Teaching in Korea, Plus: How to be a Good Teacher

I have been living and teaching in Korea for four years and a half now, and I have experienced a variety of schools first hand as well as second hand through lots of long conversations with foreign expats. Today, I wanted to go over some pointers and dish out some ~real talk~ as to what teaching in Korea is really like, according to my own subjective opinion.

The reason why I wanted to write this post is because I have seen lots of young people who were obsessed with Korea come over, thinking that life in Korea would be easy-peasy, and then get sorely disappointed once they found out that life is actually pretty hard. Manage your expectations and do know that yes, you will actually have to work. About 70% of all English teachers I know leave after 1 year or less, and 90% will have left by their second year, simply because teaching English at a Korean school can be rather… trying, for some more than others. More on that in a bit.

I salute all of you who stay past one year.

The Good

  1. You get to teach skills that your students will be able to benefit from their entire lives.
  2. You can make a genuine difference to someone’s life; in your case, hopefully, for the better.
  3. If you are not quite sure what to do with your life and your degree is not getting you very far, landing a teaching job in Korea can help you learn valuable life lessons and instill a proper work ethic in you. You also get to live independently of your parents and make your own choices, which for some can be an experience in itself.
  4. Working with kids can teach you invaluable lessons about yourself as well as kids, and though I do not have kids myself, I would imagine that teaching kids can make you a better parent later in life.
  5. You get to travel to a whole new country and experience a beautiful culture that combines modernity with tradition in a truly unique manner.
  6. Healthcare, public transportation, customer service, Internet speed and technology are second to none. It’s like living in 2050.
  7. Schools pay for your flight and flat (not in my case because I was already in Korea prior to working), plus you get a salary at the end of the month. So if you’re careful with your money, you get to enjoy life and perhaps even save a little at the end of each month.
  8. Teaching really is a career that keeps on giving. There are always ways to update your skills. Forums, books, fellow teachers, online articles, parenting blogs etc will continue to amaze you with their insight.

Now on to some real talk. Here’s what no one ever tells you before you sign that contract.

The Not-So-Good

  1. As foreign teachers, many employers as well as regular Korean people may think of you as gap year rejects and total losers who only come to Korea because there is nothing else in store for you in your home country. And you know what, I don’t really blame Koreans for that. Back when I went on a corporate training course, the trainers would casually ask around as to why people came to Korea and the vast majority would say that they wanted to party and travel and find adventure in Korea. Not a single person wanted to actually teach or was even remotely interested in kids. So… don’t be surprised that no one will be rolling out red carpets for you in Korea.
  2. Your contract will state 15 vacation days or something around that number. No personal sick days, usually. What that means is that you get the public holidays off throughout the year and not one day more, unless otherwise stated. One day here, two days there. By European standards, you get exactly 0 vacation days. If you do get extra holidays, you may be required to complete work such as lesson prep and report cards – see below.
  3. You may be required to write report cards on the reg (due every 2-3 months for 40-120 students depending on your school). Do yourself a favour and automate this process either using free software (check ESL Reports) or paid software (check out LRS here). I paid for report writing software and honestly, they were the best £30 I ever spent.
  4. On your days off or on vacation days, you may be required to come in for desk warming, a uniquely Korean practice of making foreign teachers go to work to simply sit at their desks when there are no students but they are still paying your salary.
  5. If you want to check on your school, see if you can find them on Korea’s Hagwon (academy) Blacklist over here. None of the schools I have worked for was ever as bad as the schools mentioned, though some of my friends have worked at some of the blacklisted schools and they have confirmed to me that some schools are worse than others.
  6. If you are non-Caucasian, overweight, gay, have visible tattoos or piercings, unnatural hair colours, a physical disfiguration or just overall look a little different from the norm in general, prepare for some snide comments from parents and/or kids and/or coworkers and/or bosses. Ideally, you should be white, conventionally beautiful and skinny. White privilege is ~totally~ a thing here and I acknowledge that I have ~totally~ been a beneficiary of that systemic mindset.
  7. You should not get sick. If you do get sick for more than a few days, you risk getting fired on the spot. If you are ill for one or two days however, your boss may *only* deduct your salary for that day plus the salary of the substitute teacher that they have to call in.
  8. You should not ask for extra days off. If you do, your bosses may deduct those days from your salary plus the salary of the substitute teacher they will have to call up.
  9. Working hours vary but generally speaking, you will be looking at a standard 40 hour week plus events. Lunch or dinner breaks are not usually included. If they are, it may indicate that you will serve your kids lunch and then yourself. However, many schools will put on events such as Halloween, sports days etc on Saturdays, for which you may be required to come in, it is likely that you will not be getting compensated for working extra.
  10. Many schools will put on summer or winter camps, which are not actually camps but merely extra lessons. What that means is that you may be working 60-80 hour weeks, you may have to make your own additional lesson plans, and you may or may not get paid for those extra hours. If you do get paid, do not expect more than US$20 per day in overtime pay.
  11. Many schools are private schools, meaning they are businesses. not charities. As such, your school may put on open days or experience kits before or after your regular scheduled lessons or on weekends, where it is your job to teach sample lessons. You may or may not get compensated for your time.
  12. By law, if you finish a one year contract, you are entitled to one monthly salary as a reward. Some schools may fire you just before that year is over so they don’t have to pay you that one extra salary.
  13. Shady stuff may happen. I have worked for big and small companies, it does not matter how reputable or big your company is – there is a chance that there will be something shady going on.

Being a Good Teacher

Retraining to become a teacher was a massive leap out of my comfort zone. I do love teaching – I really surprised myself there! – but when I started my very first teaching job, I failed miserably. Thankfully, I took responsibility for my shortcomings and learnt from my mistakes. Here’s what I want you to know about being a great teacher:

  • If you are serious about teaching, check out Teach like a Champion by Doug Lemov. A fantastic book for teaching students of all ages, be they kindergartners or uni students. Practical, actionable advice that’s easy to implement. It will help make your days infinitely easier, smoother and fulfilling thanks to its smart advice on classroom management, relationship building and academic excellence.
  • The old adage is true: You can only take care of others if you take care of yourself first. You can only give love to your students if you love yourself, or are at least comfortable with yourself to a satisfactory degree. If you are still in the process of soul searching and finding yourself, and suffering from anxiety and/or depression of any kind, you may find teaching infinitely more difficult. I would recommend that you sort yourself out first, then look into teaching.
  • On your first day, implement classroom rules straight away. If you don’t, you will be dealing with behavioural issues and classroom management issues for the rest of the school term, and believe you me, turning around a classroom where bad habits have taken hold is nigh impossible. Your classroom rules could include stuff like:
    • If you want to talk, raise your hand and wait to be called on.
    • Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
    • No food, drinks in bottles are ok.
    • Give the person who’s talking your eyes and your ears.
    • If you need to leave your seat/desk, ask first.
  • Be consistent with your classroom rules. Don’t make exceptions. Don’t make different rules for different students.
  • Treat all students equally but vary your techniques – some kids are more sensitive than others and may require handling with kid gloves, some may require a bit more bluntness and may require consistent consequences. Tap into your intuitive side and remember to see them as little humans.
  • Speaking of intuition, kids are intuitive. They will know if you don’t like them. Try to see each child’s good sides and appreciate their individual strengths. Do not openly despise them.
  • Some kids will not like you and that’s ok. Just like us adults sometimes don’t like someone for irrational reasons e.g. because that person reminds us of our mother, that person reminds us of an ex – so do kids. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about it and sometimes it will take months until you get one of your students to warm up to you.
  • Whatever you do, NEVER EVER shout in class. If you feel the need to shout, you will have already lost control and your kids will know it. Keep your voice even, clear and easy to understand, and let your body language exude confidence.
  • You are a teacher, not their friend. Try not to be too chummy with them. You are not on their level, so don’t pretend you are. You can be caring, motherly, empathetic, friendly and give them all your love, but you should set boundaries straight away.
  • Kids may sometimes have little boo-boos. Try to keep them in the classroom and so as to minimise disruption, keep things like tissues, wet wipes, plasters, water spray bottles and tiger balm handy. Oftentimes, kids just want to feel cared for and placebo cures work a treat. If my students get headaches, I will spray them with water (think Evian, hypoallergenic) or if they are too sick, you could dab some tiger balm on a tissue and hand them that to sniff (don’t put it directly on their skin, you never know what skin conditions or allergies they may have). Students will feel that you actively care about them and in 90% of all cases, will resume active learning once their boo-boo has been addressed without them having to be sent out.
  • This is something I see parents and co teachers get wrong all the time. If your kid doesn’t know something, don’t ridicule them for it. Explain it again. Don’t be a smartarse.
  • If you have a smart board or TV in the classroom, don’t show videos for more than 2 minutes unless they are expressly educational. Limit screen time. Encourage them to talk or play with each other so they can build social skills during break time. Pikachu rap battle videos are not going to help them much in their personal development.
  • Don’t do for them what they can do themselves, e.g. putting their jackets on, packing their bags, etc. Leave enough time at the end and beginning of each lesson for students to retrieve and pack up their stuff. Only if it’s urgent, assist them.
  • Before break time starts, remind students to use toilets, eat their snacks and drink water. Otherwise, you’ll have a bunch of kids needing to use the toilet in the middle of the lesson.
  • For classroom management, I would recommend some kind of point reward system, to use consequences and to stay away from punishments as much as possible. If my students answer something correctly in a full sentence, they get a point. If they shout out an answer without raising their hand, especially when it was someone else’s turn, I will deduct one point (or heart, or star, or whatever you choose) but give them a chance to earn that point back. I hardly ever have to actually punish because this point system works very well and allows for the lesson to flow smoothly.
  • If you can, try to develop some kind of teacher personality. For example, one of my favourite fellow teachers is super humorous and tells the funniest jokes. Kids love him because he is just that funny! Another fellow teacher whom I admire greatly is extremely academic. His students love him because they learn so much in his class. As for myself, I am kind of like a high-energy mum, plus I tell them lots of dad jokes and random facts and tidbits. Being a high-energy mummy teacher who tells lame dad jokes/is full of facts helps me stay energised during classes and… how do I put this without sounding too New Age-y?… I feel that I actually get the energy I spend on the kids… back from them. So even at the end of my work days, I will still have lots of energy to devote to my many hobbies and pastimes and passion projects, leaving me feeling fulfilled and full of purpose.
  • Some kids will try and push your buttons, checking if you will react (‘teacher you’re so ugly’). Just laugh it off or mirror them, and get on with your lesson – they are just testing your boundaries.
  • Many kids will lack basic life skills, such as tying their own shoe laces. I have had 12 year olds who did not know how to tie their own shoes, and I have heard of ten year olds who did not know how to wipe their arse. Teach them or get help teaching them. It is what it is, Korean parents tend to be very protective of their offspring in my experience.

Did I miss something? Was I being too nice, or too harsh at times? Let me know in the comments.

© 2019 The Empties Diaries All Rights Reserved

2 thoughts on “Teaching in Korea, Plus: How to be a Good Teacher

  1. loved this post! I’ll defo check out Teach Like a Champion. I had to read a lot of teaching and classroom management books in uni but never came across this one. I’m in need of a refresher before I head back to Korea, so I’m sure it will be a good read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I credit Teach Like A Champion for everything I am as a teacher. Groundbreaking stuff that’s elegant in its simplicity at the same time. Should be required reading for any aspiring teacher of any discipline really. They have a 2.0 edition out which is the one I read, though I’m sure the first one would be ok too.

      Liked by 1 person

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