Here are just a few tips and tricks that I have found have made my time teaching at an Elementary school in a rural town of South Korea a more positive, meaningful and less stressful experience:
1. Be prepared for ANYTHING
As the only foreign teacher in your school it is likely that you will be kept out of the loop and, more often than not, will be the last to know about any changes or adjustments to the normal school day. Although my school is a lot better at communicating with me than when I first arrived in Korea, I cannot count the number of times I have arrived at a lesson, fully prepared, only to find that it has been cancelled because it is “Science Day” or the children are “Practicing music”. There have been numerous times that I have prepared a particular lesson and arrived to find that the students have already been taught that lesson by their home room teacher.It is also common to be told right as you are leaving school that you have a staff dinner hoesik school. My advice, be prepared for the unexpected and learn to think on your toes because teaching in Korea means there are ALWAYS surprises.
2. Learn to communicate with and form friendships with your co-teachers
This is easier said than done. Koreans are extremely proud people and will often prefer not to use English for fear of making a fool of themselves. This makes teaching with Korean co-teachers particularly challenging as communicating with them about lesson plans or activities is often very difficult. Nonetheless, in your first few days at school try to determine what role your co-teacher would like you to take in the class. It is often difficult to know whether you are there to observe, to be an assistant teacher or whether your co-teachers would like you to take on the entire lesson. Be open, willing and prepared to take on whatever role your co-teacher requires and offer your assistance wherever you can. Be careful not to undermine or correct Korean teachers in front of the students and try to be approachable and friendly. It can be frustrating but in time your co-teachers will warm to you, feel more confident about talking to you and give you more responsibilities in the classroom.
3. Get involved in school life
Teaching in Korean schools can be isolating and often lonely. Try to get involved in school life as much as possible.
Attend staff dinners (no matter how short notice they are). Koreans enjoy drinking so these tend to get interesting and are definitely a unique Korean experience.
Play volleyball with your co-workers. Volleyball is surprisingly popular in Korea and some take it pretty seriously. This can be a fun way to bond with your co-workers and if you are any good you may even get invited to play for your school in the inter-schools tournament.
Offer to help out wherever you can. Try to get involved in things like Sports Day or cultural outings. Ask if you can help out and, while most of the time you will get told not to worry, I usually find a way to get involved in some way. There are always small jobs that can be done.
Learn some basic Korean. Most of your co-workers won’t speak much English so being able to communicate with them in basic Korean will result in big smiles and lots of appreciation.
Bring snacks or gifts from your travels to share with the school staff. Food and eating are a big part of Korean social life and it is always shared (seriously, a single apple will get cut up and shared among ten people). Most days a co-worker will bring in some form of food to share with everyone so try to be a part of this and contribute every now and then.
While Korean people can be difficult to please and occasionally hard to read, small acts to participate, get involved and make an effort with your co-workers won’t go unnoticed and is often greeted by pleasant surprise.
4. Make Waygook your best friend
Preparing a whole lesson with powerpoints, games, worksheets and activities can be time consuming and, when you have seven lessons a day, can seem impossible. Get acquainted with a website called waygook.org which, after a quick and free registration, offers a wide range of material for your lesson planning and will soon become your most trusted friend in the classroom. The site provides textbook and lesson specific activities, games, worksheets and powerpoints which are shared by fellow teachers in Korea. Not only is this helpful for your lesson plans but also for those “surprise” lessons which tend to pop up in Korean schools. In these cases being able to quickly download a fun game or activity can be a lifesaver. The site even has a forum where you can ask questions, share ideas or just rant about your frustrations with teaching English in a foreign country.
Make sure you tweak all the material to suit your particular lesson or level of students and always check that the games or activities work correctly before you use them in the classroom.
5. Get used to desk warming
Even for the English teachers with the busiest schedules, desk warming in South Korean schools is an unwelcome reality. There will be days or even weeks where you have no lessons but are still required to be at school for the 8 hour work day stipulated in your contract. Although it is important to use this time constructively for lesson planning or other school related work, there is only so much planning you can do. This means there will be plenty of sitting around with nothing to do which makes finding desk related “hobbies” particularly useful. Get into some reading, learn some Korean or even try out some blogging. Find something to keep you busy because long hours of sitting at your desk trying to look busy are inevitable.
Remember that all teaching situations in South Korea are unique and your experience may be totally different to other teachers you meet. Try to have an open mind and a positive outlook on your situation. This experience will no doubt be memorable and life changing.