Inside Tips on Teaching English and Living in South Korea
Jenny and students at Prolangs, 2007.
It is my first day teaching at a Korean hakwan, or private academy. I am jetlagged from the trans-pacific flight.
There are Korean children sitting on the desks, frolicking in the teachers’ room, playing soccer in the lobby, doing each other’s hair, screaming at the top of their lungs, and generally having the time of their lives. I look to the other native English-speaking teacher who’s been here four months, and raise my eyebrows. She laughs. “Don’t worry, it gets easier.”
When I first told friends of my decision to live in Korea for a year, I received two responses. Either I was told “I wish I could come with you. If not for my wife/husband/kids/mortgage/crappy job, I would love to do what you’re doing,” or “Are you sure you’re doing this for the right reasons?”
Now that I was there, I asked myself what on earth I was thinking. Maybe the nay-sayers had been right after all.
I flew to Korea to teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL), never having taught children or language in my life. I went in search of personal enlightenment, inspiration, cultural experience, and a dose of self-esteem. I went with the belief that my students would be well-mannered little darlings, and I, their expert native English speaking teacher, would run my classroom efficiently but with warmth and affection. I was unprepared for the reality that Korean children are not disciplined very strictly until they get to middle school. Children are given free reign to express their curious and wildly energetic selves. In reality, I was unprepared for most of what I was to experience as a hakwan teacher in Korea.
English in Korea
The hakwan enterprise is a booming business in Korea, and English is the commodity of the century. The key to success is English, and everybody wants to learn it; Korea is a nation obsessed with this ambition.
On one hand, learning English is a valuable tool that will help individual Koreans improve their careers while helping the country to strengthen its position in the global marketplace. But at what cost to Korean language and culture? English has already infiltrated Hangul, the Korean language, with borrowed words and expressions—called “Konglish”—such as “hand pone” (cell phone) and “coppee” (coffee). The English phrases used range from hilariously unintelligible to embarrassingly raunchy. Some intensive English language camps are promoting Western values and cultural elements as part of their language education, which has raised the red flag of cultural and linguistic imperialism among language educators and those who are attuned to such issues.
Nevertheless, the reality is that finding a job teaching English in Korea is easy. What follows in this article will provide advice on negotiating and surviving a hakwan contract, suggestions for teaching practices, and glimpses into making a successful transition into life in Korea.
Many teachers are hired in Korea without qualifications for teaching—as in my case. To be hired in Korea as an English teacher your required qualifications are a four-year degree in anything while being a native speaker. The assumption is that because you speak the language you can automatically teach it. In South Korea, this perspective provides a wonderful opportunity for a teacher to live in another culture, learn a language, and broaden one's horizons, but it also presents unique challenges.
Due to the wide disparity of hagwan quality, and the individual personalities, nationalities, and backgrounds of the teachers, there is no such thing as one “typical” experience of teaching and living in Korea. Many teachers come to Korea with an open mind and a willingness to be flexible. These teachers often find a niche, even as foreigners. They survive the initial, painful stages of culture shock to create a fruitful life in Korea for years. Others can’t even make it through their first year and do a “midnight run,” breaking their contract and leaving the country. Many teachers get caught up in the drinking culture of Korea, and fall ill, or worse. These are factors that you, the teacher, can control. This is important, because there will be many factors that you cannot control.
It is an unfortunate fact that hakwans have gained a reputation for over-working their English teachers, adding overtime hours without extra pay, and sometimes not paying teachers on time, or even at all. Contracts are often viewed more like a set of guidelines than a legal agreement. The expectation is that the teacher will do whatever is needed without question.
But it is important to remember that these worst-case scenarios are not true for every experience. The websites provided at the end of this article will help you sort through some of the good, the bad, and the ugly in hakwans. My tips for negotiating a contract should prove helpful.
It is also important to remember that these expectations are very culturally-centered and should never be taken personally. The first time you are asked on a Friday morning to work a weekend—or told that you will be meeting parents first thing Monday morning—it can be difficult to know how to respond. Communication between teachers and directors can be strained by these differing cultural expectations as well as language barriers. The key is to remain calm and try to find a solution that works for everyone. Sometimes it means doing a little extra, and some times it means knowing when you’ve already done enough.
Ways to deal with misunderstandings, disagreements, or sickness:
- When misunderstandings or disagreements arise at work, always express your willingness to do what’s best for the students, but explain your needs as well. You may compromise, but make sure you don’t compromise too much, or you will end up feeling resentful.
- If you become seriously ill, go to a doctor and get it in writing. Then talk to your director or supervisor immediately. Explain your situation but do not accuse or pass judgment on how they run their school. Ask them if there is some way you can lighten the work load so that you can regain your health. The focus should be on your health, rather than on what they are doing “wrong.”
- If after all your best attempts your director is still unwilling to work with you to improve the situation, or you feel that you are being abused, then you should learn about your rights and responsibilities at www.efl-law.com.
- Remember: If you do a “midnight” run you will be blacklisted from ever teaching in Korea again! If you want to stay in Korea and find a new job, try to negotiate your way out of your contract legally and obtain a new visa to change jobs. I did this successfully when I became ill, and was able to find a new contract after I regained my health.
Contracts and Recruiters
Don’t sign a contract without being 100% satisfied that your requirements are being met. Typical contracts can be found on the efl-law website. You can and should negotiate details as you see fit. For example, a typical work week is 30 hours, but you should be aware of how those hours are likely to be allocated. Do the hours include weekends, split shifts, or working at more than one location? Sick days: How many are you allowed and are they paid? Do you prefer to work with kindergarteners or with adults?
My director spoke English very well and was herself a trained teacher. She was very concerned about the students and the quality of English education. If you want to teach in a hakwan, these two factors are very important to surmise before signing a contract. You don’t want to work for a hakwan director who knows no English and who only has Won signs in his or her eyes.
You should also ask to speak to or email the out-going native English teacher. Usually, these teachers will be honest with you about their experience. If they haven’t done a midnight run, or negotiated out of the contract early, it’s a good sign. Also ask to speak with the director on the phone so that you can make a personal decision about working for him or her.
A few words about recruiters: There are almost as many recruiters as there are hakwans. You should never pay a recruiter to find you a job; they should get paid by the hakwan. Tell the recruiter what you want and let them present you with potential employers; ask to see the contracts and negotiate them if you are interested. For example, I told my recruiter that I didn’t want to be in Seoul (too big a city), I wanted to be near the ocean, and I didn’t want to teach kindergarteners. Based upon my requirements, he found me exactly what I wanted. What I didn’t do, but should have, is to negotiate the details of the contract such as sick time. As I discovered, such negotiations are the teacher’s responsibility, not the recruiter’s.
Recruiters are helpful, but remember that they are in it to make money, and they make money by placing teachers. You have to make sure you are satisfied with the contract, the location, the school, etc. Once you get to the hakwan, and you find that things are not as they were presented, you can go back to the recruiter—who might help re-negotiate with the director. However, it is not their job to do so. Many recruiters consider their work done as soon as you arrive at the hakwan. So do your homework and be as prepared as possible.
Teaching and Students
What goes on in a hakwan classroom varies from the established curriculum based on English language texts. Texts vary widely in accuracy and cultural appropriateness, including having the teacher play hangman with students in English and calling it a lesson. Some hakwans provide detailed curriculum, while others let the teacher do as she or he pleases. Depending on your level of experience and confidence as a teacher these scenarios can be either positive or negative. Hint: Find out the nature of the curriculum before you sign a contract.
My director encouraged me to recommend new books, and the materials we used were, by and large, pedagogically sound. Our lessons came from a variety of texts, including phonics books, workbooks, and storybooks. Once a month the entire school held a “Game Day” in which classes combined to have fun playing games in English. When spring arrived, we all went outside to soak up the sun and play English games.
My young students were adorable, even in their complete and reckless abandon. Every day they brought hand-made notes, art, candy and gifts of every kind. I learned much about Korean culture through their eyes. For example, on “Pepero Day,” a secular holiday on which people exchange boxes of Pepero or Pocky—cracker sticks dipped in chocolate—I was honored to go home at the end of the day with a gigantic plastic bag stuffed with boxes of Pepero from my students. The children, although wild at times, were completely devoted to me and their love and affection was addictive.
In stark contrast to elementary school kids, middle school students are very serious-minded in Korea. In middle school, the hardships of the examination system and pressures for entering a good college bear down on them. Their public school classes are lecture-oriented, and the students are the receptacles of knowledge from books and teachers (a strong Confucian ethic). The communicative, discussion-based classroom is not so common in Korea, which can pose a challenge for any language teacher. However, this pedagogical approach is changing with a focus on spoken English, which in turn is driving the need for native English-speaking teachers.
One of my middle school groups was exceptionally uncomfortable and unengaged in my conversation class. They were often embarrassed to speak English with a native speaker. I have the weather to thank for our eventual breakthrough. On the only day it snowed in our town, I took them outside for a snow fight instead of a conversation lesson. For a few minutes, they were children again, beaning each other and me with snowballs. This endeared me to them forever after, and from that point on, they felt more at ease using English around me and with each other in class. On my last day in Korea, they met me downtown and we went out for ice cream, followed by tearful good-byes and promises of email. The lesson here is that teachers often need to be creative—you have the luxury of doing that in a hakwan, and you can use that freedom to your advantage.
Some pointers for inexperienced teachers in Korea:
- Write in a colored marker your class rules on a poster board and bring it to classes. Explain what the rules mean (sit in your seat, do not yell, raise your hand, etc.) and have the class recite the rules together. Make a game out of it, turn it into a competition (Korean kids live for team competitions).
- Take advantage of lesson ideas from online resources such as Daveseslcafe.com. Talk to other teachers in and out of your school to share ideas. Supplement the books your school uses with your own ideas and those you get online—and write all those ideas down! You may impress your director with the additional activities that the entire school can use.
- Be patient—remember that this is a different culture and the children are going to be boisterous. If you have a true “problem student,” ask one of the Koreans in your school for advice.
- Instead of yelling when they get out hand (which is very tempting and often is the only way to be heard above the din), stand at the front of the room, completely silent, and just watch them with your “teacher face.” One of them will notice you, and hush the others until the room is quiet. Works like a charm!
I also had a class of adult students whom I taught in the evenings, and they were a pleasure to work with, always ready talk about their lives and jobs, and full of questions about my life in the U.S. In our class we talked about everything from the war in Iraq to weather patterns of the northeast United States. They often wanted to take me out for dinner, drinks and noraebang (“singing room,” a private karaoke room. It must be experienced!). I shudder to think how many nights I drank soju and sang “Dancing Queen.”
Working with adults has its own challenges—it is often more difficult for adults to learn a second language. However, they will work hard, and if you keep things fun and social, you may learn quite a bit from them, as well.
Enjoying Life in Korea and Beyond…
Reunion: Elena's adult class from 2002-2003, taken summer of 2007.
There do exist good hakwan directors, and there are many opportunities to live well outside the classroom. Creating good relationships with your school will benefit you in this regard. For instance, I received generous bonuses and gifts at holidays and on my birthday; my director and the Korean teacher, who was also my roommate, took me out for dinner and ordered a lovely cake in my honor. Christmas in Korea was beautiful; I felt at home with my Korean “family”—my students, director, co-teacher, and friends—who made sure I wasn’t alone for the holiday. My roommate and I became life-long friends and I still miss her chumchi kimchi chigae (tuna and kimchi stew).
Ultimately, the hard times, friendships, experiences in the classroom, and the solitude of being outside the dominant culture made me stronger, more independent, flexible, and above all, led me to trust my instincts and set life-long goals. I came to know myself beyond the constraints of my own culture, and that year changed the course of my life. I came home to pursue my M.A. in Linguistics, and I’ve been teaching language arts ever since.
Here are some tips for making your time in Korea meaningful:
- Make friends with other foreigners who share your interests and who are not out to party every night of the week. You will comfort each other, share teaching ideas, and be sounding boards for when things get tough. Often such friendships can last well beyond your time in Korea.
- Make Korean friends! Experience the culture as their guest. You will feel less of an outsider after you’ve been welcomed into their homes and lives.
- Learn some Korean (hangul). You will get more out of your experience, and Koreans will be delighted when you attempt to communicate in their language.
- Accept invitations for social gatherings with your co-workers. This is how Koreans do business, and it will forge better working relationships as well as new friendships.
Last summer, I returned to Korea to shoot my documentary, Korea Dreambus! I visited my old hakwan, which has grown into a bigger space with two native English teachers and three Korean teachers, in addition to the director who still runs a few classes herself. I was moved to tears when, upon climbing the stairs to the 2nd floor, I was greeted with a welcome board that included my picture and the email I had sent the director, decorated with pink hearts. All the teachers’ pictures, past and present, were posted on the board. Clearly, I am still a part of that family, despite the fact I negotiated out of the contract due to illness.
A few of my former students are still in Namchang, and our reunion was both awkward and touching. The former students from my adult class took me out for kalbi (Korean BBQ). We caught up on our lives and reminisced about “the old days” in our class together. One student in particular, whose English name is Gus, remembered me describing what it was like to experience a tornado warning in Ohio for the first time.
My return visit to Korea was delightful and rekindled the friendships I’d made five years ago. The teachers I interviewed for my documentary all agree that the best advice for anyone going to Korea to teach for the first time is to go with an open mind and an open heart, and be willing to work hard and be flexible. You will have the experience of a lifetime, and you will not return home unchanged. Perhaps most importantly, you will make friendships that will last a lifetime.
Elena and Sally at Prolangs.