Renewing is not what I expected it to be

People typically share only the happy parts of their lives in public, especially on social media. In the Fulbright Korea community, this has actually been a point of contention (this year); the first time our entire cohort gathered at fall conference, the realization many people had was: Wow. So I’m not the only one who’s struggling.

It seems silly, but after being bombarded with Facebook posts about how much your friends love their students, how much candy they receive, all the touching moments they experience…well, it’s easy to see how someone might become bitter. It’s why Ms. Shim repeatedly tried to instill in us her “Don’t compare” mantra.

I’m setting all this up to say…this isn’t one of those happy moment posts. Because there’s value in reading about the positives AND negatives of an experience, and because I simply haven’t been successful in writing about happier things lately.

I started a post on how I actually like my after-school class, even though it means I have to stay at school until 8:10pm two nights a week…but then felt so exhausted this past week that I dreaded going to class just as much as I did at the beginning of the year. I couldn’t find it in myself to then do a complete turnaround and write about how much I love the class.

Likewise, other happier things, like sports day and a cousin’s wedding, have all been overshadowed by one recent, overwhelming thing. Lately, I’ve spent all my emotional energy on renewing. Otherwise known as trying to figure out what I’m going to do next year. (Funny, isn’t this exactly what I was saying a year ago?)

This year I’d already decided to renew. I thought it was all settled. However, there have been a lot of changes in the Fulbright Korea program, which means a lot of my expectations simply won’t be met.

I had a particular image of what it’d be like to be a renewee. I’d be more confident (as one lovely ETA put it, I’ll have twice as much teaching experience/be twice as experienced by the end of this year). Of course I wouldn’t have it all figured out, but I’d know how to manage my classes on most days, be able to finish lesson plans faster, and have mastered the little challenges that inevitably arise when living in a foreign country. And I’d always thought that one of the biggest benefits of renewing would be the option the remain at your current school, building on your relationships with students and teachers, able to start your next year with a few drops of well-earned respect instead of an empty glass. But as you might have deduced by now, this is will not be my renewee experience.

In my last post about renewing, I also wasn’t expecting to renew at my school, but for a brief time in between these two posts, I was. My school received news that the Gyeongsangnam-do (Provincial) Office of Education would provide funding for a foreign teacher at Gimhae Jeil next year! The English department chair told me the news excitedly; other English teachers told me how great it was that I could stay. I shared their enthusiasm, but when my department chair asked me privately if I was 100% sure I wanted to stay at this school, I said I wasn’t. 95% was what I’d told my homestay family, who was also willing to host me for another year. But foolishly I held out, waiting to see if Fulbright could offer me a school in Busan.

Fast forward, and I’m back where I started. Once again, I’m coming to accept that I can’t renew at my school. But it’s harder the second time, after having hopes handed to me, then taken away. It’s harder knowing my school will still hire a Fulbright ETA, but only a first year. Although a coteacher who is concerned for me has been told that nothing is certain, this seems to be the case for too many things. In Korea, sometimes “maybe you should” means you definitely should, or “we must go to the meeting” means everyone is turning a blind eye as we remain firmly planted at our desks. So maybe the “maybe” in my case means I really might be able to stay…or maybe it’s just a way of softening the “you can’t stay here” that follows. All I can say with certainty is that trying to figure out which one is applies is a waste of energy.

And since this topic has drained all my energy, I’ll end this post with a few short points that might fill in some blanks.

  1. This year, the Fulbright Korea office is making an extra effort to find homestays for all first-year ETAs – something didn’t happen this year and was, in some cases, disastrous.
  1. Because homestays are getting more difficult to find, and some schools are known for always having provided homestays, Fulbright is trying to save these schools for first years. Among these schools is my current school and the only currently-available school in Busan. Unfortunately these were my top (and only) preferences.
  1. The Fulbright office would prefer it if I voluntarily moved to an elementary school in Seoul and stayed in an apartment instead of a homestay.
  1. I can adapt to an apartment, although it would hinder my ability to save as much for grad school.
  1. I can adapt to Seoul or any other location, now that it seems impossible to be placed in the area I wanted.
  1. The one thing I really didn’t want to compromise was my school level (high school). After working so hard to figure out high school, and (so far) still planning on going into academia, I want so badly to stay in high school or move to a university (a few positions are available, even for teachers without a Masters).
  1. South Korea has made serious cuts and changes to its foreign English teacher programs. Many of these jobs have shifted to elementary schools and it seems very likely that that’s where I’ll be.

As of now, I am renewing with Fulbright, but a lot more grudgingly than I expected. I want to be in Korea for another year, and for the most part, I like teaching and would welcome more experience. However, there are many programs other than Fulbright. Conditions may vary, but I wouldn’t discount these (not even EPIK, despite being indoctrinated otherwise). If I’d had more time to do my research this year, I easily might have chosen to go with another program. If I planned to pursue a career in English education, I’d switch over to GNET (Gimhae’s native English teacher program) in a heartbeat. But that’s not the plan. Teaching English abroad is still an in-between, temporary stage of my life, and so I’ll transition seamlessly from this year into the next, once again ignorant of what that year will hold.

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