How to Make the Most of Your Desk-Warming Hours

Teaching with a government program in Korea has undeniable perks; a steady salary, a decent amount of paid vacation, and support in the form of co-teachers, to name but a few. What also slips into your nice, perk-filled contract, however, is desk-warming – a phenomenon, it seems, designed by the Korean government to strangle the foreign soul in a subtle but deadly manner over the course of their contracts. Desk warming ranges from as plainly ridiculous as having to, as the resident foreign teacher, spend weeks of both summer and winter vacation manning your desk while your students and co-teachers are on vacation, to as quietly silly as having to spend your post-teaching hours every day at school, regardless of whether or not you have anything teaching-related to do.

Now, I am perfectly aware that millions of human beings across the world work jobs that require them to be
at their desks from nine to five doing something work-related every day. the difference between us and them, however, is twofold; one, we are living lives we chose particularly because we are not entirely seduced by the nine to five prospect, and two, our work tasks are often easily and quickly accomplished – especially if our co-teachers are particularly dedicated. So here we are, living in an interesting country, bursting to explore and educate our souls, but stuck at desks for good chunks of time. The tendency, when we set ourselves down on our desk chairs after lunch, is to innocently begin to browse the internet – I mean, our computers are practically beckoning to us! – and emerge, three hours later, from an unproductive and unsettling virtual rabbit hole. We know we did something with that time, but we wouldn’t be able to word it in a way that doesn’t make us cringe a little.

Even on days where there was nothing work-related to be done, we feel as though we have eschewed some sort of responsibility to be productive, though we’re not sure exactly what we should have been productive at, really. These hours add up though, they become significant parts of our expat lives, and we do ourselves a great disservice by thinking that we cannot still be doing interesting, worthwhile things while at school. They do not compare to hiking up mountains or sauntering around new neighborhoods, but they are important nonetheless. If you often find yourself nonplussed as to what could be interesting or meaningful about desk-warming, here are a few of my tricks to make those hours count.

Learn about that thing you’ve always wanted to learn about

This one is not novel, I know, and you’ve probably had the idea yourself, but I’m here to nudge you to actually start. We’re lucky enough to be expats in a time where learning something is as accessible as it’s ever been. It’s hard to know where to start though, and so I suggest you make a little list. Maybe it’s two pages, maybe it’s one bullet point, but be honest with yourself and put down on paper the things you would like to know more about; the things you’d like to know how to do. Then be realistic with yourself. Pick one or two at a time, and truly commit yourself to exploring the resources that are so available to you. You might have an idea of one or two places to go already, but here’s a few websites that are dedicated to teaching for little or nothing, that have been invaluable to me:

  •  Skillshare (https://www.skillshare.com) – a learning community for anyone that wants to learn how to d
    o jut about anything, from writing to weaving to photography. They have free classes but their premium membership is not exorbitant, and I definitely recommend it.
  • edX (https://www.edx.org/) – online courses from accredited universities. You can earn certificates and even university credit for fantastic courses that are self paced and supported by both a teacher and a community of fellow students. Completely free.
  • Talk to Me in Korean (http://www.talktomeinkorean.com) –  a well-known and fantastic Korean learning website, if learning Korean is something you’d like to actively delve into.

Cultivate the hobbies you’ve never had enough time for

Not this kind of hobby.

You like knitting/reading/practicing yoga, but are so drained when you’re done with teaching and desk-duty, that you rarely get to cultivate or practice them daily. Well, news flash, you have a few hours every afternoon with which to fill with whatever you like to do; things that aren’t videos of cats tasting lemon for the first time – though those have their place. Though it might seem strange doing things that are so overtly not working in your place of work, I say relax into it and spend your time playing the ukulele, if you have a space to yourself, or perfecting your Downward Dog, or reading the books you have been wanting to read for years. My elementary school in Busan had a teachers’ gym room with two treadmills, and once I discovered them, running became something I could look forward to after finishing my actual work at about two in the afternoon, as opposed to something I had to force myself to do, zombie-esque, after hours. Explore your school, and ask your co-teachers what is acceptable and what isn’t, and begin to do the things you’d actually like to be doing.

Build your resume (and earn some extra income)

This one isn’t applicable to everyone, but for anyone who would like to gain writing or editing experience, a few desk-bound hours every day could be a potential gold mine. In 2016 (and for the past few years), jobs are transforming from contract and desk bound affairs to much more fluid and accessible things. Freelance gigs are freely available on the internet, if you know where to look, and you can use your English teaching job’s free time to write and edit for websites, blogs, and individuals, building your resume for whatever’s next in the process, and maybe even making some extra money. Good places to begin looking for these kinds of opportunities are Upwork.com and Freelancer.com, where you create an account to browse and apply to freelance jobs that fall within your areas of expertise.

Getting yourself to do any of this

This all is quite lovely in theory, you’re thinking. It’s one thing to know what to do, and another entirely to actually close the cat video tab and start. I get it. Navigating these liminal hours are have been one of the most difficult parts of teaching for the Korean government for me, and making them into something conducive to the sort of profound life I crave has been an evolving struggle. What helps, I think, is to take responsibility for the kind of life you’re living and the kind of things you’re doing to grow as an expat. Figuring out how it is you’d like to be spending your time is so crucial, and so easy to brush aside, and so often difficult to articulate. once you have articulated it, to yourself at least, it becomes important to mange your time effectively. You have no life coach looking over your shoulder, checking that you’re doing your job as a human well, not the way office workers have managers and bosses looking over theirs. It’s all on you, and that’s both exhilarating and frightening. Set goals for yourself at the beginning of the week, on Sundays maybe, in bed with a cup of tea; lists (even the mental kind) of what you’d like to accomplish with your afternoon hours, and then hold yourself lovingly accountable. Your goals don’t have to  be groundbreaking or fancy – in fact, it’s better that they’re not. Mine have often been as simple as “learn ten new words this afternoon”, or “write a few paragraphs of that thing I’ve been working on before Wednesday”.

Responsibility to yourself, like I said, is the key. You are not an uncontrollable procrastinator; you are not forced by any outside force to spend hours on a computer that do not serve you. Be open with yourself, and spend your time wisely.

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