Tharp On: Teaching



For all the English teachers out there —feeling loftly about the good work you are doing enlightening young minds— your compatriot Chris Tharp, would like to have a few words with you.


BUSAN, South Korea -- I recently sat down to a very important lunch with the president of our college. He’s a beaming, gregarious man with the air of a diplomat—all smiles and handshakes—befitting a man of his station. Throughout the meal he held court, while the rest of us—both Western and Japanese instructors—listened attentively as he breezed through a variety of topics such as student ability, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the role of Girls’ Generation and Psy as ambassadors for the Korean brand. He then switched to technology:

“Have you heard about these new computer translators? They’re going to be amazing. Things are moving ahead at a rapid pace.”

We all smiled, nodded and slurped up the milky remnants of our beef collagen soup.

“In ten years,” he continued, “these translators will work perfectly. They’re already getting close. There will be no need for native speaker teachers. You will be obsolete!” He laughed for effect, as if delivering the punch line of a joke that he’d been sharpening for years. We nervously joined in turn.

Are we really that expendable? I thought, choking down the salty broth now caught up in my throat. As I glanced around the table and met the nervous eyes of the other teachers, I could see that we all were thinking the exact same thing.

“This is all a few years off.” His tone now grew serious. “In the meantime, I’m sorry to announce that you are all being replaced by Filipino robots.”

*    *    *

Like many of you reading this, I work as an English teacher. This is an occupation that, other than learning the language from birth and speaking it daily, I had no special training for. In fact, on my first day in Korea, just fifteen minutes into my shift, I was handed a bright purple textbook (Tiny Talk 3A) and thrust into a classroom packed with sadistic kindergartners. My boss just grinned through instant coffee-stained teeth and said, “Teach.”

This, along with his best attempt at a thumbs-up, was my prep. The kids—painfully cute piranhas with black, bowl cut heads—eviscerated me. I felt like a bleeding deer attempting to cross a tributary of the Amazon: There was no way I was making it to the other side without being eaten alive.


And while I can admit to enjoying my work at times, the fact that basically anyone can do it makes me wither inside. I am, in fact, a giant, pink, replaceable monkey. This reality is driven deep into my heart every time I come across some fresh-faced, straight-out-of-college kid (who could literally be my own) who just got hired for the exact same job I’ve been grinding at for years now.


Somehow, I managed to survive. Nine years and some months later, I’m still plugging away in the classroom. Admittedly, I’ve moved on up and branched out, but the lion’s share of my income still comes from drilling prepositional phrases into the heads of my students. And while I can admit to enjoying my work at times, the fact that basically anyone can do it makes me wither inside. I am, in fact, a giant, pink, replaceable monkey. My skills, what they are, are hardly unique. This reality is driven deep into my heart every time I come across some fresh-faced, straight-out-of-college kid (who could literally be my own) who just got hired for the exact same job I’ve been grinding at for years now. Whenever we meet, he gives me the bro shake, and after chewing over last week’s NFL scores, he lets me know that, “Dude! I’m a ‘professor’ too!”

Teaching English here isn’t a bad gig. Granted, no one’s going to get rich doing it, but sometimes the money can be almost stupidly good for the effort put in. Case in point: English camps—specialized sessions of English language training held during the summer and winter breaks.

I just got finished doing one of these. It was the second of my illustrious career, and despite the hefty addition to my bank account, I couldn’t help feeling dirty afterwards. Ostensibly, I was helping kids to improve their English, though deep down I knew that I’d had a hand in something wicked.

It all starts with a great lie: English Camp. How is this “camp?” There’s no sleeping in tents, and certainly no swimming; there’s no campfires or three-legged races or telling of ghost stories… none of it. The only camp I can compare it to is a concentration camp. After all, none of the “campers” were there by their own volition, and they certainly weren’t free to leave. And at least Auschwitz and Dachau were eventually liberated. Sadly, no Allied Armies will ever be busting down the gates of English Camp to free Min-kyung and Jang-ho. They may get out during the school year, but they’ll all be back next break.

It’s rather sadistic, isn’t it? Tricking kids into studying? “Hey kids, we know its vacation time, but you wanna come to camp? Get on the bus! Come on, kids, we’re gonna have fun, we promise! We’re gonna play capture the flag and eat ‘smores. That’s right, get on the bus! We’re gonna ride horses and paddle canoes and BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!! WE LIED!!! IT’S JUST MORE SCHOOL!!! ONLY ALL IN ENGLISH!!! GET OUT YOUR PENCILS!!! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!”

No wonder so many looked at me with utter, black hatred.

The hagwons, or institutes, are no different. School after school. Day in and day out. Oh the joy. And we, the English teachers, are all willing participants in this—a system that is robbing generations of children of their childhoods. We gladly profit from it and use the proceeds to buy Jagerbombs and finance our trips to India. We are cogs on the wheel of linguistic oppression, accomplices in what is nothing short of an educational atrocity.

Someday we just may be called to answer for our sins. One day, an English camp I’m working just may liberated. I’ll be arrested and brought before the tribunal. What could I possibly have to say in my own defense?

“It… it… it wasn’t me! I’m innocent!! It was Sunny Teacher!!! She made me do it!!! It was all her… I swear on it… I… I WAS JUST FOLLOWING ORDERS!!!”



You can get Chris Tharp's book Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea on Amazon or Whatthebook.com

Tharp's Blog: Homely Planet


Illustration by Michael Roy. See more of his work at: cargocollective.com



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