Travel Stories

A travel blog for a long-term expat, backpacker, traveler, ESL teacher, and photographer. 


I am now on my tenth week in Korea and have hardly written about the teaching aspect of my experience. Here it is:

        I work at three public schools in the same district from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM Monday through Friday. I teach at two middle schools - one is co-ed and one is all girls - and one elementary school. The two middle schools are both about one minute by foot from my house which has its advantages and disadvantages (living next to many students and seeing them in my free time vs. having almost no commute) and the elementary is about 40 minutes away by foot.  I teach more or less 19 classes a week (each being from 40-45 minutes) which is about 14 hours a week (no more than four a day). To further understand about the levels I teach, I must explain the grade system in Korea. Elementary schools have six grades and middle schools have three grades, first, second, and third. Therefore, the Korean middle school grades are equivalent of the US seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. As for me, I teach every grade from fifth grade elementary school until third grade middle. 

       The skill levels really vary by school. For example, my first graders at my co-ed middle school speak better English than my second graders at my all girls middle school. In fact, my elementary school fifth graders speak better English than my second graders at my all girls school. Why does this happen, you may wonder? Well, it isn't necessarily due to incompetence at any school. It is probably due to a system that is unique to Korea - hagwons. Hagwons are private academies that most students go to after they finish public school. In the US, we obviously participate in after school activities such as sports and clubs, however; in Korea, students go to more school. The levels vary depending on what the student's parents can afford. If students are more wealthy than others, they can afford to go to a better hagwon - one with another foreign teacher, for example. Almost all of my elementary school students live in the apartments surrounding the school which not only have an amazing view of the ocean, but they also are rather new and fancy. Anyways, almost all students go to these academies after school. Many of my friends that are working at hagwons finish work at 9 PM - so, that also means that some students are still in class until 9 PM. In addition, when their equivalent of Summer Vacation occurs (which is in January/February), students don't come to public school, (except for the select few who attend camp for 3 hours a day) they go just to hagwon all day. Even though the government provides this vacation from public schools, students are still going to school regardless. This system may work in some ways but, generally, I notice how exhausted my students are and how much they do not get to enjoy their childhood due to the excessive amount of schooling. 

        Now, let me talk about my specific teaching experience. I have one main school (the co-ed middle) that deals with my paperwork, apartment, provided me with a head co-teacher, etc. Because this is my main school, I teach here three days a week (Mon, Tues, Fri). If the students are on vacation, I still come to my main school regardless. I am in a very positive, accepting environment and I feel very comfortable in my workplace. My desk is in a large teacher's room with maybe forty or so other teachers. At my main school, I teach first and third grade boys and girls. Each grade is split into genders and into levels. For example, on Mondays, I teach the advanced quarter of first grade boys, on Tuesday the other quarter, and on Fridays, I teach the other two quarters who are considered an intermediate level. At my second all girls middle school, because I am only there once a week, I see different students each week and therefore, each student about once a month. My third school is luckily rather small and I teach all of fifth and sixth grade which fits into a grand total of four classes. My second school provides me with a desk for my once a week visit and my third school provides me with a couch. 

        Because I am split between three schools, I teach different students every day (about 600 a week) and it would not make sense for any school to provide me with a textbook. In saying that, I am responsible for making every lesson by myself with absolutely no guidance. In comparison, the vast majority of hagwon jobs are completed using a textbook each day as the classes are much smaller and the teachers tend to see the same students much more often than once a week. It was definitely overwhelming at first, but, in fact, I am more flexible to teach what I want and when I want. Textbooks could definitely make my life easier but creating my own lessons will make me a better teacher as I have to do my own research. Don't get me wrong, some public school teachers do have textbooks - just, in my case, I do not (perhaps this is the case for the teachers who are split in three?). It also gives me the freedom to notice common errors in each class and from there, I can form lessons to better them as individuals. When I first arrived, I asked the Korean English teachers what they expected from me as a teacher - am I a conversational English teacher as opposed to being a grammar teacher? I was told that grammar is for Korean teachers and that I am expected to focus on speaking and conversation much more than grammar points. This obviously makes my life easier as grammar is more difficult to teach as I am not trained in teaching it, however; I will eventually touch certain grammar points in future classes due to noticing common errors. Lastly, I also have almost all materials at my grasp - I can laminate, I have mini whiteboards, computers with powerpoint (one school even has the smartboard), board games, markers, etc. This makes teaching a lot easier obviously. 

          Next, I would like to talk about my experience in co-teaching. Each foreign teacher, regardless of it being hagwon or public school, is supposed to have a co-teacher. At my main school, I have three different co-teachers on rotation. Co-teaching in Japan, for example, means that you are more or less an assistant teacher. Co-teaching in Korea, however, means that you are a teacher and your Korean sidekick is there solely for discipline and translation. This works well at my main school because my co-teachers are positive people who pay attention to my lesson and are always noticing when students fail to understand a word or two. A positive co-teaching experience really depends on each individual co-teacher, sadly. One co-teacher that I have could not possibly be any less interested in my teaching and is almost never paying attention for when translations are necessary. This is irritating but, fortunately, I have a few really advanced students who sometimes translate for confused students. I always do try to prepare for problematic words when I know I will be assisted by that particular co-teacher though. Another co-teacher has no confidence in her/my students and translates almost every thing I say. This is another challenge and I know other my teacher friends have had the same issues - this can easily be solved via a little bit of communication.

          Lastly, I would like to talk about discipline. Some teachers I have spoken to have absolute nightmare students who need to be sent out of class all the time. I am lucky and I have had yet to experience that irritation. My students are fairly obedient and, if there are issues, anything can lead to positive behavior if there is some sort of reward coming their way. Sweets are a very good bribery because I have noticed students will do almost anything for candy or chocolate (make sure to announce the reward.). Out of all of my classes, I have one problematic class that drives me absolutely nuts. I often find myself shouting my lessons because they won't stop talking (obviously there are better approaches). It does make me feel really bad for the few good students in that class as they lose out on improving their English. To battle this particular class, I have even tried to embarrass the noisy students by making them individually repeat after me when I am teaching some sort of pronunciation (which only works half of the time). The previous teacher told me that he used to stay quiet at the beginning of class until they stopped talking and that apparently worked. I did hold these students after class one day for two minutes in silence as punishment - that seemed to do the job. Anyways, I have a very loud voice/personality and I have generally a positive rapport so I have few problems besides the class aforementioned. Children are children and they will always want to chat. It is important to be conscious of your classroom environment to ensure you have the student's attentions. Also, discipline is technically what co-teachers are for so when in doubt, talk to them. 

          In conclusion, I am very happy with my experience this far regardless of a few minor obstacles. Everything I have written is based on my own observations and experiences and obviously may differ from region to region/school to school. This experience is really helping me to grow as a teacher and help learn what sort of activities work and which ones don't work. I am very grateful that I did my CELTA prior to teaching as it made me prepared for lesson planning and showed me various types of activities that are useful in ESL.