I’ve been sitting on this post for almost a year. I haven’t actually written it, but it’s been knocking around in my brain for quite some time. A year ago, I didn’t write about it because it was too close—too raw. I needed some time. Time to process. Time to assess. Time to let go. 

I’m going to outline the chain of events that led me down the path to becoming a freelance copywriter and proofreader in Korea. Like all worthy stories, we need to start at the beginning.

In the summer of 2003, I interviewed for a job at a university in Seoul. At least I thought it was an interview. One of the foreign profs, Prof L, had recommended me for a vacant spot. I met with Prof L and the Korean head of the department, Prof H. After we introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries, I expected the interview to start. At this point, Prof H extended his hand and said, “It’s going to be nice working with you.” That was that.

I started in the last week of August 2003, one month before my son was born. For the first semester, I lived in a suburb of Seoul and commuted more than an hour (Korean traffic) by car. During my first years at the university, we taught five days a week, including Saturday classes. There were six Korean professors and six foreign professors in the department. 

A picture of an empty university classroom.

At that time, it was just the English Department. At some point, we became the Business English Department. We had day classes and night classes. My teaching hours ranged from 12 hours/week to a high of 20 hours/week for a semester or two.

As time marched on, I noticed a trend

Over the years, those numbers dwindled. We stopped holding Saturday classes. We taught four days a week—and then three days a week in the last few years. As Korean profs retired, they weren’t replaced. Foreign profs either left (or didn’t have their contracts renewed). During my final years at the university, there were 2 ½ foreign profs in the department.

Huh? Two and a half? Let me explain. The guy that got me the job, Prof L, had been moved to another department (several over the years). The university did this to maintain professor to student ratios. The university didn’t want to give more professors tenure. Their ‘solution’ was to shift professors around between departments—though this was mainly just on paper.

Prof L still taught most of his hours in the Business English Department. Of course, he had a few hours in his ‘new’ department. Both Prof L and the other foreign prof, Prof W, had been there longer than me. They were among the last profs put on the tenure track—foreign or Korean.

A picture of the year 2019 written with sparklers

Fast-forward to 2019. I found out that Prof W had become the department head. Being the department head seems to be more of a burden than an honor in Korea. It’s a position that gets rotated every few years. At least that was what I observed at my university.

I’ll never forget graduation 2019—but not for the right reasons

Shortly after the 2019 graduation ceremony (held in February in Korea), I was sitting in my office. Prof W texted me and asked if I’d be around a little longer. He needed to chat. He showed up shortly after that and informed me that I only had two years left in my position.

Prof L and Prof W were in tenure track positions, but I was not. I signed a yearly contract. The board approved my employment for two years at a time. Prof W explained that there would be fewer hours since we were getting rid of our night classes.

That meant fewer teaching hours, and the university had to make cuts. The board had approved me for two more years. But they would not be renewing my contract when those two years were up.

Prof W had an odd sense of humor, and I thought this was a joke in poor taste. I kept waiting for the punchline. It never came. He was being honest. After taking a few days to digest the news, I asked him to confirm what he told me in an email so I had a written record. It definitely wasn’t a joke.

After the initial shock, I did my best to calmly assess my situation

After that, life returned to normal. I taught classes, conducted exams, and submitted grades. No one talked about my situation. No one acknowledged it was happening. No one said a thing. Full disclosure—I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want my situation to become public knowledge. 

I hoped it would be resolved and there’d be nothing to discuss or share. If I were able to keep my job, I didn’t want to raise a fuss over nothing. The Korean profs in my department all knew—they had been in the meeting when the decision was made. But I didn’t tell any other co-workers about my situation—not even Prof L.

A picture of one young girl whispering something to another young girl

I’ve heard rumors about the ‘magical’ fifth year in Korea for as long as I can remember. The rumor claims that you become a permanent employee after five years of employment. You can’t be let go—unless you do something to warrant being fired. Two foreign profs hired after me were let go before their fifth year—and not replaced. 

Having taught at the same school for over 15 years, I thought I’d be able to fight this dismissal. I hoped the situation would change and I wouldn’t have to fight it. But I told no one other than my wife—and eventually two close friends.

Enter COVID-19—affecting more than just teaching

And then COVID hit. In the spring of 2020, I began teaching online from my office. I felt it was more professional to go to my office and conduct my classes from there. But my work computer was too old and not powerful enough to handle online teaching—it was almost a decade old. 

Zoom kept crashing, and I couldn’t record and upload online lessons. I ended up borrowing a laptop from the department office and setting up shop at home. Due to COVID, I was more cut off than usual and heard no updates on my situation.

Sometime in 2020, Prof L decided it was time to go home. He would see out the year but wouldn’t be returning for the spring 2021 semester. Though part of another department, he taught the majority of his hours in our department. I thought there might be a lifeline there. The board hadn’t known of his departure when they decided to give me the boot. With fewer classes, one prof had to go—but two?

A picture of a man holding a smartphone, with the background blurred.

In October 2020, I texted Prof W asking if there had been any change in my situation. He informed me that he was no longer the department head as of June—replaced about 15 months after assuming the position. He offered no explanation. He told me to direct my inquiries to a prof I had never heard of. 

The university had hired a new Korean prof, given her tenure, and made her department head—in less than six months. In my 17 years there, not a single Korean prof had been hired full-time (we had lots of part-timers). I hadn’t even heard the university had hired the prof full-time, never mind been made department head.

I’d seen her name on the schedule, but assumed she was one of the many part-time profs. After all, there weren’t enough hours for me—how could they hire a new full-time Korean prof?

I got an answer—but I hadn’t anticipated how it would be delivered

In October, I emailed the new department head, Prof J. I introduced myself (we’d never met), and asked for clarification on my situation. Prof J replied that she did not know if I’d be awarded a new contract or not. At least she didn’t at that point in October. 

About a month later, at 11 pm on a Sunday night, I received the following email:

Dear Dean Comeau (cc-ing: Dean of academic affairs),

We would like to inform you that the Department of Business English will discontinued the C Ban night class, starting Spring Semester 2021, and thus the number of classes and hours available to be taught will be significantly decreased over the entire department. We are therefore, regretfully, unable to offer you a suitable schedule going forward in 2021.

If you have any questions, please contact the Dean of Academic Affairs.

Sincerely,

XXX, XXX-XXXXX

Head of the Department of Business English

XXXXXXX University

A picture a blackboard with the words You're Fired written in chalk in large, filled-in block letters.

I’d officially been let go. By someone I’d never met, late on a Sunday night, via email. By someone who’d been at the school for less than a year. I’d been there for almost 18 years. That, my friends, is true class.

My suspicions confirmed—I was never considered part of the team

I wouldn’t say I was close to any of the other Korean profs in my department. We were cordial and could make small talk, but I was never invited to meetings. Actually, I was invited to the first meeting Prof W chaired as head of the department. I was never asked to join another department meeting again. Nothing happened—I hardly said a thing. I was simply never asked back. No explanation.

That was the last contact, bar one phone call, I would receive from the school. I’d worked with four of the five Korean profs for almost two decades (remember, I hadn’t met the fifth). Despite some of them coming to my son’s first birthday party, not one of them reached out to me by phone, text, or email. Not once during the two years we all knew I’d be let go.

A picture of a lawyer talking on the phone taking notes

It appeared shit was getting real. Earlier, I had contacted a Korean lawyer for free advice. He suggested that instead of going to the Labor Board, I should go to the Teacher’s Commission.

He informed me I couldn’t pursue anything legally until I’d received official notice I was being let go. Once I got that email, I filed a petition with the Teacher’s Commission. I ended up filing two petitions. Both were thrown out without being heard.

Why? Cause I was a foreigner? Nope. I did not fall under their jurisdiction. As a contracted teacher, I was not tenured, so not full-time. I had too many hours and paid vacations, so I wasn’t considered part-time. The Teacher’s Commission has jurisdiction over full-time and part-time teachers. But not contracted teachers. Swell.

“You should contact a lawyer! They can’t do this to you!”

Everyone I contacted along the way (lawyers, government workers, etc.) agreed this shouldn’t be happening. They all said I should win. They were wrong. I contacted another lawyer for a free 15-minute consult. He advised that I go to the Labor Board. He was quite confident I would prevail—but couldn’t guarantee it. 

I picture of a man stating his case to a board. The board members are in the background and are blurred.

To file a case would likely cost me at least a thousand dollars. If the school decided to fight rather than settle, it could easily climb to over 5 thousand. And what would I get if I won my case? I could be reinstated. I didn’t want that. The Business English Department had made it abundantly clear they didn’t give a rat’s ass about me. 

I’d been treated unfairly, but no one expressed any sympathy for my situation. I didn’t want to go back to my old job. I enjoyed the teaching, but I would never have been able to work in that environment again. 

I could’ve gotten a partial payout of my wages, but there was no guarantee. It was impossible to determine how much of that would’ve been eaten up in legal fees. Besides, I’d been dealing with this situation for two years—always in the back of my mind. Holding out hope that a resolution would arise. Now that the end was near, I wanted things to be over. No more hoping for a resolution. It was time to cut ties.

Finally, someone reached out, but I don’t know how to thank them

At the end of December, I received a call from the university administration office. By law, the university had to inform me two months before my contract ended that it would not be renewed. My contract ended at the end of February. The call was a formality and conducted in Korean. But at the end of the call, the woman on the other end of the line summoned her English abilities and said, “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.” 

That was the most empathy I’d received from anyone at the school. After 17 years, only one professor—from another department— contacted me to check on me and share job leads. Not a word from any of the professors in my department—despite the decision to let me go having been made two years earlier. 

A picture of a pink monkey stuffed animal, covering it's ears

I didn’t even get a call or message to go and clean out my office. I’m sure I still have the key card for my office somewhere. In February 2021, I went in and cleaned out my office. I left a pile of books to be recycled/thrown away and a bag of garbage in my office. Under normal circumstances, I would have left those things in the hallway. But I wasn’t sure if the janitors were even working, so I figured it was best to leave things in my office. 

I never got a thank you for cleaning out my office or a complaint about leaving garbage there. I wonder if anyone even knew I was gone. For all I know, my office was never reassigned. Prof L’s office was next to mine, and it was still empty a year after he left.

A few months later, I got confirmation that very few people outside my department knew I’d been let go. I played soccer with the professors and staff weekly. We played on Saturdays back in the early days but moved to Thursday evenings at some point. In the late spring of 2021, one of those profs called and asked why I wasn’t coming out to Thursday soccer. 

COVID restrictions had been relaxed, and they were playing again. I explained I no longer worked at the school. His confused response informed me he had no idea of my situation.

So what does this all mean? How do I feel?

I feel very hard done by. I wasn’t fired for incompetence. There were no complaints about my performance and no incidents or scandals. I was supposedly let go due to a lack of hours. But when Prof L resigned, a Korean prof was hired full-time. And given tenure. And made department head. 

To be honest, I didn’t want tenure. Yes, it would’ve meant more money—but also more responsibilities and more hoops to jump through. I was content teaching. That’s what I enjoyed. I enjoyed being in the classroom. I didn’t want to attend conferences, write research papers, or do a PhD. That wasn’t for me.

A picture of a gold statue lady justice, blindfolded, holding the scales of justice in one hand and a sword in the other

I also felt like I’d slipped through the cracks. How I didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Teacher’s Commission still baffles me. Seeking justice through the Labor Board would’ve been an empty experience. I may have gotten a few thousand dollars at best—along with a lot of stress. The people I was most disappointed in, my co-workers, would’ve been entirely unaffected. 

I didn’t expect a farewell party. But I think someone who puts in almost 18 years at an institution deserves something. I don’t believe the profs in the Business English Department actively sought to get rid of me. I was an unfortunate casualty of budget cuts. But during those two years, they could’ve said something. Anything. I wasn’t looking for a pity parade. But acknowledgement that my situation sucked would’ve been nice.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

They could’ve invited me into the office to let me know in person that I would officially be let go. They could’ve offered their sympathies. They could have. But they didn’t. Instead, they passed the buck to someone who’d never met me to tell me I’d been let go—via email. I received more genuine sympathy and concern from the unknown administration worker who called me. I have no idea who she was, but I appreciated her sincerity.

A picture of a busy female office worker, carrying notes, making copies, and talking on the phone

After going through all that, I had no desire to repeat the process all over again. Even if I’d found another university teaching position, I knew I’d never have job stability. The “five-year myth” had been disproven. I still wouldn’t have been covered by the Teacher’s Commission if I wanted to fight another unfair dismissal.

And that is ultimately what motivated me to figure out a new career path. And as unjust and shitty as that situation was, I’ve wound up in a better place. I miss the three day work weeks and five months of paid vacation. Who wouldn’t? But I had almost two decades of working those easy hours. I don’t mind putting in +50 hour work weeks now. 

I’ve done things backwards, but that may have been right

I’ve told people that I’ve kind of lived my life in reverse. Most people work their butts off earlier in their careers and seek jobs with reduced hours later in life. But I’ve done the opposite—and I don’t regret it. When my son was young, I was actively involved in raising him. With my extended time off, we had time to take family vacations. 

Now, I’m working +50 hours a week. But my son doesn’t need me as much. He’s starting university. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up this work rate for the next decade. But for a year or two, while I try to gain experience and establish myself in a new career? Hell yeah, I can do that.

A picture of a man sitting on a sofa in a dark room with a Mac computer resting on his lap as he types.

How can you not be bitter?

The title of this post claimed I’m not bitter. And I’m not. Well, not now. Shortly after being let go, I drafted a letter to my coworkers.

I outlined some of the points I’ve made in this post. I pointed out how obvious it was that they had no concern for me. I stated that their absence of sympathy for my situation—despite almost two decades of working together—was shocking. But I realized my message would’ve fallen on deaf ears. It would’ve served no purpose. It never got sent.

I’m still not happy about what happened or how the events unfolded. I’m frustrated I didn’t receive an explanation for why a Korean prof was hired despite the supposed lack of hours. But I’ve accepted things and moved on. Life isn’t always fair. No one owes me anything. You’ve got to roll with the punches and move on. And that’s exactly what I’ve done during this past year.

I’m embarking on a new career and a new phase of life. I’m hoping after spending some time working remotely, I can amass enough knowledge to successfully market myself as an English copywriter and proofreader in Korea. I can live the freelancer lifestyle I envisioned with a job I can easily do anywhere with an Internet connection. 

This is a job I can see myself doing until I decide it’s time to retire. I don’t think I had another +15 years of teaching in me. So while I certainly don’t feel like my dismissal was fair or well executed, it may have actually been for the best.

Have you ever been in a similar situation? How would you have handled things differently than I did? Would love to hear about it in the comments!

5 thoughts on “Finally, one year on—how I got screwed out of my job and why I’m not bitter

  1. So sorry to read this Dean. I had wanted to do something for you, but at around that time COVID-19 seemed to make everything much thicker. I do feel guilty about that. It is a pity that it seemed so cold. The students loved you, as you know. It’s great you’ve found a new path forward, as 15 more years in that environment isn’t really the most amicable future either, is it?^^ Hope to keep in touch!

    1. Thanks, Jody. Certainly nothing you could’ve done. COVID didn’t help the situation, but I’m not convinced things would’ve been much different if COVID hadn’t hit. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Hey man,

    Yeah I worked for 7 or 8 universities in Korea, always hopping from one to another. I had much more formal interviews being hired but all in all, similar atmosphere.
    I had heard about the 5 year rule but the way some places get around it is unofficially fire every foreign prof after 4 years and rehire with new first year contracts.

    My take is that your dept got reorganized and they decided that foreign profs were a complication they didn’t need. Nothing personal just a unnecessary complication.

    I am so glad I left Korea and work in Canada again. Glad to hear the freelance/ proofreading etc is working for you. At least it didn’t turn into Ukraine where they are invaded and want the foreigners to stay and fight for their country.

    1. I don’t think the 5-year rule applies to contracted workers, particularly contracted profs. I guess I could’ve found out if I’d decided to go to the Labour Board, but at that point, I wasn’t very interested in keeping my job nor paying a bunch of legal fees for the ‘chance’ of an undetermined settlement. Sometimes it’s just time to move on.

      Glad to hear things are good for you in Canada.

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