Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Before I moved to South Korea, I had a strong feeling education would be taught and looked at much differently than in the United States or Australia. Boy was I right.
Training Week When I first arrived in Korea back in September, I wasn’t just thrown into my classroom and expected to know what to do and how to teach. Instead, myself and 6 other English teachers for the program, were put in a hotel and sent to training for the week. Late Sunday night, after 20 hours of flying, with training starting at 6:30 on Monday morning, I walked into my hotel room where I met my roommate for the week, MaryAnn. MaryAnn was from London, and had the accent to prove it. It must be since my body was still somewhat familiar to the timezone change with being in Australia, but I slept well that night, as well as the rest of the week. Can’t say getting over my jet lag when I was home was that easy!
To be an English teacher in Korea, or in fact almost any country, you do not need to have a teaching license, or even hold a degree in an education related field. Instead a Bachelor’s degree in any field, as well as being from a native speaking language is all you need. Knowing this, and being forewarned that training week would be teaching us more of how to teach, I wasn’t stressed in the least. For other members in my training group, that wasn’t as much the case. See, if we were not to pass this training week, we’d be sent back home jobless.
Monday morning at 6:30 came too soon. MaryAnn and I got dressed in our business dress and pants and ventured downstairs eager to meet other teachers in our program. To both of our surprise, there were only 3 other teachers down there waiting for us. I initially was supposed to be making the move in August, but since I extended my stay in Australia for a couple weeks, as well as spent an extra week at home, I was moved to a Septembers training group. I knew August’s training group was almost 90 teachers, so to only see 3 others truly confused me. Was I in the right place? What did I sign myself up for?
The 5 of us boarded a van to our first stop of the day- a medical center. Although before I left home I had a physical and was up to date on all my shots, the South Korean government had to do their own evaluation. The best way I can describe this “hospital” is organized chaos. After changing into our robes/gowns, we waited in the waiting room with about 20 other Koreans all wearing matching robes and slippers as us. The hospital was split into two waiting rooms, with little doors around the perimeter of both rooms. Thinking it would be like any hospital or check-up I had been to, I thought I’d be called to one of the little rooms, asked if I had any health problems, maybe take blood, and pee in a cup. Ha! That was wishful thinking. Instead, each room was for a different test. Doors were opening left and right yelling out peoples’ names where they’d go in, and then exit again a couple minutes later. Imagine about a dozen different people yelling names out trying to make out if they brokenly made out yours. It was an experience. Since very few of the doctors and nurses knew English, or if they did they didn’t try to use it, I’m not certain of the many different things that were done. 1 room we had a chest x-ray, another a 1-1 chat with a doctor who only asked if I ever had surgery, and after mentioning my many surgeries got wide eyed and scribbled in a folder for a while before asking me to leave, an additional corner of the waiting room where we got weighed, measured, had our eyes checked, blood drawn, hearing tested, got sent to another floor where our teeth were analyzed, and the weirdest room, a room where we were asked to lay on a bed, open our robes, and then proceeded to have suction cups placed on our chest and clamps around our ankles. After an hour or two there, we all left tired and confused at what had just happened.
With a quick bite of Starbucks in our stomachs, we headed out to our training center. There we were broken up into an elementary and secondary group, as well as met teachers training for the Japanese program, and Korean teachers training in the English program. We learned this week would give us the basic information of how to access the program material and how to teach. The remainder of the day was spent doing just that, as well as a lunch stop at a very Korean restaurant.
The following 4 days of training were spent doing much of the same thing. The first hour of the day was giving instructions, tips, and information about the program, followed by us taking turns teaching, and then doing our homework in the afternoon. We’d get a half hour off for lunch each day when we’d adventure somewhere new to eat. Nights, after training, were about as eventful. A couple from Canada and I went for a walk a couple nights where we explored our neighborhood, the nearby huge, rich, mall, the back alley restaurants and shops, as well as the lake and park. With our mornings starting early and being tired from our long days, we all got to bed at a reasonable time.
One night, a few of the teachers and I decided to try a new place to eat. This place was right behind our hotel and a very authentic Korean BBQ. Since everything was in Korean, we didn’t know exactly what we were signing ourselves up to eat, but since everything in Korea if pork, we’re assuming that’s what the large slab of meat was. If you don’t know what Korean BBQ is, picture a big grill in the middle of the table with an exhaust fan on top and hot coals under. You are responsible for cooking the meat yourself from flipping it, cutting it, adding garlic, ect… Now I don’t know if we just didn’t cook it right, or the restaurant thought they’d play a joke on the tourists, but that night we all found out we got food poisoning. Luckily the uncertainty of not knowing what I was eating, and in general not being someone who eats a ton, I had the least amount to eat of everyone in the group. The night my stomach was doing flip flops for a few hours, but fortunately nothing else happened. The other people in my group didn’t have the same amount of luck. Needless to say, training the next day was half spent in the bathroom for them.
On Friday, our last day of training, we did our final mock lessons, as well as got our medical evaluations back. Thankfully all of us passed and we were off on our way to our new homes that afternoon.
School Thus brings me to Cheonan, South Korea! My school this year is in a 10 story high rise building in the heart of the city. At April I am an English teacher for 5 to 12 year old children. We have about 350 students, with those students being broken up into 11 different classes based on their English ability, not age. I teach 10 classes of students throughout the week, having 6 classes a day, with each lesson lasting about an hour. On Monday, Wednesday, Friday I have 6 different classes of students, and Tuesday and Thursday 4. I’m the unofficial “beginner level” teacher at April. 7 of my 10 classes are students in level 1 or 2. This means most of my day is spent teaching word families, basic comprehension, how to write a sentence, and word punctuation. My students are about at the level of a kindergarten/first grader student back home in terms of their writing and comprehension ability. Unlike students back home, though, besides the 10 words they learn that week, or the few words they remember from the previous weeks, their English knowledge is very low. It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation with the students, more than just asking, “How are you?” proceeding to have a smile on your face or putting your thumbs down as if it is a bad day. They’ll respond happy or mad. 2 answers they know. Due to the English barrier, the connections I have with my students are very limited. This is something I ‘ve struggled with, but haven’t found a way to overcome it. Maybe I’ll come across the solution in the future…
In addition to struggle with making a connection with the students, the staff collaboration is very much lacking. Koreans are very independent people. They like to do their own thing and keep to themselves. They’re also people who will only address you if there is a problem. This makes the school seem a bit cold and that you’re on your own in terms of teaching and dealing with issues. In addition to the lack of staff involvement, our curriculum here is set up from a business standpoint, rather than educational. The main focus of the curriculum is memorization, and it does not build on previous lessons. This makes it difficult for the students to retain information, as well as scaffold their learning in the future.
Another thing I have been disappointed by, is Korean parents. Much like the Asian stereotype, parents here are very involved in their student’s lives and education. Children start school at 7am, end their public Korean school day around 2pm, and then attend various academies throughout the evening. These academies range from sports, music, language, cooking, cooking, dance, ect… My students go to multiple every night. Infact, students went to so many that they needed to make a law prohibiting any academies to be open past 10pm. Imagine a 6 year old going to school from 7am to 10pm daily. As you can imagine, they come to me tired and exhausted. Back to the parents, though, most parents call the school weekly, sometimes even daily, checking up on their students and their progression. They complain about little things such as their students doodling in their workbooks, receiving an A versus A+, they’re child saying they didn’t talk enough in class… Of course every time these complaints are shared, I’m called in to have them be addressed to me. I’m not a parent so I can’t put myself in their shoes, but in my eyes it’s a bit of overkill. Isn’t it easier to just tell your student yourself to not draw in their book? I think I can speak for just about every educator when I say dealing with parents are one of the least enjoyable parts of the job.