▲ EPIK elementary school teacher Julian Screawn is a popular teacher with his English class students. Photo courtesy Julian Screawn
The English Program in Korea (EPIK) is a wonderful opportunity to learn from another culture, participate in cross-cultural communication and enjoy the rewards of teaching. However, success depends on one’s ability to develop positive relationships, adapt to Korean culture and to make an effort to adjust to different ways of doing things.
Everyone’s experience in the EPIK program is different, and for every positive experience there is a negative one. My experiences have been largely positive, but there were periods of difficulty. I have spent four and half years with the EPIK program, from 1997 to 1999 and from 2006 to present. For me, adjusting to the school environment was difficult at first. It's a strange feeling to feel lonely in a crowded room where people are laughing and joking and you can't understand a word. It took time and effort to develop relationships.
For me, relationship development was the key to success and job satisfaction. Without positive relationships one feels powerless and lonely. The people you are close to are the people that will help you if you have a problem or misunderstanding at your school. The EPIK program provides little or no support once you are sent to your school.
Making an effort to learn the Korean language was helpful to me in developing relationships with teachers and students. It also proved to be an aid in teaching English, as I was able to understand the process and the difficulties involved in learning a language. Knowing some of the language is also helpful in accomplishing simple everyday activities such as taking the bus or shopping. Moreover, understanding the language is also helpful in adapting to Korean culture and Korean ways of doing things.
Adjusting to the Korean style management is often difficult for foreign teachers, as it tends to be very hierarchical and emphasizes process rather than results. The signed EPIK contract is often adjusted to the situation of the school or the needs of its principal. For example, although according to the EPIK contract I am supposed to be an assistant to the Korean English teacher, sometimes my Korean co-teachers have not come to class and I have found myself alone in a classroom full of students with little or no English communicative ability. This situation can be very stressful and dealing with this problem requires assistance from the people you are close to at the school.
Relationships are power in Korea. A relaxed approach to the contract has its benefits as I have found myself with a lot more holidays than what is laid out in the contract. In general, almost all applicants find themselves with more holidays than what is provided for in the contract, and there are many days when students are taking tests or on school trips and you find yourself not having to teach.
Although the program has improved overall since the first time I arrived in 1997, there are still many problems that need to be addressed. I have seen many good teachers leave because of simple misunderstandings in communication that made little problems into big problems.
New teachers with little or no experience in teaching or dealing with Korean culture are often just thrown into schools with little preparation. This results in a high turnover of teachers in the program and causes stress for many Korean English teachers. Better support and training for both Korean and Foreign teachers is needed for the long-term success of the program and for the retention of teachers.
In conclusion, the EPIK program is not for everybody, especially if you get discouraged easily. When considering the program, one must be prepared to deal with the numerous problems and misunderstandings that might arise at school. Teachers must also be prepared to put an effort into developing relationships and understanding the Korean way of doing things.
Since the EPIK program consistently fails to prepare new teachers adequately, candidates that do some research about living in Korea and learn some of the language before arriving are likely to have a better chance of successfully adapting to the Korean way of life. Teaching English with the EPIK program can be very rewarding and a great learning experience if you are patient and well prepared.
Juian Screawn is from Winnipeg, Canada and teaches elementary grades in Jeju-si.
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