Since we launched this blog, a lot of people have been asking me, “What do you actually DO in Korea?” Yes it’s easy enough to say, “I teach English” but I understand that people actually want to know what that entails. I’ve dedicated this post to answering that question and shedding some light on the matter. Since Faraaz and I have only had experience in the Korean public school system, that’s what this will be about. Friends in Korea working in private schools, feel free to comment and tell the world about your experience.
Like most prospective teachers, before I went to Korea I had gathered the bulk of my “reliable” pre-arrival information from the Internet — a technique I now know is radically skewed by the wealth of bloggers who are spending their days in the country for all the wrong reasons (read: binge drinking) and forums like English Spectrum and Dave’s ESL Café, which grossly misrepresent the Korean population. But coming here, I realize that no online forum can prepare you for teaching in Korea!
Who do you teach?
Aneesa: This year I teach a wide variety of students from Montessori level to an few adult class at a university. The bulk of my classes are with grades 4-6 at Dong Bang Elementary School in Asan.
Faraaz: I teach middle school students (i.e. grades 7-9) at Anmyeon Middle School and Changgi Middle School on the island. This is a common practice for foreign teachers in rural areas since it is cheaper for the government to let one teacher teach in another smaller school that is fairly close by, instead of employing another foreign teacher to do the job.
Do you teach by yourself… and how?
Aneesa: In my elementary (primary school) all my classes are taught with a Korean co-teacher. This co-teacher is often the factor that determines a great or terrible working experience. Very often, the co-teacher is the only person in the school who speaks English and the only person you can ask about bus routes, translating documents and other life-in-Korea related tasks. The co-teacher leads the class, using a textbook and interactive CD.
At this point let me stop and say that all Korean public school classrooms have a PC, projector and internet access. This is actually crucial to the public school system.
Usually the lesson is divided equally between the English speaker and the Korean teacher with each party handling different sections of the lesson such as reviews, games, role play and learning new expressions. The textbook rules the class and tells both teachers exactly what to do. This makes my life so much easier as virtually no preparation is required by me before the lesson.
Faraaz: All my classes are taught with my co-teachers too. The role of the co-teachers in my case is to keep the class orderly, help with interpreting and ensuring that the students understand me. My job involves playing word games and giving PowerPoint presentations. I have to follow the themes in the text book, but I can use my own lesson plans to get the students interested.
So what are you actually teaching?
Aneesa: The textbooks we use are laid out in chapters, and each chapter has a theme and set of key expressions/words that the students should know after completing the chapter. The chapters are split into sections that focus on a different aspect of learning English: speaking, reading/writing, listening, etc. There are usually activities in the textbooks for the students to complete depending on the focus of the period. Topics vary but some examples are: “When is your birthday?”, “I’d like to order a hamburger”, “I’m sick!” etc.
Faraaz: In my school, each chapter is also divided into different parts. My role is to teach the speaking and communication parts of each chapter. This affords me more freedom in what I teach. I have a few set phrases and words that I need to introduce the students to, but I have to expand on them, using them as part of a full lesson.
Is that all you do or is there more?
Aneesa: I teach after school classes which commence around 1pm (which is when elementary school ends). Parents can sign their kids up for these classes or they can volunteer. For some classes, like the grade ones and twos, I look for colouring pages, songs rhymes and games to keep them occupied. For other grades I use more textbooks (given to me by the school) which require little preparation by me. SUPER SIMPLE. I’ve heard of English teachers doing a variety of extra classes including teaching a creative writing class, teaching a singing class, theatre class, or a sports class. I envy them because my school wants me to- “Keep it simple Aneesa!”
Faraaz: I host a “teachers training” class once a week. Teachers’ training is a free speaking period in which the English teachers practice and expand on their English ability with my assistance, I can even plan a lesson if I feel it to be worthwhile, but the teachers prefer me not to. I also find that there are a few teachers who have limited English ability and wish to practice, and learn from me on a slightly less formal level.
Does everyone have similar teaching environments and experiences?
Aneesa: NO. Every teaching job in Korea is different. Last year, I kicked off my career in Korea by accepting a high school position teaching at an all girls’ school in Incheon. Why I thought high school would be easy still baffles me. The school gave me no materials, no textbooks and no resources to work with- I had to make up my own lessons out of thin air. Fortunately, there are websites to help teachers in that position and I quickly found out about these and made use of them. I am GLAD I made a move to elementary school this year.
Faraaz: Oh hell no. My experience is already vastly different to what Aneesa has been through in her stay here. First of I am in an EXTREMELY rural location, this plays a big role in the type of students you deal with, as well as the kind of people you encounter. As far as the school environment is concerned, I deal with middle school students, who are generally very difficult to keep under control. Many of them are disruptive or rebellious and they give the Korean teachers a really tough time, luckily, discipline is not part of my job and I have to leave that to my co-teachers. My colleagues have proved quite welcoming, many of them have travelled or studied abroad, so there are a few teachers who have some English ability. Often I am stopped to just chat, allowing these teachers to practice their English. It was difficult trying to understand some of them at first, but as I become more accustomed to the different types of broken English, I improve in my understanding of them.
So what are the students like?
Aneesa: The students themselves are interesting, and a far cry from what I’ve known in South Africa. On the whole, students are one of two polar opposites. Type one is painfully quiet. When I try and talk to them, they stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed. If I ask them to speak to me, a look of panic creeps in and they freeze. Mostly I settle for coaxing the occasional word or phrase out of them, and then encouraging them to talk to other students (who are usually less fear-inducing that I am).
Faraaz: Type two is noisy. They yell answers at me at the top of their voices. They groan loudly when I tell them to open their text books. They chatter to their friends constantly. They’ll happily talk to me in English, and talk to their friends in English. And Korean. A lot. Some of these are good students who blast through my tasks in ten seconds flat then spend the rest of the time disrupting their classmates unless I entertain them by answering a thousand personal questions, and sometimes they have poor English and so don’t understand what I want them to do, and instead entertain themselves by… disrupting their classmates.
Aneesa: Of these two types, I prefer type two. Give me noisy, but with some English spoken over silent as the grave any day. Of course there are always the occasional kids who go to sleep during classes. This might sound odd to South Africans reading this blog, but Korean kids are seriously over-worked. These kids are in school from 8.30am to 2.30pm studying. Then they go to private academies and study some more. These academies are only allowed to stay open until 10pm, but many parents disagree with this curfew, and many students study much later than this. Then they go home and study. Then they start all over again the next morning. Knowing this, it’s hard to be completely upset when kids nod off in my classes. I try to keep them awake, but it can be pretty difficult! As I only get two or three sleepyheads in a week, I don’t worry about it too much.
Aneesa: As long as you have a good relationship with your school and co-teacher, you’ll have a good experience. The only thing that bugs me is that I sometimes take issue with the phrasing of things in the textbooks, because I don’t know anyone who would say “I will have a cookie party” instead of “I’m going to have some friends over, and we’ll make some cookies.” I’ve actually never heard the term “cookie party” used. We also had a chapter where we taught the expression “I’m in the 6th grade” instead of “I’m in 6th grade.” (Or even more realistically, when someone asks what grade you’re in: “6th.”)
Faraaz: I have also noticed some phrasing issues in the language that is being taught. I assume it is mainly because of the American English influences which is pretty different to the English we learned in South Africa. I have also noticed that the people on the island are very laid back so to get anything done, you have to constantly follow up. The problem is, even if they are addressing concerns you have raised, they don’t communicate this to you until you ask.
Sorry for such a long and detailed post but we hope it answers all the questions and gives some help to any mewbies coming to Korea! We leave you with some pictures of the kids and classrooms!