LIMELIGHT INTERVIEW WITH ATEMBE GILES
What is your current title, and where do you work?
I'm an ESL teacher and the Program Coordinator for Children's & Cultural Programs. I work at the Gangnam International Education Center for the Gangnam District Government Office in Seoul, South Korea.
How did you learn about your current position?
I found the job listing on a popular job portal online.
What sparked your interest in working in international education?
My undergraduate degree is in International Studies (now known as "Global Studies"). I thought I would work for an international corporation, but I tried out working for major advertising and marketing firms, and it just wasn't my cup of tea. My favorite classes in college were anthropology, where I could really dig into the culture, and I knew I wanted to immerse myself in other cultures to learn and experience them more authentically. Also, when I studied abroad in France as a senior in college, my advisors really encouraged me to teach abroad. I wasn't really interested at the time, but coming from a family of educators, I realized that it could be interesting to at least try it out in an international environment, so I did.
What was your first job in international education?
My first real job was as an English guest teacher in Seoul, South Korea, via the EPIK (English Program in Korea) government program. The process isn't necessarily difficult, but it does have a number of steps: acquiring many documents and notarizing them; gathering reference letters; creating a resume; submitting a cover letter; answering essay questions; creating a sample lesson plan; getting a background check; etc. Overall the process took about nine months, from applying for my federal background check to applying and waiting for the results to landing in Korea. However, if you don't use EPIK and apply to schools directly, it can take less than three months if you already have the necessary documents for your visa.
Tell us about your first international experience, either traveling or working abroad.
My first international experience was studying abroad in Toulouse, France, in college. I went through the SIT (School of International Training) program. There were about 10 of use from various universities in America, taking French language, history, and culture courses together at the university in Toulouse. We also had internships as part of the program, and I was able to work at a dance studio, translating promotional material and teaching dance classes (in French!). We also had many excursions and field trips: we learned about winemaking, wine pairings, and the importance of French gastronomy; we took historical tours and learned about the architecture; we also had a second homestay in rural French villages where we chose a research topic and conducted research with the locals, which we then presented (also in French).
It was an extremely eye-opening experience, where I learned many similarities, parallels, and differences between my culture as a Cameroonian-American and the French culture and their underlying social struggles as well. It also highlighted how race, nationality, and culture are viewed and handled outside of America and how much privilege our passport holds as Americans. I only wish I'd studied abroad sooner; I made ENORMOUS progress in my language ability and probably would've tried to study abroad again if I'd started earlier!
Describe a typical day/week at the office at your current job.
My work hours are from 9-4, though I stay later at certain points of the year if we have children's camp or other special projects. Our school is primarily for adult language learners, but when I was hired, they had just begun working on elementary programs. Since I have lots of elementary teaching experience, my director was very eager for me to join the team and help with the design of those programs. I teach adults from 10 AM to 1 PM, have lunch from 1:00-2:00, then depending on the day, I either have an elective with adult students from 3:00-4:00 or teach elementary students from 3:00-5:00, or I'm doing assessment tests and processing applications for elementary students from 3:00 until…I feel like I've done enough for the day. Every other month, we have a Culture Day for our adult students, and I'm in charge of developing activities and informative presentations on the theme. The themes are usually around American or Western holidays, though I try to add a more global spin to it. For example, in October, our Culture Day was about Halloween; December is about Christmas; May was about weddings, but since we have teachers from many different countries (such as the UK, Ireland, South Africa, and Kenya), we had each teacher do short presentations on weddings in their countries with Q&A discussions from the students, and activities to follow.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I like that I can work with many different age groups. I like that, for the most part, all of the students are very motivated to learn. I absolutely love my staff and co-workers and appreciate that our opinions and knowledge as educators are taken into consideration when implementing new procedures or selecting materials; it's very rare for a Korean school or educational institute to do that with its foreign staff. We all love teaching and want to help the students as well as we can, in fun and creative but meaningful ways, and we try to do that within the demands and confines of Korean culture.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Communication is not always clear or succinct, and some decisions seem illogical or more complicated than they need to be. In Korean culture, the order of power and respect is very seriously adhered to, and because of that, questions have to go all the way up all the rungs of the leadership ladder before a decision is made, then we have to wait for that decision to make it all the way back down to us teachers. It can be tedious, and there is sometimes a disconnect between us teachers, who are on the ground and directly understand the needs of our students, and the education heads at the government level who don't really see our day-to-day needs and challenges.
What has working in international education taught you about yourself and your own culture?
I've learned that I really value the push to be creative, unique, and outspoken that is instilled into American children. Growing up, I was very introverted but also very competitive. In America, and in my African family, trying your best in order to shine or be the best and be recognized is a good thing. It's not like that in Korea. While they value education, the motivation is different. They are taught to blend in and be one; it's almost seen as rude to "show off" how much you know or to just be a very eager student. This made it challenging in some classes where students would not raise their hands or answer questions if they were the only ones to do so. Also, the pressure to excel and succeed here, as well as the definition of success, is very different from what I was raised to believe. However, I've also learned that Americans tend to think we and our culture and ways of thinking are the center of the universe and the norm everywhere, and it's definitely not. Other cultures work just fine, and their people are thriving and enjoying themselves on ideals that are almost the opposite of American ideals. I've learned that there is more than one way to do something and to live your life.
Is there a value/principle from another culture that you have embraced and applied to your own life?
I really like how Koreans tend to share, especially when it comes to food! When Koreans receive a gift, they tend to offer it to others around them first (if it's shareable), and they are extremely conscious of how others in a group feel or are perceiving them. It doesn't always work out well, but I appreciate the awareness—in Korean, it's called "nunchi," which is kind of like your intuition about others, and it's something I think many people could practice more. I also love the focus on skincare vs. heavy makeup—I never tended to my skin so much before moving here, but they really value good skin and also appreciate being in nature and spending time outside.
Do you have a career mentor or someone that you consult with about career growth?
At this point, I do not. However, I do keep in touch with a few supervisors from my college days, and I look to them for inspiration and as role models.
Describe a moment in your career that you consider your greatest achievement.
As a personal achievement, it was the moment I learned that I HAVE to make the classroom fun for the students but also fun for ME. If I'm not having a good time, I know my students can't be. When I focused on this, it made lesson planning and teaching much more enjoyable, which was an asset to my students' experiences. In Korea, for English learners, one of the main challenges is that students are super self-conscious, shy, and critical about their speaking performance. It's more important to create a comfortable learning environment where they know they can speak freely and practice out loud without feeling afraid or embarrassed. Testing and assignments are important to the higher-ups, but the goal is to be able to function well in English, and sometimes you as the teacher need to make an executive decision on how your classroom and lessons will be. Other things I'm proud of - I was able to teach at a school for the deaf and blind, and it was such a fulfilling and humbling experience. The students (high schoolers) were so bright and just as eager and fun as any other student I've had. I also got to create many courses related to the arts and my culture. Korea values education but doesn't really see art, music, dance, or theatre as something that is as important as English, math, or science. They also don't have a lot of exposure to other cultures, so being able to share those things and help them connect those subjects with learning English was a great accomplishment. Finally, the International Institute of Education awarded me the Gold Prize for a video contest highlighting my life as an English teacher in Korea. It was very meaningful because it was my first year teaching, I was able to share my lessons and teaching philosophy with others, and as a Black woman, I was able to show other people who look like me that we can travel to ethnically homogenous countries and still be appreciated and make an impact on others' lives.
How has COVID19 Impacted your work life?
I'm actually on maternity leave right now, so I'm at home, not working. Before, I was working from home for a few weeks; before that, I was still commuting to school to teach online. Korea has handled this virus much better than many other countries, and there has never been a total shutdown or lockdown. Elementary schools are still meeting in person, with one-third or less of students coming in on their given days; all the higher grade levels (including university) are teaching online, either from the school or from home. The biggest impact is probably that student numbers have dropped at my school, so we have fewer classes and smaller classes. Some teachers also left because of all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic when it first began, so our staff has shrunk. Many of the programs for this year had to be canceled or postponed, so I've actually had a lot less on my plate in that regard. The biggest adjustment has just been transferring things to an online format. We do live classes, create more electronic materials, and I even hosted YouTube education segments for our elementary students as an alternative for the usual camps and culture programs we would do throughout the year. So, I've learned a lot of technical and presentation skills and have had to connect with students in new ways, such as lots of email follow-ups and actually having to schedule times to meet at least once per session versus seeing each other every day.
If you are working from home, has that adjustment been difficult or enjoyable?
It has been the absolute BEST! I actually only started working from home because I was pregnant, and my doctor strongly advised me to stop commuting and stay home; my school still had us coming in each day to teach virtually from our school offices. My commute was 45-60 minutes each way, so I'm very glad I no longer need to go through that!
What type of things are you doing to balance your mental health and lack of social engagement?
It's been very difficult with many places shut down. I was also pregnant for most of the year and now have a newborn to tend to, so I've been especially careful about where I go and what I'm exposed to now that I have a little one at home. The biggest things that have helped me are having schedule Zoom meetings with my family and friends, watching TV comedies, taking walks around the neighborhood, and just resting. I was feeling pressure to try and use this time to start this project and that project and basically try to monetize this time period, but that's also a very American, capitalist mindset, and it just doesn't work in my current situation. I've instead pursued hobbies that I've always wanted to do but haven't had time for, and I'm doing them just for fun, such as learning how to sew, polishing up on my French, and reading tons of new books.
Has enrollment of international students at your institution decreased?
Our center doesn't really accept international students; as a government institution, we are meant to serve the local residents of our district, so only Koreans are enrolled. As long as you are a resident of our district, you can enroll. We've had a few Japanese and Chinese students, but they were essentially Korean residents, not really international students.
Has participation in study abroad activities decreased?
It has definitely decreased. Many students enroll in our school to prepare for job certifications or to go abroad, either for school or work. The pandemic has halted that since the main nations where students go (the USA and the UK) are still seeing high cases of the virus. As an alternative to going abroad, we've offered more opportunities to speak one-on-one with a foreign teacher, but for the most part, students are just postponing their plans on their own.
How are students at your institution coping with the COVID19 restrictions?
We have moved completely online. It's good for students who had to travel long distances, or who didn't even live in our district, because they can participate now more easily. However, many of my students miss the face-to-face interactions, and since we have adult students, many of them are parents. This means they now have to watch their children during the time they would normally be taking classes, so many have had to postpone their studies in order to assist their kids with their own online learning.
What is the best advice you can give to other global educators right now as we move into 2021?
Instead of thinking of COVID as a temporary problem, see it as a lifestyle change and as an opportunity to try newer, better, more creative teaching strategies. The sooner we accept that this may very well be a permanent lifestyle change, the sooner we can move forward with creating a new normal for ourselves and for our students. This time has shown us that virtual learning is TOTALLY possible and can be just as, if not more, effective as face-to-face learning. Cracks and holes in traditional education have also been exposed thanks to this epidemic, and I only hope that our government and education officials will really see the value we bring and the challenges we endure as educators and make more deliberate measures to support us—and by association, our students and their families—in the future.
Atembe Giles is an international educator, writer, and performer living in Seoul, South Korea. She has more than five years of international education experience and has lived in and traveled to more than ten countries since graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her specialties include utilizing the arts as a teaching tool and as a motivational device to encourage students to learn about the world around them while finding new ways to express themselves and excel in their language learning. She plans to continue her international education journey when she returns to the USA in 2021, either by helping international students enroll in American schools or helping American students to enroll in study abroad programs.
- Interview by Global Leadership League member and volunteer, Kanette Worlds
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