Finding your feet in Korea


No Aneesa and I have not broken up.

The reason I have been absent for a while is not because Aneesa was monopolizing the blog to brag about her trip.

I was on lockdown attending an orientation. You see, last week, all of the new teachers (and a few seasoned veterans) in Chungnam province attended orientation.  It was held in Cheonan, the biggest city in Chungnam (close to where Aneesa works).  Even though it was held in a big city, I was not living the high life in a swanky resort; rather, they set us up in a training facility on the outskirts of town.  I guess they didn’t want a bunch of foreigners running around town together, causing mass chaos.

So if you are reading this post and are on your way to teach English at a public school in Korea, chances are that you too will be subjected to an orientation.

The Orientation is an idealistic attempt to immerse foreign teachers into the ways of the country and its people. In theory, it is a novel idea aimed to prepare teachers for what they are going to face on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this orientation happens biannually even though many teachers are recruited throughout the year. This often leads to many teachers having lived in Korea for several months prior to attending their orientation, making it a waste of time for some.

I have been in Korea for four months now, so initially I saw it as a chore, but then I realized that I would get to meet a lot of new people and for a lonely foreigner who lives on an island, that was reason enough to take the experience in my stride.

For SEPIC (Secondary English Program in Chungnam) teachers in 2012, the Orientation lasted 7 days, with a rigorous schedule, starting at 7:00 and ending at 21:00, although eventually, not everyone followed this regimental division of our time. During our stay, we were not allowed to leave the premises, no alcohol was to be consumed, and we had a curfew of 23:00… whether these were adhered to… well… I will leave that to the imagination of the reader.

This is how we felt with all those rules imposed on us

Now the details of this Orientation itself would put me to sleep if I had to write about it so instead I will just give a summary on what to expect.

Useful things you will gain at orientation:

  • Korean classes. For those fresh of the plane, or fairly new to Korea, this class is very helpful in providing some basic language skills. You will learn how to read Korean, and be introduced to some basic Korean phrases.
  • Lectures by experienced teachers and co-teachers: This will help the newbie in preparing them for what to expect by hearing the experiences of other more experienced foreigners, and the Korean teachers we work with. This part is a little boring for those who have been here for a while.

“Teachers don’t teach. We give students opportunities to learn and inspire them to do so”

  • Teaching tips and tricks from speakers and already experienced colleagues serve as an important bridge for the new teacher and can ease the transition into English teaching in Korea.
  • Exposure to Korean food: Korean food is unlike anything most westerners are accustomed to, so spending a week being served predominantly Korean food for all three meals of the day eventually desensitizes the newbie. If anything, you will at least figure out what Korean food you like and what you should avoid.

This was a buffet that included some western food as a treat

  • Meeting new people. For those teachers new to the country, or some who are in extreme rural situations (islanders), it is a great place to meet other foreigners, forge new friendships and increase your social circle. Korea can be a lonely place for some teachers and the orientation allows you to meat other teachers you may never have under normal circumstances.

The only useful team building exercise we did involved creating a lesson as a group.

Things you will hate:

  • Boredom. If you have been in the country for some time, you will find yourself being quite bored for much of the lectures. Unfortunately you have to go through it as part of your contract, so I guess all you can do is bear it. Lower your expectation to almost zero and who knows, you might learn a few things.
  • Forced team building exercises. Although team building can be beneficial when used properly, at orientation you will be forced into groups where you will have to get to know your colleagues before coming up with a ridiculous play or performance which you will have to act out in front of the rest of the orientation group. The activity varies between groups, but it almost always turns out to be pointless.

A Korean tea ceremony, performed by the high school group

  • The intense schedule. It was deduced that the reason the schedule was as rigorous as it was, was to give us a taste of what Korean kids go through on a daily basis; another deduction was that this is how things are done in Korea and we just have to deal with it.
  • The Rules. Most people scowl when imposed with rules that demean them. The rules seem designed for young college students, causing discontent among the “tribe”. This lead to many of the “civilized teachers” eventually just disregarding some of the rules and doing what they needed to, to stay sane.
  • The Location. Being so far out in the rural areas makes the place seem more like a prison than a training center. Many people would feel much more comfortable closer to a city, and if they were taken out to see some of it.
  • The Duration. The Fall Orientation was excruciatingly long. After the third day most people just became resentful. There was a noticeable decrease in overall attendance and participation after the third day.

And this is the result of a week at orientation

Survival Tips:

  • Anti Boredom Measures. Bring things to keep you occupied. Be it books, games or anything that will help you pass the little free time you get, and the time you spend being bored in a class.
  • Take in the Outdoors. Whenever you can, go for a walk outside. Whether alone or with friends, it helps break the feeling of being trapped

  • Make friends. One of the purposes of the orientation is to introduce you to other foreigners. Find people you get along with, and forge friendships. It will help you get through the orientation, and will open up countless social possibilities once you get your freedom.

Smack dozens of teachers into dorms, lecture at them for 10 days straight while feeding them quasi-Korean food and then smoosh them in a small room and tell them to pose while saying “Kimchi!” and this is the photo that you’ll get.

  • Keep an Open Mind. You will meet all sorts of people, ranging from people who are exactly like you, to individuals you can’t stand. The new guys will also be bombarded with a sensory overload of a new culture. It is important to be open to all of it, take in what you will, and let go of the rest, that way you will make the most of your experience at your orientation.

Don’t get me wrong: the orientation is a rewarding experience (even if you come with EPIK or GEPIK), and a good introduction to the fast-paced reality of Korea, but get try to get some your rest before you attend. You’ll need it!


9 thoughts on “Finding your feet in Korea

  1. Hello there! This post is really interesting for me since I work as an English tutor for Koreans and Japanese here in the Philippines. I’m just wondering about the credentials needed to become and English tutor there in Korea. Thank you. 🙂

  2. this is the exact thing I have been looking for – i’m hopefully going to be undertaking a year in South Korea teaching English as a foreign language in my year after I graduate and these are perfect survival tips!! thank you!! 😀

  3. LOL – when I started my current job I had to go through a rigourous week-long training which I would not describe as fun, especially since one of my team members from Palm Springs complained the whole time. I can relate on a smaller level. It looks like you meet some new people though which is always a plus!

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