Deciding to teach English in South Korea was not hard, but teaching definitely has been. I teach at two middle schools in Ulsan, South Korea, where the kids are between 12 and 14 years old and, oh man, are they a handful!
Having never taught in America, everything about my experience has been new. From living to working, every day has provided new, interesting, fun, and yes, extremely difficult challenges.
1. Learn to Speak Korean
You may end up in a small town and not be able to communicate with a single person (sometimes not even your co-teacher) very easily in English. At least reading Korean and sounding it out gives you some form of communication.
2. Find Out Your Students’ Interests
Do yourself a favor and start listening to K-Pop or playing Overwatch (an online computer game) if you haven’t already. Female Korean students are obsessed with K-Pop and the boys are obsessed with Overwatch. However, you have to be 14 to play Overwatch, so the elementary boys play other games.
The most popular boy K-Pop groups are BTS and Exo (both my favorites!) and the most popular girl groups are Twice and I.O.I. Because I listened to K-Pop in America and actually love it, I have been able to connect with my students in an invaluable way.
Here is one example of a popular K-Pop video:
It is incredible how excited they were when they found out that I am interested in the same thing they are. Some students go out of their way to talk to me about it. In English. Which is mind-blowingly awesome.
3. Be Flexible
Nine times out of ten, I change my lesson plan after a class and sometimes change the lesson 3 or 4 times before the final class of the week. Let yourself make mistakes and don’t beat yourself up if a lesson plan fails miserably (speaking from experience here). The students will not hold it against you and neither will your co-teacher.
The mark of a good teacher is the willingness to improve lessons and take note of what works and what doesn’t. Korea is a country of constant change and self-improvement; If your lessons reflect this, it’s only natural.
4. Don’t Take Anything Too Personally
I would go home feeling horrible after a hard day thinking the students hate me and I’m the worst because the students acted up in class. Then, the next day, the same trouble-makers would be friendly with me in the hallways. It’s very important to remind yourself that there is a language barrier, and the things your students do in class is not a reflection of what they think of your personality. That being said, always try to be friendly with them in and out of class.
5. Be Enthusiastic With the Students Even When You’re Feeling Horrible
On bad days (you will have bad days), it’s hard to smile, but it makes a world of difference to engage your students. Since they don’t speak my language, I find they often read my facial expressions. I plaster on a smile and show them I’m happy to see them even if I’m feeling crummy on the inside.
6. Let Authentic English Happen, Even if it’s Off Lesson
Sometimes during class, students will talk to me in English that is off topic. Please let it happen. One of the hardest things about teaching English to Korean students is that they do NOT want to speak. Unless you have a class full of students that go to hagwons (English academies) after school, most students are reluctant to speak in English because they lack motivation or confidence in speaking up. When a student makes authentic English conversation happen in class, I let them speak. It benefits everyone.
7. Manipulate Your Lesson Plans to Increase Motivation
Encouraging motivation to learn English is the biggest challenge any EFL teacher will face, and I found out the hard way that my extremely energetic 1st grade (7th grade) boys are not motivated by the same things as my super shy 1st grade girls. In middle school, competition is almost always a sure-fire way to get the kids excited about English, but the kind of competition is different with each class. This does take time to figure it out, but it helps make classes more effective.
For instance, I played a game of hot seat with my second grade boys and they loved being the center of attention. I did the same game with my 1st grade girls and they were terrified to be singled out and it made for a very uncomfortable 10 minutes. With the girls, it’s better to use group games where no one is actively alone in front of a group. I do think this is especially true for middle schoolers. They are extremely self-conscious and just want to be part of the group.
8. Be Consistent
Classroom management is extremely difficult with a language barrier. Luckily, you will have a co-teacher who will most likely deal with most aspects of the classroom management. If your co-teacher does not, however, come up with your own system of rewards which helps with motivation and consequences that keep your kids in line and then follow through every time.
9. Learn the Art of Rejuvenation
What helps you relax? How do you rest? Learn the signs of your own exhaustion and deal with it accordingly. When your muscles ache, your mind and emotions will also. Trust me on this. Give yourself time to recuperate if you feel drained.
10. Don’t Expect Miracles
Leave any expectations you had at the door about how your students will act towards you or in class. Every single day is different. Once I learned to take my unrealistic expectations off of the students and put the expectations on myself, I started feeling much better and learned to have more fun with the students.
Take everything you’ve read with a grain of salt. Every single English teacher’s experience is going to be different. You could get an amazing co-teacher who helps you every step of the way, or you could have a co-teacher who couldn’t care less. Your students could be maniacs or they could be perfect angels. It is impossible to plan for every outcome while teaching.
I have learned from my two months here that it is best to have a good attitude and greet each class with enthusiasm because then I know I tried my best to create a safe environment for these kids to feel comfortable with English. As native English speakers, we give the students something they can’t get from their Korean teachers and that is invaluable to remember and utilize in your teaching.
About Greenheart Travel’s guest blogger, Emily Balamut:
I am from Minneapolis, Minnesota and am now living in Ulsan, Korea. I’m a total teaching newbie (having never taught in America) and teach 1st and 2nd grade middle school students; the equivalent of 7th and 8th graders. The advice I give in this article is gathered from two months of teaching these middle schoolers, so know that I am not a teaching expert. In these short months, I have already grown so much and my experiences in the classroom have made me a stronger, more confident teacher.
You can read more about my adventures in South Korea on my blog, Emily Teaches Abroad in Korea.