Lessons For The Teacher- What We Learnt To Expect When Teaching In Korea

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We came to Korea to be teachers, to help children to learn. Turns out that working as an English teacher in Korea has taught us a lot of things too: lessons in leading, discipline, understanding and eternal patience (ok, still working on that last one…). And, we’ve learnt that school in Korea is completely different than in England; would you ask about a teacher’s relationship status in the UK? Most probably not. In Korea? It’s one of the first questions you’re asked (and repeatedly asked again, and again, and again).

So travelling across the world to teach is a learning curve, to say the least. Here are some of the things that I’ve come to expect as a teacher working in Korea:

Everyone Says Hello

You simply cannot walk down the corridor without being bombarded by greetings from students at every turn. It was quite a shock at the start, although a nice one, of course. Waving, children calling your name, sometimes even giving you a hug. So this is what it feels like to be a celebrity…

Inappropriate Questions

“Teacher, do you have a boyfriend?” “Teacher, do you live with your boyfriend?” “Teacher, why aren’t you married?” “Teacher, how old are you?” If I had ever asked a teacher their age, I think I would have received detention or at the very least a good telling-off.

And I don’t really mind the personal questions, but it’s a bit disruptive when you’re answer that  “yes, I have a boyfriend”, causes about 10 minutes of giggling from your class full of embarrassed teenagers.

Students Being In Awe 

blog.pokerjunkie.com
blog.pokerjunkie.com

You’d think that the students would be used to Westerners, having been taught by them for years. But still, they are continually amazed by a Westerner’s appearance. If you walk past students who haven’t seen you before at a neighbouring school, their stares are as incredulous (and sometimes as scared) as if you had just arrived from another planet. Seriously.

The most common feature which leaves the students awestruck? Height: if the male teachers are 6 foot or above, they are regarded with such amazement it’s as if they’re some kind of freakish giant.

K Pop Rules All

en.wikipedia
en.wikipedia

I guess working with teenagers, you’re going to expect adolescent obsessions whatever country you’re in. But the love for K Pop really is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. All I need to do is say the word ‘EXO’ in class, and the screams are so loud you’d think that the Pop Band had actually appeared in my class. K Pop pencil cases, wallets, mirrors, photos, folders, makeshift tattoos… Korean schools are definitely in the midst of K Pop mania.

Exams Will Cause All Kinds Of Stress

Exams are a stressful time for anyone, but in Korea it’s a new extreme: students crying in the hallways, accosting their teachers to find out why they lost one mark in their test. And a day of total depression the day the results come out; every student you ask “How did you do”, you’re answered with a tearful “Not good.” Surely everyone can’t fail? Well, it sure seems like it here.

The worst I’ve seen was a student in our office for 2 hours, crying over one mark in her English test; she only finally left because it was time to go home. And no, she didn’t get the extra mark in the end either.

The Parents Are Very Involved

For this reason, I’m very glad I don’t speak Korean. Parents will text and call teachers, come into the school, and again it’s usually to argue over their child’s exam score or because they’ve been put in bottom set. One of our co-teachers was called until 11 pm by parents during exam time; she is a better person than me… I think I would have changed my number! Oh, and then there’s the parent who came into our office and cried over her daughter’s exam score for an hour… which really made it quite awkward for everyone in the room.

Sleeping In Class

forum.thefreedictionary.com
forum.thefreedictionary.com

So when I was at school, anyone who dared to sleep in class would be thought of as a proper rebel. In Korea, it’s pretty weird if you get through a class without someone falling asleep (or trying to at any rate). I guess the reason for this is the long days they have studying, as I discussed in my Korean Education post.

Still, it would be nice if I didn’t have to spend half my time prodding students awake when it’s all become too much for them. And the individuals who decide to bring along a blanket and cushion to class to make themselves comfortable? That’s really just taking things too far!

The Students Have Power Over Teachers

It’s normal for teachers to write reports and evaluations for students. But in Korea, the students can get-their-own-back by writing reports on the teachers. That little terror who always disrupts class and I’m always telling off? Well, he’s going to give me a bad rating for sure!

If only I could have done the same when I was in school; some teachers would definitely have felt my wrath…

Boys and Girls Do Not Mix

I thought the ‘boys and girls hate each other’ phase was usually over when children become teenagers. Apparently not. A minority of boys and girls and friends, but the majority of students? No such luck. Sometimes if I ask a boy and girl to sit next to each other, or, even worse, work together, I’m greeted with looks of such surprise and worry you’d think I’d suggested they get married.

The one time in my class when the students found out that one boy fancied someone, there was such uproar that I couldn’t calm them down for fifteen minutes. True story. Which leads me on to my next point…

No Kissing. Ever.

funscrape.com

Ok, I’m not suggesting that students should be getting up to mischief in school by any means. What I’m talking about is how students can’t even talk about kissing, let alone see someone kissing on TV or in a movie. Before I knew this,I showed Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’ music video in class. When Taylor kissed someone at the end… well, the reaction was the same as if I’d shown something on an X Rated Movie Channel.

I just hoped I hadn’t scarred them for life. I felt as guilty as a parent telling their child that Father Christmas isn’t real, making my students lose their innocence. Bad move me.

Students Want Your Food And Drink

Another type of inappropriate questions which the students ask: “Teacher, can I have some of your water?” “Ooh teacher, your lunch looks delicious, can I eat some?” Um… no… you cannot get your germs on my water bottle, and you cannot eat the lunch I prepared; get your own!

Giving Food = Undying Love

tinalicious.com
tinalicious.com

This is the last, and most important thing I’ve learnt while teaching in Korea. Food is the best reward you can give, and will earn you top teacher points among students.

If only I’d known this at the start. Food is the answer to everything: a bribe to make the children work, a reward for the hard-workers. All you need to do to get a student to profess their adoring love for you is to give them a piece of chocolate. Works every time. Well, you live and you learn…

 

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28 thoughts on “Lessons For The Teacher- What We Learnt To Expect When Teaching In Korea

  1. In my experience Korean parents can be a bit of a nightmare so I feel for you there. There are times when you just want to say ‘it doesn’t matter, it’s only a test and he’s eleven years old, just stop it.’

    As for food, every class I’ve ever taught, regardless of nationality, race, religion or work ethic will work like hell for potential to receive a Chupa Chup at the end of class 🙂

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  2. I also teach year 1 and 2 middle school students. I agree, I’m glad I don’t speak Korean and don’t have to deal with the parents, but we also don’t have many students crying over exams either. My students are more defeatist. They know they are beat and they’ve just accepted it rather than get worked up about it outwardly even though they may be screaming internally. As for giving food or candy to my students, I really try not to do it because I don’t like promoting extrinsic rewards for my students, however since I see them only once a week for an hour I have little choice. It’s the only power card I have over them. That or threatening them with essays, which I hate to do also. Great post, I related to quite a few of these. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. This is definitely on point to my public-middle-school teaching days here in Korea. And I definitely can’t say I miss it haha. I’m at a private kindergarten now and while the kids are SO MUCH better (and way cuter!), the parents are so much more involved. There’s one mom who comes in almost every single day. She came in the other day to discuss her sons bowel movements with my co-teacher (not seeking advice or telling us to treat her kid differently..she just wanted to inform us). They’re constantly calling, texting and coming in about things ranging from pencil sizes (“my son’s pencil is too short! Why didn’t you give him a new one?!”) to school play parts (“My daughter who can barely say her own name should have the same amount of lines as the smartest kid in the class who speaks fluent English!”). Oooh Korea.

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    1. Haha that’s hilarious about the bowel movements! And the pencil being too short- could you complain about something more ridiculous and petty?! I have friends at the elementary school next to ours, and the parents do sound worse (if it’s possible) over there! I’m glad you can relate though!

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  4. The parent stuff really resonated with me, having worked in a Hagwon before. Now that I’m in Uni, there are still stories of Parents calling out boss to get in touch with us over break and “talk” about their kids’ grades. This is College! Plus, I’m on vacation. Not going to change your kids grade while I’m on vacation. In fact, I might want to lower it for you being so pushy about this.

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  5. I am not a teacher, but it was really interesting to get a bit of insight into the relationship between kids and education here. Living next to a middle school, I have quite a lot of interaction with teens practicing their english on me, and I see them come and go at all hours (to include the summer months) wearing overloaded backpacks…There was a recent study published, reporting that Korean youth were ranked high in the category of unhappiness- and it sounds like school pressures might be one of the main causes. Found it cool that students can write reviews of their teachers! My college also required evaluations from both student and teacher, and I think it could be valuable for a system like this to exist in middle schools and high schools in the states.

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  6. Thanks for the comment- not surprised you see teenagers getting no break over the summer months, I don’t think they ever get a real break from studying! It is good for students to be able to assess their teachers, the only bad thing in our school is that us foreign teachers can’t assess the students, i.e. write reports, which is frustrating because there’s always so much I could say about students, good or bad!

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  7. I, too have learned a lot of these lessons. I teach kindergarten and I think the biggest thing I have learnt in the last few months is how to be excited about everything. Seriously, kindergartners have not yet entered the throes of studying. They are not bombarded by test scores and homework. They just have fun learning, and are so excited about everything! It makes my day so awesome!

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  8. I taught Kindergarten my first year in Korea! Loved and miss them now! Teenagers are exhausting in a totally different way, more mentally than anything. haha
    Great overview of the differences, all true and things we have to learn.

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    1. Thanks a lot for your comment! Haha totally agree with the description of teenagers! I sometimes wished I taught younger kids, but when I hear stories from the elementary schools I realise it must be exhausting! Haha.

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  9. I don’t teach in a school, and when I do teach, the kids are much much younger so I don’t have much experience with this. But I definitely hear horror stories from my husband about the parents and how crazy they can be. I cannot believe they would actually call at 11pm!!!

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  10. Great post! I have definitely experienced all of these norms, even having only been here for 3 months. One of the ones I find particularly frustrating is the lack of respect I’ve experienced from most of my Korean students. It has gotten easier now that I’ve been building relationships with them, but at first they were totally awful… Screaming over me, insulting me in Korean under their breath, etc. That was one of the things I never would’ve expected.

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    1. I know exactly what you mean- I’ve experienced the same, being foreign and younger than the other teachers, which isn’t great in a country where age gains respect! I agree that it gets better too, but all us foreign teachers find that we’re not treated with the same respect as the Korean teachers.. shame! Glad it’s easier for you now though 🙂

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  11. My elementary schools weren’t too into K-POP, but the rest really hit the nail on the head. It’s so hard to know what to expect when you come to Korea to teach until you get here and experience it. My favorite moments were always outside of the classroom when they’d just talk to you about anything. I was always jealous of my friends that taught middle and high school because they could have actual conversations with their students. My students were low level so I couldn’t really chat with them, which was a bummer because they were sweet kids.

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    1. Thanks for your comment!
      I do enjoy their questions, and I love to see their reactions to your answers. I just find it funny how inappropriate they’d seem if you asked a teacher the same things in the UK. ‘Teacher, can I come to your wedding’.. haha.

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