While Teaching in Korea, Realistic Expectations are Important

by Chris Kwarciany, Greenheart Travel Teach Abroad Participant in South Korea

I’ve been in Korea for about a month teaching English at a middle school in Andong, South Korea.  Andong is a city of about 180,000 people near the center of the country.  While it’s not exactly the cosmopolitan giant like Seoul, it’s a nice city with plenty of things to do.

photo courtesy of Tanya K.

Despite being here for a few weeks, I’ve had technical difficulties getting internet at my apartment, and I don’t feel comfortable writing blogs at my school.  Then there’s the fact that I’ve been fairly busy starting teaching and settling in to my new locale.  Probably the most important thing is I’ve just been exhausted.  It’s all big transition, and for some reason sitting at my computer typing away has seemed like an excruciatingly laborious task.  So the other issues have just made me blissfully willing to do no blogging .

Luckily, it’s Chuseok in Korea, which is essentially Korean Thanksgiving combined with a healthy dose of ancestor reverence.  Chuseok happens to fall on a Wednseday this year.  Meaning I have Tuesday through Friday off, plus my normal weekend.  That coincides with the internet finally being set up at my apartment, and the weather being generally undesirable for much adventuring around.  Thus plenty of time for blogs.  I will try to focus on my teaching experiences and adjusting to living in a different country.  Anyone considering a teach abroad program needs to remember that this is more than a long vacation.

Perhaps the most important thing in being an English teacher is finding proper expectations for your job.  Initially all my expectations were completely off.  I assumed that as a middle school teacher, my students would have some basic level of English since they have already had it school for several years.  Thus my job was to enhance their fluency.  This is not the case.  Most English instruction is grammar based, often Korean words in English grammar structures.  There is not much emphasis on speaking (probably due to lack of time, resources and means of assessing speaking), beyond the class with the foreign teacher, a mere forty to fifty minutes a week.  The result is many kids know the past perfect tense, but have difficulty speaking basic sentences.  So as a teacher, you need to think in terms of working with limited knowledge with little time.

Also, don’t assume the students are necessarily interested in class.  They don’t speak well, if at all, and the get by perfectly fine without it.  So there’s often not much motivation.  Luckily each class a few students who are interested.  It’s especially nice when these are the more fluent students!  But sometimes getting the kids to talk can be a challenge.

Another issue is knowing your audience, and it’s not really the students.  You work with Korean co-teachers.  I have six co-teachers.  I feel I need to make the classes for them, to fit their idea of what is too easy or difficult, along with accommodating their teaching style.  My challenge is I work with each teacher for such a short amount of time each week,   there hasn’t been much time to build up a repertoire and understanding.  I hope to build good working relationships with my co-teachers.

All this sounds pretty doom and gloom, guessing what the co-teacher you don’t know wants you to present to a class that isn’t capable and doesn’t care.  I don’t think it needs to be that way.  At least I  hope there is someway to make the class meaningful!  But after teaching for only two weeks, I’ve yet to discover that way.  I am still adjusting my expectations.

3 thoughts on "While Teaching in Korea, Realistic Expectations are Important"

  1. @ Virginia: You nailed the Korean-speech expectations of Foreigners in the language department- imagine how much KRW you’d earn for each time they ask you “Hangukmal hayo?”

  2. I am croatian language profesor so i know exactly what you mean. Bravo!

  3. virginia says:

    my name is virginia. i have been in gyeongju teaching in english about the same time you have been in andong. i think it is important to hear every side of the story. there are good things about korea, and there are things that are exhausting and frustrating.
    my experience comes from teaching elementary school. i love the students, but it is true. their level of english is almost non-existent. i say this not because they lack vocabulary. they have words memorize; they don’t know what to do with them. i teach in two schools. in my primary school i teach four grades (3rd-6th). my co-teachers can’t help much. they all sit in the back of the room and make no attempt to help. one of them came to my room once and gave me some advices on how to teache. she won’t help me translate in class. she sees me struggle. how can she come later and tell me what to do.
    careful, students will test you. they will show attitudes to see how far they can get away with. let’s be ready for that too. i never heard that in orientation.
    be ready for ‘last-minute’ assignments. those stressed me very much at first. you will ask the principal or vice principal, “will i teache tomorrow?” they will say no, but you will be surpised (you decide how) the following morning when they ask you to teach and you have only five minutes to prepare.
    also be ready, koreans forget very easily that you are foreigner and don’t speak the language. they will be surprised every moment you remind them that you don’t know any korean.
    those are some of the gloom experiences. in general, the population is nice. people for the most part try to help you. it is important to know that there are ups and downs, and we have to be ready for both.
    i would still recommend friends to come and experience life in korea.

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