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Teaching English in South Korea

By: Kim Konings

In February 2017, the beginning of the northern hemisphere’s springtime and a new upcoming academic year, I started a new adventure as a “Guest English Teacher” in South Korea. I arrived in Korea without much prior knowledge about the country, culture and of course their famous (well it wasn’t to me) pop-culture.

I chose to apply for the EPIK program (English program in Korea) which places you as an EFL (English as a foreign language)/ ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in their public-school system. Other very popular destinations for South Africans to teach abroad include Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and China. Each country has their own set of advantages and disadvantages, but I guarantee you that becoming an English teacher in any of these places will be a life-changing, eye-opening and confidence-boosting adventure of a lifetime.

Every person has their own reasons for wanting to work or teach abroad. I had worked abroad a few times before going to Korea with jobs ranging from waitressing and housekeeping to care work. I always enjoyed my adventures and saved some money, but this time I felt like I wanted to secure work abroad doing a job that required a degree and that would challenge and develop me in new ways.

Out of all the fantastic options of places to teach, people always ask me why I chose Korea. I will answer this question honestly and say that I chose Korea because of the salary, benefits and security that the EPIK program could offer me.

I cannot claim to have a deep passion for teaching kids the English language, but I craved to at least try the experience. From researching online, it came to my attention that the EPIK program was a fantastic launching point in an ESL career, because you don’t have to have teaching experience and they provide you with training and support. I had a friend who had taught through EPIK for three years and had saved money as well as had a wonderfully fulfilling time.That was exactly what I was looking for in an experience. I took her recommendation to heart and delved into the application process.

The education system in Korea is extremely different to ours in South Africa. Kids are expected to study continuously in almost every waking hour. It is completely normal for children to attend public school until the afternoon and then go straight to a private academy afterwards until nine at night, with possibly a taekwondo lesson in between. There is also a clear hierarchal system amongst staff (as in any work environment in Korea). Unlike in South Africa where it is more democratic, things are not up for discussion or debate in Korean schools. What the principal says, goes and no one will speak up even if every other staff member is unhappy with the situation. The principal even has to give permission to Korean teachers if they want to travel overseas during the school holidays. This can be quite an adjustment for a westernized teacher coming into the system. But for the most part, EPIK teachers are respected, acknowledged as culturally different and mostly uninvolved in the bureaucratic aspect of the school.

The kids are often tired and see English class as a rest or relief period from all their other high pressure subjects. Because of this, ESL teachers need to incorporate a lot of games in their learning, so that classes are fun for both the teachers and the students. In elementary school, worksheets are mostly discouraged as the focus should be on speaking and listening. As a completely inexperienced teacher, I found the first month a busy one, full of learning how to plan lessons and how to approach teaching English to a group of learners who could hardly say more than “hello”. Luckily there is a website available with multitudes of fantastic resources and games that quickly became central to planning my lesson lessons in Korea. I opted for a mixture of making use of these online resources (and adapting them accordingly) and making my own. I found that as long as I had a structured, well-thought-out approach to learning and plenty of back up activities , the class would be a success.

It might seem an impossible feat to teach English to students who can hardly speak a word of English. Teaching in Korea requires a lot of hand gestures and patience, but you are also not alone in the classroom. EPIK teachers will always teach with a co-teacher. This can take on many styles –  sometimes the co-teacher will teach half the class and you are required to teach the other half, other times the co-teacher just facilitates whilst you lead the class. At times, believe-it-or-not, a co-teacher will teach just about the whole class and you may be allowed to sneak in one activity. Theoretically, the first two options are the ideal situations and the most effective for learning. But you cannot choose how your assigned co-teacher will want to teach and this often leaves you feeling rather powerless. It’s a challenge to coordinate with another teacher; oftentimes a person who has a much lower English level than is ideal. Sometimes it can be incredibly boring to not be the driving force behind the lesson or it can be incredibly frustrating to feel like the teaching is ineffective.

I think that teaching English in Korea is almost incomparable to teaching in South Africa. The autonomy in the classroom is not there, the subject matter and entire education system is completely different and the personal responsibility is not as apparent. EPIK teachers have relatively no admin, and for me, I almost didn’t feel part of my school. As much as this sounds like an easy, stress free environment, it can take its toll. Teachers can become frustrated with feeling like they’re not really contributing or being effective and there aren’t a lot of pathways to change that. The way you end up being required to teach is luck-of-the-draw and depends on your school and the co-teachers you work with. I know that teaching in Korea gave me a new perspective on how hard teachers in South Africa work. Lesson planning outside of classroom time is a huge component of teaching and incredibly time-consuming. I don’t think I fully understood that before I became an ESL teacher. In Korea, teachers are looked upon in a really high regard and paid accordingly. I think South Africa should learn from that, as teachers hold the future of our country in their classrooms and should be respected and compensated appropriately.

My teaching experience aside, Korea was an absolutely fascinating country to live in for a year (and many people stay much longer). South Korea was annihilated in the Korea-Japan war and through major investments into education, they transformed their economy. When the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, Korea received a financial bailout. But through donation of civilians’ personal and family gold to the government, the ultimate patriotic and collectivist act, the Korean people saved their economy and became the first country that was a recipient of aid, to provide aid in 2009. They have invested heavily in education and all public schools are well kept and free of charge, including textbooks and the most delicious and wholesome school lunch you can imagine. Koreans are innovative and creative. Living in a country with virtually no crime illuminates a new level of respect and comfort. An effective public transport system, delicious and healthy food and quirky shops and entertainment everywhere you go, what’s not to love about an experience like this?

You don’t have to be passionate about English, kids, nor teaching to benefit from this experience. But to teach to the best of your ability, give your all to the students and positively represent your country while you are there is your ethical responsibility. If you don’t like children, you aren’t adaptable or culturally sensitive or you are solely looking for cash incentives without responsibility and pride in your work, then maybe this path is not for you. The kids are wonderful, cute and quirky and want nothing more than to say hello to you and have the opportunity to interact with a foreigner. A smile and gentle encouragement goes a long way in an ESL classroom and making an effort to teach effectively and grow as a teacher is the way to make the experience worth it

Life in Korea is comfortable and interesting. It’s easy to make friends and you will be close to fantastic holiday destinations for those school holiday trips. I lived a fantastic lifestyle and managed to travel to Latin America for 6 months after my Korean teaching adventure (low budget travel, of course). Another one of my friends didn’t save a cent but came home with a bulging suitcase of clothes, a few kilograms of extra weight and an enviable talent for noraebang (translated as singing room, aka karaoke). Teaching in Korea wasn’t entirely stimulating for me, but it taught me what it takes to be a good teacher. The country is a walking representation of how education can transform a nation and the disposable income was a luxury that few South Africans have experienced. I loved my adventure in Korea, and I would do it all over again – in fact maybe I will very soon.

This article originally appeared in the Teacha! Magazine, October 2019

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