What to Expect From Your First Semester Teaching English in Korea
My kids have officially finished their final exams for the semester and we are now in the this weird two week limbo where they still have to come to school, but won’t actually be tested on anything we teach them. Basically we play games. So as far as I’m concerned, I successfully completed my first semester teaching middle school in Korea!
I know there are lots people who have been in Korea for many more years than I have, and who probably have a much clearer understanding of what it means to be a foreign English teacher in Korea. But I believe that my perspective, and the perspectives of my friends whose opinions I have included in this post, are equally valid in that they are fresh. We are still in the thick of it, still adjusting to this new life, and still constantly observing and trying understand our situations.
The questions that I asked my other English teacher friends were these:
- What has been the most surprising thing about teaching in Korea so far?
- What has been the most surprising thing about living in Korea so far?
Everyone who I asked is from my EPIK intake and in my city. So for the sake of transparency these opinions may be only specific to Daejeon. But I think that living in a medium sized city in Korea is pretty similar across the country so feel free to extrapolate as you like.
I originally had all of this in one post but it was getting obscenely long so I’ve decided to separate it into two posts. One specifically about teaching in Korea, and one about living in Korea. This one will be about teaching. And it is still obscenely long. My apologies, I have a lot of feelings.
So here we go, here’s is what to expect from your first semester teaching English in South Korea.
1)Expect to end up doing a different job than you thought you were going to.
There is some nuance to this, so let me explain myself a bit.
I try really hard to be a good teacher. I spend more time on lesson plans in my free time outside of school then I care to admit. If something doesn’t go well in one class, I tweak it. And keep tweaking it until it’s as good as it can be. I take notes after every class of how it went. I write students names every time we have a good conversation or connect about something in an effort to memorize everyone’s names.
Classroom management is important, teaching strategies are important, and having a good understanding of the material is crucial.
However, assuming that you are already trying to do all of those things, the teaching is kind of secondary.
I try, and I believe everyone should try, to be the best teacher you can be. For the sake of the students. But the reality is that every single day there are a million factors working against us to keep us from being a teacher in the same way that the Korean teachers are.
We don’t speak their language, therefore any scolding that comes out of our mouths is mostly lost on them. Disciple itself looks different here and if I am not comfortable using the same methods as the other teachers then there is literally nothing I can do. The culture itself sees English as a necessary evil, not something that you can choose for yourself and enjoy.
I know many people think about coming here after they graduate to try living in another country, to travel, to teach, or for any other number of reasons. I want to say something along the lines of, “if you don’t care about teaching, don’t come because it’s not fair to the kids.”
But now having been here for a while, I know many people who came for various reasons but have discovered in themselves a love of teaching or of kids that they didn’t know existed before.
And my perspective on my position itself has changed as well. I completed my TEFL certificate through my university and the courses were taught mostly by graduate professors, linguists, and people who generally care a lot about ESL pedagogy. My courses were quite detailed and I left with a deep appreciation for the technical art of teaching. Not that I was at all able to emulate it by any means, but I had some amazing examples set in front of me.
But reality is a much different thing.
My reality at school here is so much different from teaching English in an ESL context in America. Here my students literally do not need English in their daily lives. They may never leave Korea, the may never have to interact with foreigners other than their English teachers, and some of them may not even go to university. There is a very real possibility that even if I am the perfect teacher, I am doing nothing for their lives.
But that’s quite bleak. And it’s also not the whole picture.
While I might not be able to get them all speaking conversational English by the time I leave or even teach them anything they will still remember in 10 years, I can still be important to them.
As time has gone on I have started to perceive my role in the school as less of a teacher (in the same way that the Koran teachers are) and more of an ambassador so to speak. I am here to make them interested in English, to make them see that English is a tool not a subject in school, and to be a physical example of someone who looks, thinks, and acts differently than they do. English is just the common ground, the vehicle through which I can do that.
Because they probably won’t remember how I told them that you need a “verb + ing” after the phrase “I’m looking forward to” if it’s a verb but not if it’s a noun. But they will remember that I knew their birthday, that I cared about which kpop group was their favorite, and that I called “America” home.
So yes. In some ways the job you signed up for is not the job you will be doing. It will be easier in some ways because the truth is no one expects you to be a teacher in the same way the other teachers are. But it is also infinitely harder because you are instead responsible for being the face of your country and to be someone who cares about them, just in a different language.
For me that makes it so much more fun. But for some people I think they can be disappointed and frustrated by all the obstacles in the way of actual teaching.
2)Expect the school culture to be incredibly different.
Lets start of first with the student-teacher relationship. When I recall my middle school experience, I can’t remember once ever going to my teachers room or office just to say hi, or to bring them some candy, or carry their books for them to their next class.
Your homeroom teacher in America is responsible pretty much for just taking attendance in the morning and making sure to relay any important announcements from the school. That’s about the extent of it.
But here the homeroom teachers are like their parents. If a kids acts up in class, it’s the homeroom teachers responsibility to discipline them. When a student has some problem social, emotional, physical, relational, or otherwise they come to the their homeroom teacher either to cry or to talk it out.
I had my favorite teachers in school, but that usually manifested itself in my trying very hard in their class and them cutting me some slack if I ever needed it. But there was no seeking them out for a chat or bringing them some little present just to say thank you.
Korean social hierarchy dictates that teachers are to be respected and treated very highly and students are to defer to them always. In the past, like the way way past, a student wasn’t even allowed to step on the shadow of someone who was a teacher. Or so I’ve been told.
The students bow to us in the hallway, they greet us formally, they give things to us carefully with two hands, and they speak about us in Korean with honorifics.
This is going to get tricky to explain so bear with me.
All the superficial shows of respect are there, all the signs that constantly perpetuate the idea of distance between those who do the respecting and those who are to be respected. But the way I see it, teachers and students are much closer here than they are in America. Not closer in a way that the teachers are lower, I mean closer as in emotionally. Outside of class they are something closer to friends than what we have in the west.
The term “friend” is kind of loaded because in Korean it can also just describe two people of the same age and therefore the same social level. And I’m not trying to say that teachers and students here are friends in that way. At all. They’re just friendlier.
They tease each other. The students adore them. Even though everything in Korean culture means that the student is less important, lower, than the teacher, they joke with them like equals.
And this is one of the things that I love and struggle with the most about school here.
Because I’m jealous of the Korea teachers in a way. Yes students come to visit me and bring little gifts and giggle when they say hello. They love me, but in a different way. No one comes to me when they are hurting, or sad, or in trouble.
I know I shouldn’t complain, because I’m aware of how emotionally exhausting it is for the Korean teachers. But in a way I’m a little bit jealous. I wish that I had the words to encourage my students when they feel down, or joke with them in a language they understand, or even just to make the kind of small talk before class that builds relationships and trust.
Then there is the school culture between the teachers. This is a little more difficult for me to articulate because I am very much on the outside of it. I try as hard as I can not just to be a teacher at the school, but also to be a part of the community of teachers. I bring food in every so often for the teacher’s lounge area in our office and I use all the proper greeting in Korean.
But so much of it is wrapped up in the language that it’s often really hard for me to participate in. But I enjoying being around it. Everyone is very respectful to each other and it really feels like we are all on the same time. Or they are all on the same team, I’m kind of playing a different game.
I’m lucky enough to be in a smaller office, the one for grade 3 teachers. Our head teacher is super kind and relaxed and there are only 11 of us compared to the 25/30ish people in the main office. So I know the ins and outs of how they interact with students and with each other.
There is a camaraderie that I wish I could be fully a part of. But for now I enjoy being around it.
And of course, aside from all these deep cultural differences, there are the little things as well.
There is no bell. “Let it Be” and “Change the World” play over the loud speakers in between classes.
The uniforms are adorable.
We wear slippers inside.
The air conditioning doesn’t come on unless it’s hotter than 28 degrees Celsius inside.
Almost all the classrooms still use chalk boards not white boards.
The teachers all use microphones in class with a portable speaker the take from classroom to classroom.
The kids often have blankets wrapped around them in class or a stuffed animal on their desk.
There is wayyyyy more touching between students. I don’t mean that in an inappropriate way I just mean it like it is. My classes are split boys and girls, so it’s just a lot of kids laying all over each other, playing with each others hair, and holding hands. (And all of those go for both male and female students. In fact the boys are much more “affectionate” with each other than the girls are.)
Yes school is school. But when the entire culture of a country is completely different, even school can be drastically different.
Expect to witness a different style of education that you will both admire and be confused by.
3)Expect that some students will be able to hold a full conversation with you and some will not understand when you say, “How are you.”
When I asked one of my friends who teaches at a high school here, this was her first response. And as her kids are much older than most of ours, I’m sure the gap is even wider.
I got to experience this in its most blatant form when I was doing the speaking tests. Some students would walk out cheerful and ready to chatter away about some story they had chosen to tell me. And other walked out heads low unable to meet my eyes and genuinely could not understand when I asked them how they were.
The kids who obviously didn’t study or who had a bad attitude I didn’t feel to bad for. But the ones who just genuinely didn’t know what I was saying I tried to be even gentler and more encouraging than usual. A few times I even just disregarded the task they were supposed to be completing to ask them super easy questions just to get them to talk a tiny bit. It worked a few times.
Anyway, while this becomes blatantly obvious during speaking tests it’s often difficult to remember while you’re actually teaching. Because all the students who understand you are tracking right along, answering questions, volunteering information, and all the students who don’t understand a word your saying are still nodding their heads like they do. It can give us a false sense of security in how well we are being understood.
It also makes it really hard to cater to every students level. This is something I know that I need to improve on going forward because I feel how heavily I rely on my high level kids to keep the class going.
It’s also worth mentioning in this section about hagwon culture here as they are pretty much the main reason for the huge gap between the high kids and the low kids. And it’s another big reason that I have a lot of sympathy for the kids who don’t understand me.
This is a huge generalization but I’ll go ahead and say it then explain further.
The kids who can have conversations with you, can do so because their parents have the money to send them to private English academies after school. The ones who can’t, can’t because their parents don’t have the means to send them to hagwons.
Again, huge generalization, but at my school at least I think it’s very close to the truth. If you ask the kids what they’re going to do after school an overwhelming majority of them will say, “going to academy.”
The hagwon culture here has made it so that a parents income level is connected to their child’s ability to get a good education. I suppose you could probably say that is the case in many countries but I’m sure that anyone who has lived or taught in Korea would agree with me that it is particularly strong here.
It’s so bad that the Korean government has pushed the end of the school day for high schoolers back to something like 9:00 or 10:00pm in an attempt to keep parents from sending them to academies after school in order to level the playing field for students who can’t afford to go. But it seems to have backfired because not only do they stay at school until 10:00pm study but they then go to academy even after that and keep studying until 1:00 or 2:00 am.
But I digress. Because of this culture surrounding private academies your students will have hugely varying levels of English. And most of the time the foreign teachers classes are not differentiated by level. So you will be teaching everyone in one class. The, “Hi teacher guess what I did this weekend, I went to Seoul and saw my favorite singer and he touched my hand and I’m so happy I’m gonna die!” and also the, “I met my friends” students all in the same class.
Expect drastically different English levels and be able to enjoy what both type of students can bring to the table.
4)Expect that your schedule will change often and suddenly.
This is another thing that my high school teacher friend mentioned and something that I had almost forgotten to include.
And the reason I forgot is probably because I’m very lucky in that I always get my schedule changes a day in advanced. That is incredibly rare and lucky in Korea.
However even I get my schedule changed a lot. For any number of reasons your class can be canceled, pushed back, moved to another day, or sometimes my co-teacher will come up to me before class, a little frazzled, and ask if it’s okay for the kids to just do free study.
I’ve never had an unexpected class sprung on me at the last second but I know that happens to a lot of people as well. My high school teacher friend’s advice is to always have a back up plan. And a back up plan for your back up plan. And a back up plan for when the technology inevitably fails you.
We’re talking like entire lessons planned and prepared in case a random class comes up or suddenly the computer or projector doesn’t work.
For me it’s a lot of having an extra activity ready in my lesson in case my class runs short which it often does.
So, yes. Expect that your schedule will change often and without notice.
3)Expect to love the kids more than you could have ever imagined.
When you come with EPIK you don’t get to choose what level you will be teaching. Most people end up with elementary school placements so that’s what I was expecting. Elementary schoolers are easy to love, at least most of the time. They’re cute and innocent and the only things they know how to say in English are greeting, colors, and some other harmless vocabulary.
But I got one of the “lucky” middle school placements. I use quotations because during EPIK orientation myself and a friend of mine made a point of going up to many of the lecturers and asking if they had any specific tips for middle school because most of the training is geared towards elementary classrooms. And without fail, every single one of them replied with some variation of, “You got middle school? Oo yikes. Good luck.” One guy even went so far as to tell us middle school is considered to be the worst placement. Gee thanks.
I was a bit annoyed by that at the time because they were supposed to be there to prepare us, not discourage us. But in retrospect I could be genuinely angry.
I say all that just to say this, even though it is hard, even though middle schoolers are challenging, I am in love with my job.
My kids, for the most part, are not the tiny and adorable little students we see pictures of in blogs about teaching in Asia. They’re not quiet or subdued like the stereotypes say.
They are so much more than that. And I would have quite a few words to say if I ever met that guy from orientation again who told me I had gotten “one of the worst placements.”
My students are bright and full of life. They’re just on the edge of adulthood and starting to figure out who they are and how to interact with the world around them. They are old enough to have been hurt and to know how to hurt others. But they are also starting to realize that they are not the center of the universe.
They’re funny, and sweet, and kind, and challenging.
They are insecure, and beautiful, and shallow, and thoughtful.
They ask me the craziest things. And sometimes the things they are able to express in English with almost no words amazes me. It’s so difficult to be funny in a different language, but I laugh with them every single day.
I love all of them; the giant lumbering boys who sound like a herd of elephants running through the hallway, the little girls whose sweetness and overwhelming excitement for the littlest things keeps me going, and the older girls who have enough sass packed into their tiny bodies to power the entire country.
I knew I would love them, but I never expected I would love them like this.
And I also never expected to learn so much about love through them. I am a person who cares a lot about words. (The length of this post should prove a testament to that.) So I sometimes struggle with the fact that I simply do not have the words to love them in a way they will understand. But in 5 months I have learned a lot about the nature of love and how much of it can be expressed without words.
When I asked one of my friends who teaches elementary school about this topic she stressed this as well.
“Teaching here has expanded my definition of love to show me that love really is in the actions and not the words. I am so surprised to see how my students (who can barely tell me what today’s date is in English) show me love every day through acts of service and smiles. I get to do the same for them by choosing to show up and show love.”
I remember my first day being overwhelmed by the sea of 700 unfamiliar faces. But now I know their names, some of them, and I know what they like. I know which kids English level is high enough to get a snide joke muttered under my breath, I know which girls will lose their minds if I show a picture of a Kpop group on the PPT, and I know which boys I can win over with a bit of teasing and which ones would stare blankly at me even if the world was collapsing around us.
The sweet ones who are completely in love with you help to balance out the ones who couldn’t care any less about what you’re going on about in some foreign language.
I’m sure that you expect to love them, but just get ready. It’s even better than what you think.