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Why I Feel Safer Teaching in South Korea Than I Would in the US

South Korea Travel Jobs Narrative
by Paige Kenzie Mar 4, 2018

I was teaching possessive pronouns to Korean fourth-graders in Seoul when fighter jets drowned out the sound of my microphone.

“Oh, shit,” was my initial response.

Luckily, I didn’t say this out loud. My students looked around at each other, unsure, and then back at me. I smiled awkwardly.

“OK, let’s open our books to page 72!” I said in my sing-song teacher’s voice.

The sound of fighter jets overhead my Seoul elementary school during North Korean tensions was unnerving, at first. But then I remembered what I’d heard on expatriate Facebook groups days earlier: these planes, apparently, were preparing for an air show (with particularly bad timing.) Plus, I had the entire South Korean government working to keep the country, and my students, safe. But what if I’d heard gunshots, instead?

What if there’d been an announcement of a school shooter in the building? For starters, I probably wouldn’t have understood it. And secondly, my classroom nearly looked like a greenhouse, with sizable windows and Korean-style sliding doors secured by a dinky padlock, the same type I’d used as a high school student in Florida. There would be no way to barricade doors, and there would be no hiding. Because my classroom wasn’t designed to withstand an AR-15 semi-automatic. It was designed for learning.

If a school shooter really was on the premises, I’d probably have opened the windows and told my kids to run like the wind. And if I’d been armed, my reaction would’ve been the same.

“Don’t worry kids, stand behind me! Sorry Mr. Shooter, could you give me a moment? My hands are trembling, and I have to figure out how this things works.”

If I’d been trained to use a gun properly, I still would’ve encouraged my students to jump out the window. Seriously, no one should ever rely on me for safety, unless it’s about the proper way to go down a playground slide or how to prevent getting others sick by sneezing into your elbow, not your hands. I had signed up to be an educator. I taught my students proper nouns, I gave them high fives and stickers, I disciplined them as needed. I played games, I sang, “Baby Shark,” and I encouraged my students to be the rockstars I knew they were.

I had not signed up to be a human shield.

Thankfully that’s not my job, and here, it never would be. In Seoul, I don’t worry about shooters because there aren’t (many) guns to shoot with in the first place.

“South Korea, which has fewer guns per capita than any developed nation, has about 510,000 registered guns compared to about 300 million in the United States, which leads developed nations in gun ownership,” said an article in USA Today. That isn’t to say South Korea is perfect or 100 percent safe from gun violence. To be clear, one of the biggest mass shootings in history took place in Korea in 1982, when a drunk police officer went on a killing spree before taking his own life. But the numbers speak for themselves. In 2012, there were a total of only 23 gun deaths in South Korea. In the United States in 2012, there was nearly 33,540 more.

33,540 less gun deaths mean that I can teach with peace of mind. It means that I can focus on my student’s development as learners and as Samaritans. It means that I can explore South Korea without fear of walking down “the wrong street,” and that I don’t have to look for the nearest exit when I go to the movie theater.

In May, that will change. I’m coming back to my beloved home state — Florida.

During my first few months teaching in Seoul, I thought, “Wow, I really love being an educator. When I go home to the U.S., I’d like get my Florida teaching license to continue.”

Now, I’m not so sure. The news of mass shootings in the U.S., especially in Florida, is paralyzing and numbing at the same time. My heart aches for gun violence victims, but I can’t cry. It doesn’t feel real enough. It doesn’t feel like gun violence could ever happen to me, or even my loved ones living in Florida, because I can’t imagine it happening where I’m located now, in Seoul. In a few months, that won’t be the case. And while I once considered being an English teacher in Florida, I don’t know if it’s a risk I want to take any more. I can’t be a human shield. I don’t want to carry a weapon. Not for a starting salary of $36,141.

And as a former elementary school teacher, I can’t fathom losing a student to gun violence, whether from a school shooting, accident, or suicide. It would be like losing a child of my own. But I didn’t major in education. I majored in mass communications, journalism, so I have an alternate career path to pursue, one that I’m equally passionate about. Even still, teaching is difficult to let go. My mom was a teacher, and ever since I was asked in kindergarten, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ve gleefully responded with, “A teacher.”

Would kindergarten-me have responded the same way if it had been 2018? Would I still have wanted to be a teacher if I knew it meant I’d have to carry a gun or defend students from mass shooters?

I have a feeling there will be less students with the dream of being a teacher this year.

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