30 things Korea taught me

As you know (or may not know), this is my second year living in Korea. For many reasons, I have chosen not to renew my contract and thus, will be leaving Korea for good next year. As I begin to … Continue reading

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Finding your feet in Korea

Faraaz: 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, … Continue reading

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A Month Has Passed


It’s been just over a month since I began my career as an ESL teacher and this week was the first time I taught some classes alone. A month ago, being faced with such a task would have terrified me but now, I just take it in my stride. In fact, some classes turned out better than when I have a co teacher with me.

One thing I have noticed is how much busier I have gotten since I began work. At first, the other teachers just went about their merry business without involving me unless it was absolutely necessary. Now I find them asking me for help, involving me in certain tasks and even asking me to take over some tasks. Initially I was eager to lend a hand since I had so much time to kill…. Now I find myself occasionally avoiding a certain vice principal because it seems like she always has more to ask from me.

Pondering on this drastic change in workload and free time, I decided to go back, and try to figure out where it all changed. In doing so, I came across this entry from my journal (a journal I no longer keep due to having no free time!):

“Monday, 14 May 2012:

The day started off dull and gloomy, with the crisp island air holding that faint smell of rain still to come.

I got to school at 8:30 and prepared myself for my first period, only to find that I had no lesson, instead the grade 3’s were writing a test in which I need to supervise. Well I guess I could hold out for one more lesson. By now it’s been two weeks and I had yet to formally teach a class. What started out as anxiousness has now turned into frustration; I just want to get it started so I could get a feel for this teaching thing. I decided to take this time to address some admin issues I had with the school. I had not yet received my settlement money and my funds were dwindling; I also needed a year schedule and a bed. These were all ongoing issues that I have been trying to sort out since my arrival. Little did I know that this would lead to quite a busy day for me, and all other parties involved.


First period seemed to drag on forever, standing at the back of the class I felt more like a student being punished than a teacher on duty. The class was dead quiet as they took their test. This made the 45 minute lesson seem painfully long. Even my co teacher Mr. Yoon had to sit down and space out for a while. I think we both simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief when the end of class music played. Immediately afterward, I had second grade with Kim Rami. We hurried to class because she still needed to show me where the projector controls were. Finally, I got my official first attempt at teaching. I had a Grade 2 class so opted to simply go with one of Joseph’s (the previous co-teacher) lessons, making my preparation fairly straight forward. Kim Rami started the lesson by getting the students in order and making some announcements. This took about 10 minutes, which affected my lesson plan since I had planned to use the entire lesson. I figured I would just go on until the time was over, rather have more material than time, or so I’ve read. The lesson itself went well, even the game I played started off with full participation, but after a while, I realised my first mistake, I made the groups too big! I ended up only teaching the front half of the class because they were the only ones actually participating. Well at least I have one point to improve on already. For the most part, the lesson went by really well, those that were interested, participated well. I only had a few problem kids with whom Kim Rami took measures to discipline.

I had a few free periods to catch up on some emails, have lunch, check my facebook account and check up on the blog. This was however disrupted by Kim Rami explaining to me why they weren’t able to pay me my settlement allowance yet. To be honest, even she didn’t seem to understand what was going on. This announcement was followed by me running to the finance office a few times, then being asked to run home to fetch my passport so that they can try and rectify things. I guess my change of tone really got them in gear. It also got me running around trying to get them the correct information. I had a class after lunch and cut it very close with my passport issues. I actually had to run home, get soaked in the steady rain and run back to school, copy my passport and then grab my stuff and head to class, all in the space of 7minutes. I did make it, and thankfully, due to my new found island life fitness, was not nearly as out of breath as I had expected to be.

Then it was my last class for the day, class 1-1. From what I gather, 1-1 is the best first grade class, just as 2-1 and 3-1 are the best in their grades. This class is well motivated and almost all the kids are willing to participate and help the lesson go forward, how I wish all my classes were this good. During this class, I started off with some drills, then taught them a few words, and introduced a game. Learning from my last class, I ensured that the teams were small enough to manage, and to allow everyone in the class to participate.  This class worked out really well and I even got a high-five from Kim Rami afterward.

I was feeling good. “I can do this” I thought to myself as I locked up the classroom for the day. When I got to the teachers office however, I was met with some surprising news. I was to meet the principal in his office…. Damn, what did I do now?

With Kim Rami at my side as interpreter, we sat anxiously in the principal’s office as he put on his coat, sat down at the head of the table, and opened up his diary. I wondered what this was all about while the principal rattled off to my co teacher in a very calm, almost mellow voice. They discussed and discussed, not pausing much, until eventually Kim Rami explained, “The school master wants to know how many hours you work every week.” I then briefly discussed my hours with Rami and she went back to conversing with the principal. After more discussion, she tells me that the principal wants to maximise my working hours since I am supposed to be working 21 periods a week, and currently, I am not. I thought to myself, “Damn, this is because I’ve been riding them about my bed and money!!” Turns out, I now have 4 more classes in a week, every morning before official start of school. 2 Advanced English with a mixed group of the best English students in the school, and 2 lessons of private English tuition with the principal himself, after he sits in on some of my classes. Eish, talk about pressure! He is also apparently going to come to my home to pay me a visit (no idea why). On top of all this, I also need to create weekly worksheets for each grade, to ensure they are progressing. I suppose there will be no more desk warming for me. On a positive note, this should prove to be quite an interesting and rewarding experience where I actually get to give back to the school that removed me from the doldrums of the Johannesburg rat race. Oh, and my bed is being ordered 🙂

After that small shock to the system, and realizing that this is work and no longer a holiday, I got down to doing some research to see if I could find some worksheets to adapt for my cause. Turns out there are, although I will have to alter my perceptions of this job a bit, and get more serious about it.

To end off the day, I got news that I will not have school tomorrow since it was Teachers Day, and then I got whisked away from my desk by one of the male teachers (who had taken it upon himself to call us friends), to enjoy some rice cakes given to the teachers as a treat from one of the parents. It seems like getting gifts from parents is an almost daily occurrence at this school!”

Since then, I have been constantly busy at school, if not teaching, I am testing students, when I am not doing that, I have worksheets, admin and other random tasks that occupy almost all of my time. No wonder I don’t post as often as my better half!

Even though this new career has proved to be a decent amount of effort, I consider myself to be in a far better position than at my previous place of employment.

That place where I slaved away, like a robot, churning out drawings that I had no input on and with designs that I didn’t always like, in what could only be described as a back room sweat shop. Woe to the life of a desperate young architect in South Africa.

Bad experiences aside, I find myself missing my profession. I guess I will always be an architect at heart 🙂

You do what?


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.

Aneesa’s grade sixes in their fancy class

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.

Faraaz in action

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!”

Some of Aneesa’s grade three after school classes

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.

“Faraaz teacher leave us alone!”

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.

It happens.

Any issues?

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.

Spot the teacher!

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!