Before I could settle into my apartment in the Korean city of Daegu, I and everyone else employed by Chungdahm Learning had to undergo a rigorous week of training at Chungdahm Headquarters in Seoul. First let me explain what exactly Chungdahm is. In Korea it’s called a hagwon (학원), a private institute that can specialize in any number of things, including math, science, English, music, taekwondo, art, and test prep. Kids go to these institutions after their normal school hours and can attend several in the same day. The result is that most kids are in school for up to 12 or 13 hours a day, an idea that would make most Westerners, including myself, cringe. And now I'll be part of it! Woohoo.
Chungdahm Learning is one of the more professional Korean hagwons that has branches all over the country and therefore requires training for all of its new teachers. Honestly it makes a lot of sense considering that we don’t need a TEFL certificate or an education degree of any kind—only a college degree. Many of the smaller, more local hagwons just hand their new teachers a textbook and say, “Here. Teach this.” Not so with Chungdahm. It’s all incredibly structured, or at least Headquarters wants you to believe it is.
Anyway, on to my training week.
It was a lot of work, I’m not going to lie. When I heard I’d be finished around noon every day, I thought, “Great! I can use the rest of the day to explore Seoul.” Not true. On the first day we were divided into 2-5-person classes depending on which levels/age groups we would be teaching. Our trainers then proceeded to dump a truckload of introductory information onto us, with the result that we were all a bit frazzled by the end of the first session. (The jet lag didn’t help.) We were then driven to a clinic for the most extensive medical examination I’ve ever undergone. I won’t bore you with the details, but after all was said and done, it took 2 and 1/2 hours of waiting and being directed to this floor or that room or this couch before we were finally released and could EAT again. (We'd been instructed not to eat anything since the morning or even the night before).
We spent our afternoons and evenings watching and taking quizzes over online videos of a model ESL instructor teaching perfectly well-behaved Korean student-actors—a somewhat unrealistic example of how we should conduct our own lessons. We then had to prepare mock lessons for the next day of training. This whole process took literally hours every day. By the end of the week I was definitely sleep-deprived, partly due to waking up too early because of jet lag.
The main chunk of the in-class training consisted of us taking turns mocking different sections of each lesson and then receiving feedback from our classmates and our trainer. That meant our classmates had to pretend to be little Korean children, which is weird in itself…though I’ll admit it was kind of fun when we had to act like problem students in the middle of someone else’s lesson. Yes, even a goody-goody like me can enjoy being troublesome sometimes.
And finally, Friday: the day of judgment that would determine if we would graduate from training and move on to our various Chungdahm branches. After a short informational exam, we all conducted a series of the mock lessons we’d been practicing all week, this time with no feedback in between. Of course we were all nervous—what if we didn’t pass? Would we be sent back home like this guy? I myself felt pretty confident about my performance, although at the end our trainers refused to tell us if we had all passed or not.
My fellow trainees and I were standing around chatting nervously afterwards when a man came up to me and pulled me into a side room. With a solemn face, he said, “I’m sorry, but Headquarters told me you didn’t pass.”
I thought he was joking. Maybe Ashton Kutcher would jump out of the corner and shout, “You’ve been punk’d!” But he didn’t, and the man didn’t change his expression.
“What? Why?” was all I could say in disbelief. The man insisted he hadn’t been given any further information, but that I would still be sent to my school in Daegu; I’d just be “on probation” for a while first. No, he didn’t know what that would entail. And so he left me in a daze, still convinced that there had to have been a mistake.
Of course it was a blow to my self-esteem. The only other thing I can think of failing was my first driver’s test (shhh, don’t tell anyone). I guess it helped to know that a few others hadn’t passed either and were also being sent to their schools regardless, but still. It didn't feel good.
But before I got too dispirited, I realized "You know what? I’m still in Korea. I’m not being kicked out of the country, I’m still going to be a teacher just like everyone else, and I know my abilities will only improve as I go on." I've also been assured that some people who initially don’t pass end up being very good teachers later on, once they’re actually standing in front of kids and not just adults playing dumb.
I've decided that I’m going to make this a good year no matter what, and I’ve already put the outcome of that week behind me. And in the meantime, I met some really awesome fellow trainees from all over the world, all with different backgrounds, experiences, and accents that make it really amusing when we’re all in a room together. Some of them were from the US, from Canada (so many Canadians here!), from England, even from New Zealand—and they all made my training week one that I wouldn’t give up even if I could.