back and forth and Mr. Im, to his credit, made several calls and requests to the powers-that-be. I was told the education board were blocking my request.

Ultimately, their position softened but the compromise reached was much more in their favour than mine.

In the end, I had to change my 8 vacation days to early August. To go to my sister’s wedding I would then have to use the 5 days an EPIK teacher will receive as a bonus for contract renewal.
This was far from ideal and affected my vacation periods in August 2016 and January 2017. However, it was the only solution available.

Fellow EPIK teachers had no trouble requesting vacation periods near the end of their contract, which made me suspect the education board story was little more than a cover for a disgruntled teacher or disapproving Principal at my school who wished to overrule the foreigner’s demands.

A firefighter demo at Korean school
Keeping your cool is key when faced with a Korean surprise

Down the line, I would learn that Ms. Jang hadn’t quite understood me. Furthermore, my request was not communicated to the relevant personnel at the education board.

Although the whole affair left a sour taste in my mouth, I did appreciate the several apologies I received from Mr. Im and then Ms. Jang. It’s not often an older Korean will admit their fault to a younger person.

I learnt there and then that nothing here is certain. You should always expect a Korean surprise. Even when you think you have things sorted, when you think everything is under control. That’s when it comes, when you’re least aware.

Beware the Korean surprise. It may be good, it may be bad, but you should not underestimate it. If a teacher approaches you in the morning or comes knocking to your classroom door, brace yourself.

Fellow teachers, what’s the best Korean surprise you have received? What’s the worst? Let me know in the comments below!