Teaching In Korea #1: Letting Go
So, you just landed your first teaching job in Korea. Congratulations! You’re probably really curious about what it’s going to be like, and I’m here to help. This is the first in a series of articles called Teaching in Korea, where I’ll be sharing lots of tips and information. You can expect to learn about the different types of jobs you can get (public schools, hagwons, international schools), the differences between Korean and American schools, and tips for becoming a better ESL teacher. I’ll be sure to add to this series as I learn more about teaching in South Korea, so that way you can be better informed as you get ready for you new job (or try to get better at the one you’re already at).
I’ve been teaching for about two months now, and I already feel like I’ve learned a lot about being an ESL teacher. But there is one thing that I’m still getting used to: my school tells me nothing. And I mean that quite literally.
Here is an example so you can understand what I mean. I had found out when the winter break was going to be (Christmas Eve through January 5th) at the beginning of December from one of the other teachers. My director waited until December 22nd to come ask me if I knew when the break was. I was genuinely surprised that he waited so late starting to tell me we had a break coming up, as it was so different from the style of communication I’m used to in America.
Now, I can hear what you’re thinking. “Well, why didn’t you ask the director yourself? He shouldn’t be responsible for making sure you know everything!” And I agree with you, for winter break, I could have easily confirmed it with him rather than not asking him at all. Though, I have asked when certain breaks are going to be, but the office staff seemed very confused about why I was asking and eventually gave me rough estimates of when the break might be (because apparently the school breaks aren’t already planned out?). Even talking to the other teachers at my school, I generally got the reaction of “Oh, we never know when the vacations will be exactly. We just have a rough idea and plan our trips around that.” Which blew my mind, since I’m used to the idea that school breaks are planned at the beginning of the school year, so that vacations can be planned accordingly (speaking of which take this handy Link to calendar of Korean Public Holidays for 2016).
But it’s about more than just being told when breaks are. I’ve had it happen several times where I suddenly have a new student (who usually won’t speak a word of English and is therefore way behind the other students) in a class, and no one gave me a heads up (so I could prepare work for them to do) or even told me the child’s name. I’ve also had it happen where the class schedule changed and I feel like the only one who didn’t know, so I stand in the hallway not sure what I’m supposed to be doing or where I’m supposed to be. I just try to take it all in stride and move on with my lesson plans.
Now, I’m not writing this post to be all “Waaaaah! Korean schools are awful and don’t tell you anything! Waaaaah!” I’m writing this post so that you, dear reader, can adjust your expectations before coming to Korea, and hopefully dull the culture shock a little bit.
In America, I was used to constant communication. In college, professors were always emailing us to give us updated assignments or to answer questions that were being asked. In law school, professors gave us their cell phone numbers so we could text or call them with questions about the cases we were reading. Hell, even the community choir I was in last year had a text alert system so all of the members would know what room we would be in or if practice was canceled. In America, I was used to memos that had to be initialed to prove that everyone had been informed about some new policy, event, or change.
When I started teaching in Korea, I was really shocked at the lack of communication. After talking to my friends who are also ESL teachers, I’ve learned that this is just how Korean schools do things. There’s no right way or wrong way here, it’s just a cultural difference. I can imagine a Korean would be just as shocked (and possibly even frustrated) by the constant stream of emails and memos that exists in a typical American work place, even though we Americans are used to, and even expect, it.
So here’s my advice to you if you’re getting ready for your first teaching job: prepare to be out of the loop a lot of the time. Being an ESL teacher is an incredibly rewarding experience, and part of the fun of it is getting used to working and living in a different culture. And in Korea, a different style of communication between the administration and the teachers is part of that culture. Just take a big deep breath, channel your inner Elsa (and let it gooooo!), and always do you lesson plans in pencil.
What are some of the things you were surprised about when you started your first ESL job? How did you learn to handle them? What types of things do you want to hear about being an ESL teacher in Korea? Let me know in the comments below!