Sunday, October 23, 2011


I got a job working part-time as a software engineer for Busan International Foreign School (BIFS), developing and implementing a Student Information System (or 'SIS') using PHP and MySQL. The position is open-ended but because I’m working on a specific project it feels more like one of the IT-contracts I used to do.

The hours work well for me because my wife is doing a TESOL course at the moment and I’m babysitting when I’m not working. That said, I had notions that a part-time position would leave me with much more chances to study, but after my first day of babysitting duties, I managed no more than ten minutes, and it set the pattern for what would follow. Perhaps I’m never going to be able to study Korean effectively or do anything else I want to until my son gets older, or someone pays me enough not to madly chase around Korea after work as I have been doing of late.

Busan International Foreign School is situated in Gijang, which Wikipedia describes as "the most rural of Busan’s districts" consisting of "mostly of vacant and agricultural land", which just about sums it up. Getting to the school before I moved from one side of Busan to the other - another of the many things which have occupied my time this month - involved travelling thirty-three subway stops and then using a taxi, because Gijang is sufficiently off the grid that it lies some distance to the north of Jangsan - the last station on Line 2. After I moved, I managed to cut my journey time down from one hour twenty minutes, to fifty-five minutes, which I'm obviously very happy about in a sarcastic kind of way, but we bought the apartment before I got the job, so I wasn't to know how inconvenient it would really be. In principle my new apartment is closer than the travel time would seem to suggest, but having to change subway lines twice to get to Jangsan really slows the journey down.

It’s somewhat ironic that I’ve found myself working for one of the two foreign schools here - because the question of whether to send my son to Busan International Foreign School or its rival, Busan Foreign School, has been vaguely at the back of our minds since before my wife even gave birth. Now that I work for BIFS I’ve finally undertaken more research into both schools and the choice has become much clearer - there isn’t one because I probably can't afford either of them.

The campus is newly built and larger than I expected, and the vast majority of the teachers and students are non-Koreans. That might sound obvious, but in fact some foreign schools which teach foreign curricula in Korea end up doing so primarily for the benefit of more internationally-minded Koreans. Another interesting and probably highly unusual aspect to BIFS is that it doesn’t teach a US curriculum which the US is not a particularly good advert for, but instead the International Baccalaureate, which seems determined to produce the kind of well-rounded individuals which Korea is desperately lacking due to the latter system's tendency to overspecialise and focus solely on measured examination outcomes while discouraging critical thought.

While there are American teachers at the school, most of the senior staff are British, and a surprising number of teachers are non-American native English speakers, so after what I wrote about the number of jobs in Korea which advertised for 'North American passport holders only', it feels like part school, part search-and-rescue mission for non-American English-speaking expats.

And so a new Korean experience has begun for me. Three days a week, I travel the subway like the office worker I now am. I have my first salaried position in this country, and much against expectations, it isn’t teaching English.


Anonymous said...


Jens-Olaf said...

If you come from the direction Busan station, take the red bus 1003, it stops in front of BIFS. Takes about 50min to one hour and more from the station.

Anonymous said...

I think many of us Koreans want English teachers just like you. I'm certain that you have so many positive qualities to share with Korean children. I guess once you could get some help from any of the Korean teachers around you, then It would suddenly become a piece of cake to find a decent teaching job here. You don't have to be a North American to be a teacher at one of the public schools in Busan. School inspectors in Busan City Education Office are really trying hard to hire people who want to do their best in teaching English.

Give it a try!

Mike said...

Thanks Jens-Olaf - I'm a little off that bus route now so the subway is probably going to be my best bet, but it's still useful to know.

Mike said...

Anonymous - I've often wondered about this of late simply because the longer I'm here the more I come to believe that students here are not really maximising their potential, not least because of the quality of teaching. So I see it as a challenge - can I do better? But it's the fear that I might be swimming against the tide in Korea that has, in no small part, made me shy away from it.

I think there's an increasing awareness here that English education is often about achieving specific examination outcomes to the detriment of actually achieving fluency or anything substantively useful, but if Korea changes it's going to take time. I wouldn't want to find myself in a constrained environment where I'd feel I was contributing to the problem.

I also believe it takes a special type of person to be a good teacher and I may not be up to it, because the teaching I did as part of my TESOL course drained me. It may remain the road not taken with me, but we'll see.

Anonymous said...

As an UK expat living in Busan with older children attending the school in Gijang, I have to say that the international education here leaves a lot to be desired. It is over priced and the quality is poor. Most people are passing through and very few (except the Koreans who attend academies till all hours after school) end up with an actual IB diploma. The IB programme is only the final two years of a child's education and they need a second language and coming from England you are at a disadvantage to other expats who use their mother tongue as their main language for the IB and English as their second. You are stuffed if you only have English. Korean is not on offer in the IB programme for non-Koreans. Also the choice of subjects are very limited for both IGCSEs and IB. However, you will end up with a BIFS diploma. Not sure what it will give you towards your UCAS application when applying to universities.

In the younger years the curriculum is made up of Early Years Programme (EYP) and Middle Years Programme (MYP). Also staff are always going on courses to learn this programme. No one comes in as EYP or MYP trained. IGCSEs are on offer but are not compulsory and it means little to everyone except UK students or Singaporean students.

Just one point you made saying that most of the senior teaching staff are from UK, I have to disagree and say that the majority are from America.

Mike said...

Anonymous - thank you very much for those thought provoking comments. Starting with your last point first, I accept I was wrong to believe that most of the senior teaching staff are British - five out of the current six members of 'school management' are, and I believed they also taught, but now I've worked at the school for a few months I understand this generally this isn't the case. I've also now met more American teachers.

As far as the cost issue is concerned, I'm presently professionally bound not to voice my current opinion in any detail. But I will repeat what I've said in this blog and on the radio before I was employed by an international school. The cost of sending my son to such a school would represent a difficult financial commitment for me over the lifetime of his education. If I have another child, I see no way I could afford to send them both to an international school, which in the interests of fairness means that neither can go.

If I were in Busan as the high-flying employee of an international company funding my child's education as part of a relocation package, I see it may not be as much of a concern. I am not in that fortunate position, making the cost of my children's education a heavy responsibility which falls on my shoulders alone. There are other options from home schooling to mainstream Korean education, to leaving Korea entirely, all of which carry their own problems. That I can't necessarily afford to give my children an international education in Korea gives me a sense of failure as a father, and that there isn't an easier option in Korea is the cause of considerable additional unhappiness on my part.

Because I believe I may be in Korea for the duration of my children's education, I have been considering the IB programme and international education more from that perspective rather than from the perspective of those just passing through in Korea. I accept this is not typical and you raise good points about the experience of those who are not making Korea their permanent home.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I enjoyed reading your blog. 1 year on, how do you feel about the school now? Is it a good place to work? What are the teachers like? Would you send your kids there? I love the IB but it's hard to come by in Korea. I'd love to hear your perspective of the place now.

Mike said...

I now work for the school full-time as a software developer. I've had mixed feelings about it so far for reasons I'm minded to write about soon, but I'm a lot more positive about next year. My experience isn't typical because I'm not a teacher - I think if you were able to ask them you'd get a range of opinions about it as a workplace for various reasons. Similarly I think - as you might expect - the teachers vary in background and outlook.

If education were free and I had a choice between BIFS and a Korean school I would choose BIFS for my son because generally I prefer the Western approach to learning rather than the Korean one, and I would fear the bullying my son might be subjected to in a Korean school, although I accept that individual experiences vary from the horror of what happened Mike White ( to the foreigners who have put their children through Korean schools and claim never to have had an issue.

If you have specific questions send me an email and I'll answer them as best I can although I'm under considerable constraints as you might imagine.

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