English Language Fellowship: The Paper Side

I gave no small amount of thought into how to organize this 10 month long process from application to arrival. It’s a lot, both in terms of time and in details. I’ve started with a division between the paper and the people, and I’m hoping to get some of the orientation and training process recorded as well. It’s been a long time since I wrote a bureaucracy post, but it is a tradition here. I hope that reading about it is more fun than doing it, that it sheds some light on what goes on behind the scenes of a glamorous globetrotting life, and that it might help anyone in the future who is struggling to navigate a similar sea of red tape.

Application Process:

I was doing general job searches over the winter break, you can read about my decision to leave Korea in the “안녕히계세요 Korea” series. Most of the world starts the school year in the fall, so if I wanted to transition out of Korea, I would need to start looking in the winter/spring, and even though most schools only hire a few months in advance, looking for work over the winter gave me a sense of control my life was sorely lacking.

In January, I saw the ad for the English Language Fellowship and vaguely remembered trying to apply for it years ago. Back in 2015, I didn’t realize it was a program for more experienced English teachers, I had only 2 years of experience back then, so I wasn’t quite eligible yet. In January 2022, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had committed to applying to any position that was cooler than my current one. I was on winter break, so a lengthy and detailed application process was not as daunting as it might have been during classes.

The online application process is fairly similar to most in that you have to enter all your information, and relevant work history and skills. It’s a little different in the amount of detail you are expected to provide, including that each skill you claim requires specific examples. There are also a lot of essays. It more resembles an application for an academic program than for a job, which makes sense. In addition to the statement of purpose, you have to answer essay questions with specific examples from your past about:

  • work ethic
  • flexibility
  • judgement
  • classroom management

It’s a lot of writing, which as you may guess wasn’t too onerous for me, but the really hard part was that I had to get my three references (at least one from my current job) to log into the portal and write their recommendations directly into the application (the program sends them a link via email, but I did personal outreach before adding them to the mailing list). It was awkward to contact my current team leader and break the news that I was looking to leave by asking for a recommendation. Thankfully, he thought it was a great opportunity and was very quick to get his positive assessment in.

Recommendations

In my early working life (age 16-25) I didn’t encounter letters of recommendation. Every job application had a space for references contact information, but I didn’t really see behind the curtain of what went on during those phone calls. Later, I was introduced to the concept of letters of recommendation. The way I was taught was that I request a letter when I’m leaving a job or school and then keep it on file for future applications. I didn’t start getting them at all until I was applying for grad school, after which I tried to remember to ask at the end of a job or project because it’s really hard to get one years later. I was also told that it’s common practice to write the letter about myself that they would then sign. All of this was very intimidating to young me, and it took me years to get decent at asking for letters and writing them for myself and for other people.

This was the first time I encountered an application that wouldn’t even be considered until all three references responded with essay answers containing unique and specific details about me (basically the same questions I had to write essays about) with real world examples. It’s a lot to ask for a reference. One of the original three people I asked wasn’t up to it when she realized how different it was from a regular letter, and so I had to find a back-up. I’m really grateful to the people who were willing to put in the work for me, especially after I realized how much work it actually was! If I could do it again, I’d offer to help them brainstorm examples. Many people who give references may think they need to keep them private from the applicant, but if you can co-author your reference, I think it will help you get what you need and be a little easier on the person you are asking to help you.

I suspect part of the reason they want these three detailed reference essays is because this fellowship requires a certain amount of networking, and relying on other people (inspiring other people to be willing to do things on your behalf). I had always hated the idea that my goals or even survival could depend on other people (who might flake out or stab me in the back), but I know now that is just the voice of my past trauma. Humans are team-based social creatures and our ability to thrive depends on our social connections. The fact that I succeeded in getting three wonderful, talented, and accomplished people to want to take the time and effort to write nice things about me and our work together so that I could partake in this opportunity shows me how far I’ve come and how much I mean to others.

Almost immediately after my last reference was completed, I got an invitation to my first interview and was subsequently placed in the applicant pool by early February. I was told my match and second interview could happen anytime from 1 week to 6 months, and in the mean time, there was more paperwork.

NOTE: If you’re interested in applying, the 2023-24 academic year application process opened in September: https://elprograms.org/fellow-program/

Health Verification Part 1:

One of the other complicated piles of paperwork participants have to complete is the Health Verification Form or HVF, and it must be done under the care of a physician. They need to make sure that everyone going is healthy enough to live in a place with … intermittently reliable healthcare. Although I personally think Americans have an incorrect perception of the quality of healthcare abroad, believing it to be substandard or inferior when actually it’s just cheaper, there is something to be said for the fact that in some cases, fellows will go to remote locations that are far from urban centers and hospitals. In addition, very few countries offer the disability and mobility accommodations that America is required to have by law.

None of this is to say that people with extra health care needs or disabilities can’t or shouldn’t travel. I think everyone should travel. There are lots of places you can visit with good, reliable, cheap healthcare, though mobility may require a companion to help navigate difficult spaces. They just don’t want the liability of sending someone with known severe health issues that could result in hospitalization or death if they are unable to receive the same level of care that would have access to with comparable insurance within America.

In addition, the form has to be completed within 15 days of when you receive your official offer, which I had not yet, and would not until I had a match and my second interview and was accepted by the local coordinator of the program. For people in the US, this would be fairly easy. I looked at the sample form and although it’s rather long, most of it is medical history and personal planning. There’s a short part that is an actual exam. The exam is comprehensive (full body) but basic (no blood work or other bodily samples involved, unlike many visa health checks). In America, I could imagine just going in to my GPs office and discussing the history and plan, then getting a quick once over and a sign off. Two weeks is not unreasonable.

Korean Mode Bureaucracy Challenge:

In Korea, there are no GPs. Once every year or two (depending on your job and health plan) you get a full body work up for free! You go to the testing center and it’s like 8 doctors all in one area so you all the preventative medicine checks at once (really, everything). Then if there’s an abnormality in your results, they tell you what kind of doctor you need to see to follow up. In between these work ups, if you have a problem that you need a doctor for, you go directly from the reception desk to the specialist that the intake nurse thinks best fits your reported symptoms. If your back and your knee hurt, you’re likely going to see two different doctors. The good news is they are all right there together and it’s very easy to go between doctors and testing facilities in one visit. The bad news is that no one doctor was likely to file this whole body form.

I knew it was going to take me longer than the allotted time to find a place I could go, so I started the hunt early. I also made a much more comprehensive version of the history and plan than I would have done with an American doctor, since I knew the Korean doctor was unlikely to be comfortable with writing that much English themselves, and I wanted to offer something they could cut and paste, editing as needed. Most places that spoke enough English to take on a form like this flat up said no. A couple places said they could do it, but that it would be billed as a pre-employment health screening, which included a ton of tests and scans that I didn’t need, bringing the price tag up to about 500$ (which is crazy in Korea). One hospital in Seoul said they could do it for less, but still about 200$. I was feeling really disheartened. I knew in the US this would be a 25$ co-pay for other applicants and it just felt like such an extreme barrier.

At the end of February, I got a reply from a nurse in the International Office of Hyoseong Hospital in Daegu. When I arranged to talk with her on the phone, I was so relieved to learn that this hospital had many accommodations for foreigners due to the fact that they worked closely with the US military in the area. I emailed her a copy of the form and a few days later she said not only could they do it, but that it would be cost of a regular doctor visit (10-20$) or at the absolute most 40$ if the doctor decided he needed to run any extra tests. I also talked to her about the time requirements and that I would need the form within two weeks of an as yet unknown date sometime in the next couple of months. She said she would make a note about my situation so that she could remember the details when I called back at go time.

The Intake Paperwork, Georgetown U, and the Portal:

After rounds of waiting and interviewing and more waiting, I got my official offer on May 5th and the race was on to file all the paperwork. The PORTAL is the central data collection for everything you need to be a fellow. The first “step” is the onboarding to-do list. Some of the items on this list are fast and easy like your contact information, others like the Health Verification form and the Supplier ID require multiple steps in and of themselves. I had check off everything you see here to get my agreement finalized. The visa remains unchecked because at the time I took this screenshot, I was still waiting to get mine, although I really hope that by the time this pre-scheduled post drops, I have it. Most of this isn’t actually difficult, it’s just tedious, but I had one major hurdle to jump.

Getting the HVF

When I got my official offer on May 5th, and my acceptance package on May 7th which started the 15 (business days) countdown. I realize they sent the email on their Friday 6th, but Korea is in the future, so I couldn’t do anything about it. I contacted the nurse at Hyoseong the following Monday 9. Then it transpired that the nurse I needed to help me was in COVID quarantine! (She was not too sick, but couldn’t go into the office with a positive test). I had to wait until Monday 16 to try again. On top of that, my school had scheduled me in such a way that it was impossible for me to get to a hospital in another city without cancelling and rescheduling at least one class, limiting the possible days of the week I could hope to go. I got an appointment for Friday 20 (the easiest class to reschedule) which would just give me enough time for a re-do the following week if anything went wrong.

Thankfully, I’d done all my prep work months before and I was able to copy and paste my answers into the form and print off some hard copies for the doctor to sign. Once I arrived, the nurse did most of the work (as nurses so often do), making sure the information I couldn’t write in advance was added in and double checking some details. Then she went off to talk to the doctor while I sat in the waiting room. When I went in to see the doctor, he asked me a couple of basic health questions, offered to refill my inhaler, and signed off. Months of stress, and it was the easiest thing. I know if I’d shown up with a blank form, it would not have been so easy, but one of the many knots of low grade anxiety in my guts unwound a little.

The Visa

While I didn’t need to have my visa in hand to complete the onboarding checklist, I did have to know the visa requirements to enter Senegal. While everything with the hospital was going on, I also contacted the Senegalese Embassies in DC and in Seoul. There was confusion about the visa process and requirements. I didn’t need a work visa, since I would not be working for a Senegalese company, but was it a business visa? or something else? Online research turned up a very complex process that required piles paperwork, a French translation of my birth certificate, and regular in person renewals for a residency permit that would be granted after I arrived, but that seemed like something for immigrants, people moving to Senegal. Americans can visit Senegal for up to 90 days with no visa, and there’s student and work visas, but none of that applied to me.

I explained to the Senegalese embassy here in Korea that I was American (not Korean) and needed a visa, but they informed me that it wasn’t possible to get the visa in advance. It took me longer to get in touch with someone from the DC embassy, but when I did, she was very helpful and once she understood my situation, said that I could get a 1 year visa in advance and helped me get a list of all the documents I’d need and where to send it. At the time of writing this (August), I’m still in in Korea and won’t be able to ship off my passport to DC until after I arrive in the US in September. Hopefully, by the time this publishes, I’ll have good news on the visa front.

Wrapping Up the Pre-Departure Paperwork

I got my supplier ID accepted on May 19, my HVF form approved on May 24, and my completed onboarding accepted June 4, the same day I received pre-departure orientation schedule.

June 10 was the day I finally let myself believe it was real, and that the bureaucracy was safely appeased and declined my simultaneous job offer (yes, I was so nervous I would be rejected on technical grounds, new COVID spike, or other bureaucratic nightmare that I was still entertaining other opportunities even after I got the offer). I still didn’t have my actual contract/agreement in early June, but that was the day I finally jumped with both feet. Is there a story here? Why yes, there is, thanks for asking, but it’s in the “people” part of this series.

June 25 was the day I got my agreement to print, sign, and scan, but an internet glitch meant that instead of sending, my return email went into drafts and it wasn’t until after the deadline that the office sent me a reminder. Thankfully they understand about computer error (or at least accepted my excuse) and my final signed agreement was added to my PORTAL on July 6.

Some Thoughts:

Just about 7 months after I first decided to apply, and 3 months before I was scheduled to arrive, the Starter Pack Bureaucracy was finally complete. There is plenty more paperwork to look forward to. No government funded project could possibly avoid it, but it makes me pointedly aware of the privileged position I’m in. It wasn’t that long ago in my life that the idea of spending 7 months to prepare for a job would have been unthinkable. The closest experience I had was applying to grad school, which I had to do about 9-10 months in advance of the fall semester, but as difficult as that application was at the time, it was basic compared to this and took far fewer overall hours. My application process to get into Saudi was challenging, especially that visa, but it also wasn’t as long or as many hours. My process to get into Korea was the closest in terms of complexity, but took less time (by more than half).

I had stable if undesirable job all of those times. I made the application process into something between homework and a really boring hobby. But how often is someone in the position where they can financially afford to wait 7-10 months from when they apply to when they start? How many people can be working full time and dedicate the needed hours and brainpower to complete pages and pages of complex and detailed essays and forms? How many people can have a good enough job to give them the financial and mental stability to do all this, while also being able to leave that job for 1-2 years or forever?

In order to apply for, get, and participate in this fellowship, a person has to have education, experience, financial stability, a good professional network, decently good health, and a reasonable expectation that they won’t lose all of that after 1-2 years in another country. When I think back to the version of myself that stood in line at the food bank in order to eat, who almost ended up living in her car when she lost her home (but for the grace of some friends with an attic), who struggled to keep a bank balance out of overdraft and didn’t always succeed… it seems so unreal that I came from that and arrived here. I feel shocked and amazed, surprised and lucky. I can’t even really make sense of it yet, I just know I need to recognize that this is rare and amazing, and I didn’t get here alone. Gratitude.



English Language Fellowship: I’m In!

I am pleased to share with you that I have been selected by U.S. Department of State for a prestigious English Language Teaching Fellowship, and on October 11, 2022, I will start my 10-month fellowship project training teachers and teaching English in Dakar, Senegal at Ecole Inter-Etats des Sciences et Medecine Veterinaire as one of only 200 U.S. citizens chosen to travel to over 80 countries for the 2022-2023 English Language Fellow Program.  The program enables Fellows to enact meaningful and sustainable changes in the way that English is taught abroad, and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) with funding provided by the U.S. government. Fellows work directly with local teachers, students, and educational professionals to improve the quality of English language instruction offered at prestigious universities and other academic institutions.

Since 1969, the English Language Fellow Program has sent thousands of TESOL scholars and educators abroad to promote English language learning, enhance English teaching capacity, and foster mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries through cultural exchange. On assignment, Fellows teach English, conduct teacher training, develop resources, and organize events and conferences. These projects are challenging and the teachers selected represent the best of the U.S. TESOL community. In return, the program provides professional development opportunities to help participants experience different cultures and build skills that can greatly enhance their TESOL careers.

This is a program of the U.S. Department of State, administered by Georgetown University, Center for Intercultural Education and Development. For further information about the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State, please visit their website, contact them by telephone at 202-632-6452, or e-mail ECA-Press@state.gov.

And if that sounds like a press release, it’s because it is! Formalities aside, I am extremely excited. The English Language Fellowship mini-series will start with stories about my application process, interviews, and pre-departure training and prep. After that, I hope to have plenty of posts about Life in Dakar starting in mid-late October once I’m settled in and get the Wi-Fi rolling.

Welcome to the next adventure!!!

The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk

This remains one of my favorite books for trauma recovery. I read it right after CPTSD: Surviving to Thriving, so close that they seemed like one big book. I finally had a chance to re-read it almost a year later. Those wait times at the public library are intense, but I guess I’m glad so many people are reading this kind of book, especially during COVID. This book currently lives in my top 5 list for therapy books, and I highly recommend reading them together like I did, as they are very complementary. This post is very long because this book is very full of important ideas. I hope you stick with it.

Bessel van der Kolk is a very accomplished and experienced psychiatrist and researcher in the area of trauma. He started working with Vietnam veterans in the 1970s (before PTSD was a known diagnosis) and has been instrumental in hundred of studies and research projects to better understand the impact of both single traumatic events and long term traumatic exposure. His work with war veterans led him to understand how childhood trauma was both similar and different from combat trauma, and he has been vital to the understanding of CPTSD. He is an expert the experts defer to. “The Body” was published in 2014, so it’s fairly up to date as far as technology and research techniques described.

This post is so much longer than other book reviews because the book itself covers so much. It tells the history of understanding and treatment of trauma. It explains the scientific studies used to advance that understanding and treatment. It addresses the social, political, and economic barriers to the study, understanding, and treatment. It shares case studies of individuals suffering from and recovering from trauma. It shares statistics of the staggering number of people who have been traumatized in one way or another in life. It addresses the critical link between “mind, brain, and body” in how trauma affects us and how we heal from it. And it looks into a range of treatment options, explaining how and why they work, or don’t. Yet somehow, Van der Kolk does all of this in a casual and personal narrative style that carries the reader through his life’s work in a compelling and interesting way.

Just My Highlights

There’s no way for me to even try to summarize everything that Van der Kolk talks about here. I won’t do it justice. I stress again how worthwhile a read this is for everyone. Understanding trauma and the historical, social, and political context of cycles of abuse is the only way we will ever make changes. There some standout points that I want to zero in on for my review, and some opinions I’m squeezing in because this might be my last therapy book review post.

The Historical Cycle of Trauma and Suppression

Hysteria and Sexual Abuse

In the mid-late 1800’s some ‘scientists’ named Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet were studying hysteria. Although a lot of the people diagnosed with hysteria were women, there were also cases of “hysterical blindness”, “hysterical paralysis”, memory loss, and a host of strange behaviors that occurred in people across the gender/age spectrum. At first, Charcot was looking for a physical cause, but when he was unable to find one, he turned to hypnosis, and came to the conclusion that all these problems were being caused by the repressed memory of traumatic events.

Freud came along and got really into finding out what those traumatic events were and got deep into talk therapy, actually listening to his clients (not something doctors had done before). He determined that the young women suffering in this way were all suffering as a result of sexual abuse at the hands of an older male relative. He thought he had a great breakthrough, until he realized that it would mean that a huge number of the well respected men in Vienna would be guilty of raping their daughters and nieces, including his own father. He thought that maybe the promiscuous FRENCH could be doing that, but he just couldn’t countenance that his own Viennese men could be doing the same. He backpedaled and changed his theory, placing the blame on the girls as “seducers” of their fathers and uncles.

World War I & Shell Shock

Then a few short years later, as WW1 came around, and there were British soldiers having weird symptoms after battle. The term “shell shock” was coined and some scant treatment began. However, as the tide of the war shifted against the British, the top brass decided that “shell shock” was just a coward’s excuse. That “real men” don’t break down from a little light war trauma, and they banned the use of the word in any documents. Some soldiers were arrested, imprisoned and even executed because they had trauma that no one in charge wanted to believe in.

There were plenty of doctors pleading to be allowed to study and treat it, but the gag order was politically expedient to win the war. Another generation was blamed for exhibiting symptoms of trauma that those in power had caused. In America, the WW1 vets had it a little better for a brief moment. They were temporarily greeted as heroes and awarded combat bonuses, the money to be given as a delayed payout. When the depression hit, the veterans rallied in DC to ask for their bonuses so they could afford housing and food. The police and army were sent in to scatter them and burn their camps. Congress voted to never give the vets their money, and they were left to fend for themselves as a new crop of young men were lined up for the slaughter of the next big war.

World War II, Vietnam & PTSD

WW2 of course went through just about the same thing. Suddenly “shell shock” was rediscovered to be real. It was even treated for a hot minute before being dismissed again when the reality of the extreme damage being done to a generation of people in the name of war turned out to be too big a price tag for the law-makers at home. Generals and politicians would much rather believe that men and women are faking it, or fragile, or damaged in some way that the leadership cannot be held accountable for. It wasn’t until the Vietnam veterans came back that we finally started to see a break the cycle of discover and repress. PTSD is now a well recognized condition, but the battle isn’t over. It’s currently recognized almost exclusively for combat veterans, with some exceptions for civilians in war, major catastrophes like the 9-11 building collapses, or devastating natural disasters.

Van der Kolk and his associates, however, found that trauma comes far more frequently and affects far more people than this commonly accepted understanding of PTSD can encompass. In addition, the results of ongoing or repeated trauma, of childhood trauma, or of sexual trauma may have many similarities to PTSD as described in the DSM, but it’s not 100% the same and more importantly, the treatments are not equally effective. These discoveries led doctors like Van der Kolk to advocate for a new diagnoses in the DSM:  Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS) aka Complex-PTSD, or CPTSD for short.

The DSM is BROKEN

What is the DSM? Some of you may know it well, others may be totally confused. DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and it’s the big book of Mental Health. Doctors and insurance companies use the DSM for diagnosis and treatment, but in America anyway, more importantly MONEY. Insurance will not cover a diagnosis or treatment that is not listed in the DSM. This gets tangled up very quickly, because when health and money meet in a room, health loses every time. I can’t even scratch the surface of everything that is wrong with the American DSM model, but in regards to PTSD and CPTSD the main problem is that they are NOT the same.

Multiple studies have shown over and over that they are not the same, and that treatments for one do not work for the other (or may work, but less effectively). As a result of this, people who are suffering from prolonged traumatic exposure get diagnosed with: ADD, ADHD, GAD/anxiety, depression, bipolar, BPD/borderline personality, anorexia, bulimia, OCD, alcoholism, drug addiction, and a bunch of other acronyms because the doctor is trying to address their symptoms in a way that fits the DSM. The best case scenario is that they do this because they know the insurance won’t pay for it if it doesn’t match the book. The worst case is that they simply do not believe any diagnosis not in the book is real.

DSM 5 Defines Trauma

I did some extra reading about the DSM, since van der Kolk only mentions the failed attempt to get CPTSD into the DSM 4 in 1994, and we are currently on DSM 5. I wanted to know if any progress was made. The answer is unfortunately, not really… They did expand the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and added a “children under 6” category, but it’s still not going to cover most people in the CPTSD range.

What is considered “trauma” by the DSM is extremely limited : “The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence”. It fails to reflect any of the studies of long term exposure to many other types of trauma, such as the ACE study, nor has any relation coercive control style abuse.

I discovered another diagnostic manual called the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases) has added a separate category for CPTSD. The bad news is that it is very limited in scope. It still focuses on exclusively horrific traumatic circumstances where escape is unlikely, like torture, genocide, slavery, etc. “Prolonged domestic violence” is there, but not well defined. There remains no reference to the coercive control or psychological control that prohibits escape, nor of issues like systemic racism or medical trauma. In addition, it requires flashbacks (intrusive memories & images) as a symptom, which are common in PTSD, but according to most experts, not in CPTSD where emotional flashbacks (which lack a visual component) are more common.

Treating a Symptom Instead of a Cause

Without the ability to get a correct diagnosis for the underlying cause, many CPTSD sufferers are limited to receiving treatment only for their symptoms, so while these people may experience relief of symptoms while under treatment, their suffering resumes as soon as that treatment stops. Not only is this a massive healthcare disservice, but it’s contributing to a huge waste of money. Traumatized individuals are unable to function in a healthy way, and often need government resources for chronic health issues, job loss, and criminal behavior. (if you need more proof of this, read the book)

Additionally, some of what are seen as “problems” might really be “solutions” within the context of trauma. An alcoholic is not merely physically addicted to alcohol; their drinking is a self prescribed treatment to forget some pain they are unprepared to deal with or in some cases even acknowledge. The same can be true for any addiction including gambling, drugs, sex or food. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté is an excellent exploration into the traumatic roots of addiction including socially prized addictions like overworking.

Obesity is another great example of why we can’t just treat symptoms. It is a major health epidemic in modern America, but if people are overeating as a trauma response, a defense mechanism, or to self-sooth, then no diet/exercise program will ever be successful until the core wound is healed. Van der Kolk explains that many obese patients also have a history of sexual molestation, assault, or abuse. Others may have been bullied or beaten up when they were small, and may feel strong and powerful by being larger than anyone else in the room. They feel safe from future assault or abuse because of the extra weight.

Of course, most people suffering this are not consciously aware of this in the mind. They do not think “fat will protect me” as they have another scoop of ice cream. They just feel better when they eat, so they eat. When they go to a doctor for help, it should not only be about diet, exercise, or surgery, but should include a look for deeper mental health causes that lie at the root of addiction issues. The problem with that is, as long as the DSM and major health organizations refuse to recognize that systemic social problems and resultant trauma are causing all these health problems, patients will continue to be misdiagnosed, mistreated, and inevitably blamed and shamed when their incorrect treatment fails.

The Cycle Isn’t Broken

My takeaway from all of this, the history and the DSM, and stories in the book of how van der Kolk and his associates were thwarted from doing research or having that research recognized, is that we have not escaped the cycle of notice and repress. We are still as a society unwilling to recognize that parents, caretakers, leaders and other people who are supposed to love and protect us are the deep root cause of untold amounts of pain and suffering. Crime, violence, illness, and death are all linked to childhood and domestic trauma, yet we can’t even properly diagnose or treat it. We’re looking for ways to blame the victims, a faulty gene or just a lack of moral fiber, but heavens forfend we look hard at ourselves and see the damage that our blindness is causing.

So many of the books I’ve read on this journey talk about the fact that trauma is caused by what the brain perceives as a threat, not what is objectively a threat or agreed upon by society to be a threat. Limiting PTSD and CPTSD diagnoses and treatment to people who have experienced “bad enough” trauma by someone else’s standards is part of the denial and suppression cycle. Of COURSE genocide and sexual slavery are undeniably horrible. OF COURSE the people who experience that are traumatized. What Van der Kolk and many others are trying to show us is that trauma is neither rare nor limited to such obvious horrific sources — that in reality, trauma is widespread and pervasive in the world, and that it comes from places we don’t want to see.

Although the scientific and ethical advances of the last 40 years enable us to look back at the hysterical women or the shell shocked soldiers and finally recognize the injustice done to them, we are not immune to selective blindness and denial. Just like Freud could not admit his own father or other “respectable” men of the city were committing atrocities on their own daughters, just like the generals could not accept that the decision to send young men into war was dooming their minds as well as their bodies, modern society struggles to accept that parents, teachers, lovers, doctors, and bosses are responsible for traumatizing millions under their care. Being able to admit the reality should not be about blame or retribution, but rather about truth and reconciliation. Until we are willing to face the facts, millions of people will be barred from true healing, and inevitably pass their pain on by traumatizing others in continued generational cycles.

Mind, Brain, Body

The other main takeaway of this book is the way in which the brain and body interact. Van der Kolk refers to a triad of “mind, brain, and body”, which has some nice literary overtones, the rule of three is a popular way to go. It also, I think, helps people to bridge a previously unbridgeable gap between mind and body. Starting with Aristotle and made ‘accepted fact’ by Descartes, a lot of people for a large part of history have believed that the “mind” is a totally separate thing from the “body”. Despite the fact that Descartes was a philosopher and had no physical or medical evidence to support his theory, it was so pervasive in the minds of the educated men that when modern medicine made the scene, no one really thought to challenge this “accepted fact”. At most, doctors believed that while the mind may be able to exert some control over the body through conscious effort or willpower, that the feed was strictly one way. ‘Mind over matter”, right? Wrong.

Advances in Science Change Our Understanding

As the study of neurology really came into its own in the 1990s, we got to learn all kinds of amazing stuff about how the brain works. The brain is a physical organ that runs on chemical and electrical reactions and controls the body, more or less. But… it is also where the mind resides. We still haven’t found the “seat of consciousness” in the brain, because it turns out that what makes us “us” is a very complex system of electro-chemical reactions, only a very small amount of which we are aware of at any time.

Start by thinking of your “mind” as the part that does the thinking (your “self”, your autobiographical memory, your inner monologue, and such); and your “brain” as the gray stuff inside your skull that releases hormones and neurotransmitters, and handles the auto-pilot for all the organs you can’t be bothered to think about (what does a spleen actually do? Your mind doesn’t know, but your brain does); and then your body is everything else. Then you can start to see where van der Kolk is going with this triad, but it’s not really three separate things, it’s more like three concentric circles. The mind, after all, resides in the brain, and the brain resides in the body. They are connected intimately and they are inseparable, and the flow of information goes in all directions.

We think of our body as being under our mind’s control, yet, that’s barely true. You don’t control most of your organs. You can hold your breath for a bit, and control your toilet needs for a short time, but other than that, you can’t really interfere with the body’s functions. Moving my fingers along the keyboard is a conscious effort of my mind, but if there’s an unexpected loud noise while I’m working, I will flinch and look around well before I’m aware of doing so. My “mind” doesn’t make that decision, my brain and body get on about it without me.

In fact, there is a lot that happens in our bodies that affect our brains, and then in turn change the way we think. For one example, the vagus nerve is a large nerve road that leads up from the gut into the brain, but most of the information that travels along it is not sending instructions down from the brain, but instead is sending information up from the guts/abdomen/lungs/heart to the brain. Van der Kolk examines the way in which mental health issues manifest in the body, and even more cool, how engaging the body in therapeutic techniques can help to heal mental health.

The Body Manifests the Damage of the Mind

In addition to the long list of mental health issues that can result from unrecognized PTSD or CPSTD, there are a lot of body health issues that can crop up as well. We can all think of physical reactions to stress like an upset stomach, or a headache, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As the trauma goes untreated and often suppressed or ignored, the body takes up the symptoms. Thus, the name of the book: The Body Keeps the Score. Things like asthma, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, epilepsy, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are all common body reactions to long standing traumatic suffering. The ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) done with the CDC and Pfizer found that people with an ACE score of 4 or more had a much much higher incidence of all these physical health issues*. That means that the more types of trauma children suffer at home, the more likely they are to be sick as adults.

*NOTE: the ACE study is not a diagnostic tool. It was a study of trends over a population and should not be taken as an indication for any individual. Many contributing factors for trauma and recovery are not accounted for in ACE. Not all children who experience multiple ACEs will have poor outcomes, and not all children who experience no ACEs will avoid poor outcomes—a high ACEs score is simply an indicator of greater risk

I was personally struck by the chronic fatigue and pain issues because I struggled with both while I was still a teenager living in my mother’s house. In the end, I was told I had fibromyalgia: a diagnosis that is based on patient’s reported symptoms and a lack of evidence for any other clinical diagnosis. I had many other health problems while under the control of my parents that diminished as I gained independence and distance, only to return in other stressful times of my life.

It’s All In Your Mind, But Not The Way You’ve Been Told

“Psychosomatic” is a word that is far too often used as a synonym for “imaginary”, and yet, that’s not what it means. Psycho means “of the mind” and somatic “of the body” so, yes, it means that a bodily symptom is caused in the mind rather than from an outside agent like a virus, bacteria, tumor, etc. Chronic illness sufferers frequently have physical symptoms ignored, dismissed, and even been accused of making things up for attention. Far too many medical professionals are stuck in an outdated model of medicine in which the mind and body are separate, and must be treated separately, so that if no evidence of illness exists in the body, then they believe no illness exists. Have you ever told your doctor something hurts only to have them say, “well, it shouldn’t” or worse “no, it doesn’t”?

As I read this book, I began to see the connection between my original trauma, my trauma triggers, and my health issues, and I gained validation for my rejection of the idea that any of my physical issues are “all in my head” in the standard western medicine pejorative use of the phrase. I learned a new way of understanding what “in my head” really means. Van der Kolk and his associates have conducted a number of studies that demonstrate that the physical symptoms generated by traumatic stress are real, and they can be healed by addressing that trauma. It may be “in our mind”, but it’s also in our brain and in our body because those three concepts are not truly separate.

How To Heal Trauma

Professional Help

Most professionals in PTSD/CPTSD agree that it is necessary to access and integrate traumatic memories in order to heal. Up until very recently, the primary way to do this has been talk therapy: a specialist helping to guide a patient to talk about the traumatic experience and then guide them into placing it in the past. Exposure therapy and hypnosis have also been used with alternating success. Hypnosis got a bad rap for supposed “planted memories”, and that turned out to be mostly media hype, but the damage is done. Exposure therapy can work for some things, but a lot of trauma survivors end up being re-traumatized by exposure therapy, not healed. Talk therapy has the best track record, but it’s hard because you have to form a trust-based relationship with a trained therapist which takes a lot of time and money.

There are a few other therapies that need to be done by a professional that use the brain body connection. One of these is EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), it uses bicameral stimulation to help patients access traumatic memories and to integrate them into the proper context. EMDR is not hypnosis; it does not require a trusting relationship nor rely on the doctor to uncover or interpret anything, and it has a pretty good success rate with very low recidivism. It works better on PTSD than CPTSD, and better in adult onset trauma than for childhood trauma. No one really knows why the bicameral stimulation works this way. The leading theory is that it simulates a sleep state (REM) when the brain sorts memories out of the “now” bin (hippocampus) and into the “past” bin (neocortex). Memory integration is a normal function of sleep, but traumatic memories are often stuck in the “now” bin, which is why they still feel so urgent. I know the chances of it working for me are not great, but I would still like to try it if I ever get the opportunity.

Another method is neurofeedback. Using an EEG to measure brainwaves, doctors can show patients what various parts of their own brains are doing by translating the brainwaves into audio or video signals. Then the patient can learn to control certain types of brainwave activity through a kind of trial and error while getting easy to understand feedback from the music or video. Being able to hear/see our own brainwaves gives us a concrete goal to focus on and enables us to use the mind to control the brain.

The last one examined in the book is “psychodrama“, which sounds like what you go through with your crazy ex, but it’s actually a kind of theater therapy. Actors and doctors worked together to create a variety of programs to help trauma survivors process their feelings. It can give patients a way to roleplay out experiences in a safe environment, thus getting resolution to previous instances, or plan on how to handle future triggers. It can help patients find words they need to express their feelings, or it can even provide words when the patients cannot find their own. An episode of the medical drama New Amsterdam showed the hospital psychiatrist making vets with PTSD put on a performance of one of Sophocles’ plays about a soldier abandoned by the military after being wounded. It is not a medically accurate TV show, but it was cool to see psychodrama being used in pop media, and that particular play is actually used in psychodrama therapy in real life to help soldiers process feelings of loss and betrayal in therapy for PTSD.

Self-Help

The big message of this book is that our mind, brain, and body are inextricably interconnected. We can’t treat symptoms without treating the cause. In order to heal, we must heal all three together. The mind-body connection flows both ways. The mind can make the body sick, but the body can also heal the mind. If you can’t afford or even find a therapist who is knowledgeable in CPTSD or the techniques listed above, you can do body work on your own.

Body work, or somatic therapy, is a way that trauma survivors can learn to feel safe and present in our own bodies again. Things like massage, yoga, meditation, dance, or tai chi can all help a trauma survivor to re-establish a healthy mind-body connection and learn how to listen to the signals of the body again. It’s not necessary to do those activities with any particular focus on your trauma because the benefit comes from establishing a deep connection between your mind, brain, and body, and these activities on their own have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, invasive thoughts, emotional dysregulation, and executive dysfunction when done regularly over time. 

It’s hard to believe that something so simple (and free) can have such a large impact on our mental and physical health, but if you’re struggling, then it can’t hurt to try. There are tons of free YouTube videos, apps and games for the phone, and even a few gaming systems that take all the guesswork out of what to do, just follow along for 10-20 minutes at a time. A quick Google search will turn up dozens, but here are the ones I use:

Yoga: I enjoy going through this 30 day challenge because it’s a little different every day, and I don’t get bored. It’s ok to skip activities that hurt or are too hard.

Grounding/Mindfulness app: PTSD Coach was designed for veterans and is sponsored by the VA, but you don’t have to be a vet to use it. Even though it’s aimed at combat PTSD, many of the free activities are good for anyone in need of more grounding and mindfulness.

The Tripp app on Oculus Quest: I know not everyone can afford a gaming system, but if you happen to already have one in your home, this is a stunning audio-visual experience that makes daily meditation and breathing exercises a real joy.

If you’re like me, and you want to see the science behind why this works, then there’s no better place to start than this book.

안녕히계세요 Korea: The Insanity of Online Teaching

Another big reason I decided it was time to leave Korea has been my career. Before COVID broke the scene, I had already decided it was time to move on. At the time, my goal was to get into a PhD program and study the use of Global English (or English as Lingua Franca) in the classroom. I took many materials with me on holiday in January 2020, expecting 2020 to be my final year at my Korean university before moving on. What is it they say? Man plans, the gods laugh?

I like and respect my former employer, the University, and my co-workers. For the 2 years I was there before COVID, it was the first job I’d held in a long time that I had that I liked going to in the morning. I liked the freedom and support that I had there. I liked it when struggling students had breakthroughs because I helped them. I liked the challenges of updating the materials to reflect the students changing needs. I liked the way the teachers collaborated and shared materials. Sure, there were imperfections, but I had some pretty serious job satisfaction, and even though I never intended to stay quite as long as I did, my intention to leave after 2020 (a decision I made before COVID) had more to do with my own goals than anything at the school.

During COVID was a different animal. Although I know that my coworkers and the university administrative staff were doing everything they could in a difficult and unprecedented situation, it was miserable. The beginning felt like rising to a challenge, but over time, it just became an endless slog. Online teaching broke my soul, and after 5 semesters of waiting to hear “we’re going back to the classroom”, I just couldn’t take it anymore.

What Is Virtual Learning?

Virtual learning existed before COVID, but most people didn’t have much experience with it until they were suddenly trying to log into their own or their children’s classrooms in 2020. Good virtual learning programs are out there. It’s possible, though I remain skeptical, that some of them might even be for language learning. We did not use any of those at my university. As I understand it, most of the schools in the world that had no previous online course offerings before COVID floundered in a big way and did not look at previous models of successful online education as a guide. For the non-educators in the audience, here’s quick and basic overview of the main types of online learning:

1) MOOC: Massive Open Online Courses: These are basically self study. You watch the videos, read the articles, take the computer graded quizzes, participate in a “discussion forum” with other students, and if you pay for it, you get a certificate of completion at the end. This is really great for people who want to just learn about stuff on their own. It has zero guidance from a teacher, however, so if you get lost or have questions, you are limited to your peers on the discussion board. I’ve used these for career development and for personal growth, and been pretty satisfied. I would NOT recommend them for regular 4 year university students, and would shun them completely for k-12.

2) Asynchronous Learning: you and the teacher are not in sync for most of the work. Teachers prepare lessons, videos, ppts, worksheets, etc. It’s very similar to the MOOC in that you work your way through the material at your own pace (with completion goals to meet the school schedule). It’s different in that your teacher is available to you. Some asynchronous classes have scheduled video meetings with the teacher either 1-1 or in groups of various sizes, some will just be via email unless a student specifically requests a video meeting. In an ideal world, teachers also provide some feedback to the students on their assignments and evaluations, which is not an option in MOOCs.

3) Synchronous Learning: The teacher and all the students go into the same online platform together and have class together. This is my least favorite form. If you’ve ever been in a Zoom meeting with more than about 5 people, you will understand why. There are some cases where this is a great way to deliver a presentation or lecture – when there is only 1 (maybe 2) speakers at a time, and everyone else is just listening, with the occasional question in the chat box or a structured Q & A at the end. It supposedly supports “breakout rooms” for discussion or interaction in small groups, but I did not find those effective. (NOTE: some people like breakout rooms, but it’s highly dependent on the course and level. It works best when a dedicated leader is in each small group, and when the participants speak up. It works less well with language barriers when everyone in your host country is too shy to speak – eg, my situation, or if the internet is to be believed, any classroom of students between the ages of 11-30).

4) Hybrid Styles: there is no one hybrid style, it just means a mix and match. Maybe your class would be 3 times a week, so now it’s a hybrid asynchronous with 1 time a week synchronous and the rest is on your own time. Maybe you have small groups at different locations, so you live cast from one classroom into a second. When offline became an option again, my school offered a hybrid that required teachers to set up the synchronous format in a classroom on campus and simultaneously teach the students in the room, and the students online. Thankfully, someone talked the English department out of that option.

About Education in Korea

A tangled web of bureaucracy means that the Korean government doesn’t seem to have any way to prove students completed the required work for a class other than literally making sure their butts are in the seats for those hours. This goes back to some scandal of last decade where students were getting A’s even though they didn’t attend … or do the work, because of nepotism or bribery or something sinister. As an American, I hated mandatory attendance courses in college, and they were rare because mostly it wasn’t possible to pass a class you never attended. Also most American professors have no qualms about failing students who didn’t earn the grade, and hey, if you want to waste your money taking a class you could pass without going, that’s on you.

The Korean approach is quite different, largely based on the Confucian cultural standard of “it looks good on paper”. (Confucian descended cultures, those heavily influenced by China at some point, like Korea, Japan and some SE Asian countries). It is required to have certain courses or types of courses on a transcript, and better to have the higher grade for an easier class. It is insanely common for students to blow off schoolwork and then do a ritual apology and beg for a grade increase at the end and get it. In an attempt at fairness, the government resorted to attendance minimums so that at very least the students must physically put in the hours. As far as my experience goes, this just resulted in a lot of students who thought they couldn’t fail if they met the attendance requirement and were often shocked to discover actual work was also required.

The school year in Korea starts on March 1. K-12 schools have a winter break for lunar new year, but they come back in late February and seamlessly move one grade up in March. Universities tend to go on winter break (or winter class schedules for make up classes) sometime at the end of December and not come back until March. I myself only came back into Korea at the tail end of February, a plan I’d made when everything was normal. We delayed the start of the semester 2 weeks, hoping that the plague would pass (oh sweet summer child). When it became apparent that COVID wasn’t going away fast enough, my uni started online classes for “just for a couple of weeks” and hasn’t stopped since. The online classes were ported over from regular class lesson plans in a big hurry in March 2020, because it was “temporary” and “an emergency”. Imagining that it would end shortly, the school didn’t see any need to update the online methods for long term use, so I’ve been trapped in virtual class hell for 2.5 years.

Why I Got Stuck With the Worst Way

Before COVID the English classes met only once a week for 100 minutes (which is already not a great way to teach a foreign language). Even when students do have more speaking time in an offline classroom, they are often speaking with peers, and I can only listen to one pair at a time. They don’t get much of my undivided attention this way. After researching online learning styles, I decided I wanted an asynchronous style where the lesson slides and lecture would be made as a video, and the slides, book pages, examples, etc. would be available to students for download. Watch the lecture, read the download, do the homework – and then once a week meet in pairs with the teacher for 15 minutes of dedicated speaking practice. However, due to the aforementioned bureaucracy and scandal, the university would not approve of such a plan, Long story short too late, asynchronous classes were off the table.

Korea decided the only way to really make sure students were doing the work and not … I don’t know cheating or whatever, was with live synchronous online classes. Ok. We want all the students together at once, so how then do we deliver quality educational content? Do we choose a platform built for educators? Do we take advantage of any of the existing software already in use for online learning? Oh, no! We get a business platform, designed for corporate needs. It’s called WebEx, and I’m sure it’s fine for what it is, it’s a lot like Zoom. This poor decision making was by no means limited to my University or even to Korea.

A lot of classrooms at the university level are just big lecture halls where the only person who talks is the teacher. I’m also not a fan of lecture hall classes unless they are supplemented with small discussion groups. However, Korea loves passive learning even more than America, so the school probably thought it was fine for like 95% of their stuff. As it turns out, medicine, archaeology, music, art, and a few other hands on topics don’t actually do that well in a pure lecture format. Also, languages. Teaching a foreign language is unlike many other types of teaching, and requires a huge amount of student talk time. You can’t learn a language through passive listening no matter what those “learn Spanish while you sleep” CDs say. In addition, being able to see each other is crucial. Facial expressions and hand gestures make up so much of communication.

The school administration surely imagined a virtual meeting room where every student sat attentively with their cameras on, hanging on the teachers every word, and jumping in to participate in speaking activities quickly, all while the teacher wrangled the slides, the virtual whiteboard, their own camera and mic, looking at the students camera thumbnails to check if they are paying attention and comprehending, and playing tech support for every single glitch. Of course, none of that happens. Students log in from their phones in the back of taxi cabs, play video games while waiting to hear if their name is called, or just sleep. Teachers can’t possibly manage the number of plates spinning, and often have to take 2-3times longer for every single activity than planned for. Not a lot of actual education was happening.

My Online Classes: A Timeline of Deterioration

Spring 2020: A small team of English teachers (including myself) met on campus daily and tested out the software and different methods of implementing student talk time. We came up with a string and paperclips barely functional version in time to start after the two week delay. After classes started, it was impossible to teach from my computer in a shared office with other teachers talking all around me, so I taught from home, a folding tv tray across my legs in my bed because my apartment was too small to have an “office”. I was so wrapped up in COVID that it wasn’t a priority to make changes to the massively ineffective and frustrating to all education delivery system. I told myself that in the long run, it didn’t actually matter if the kids (young adults) learned any English. They were stressed out af, and not English majors. I did my best just to get us all logged in every day, and to make the required classes as painless as possible for me and my students while still meeting the university minimum requirements.

Fall 2020: I felt like I was no longer struggling just to conduct a class, but I had to adapt the fall semester courses to online. I found a day of the week where I could come into the office to do necessary work without cross talk during my class time. As teachers, we’d picked up some few helpful tricks in the first semester, but we were still struggling.

Partner conversations (a key part of language learning) could not be done in the main meeting room. We had to have mini meets, not unlike the suggestion I made for asynchronous learning, but no, I’m not bitter. These mini meets had to happen while the teacher and students remained logged into the live WebEx class which was recorded to be sure of meeting minimum educational standards. I tried multiple platforms for that, all of which had issues. At one point, I was using 2 computers and my phone just to conduct a class in which some students only had a phone, or were on a free public Wi-Fi system that choked their data and kept the voice and video functions lagging.

I felt as though I could not be a good teacher in this environment, I couldn’t catch the falling behind or accommodate the struggling. I had a disabled student enroll who had a special helper assigned by the government (a normally nice accommodation). The student was stuck in another city and the helper couldn’t log into the virtual class live from where they were, so he was entirely unable to function in the class. When I tried to speak with co-workers (both foreign and Korean) about any of these issues, no one seemed to be able or willing to work on solutions. As with many places in the world, the pandemic served to highlight pre-existing systemic issues that leave the vulnerable behind.

Spring 2021: It was supposed to be the last. The plan was in place to get public schools back in the classroom and we would surely be in lockstep. I buckled down and did my best. I was able to replace my lowest level class with the advanced course, thinking that teaching higher levels online would be better for my sanity. Mostly, that was true. The new crop of incoming students had experience with online learning and weren’t as scared and confused as those in 2020. I also moved into a nicer apartment with more sunshine and a dedicated work space. I was so sure that I’d be able to travel, and we’d be able to go back into the classroom in 2021 because the vaccine was out! Neither of those would come to pass. It was my last “good” semester.

The Teacher Becomes the Student: Over the summer, I signed up for a Korean language class online, hoping to improve my Korean, but also to experience the virtual language classroom as a student to get some perspective and ideas. It didn’t do much for my Korean skills, but it definitely helped me to understand my student’s struggles. I found the synchronous virtual classroom to be wildly difficult to learn in, and was myself often muting the sound, turning off my camera, or playing video games when the class got too boring (and I’m somewhere between Hermione Granger and Amy Santiago on a teacher’s pet scale).

The big thing I learned from the teacher was to really let go of “normal” classroom management, and be ok when we just don’t get through the material. It still makes my eye twitch when I think about that, because it is unfair to the students to be in an environment where the goal is “just get through it” instead of “learn something new”. If I had been taking that class to prepare for the TOPIK (test of proficiency in Korean) to qualify for a visa, I would have been very disappointed in the class. It’s hardly surprising that students all over the country began to experience virtual learning burnout.

Fall 2021: It all broke. The student enrollment plummeted. Students who spent their last year of high school online and were missing out on the cultural joy of first year university were disillusioned and either dropped out or took only the minimum requirements. Not just at my university, but all over the country. Classes that have less than a certain number of registered students (at that time 5) are usually dropped from the roster. I lost 5 of my 6 courses because 0-3 students were registered for each. The school tried their best to make up my required classroom hours by offering me the “language lounge”, a sort of tutoring/practice lab, but they were not able to offer enough to make up the difference, and I was told I would have to teach an extra two courses to the following semester to make up for it. I did try to get them to just deduct the money from my paycheck since I was financially ok, what with zero international travel for over a year, but they declined.

Other departments were increasing offline options. Majors which required hands on labs or used specialized equipment or travelled to locations as part of the curriculum could not fulfill their educational requirements online. It’s hard to dissect a cadaver or dig up an archaeological site from a Zoom meeting. There were also a few test that required specialized proctoring in designated locations that students were required to come to campus for. It was a struggle for the students to be in the disorganized pseudo-hybrid learning environment. They weren’t living on campus full time nor attending offline classes regularly yet, but neither could they do everything online. It required many of them to travel by bus or train to Gyeongju just one day a week or less while they lived full time in their hometown (often still with their parents and younger siblings, a big crush for a young adult who had been expecting the independence of dormitory life).

The Liberal Arts classes were not considered essential enough to receive offline dispensation, so we continued to slog by with our WebEx meetings. I only had one real class, once a week, and the rest of the time, I had what I referred to with great distain as “the Schrodinger’s classes” because I didn’t know if or how many students would come until I opened the virtual meeting room. I then had to explain Schrodinger’s cat to way too many people. I hated these so called “classes” with a burning fiery passion. Try making an hour of activities for an unknown number of students in a vague skill range when you have no idea what their actual teacher is working on this week. See how much effort you are willing to put in when over and over 0-2 people show up and don’t even have their book. Or a microphone to speak with. You may also have noticed, I didn’t post anything on the blog from the summer of 21 until the spring of 22. Dark times.

Spring 2022: While I was waiting for the semester to start (and to learn my schedule’s fate) I had a lot of anxiety about a repeat of fall 21. There had been a failure to launch “Living with Corona19” and the activity restriction level was at 4 (the highest /most restrictive) for most of the winter break. There was no way we’d be back in classrooms when we couldn’t even eat at a restaurant after 9pm! I was deeply worried about my salary and my future employment options, too. I had already been told that I couldn’t make up my missed hours over the winter course selection, and rumors abounded that the graduation rate in 2021 was lower, that the national exam (Suneung) scores were lower, and that overall expected enrollment of new students was … lower.

NOTE: Returning students have classes in Jan/Feb, 3rd year high school students – aka the graduating class – take their Suneung in mid-November and although they go back to classrooms, they are not expected to do much work since the test results will determine their university eligibility. As a result, by early December, the scores and numbers of graduating students is already known even though the school year does not end until February of the following calendar year.

Some schools were shutting down, or cutting programs. The public schools were all fully back online (with exceptions for outbreaks), but the university deemed it was too difficult to contain a spread at a school where students came from all over the country, and would engage in socially risky behavior (like partying without a mask). The existing round of contracts were not set to end until February of ’23, but if my hours were continuously docked I might not be able to afford to wait that long. My school sent out emails urging anyone who wanted to resign before the semester start to come and talk to the office.

I had zero control or input over my schedule either. It changed more than once before March 1, and continued to change for the first several weeks of the semester! The university’s federal allotment was reduced, and budget cuts ensued. The minimum number of students to keep a course was raised (from 5 to 10), and the maximum number of lounge hours was lowered. Because some majors had gone fully offline by this time, the school decided to offer a small number of face to face English courses, but I was not given any chance to volunteer for those.

In the end I was assigned 8 regular courses (my 6 contracted+ my 2 make ups) and kept only 3 due to low enrollment. I had an additional 4 online lounge hours, and 2 “in person” lounge hours each week, the later consisted of me sitting in an empty classroom for the whole time, because it was “my duty”. I know that this was a result of my admin going to bat for me and pushing to add more lounge hours so that I could get paid, and I really appreciate the way she had my back, but the whole situation was absurd. I had come full circle back to desk warming. I was not only an English Robot*, but I was a virtual English Robot. It was time to go. I turned in my 90 day notice near the end of the spring semester, my last day of classes was June 21, and my last official day of employment is August 31.

*English Robot is the term I use to describe any “teacher” whose job is primarily to stand in front of the class and be a Happy Foreigner ™, giving out set phrases in that coveted native accent. I think that it can be good for the kids to be exposed, but it’s soul sucking to the human being who has trained to be a teacher to be trapped in the role of living doll. Most of these jobs also entail mandatory hours of just existing at the school, to be seen and so they can tell the parents about how the foreign teacher is available to their precious children all day. In EPIK, they call it “desk warming”.

What’s Next?

I’m saving the details for a surprise revelation post (though some of you already know). I did find a good opportunity that will start in October, and it’s different from anything I’ve done before. The university I’ll be working with doesn’t have an English Department (yet), so there’s no strong expectations that I have to follow a preset curriculum or meet certain bureaucratic minimums. There will be plenty of other challenges (no shortage of other types of bureaucracy), and my work will not be limited to within the university. Also, the country I’m going to doesn’t have as much online access as Korea, and hasn’t been enacting much in the way of COVID restrictions or accommodations. There are some virtual conferences and workshops among teachers and teacher trainers, but no widespread virtual classrooms for regular students. Finally, the nature of the project itself has a greater chance of being more “meaningful impact” and less “English Robot”, providing me with a level of job satisfaction I haven’t felt in many years. I’m not saying it’s going to be a cake walk, but it will definitely be entirely different from everything I’ve done in Korea, and that is something I am looking forward to immensely.