How to Survive Your First Week as an English Teacher in South Korea

How to Survive Your First Week as an English Teacher in South Korea

I am entering my fourth month of teaching English to Korean students in South Korea and trying to remember my first week of teaching is… difficult. What comes back to me are the nerves, the trepidation, the downright horror, and the anxiety. Everything is intimidating, people don’t speak your language, and why is everyone staring?! But it wasn’t all bad!

Learning to go with the flow and being open to the new environment and culture helped shape my first week of school into a good experience.

The following tips are a compilation of things that helped me make my first week positive and survivable.

Learn Basic Workplace Greetings in Korean

At the EPIK orientation, we learned five phrases in Korean: Hello, Nice to meet you, My name is…, I am from…, and I look forward to working with you. They taught every person at orientation these expressions, and at the time I didn’t know how helpful they would prove to be in my new school environment.

My very first day of school was terrifying. I was presented to the entire staff of teachers and administration. When the principal handed me the microphone (accept everything from someone superior to you with TWO hands), I said those five phrases in Korean and everyone was shocked. After I uttered each phrase, the teachers would applaud! They were clearly shocked that I knew any Korean at all!

Over time, I’ve learned that the principals were appreciative of the fact that I took the time to learn some Korean to make a good impression. It’s important to show your new coworkers that you are interested in their culture, and that you are excited to start working with them. Especially on the first day in your new school.


Me on my first day of teaching English.

Make an Exciting Self-Introduction

My co-teacher told me that for my first week of classes I would be doing a self-introduction presentation for each class. I used PowerPoint and included “I enjoy…” as my main theme. I spent the first twenty minutes telling the students about myself – where I’m from, who my family is, and what I enjoy doing. I included tons of pictures of myself and the things I enjoy.

I made sure to tell the kids that I love K-Pop and K-Dramas as well as included pictures of movies and TV shows I like that I knew they’d be familiar with and appreciate (Adventure Time, anyone?). The self-introduction is a great place to let the kids know who you are and where you come from. Believe me, they are SUPER interested in you.

Let Them Ask You Questions (and Don’t Be Offended if They Seem Too Personal)

I included five to ten minutes in my introduction where the students could ask me any questions they wanted. Beware: they get personal!

“Do you have a boyfriend?” and “How old are you?” were by far the two most common questions.

I answered every question they asked as I have no problem answering personal questions about myself; my favorite being if I could speak Korean.

I ended up using five minutes of my presentation telling the students about how I can write and read Hangul (Korean), and I had three students tell me their names so I could write them on the board. Their reactions were priceless, and I will never forget their shock and awe and the huge rounds of applause I heard when I successfully wrote the names. If you can write in Korean, I highly suggest including it in your self-intro. I segued this into the fact that I cannot understand Korean, so if they need to say something to me, it should be in English!


A box of letters that the students wrote for me. It was the old English teacher’s idea and definitely made my first week so much more welcoming. I still look at those letters now that I know the kids better, and it makes me laugh so much. When I leave, I will definitely have the kids write the new teacher letters.

Think About Ways to Motivate the Kids Before You Get to Korea

This is advice I wish I had followed from the get-go, and really didn’t figure out until about three months in. And to be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out! It is impossible to know how your co-teachers will want to handle discipline and rewards, but it is important to think about possible ways to motivate students before you start teaching. Honestly, the hardest thing about teaching has been keeping the kids motivated, and I wish I could back to my first week of teaching and set a highly competitive (competition works wonders with middle-schoolers in Korea) reward system in place for the kids to get excited about.

We are almost done with the school year and because my reward system (it’s based on a “five stamps for one candy” rule) is sub-par, many students aren’t motivated in the same way they were in the middle of the semester. Understandably, it would be tough to figure out an entire system over the weekend before you get into the classroom, but if you can research things before you get to Korea, I would suggest it. It’s something I wish I would have done just to be able to present something to my students upon arrival. Granted, if you decide to implement something a week or two in, that shouldn’t be a problem, either.

These are just a few things I’d say to help ease the terror that is the first week of being an English teacher in Korea. I know teaching is uncomfortable and difficult and learning about a different culture’s workplace customs just adds to the pressure of teaching well. Try to remember that you’re there for the kids. They make it worth it, and even if they are little monsters some days, their curiosity and humor during that first week will help diminish the intimidation and make your first week fly by in the blink of an eye.


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.

One thought on "How to Survive Your First Week as an English Teacher in South Korea"

  1. Bob Snell says:

    Dear Emily,
    I really enjoyed your recounting the first day of teaching in Korea. I too taught English in Korea, and I also did not have any teaching training when I started. I can fully relate to the confusion and chaos of the first week. At least you prepped a powerpoint to show…I didn’t figure that out for years. I’m back in San Diego now, and wanting to start up an orientation program for teachers like you, who are just starting out with their teaching career in Korea. Do you think there would be interest in taking a program like that, for teachers already in-country (we could do an online version)?

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