May 1, 2009

Things I wish I'd known before teaching in Korea

The students work!

Education in South Korea is capital-C competitive, and not simply at the university level. Students vie for plum spots in top-rated high schools and, before that, elementary schools. While North American children spend their afternoons and evenings pursuing hobbies like ballet or guitar lessons, Korean children clock more study hours at hogwons, taking supplementary classes to help them excel in school.

If you're an ESL teacher in a hogwon (or "language academy,") expect your students to be tired and antsy after a full day of rigorous schoolwork. It's easy to get impatient with these children when they lose focus during your lessons. I found that the students perk up when learning is applied through games, contests, anything with a competitive edge. Even grammar games and spelling bees stir up excitement. My students used to tell me that their school lessons were taught with drills and memorizing. Some creativity and healthy competition brings something new to their learning.

Your contract is a foundation.

"The contract says no weekends, why would I have to come in on Saturday for curriculum-planning?" "No one told me I would have to host a parent's day every four months! It's not in the contract!"

Ah, the Western mind. It's easy to claim the victim role and assume that your employer is trying to overwork you. But slow down and take a look at your Korean colleagues, humbly clocking long hours and supplementary lessons without question. A Korean friend explained to me once that for them, working above and beyond what's required is a normal practice, in order to gain respect in the boss' eye. It's not about minimum hours or wages, it's about investing time and energy into the success of the business. Korean employees would see those extra tasks as opportunity for company success, and you should too.

Of course, if your employer is piling on the extra classes or drastically trimming your prep hours and breaks, speak up. But approach the issue in terms of your teaching abilities, and how you feel spread too thin. Don't go in with your contract in hand like a Judge Judy plaintiff.

Get over the gawking!

This is especially true if you work in a smaller town in Korea. Unlike our western melting posts with diverse ethnic groups, Korea is a homogenous culture with very few immigrants. Face it, you'll stand out, and people are going to notice. Expect the strongest reactions from children, who might never have seen a non-Korean face before, or elderly people, who might see an influx of foreigners as an unwelcome westernization of Korean culture. I think it's especially hard for us Canadians who grew up in the midst of "I don't see colour" anti-racism campaigns.

In my experience, the pointing and staring can't be avoided. Bear in mind that for the most part, this gawking isn't hostile or unwelcome, but honest surprise. Getting over the self-consciousness is a crucial part of getting over the culture shock.

The language is attainable, with effort.

Unlike Chinese or Japanese, written Korean is not pictoral. Rather, it has an alphabet, which you can learn in an afternoon and practice daily, reading signs, labels, and ads. As for speaking Korean, you can buy textbooks, sign up for lessons at the YMCA, or find a language exchange partner with a lot of patience.

It's a wonderful country. Really.

A lot of teachers in Korea are first-timers to Asia, and save their vacation time for exotic trips to Japan, China, Thailand or the Philippines. Each of these countries are beautiful and fascinating, of course. But I think it's a shame not to seize the more immediate opportunities and really explore Korea when you have the chance.

It's easy to look around and say, "Starbucks!? Cellphone-addicted teenagers?! Billboards with David Beckham!?! This isn't so different from home. I'm going someplace beachy where iconic movies have been filmed." But if you explore Korea, really take time to map out its different offerings and plan your trips around different festivals, you will be awestruck by what the country has to offer.

Luckily, most Koreans are ardent nationalists who love to explore their own country, so you can find comprehensible tourist websites for every region, town, and event. Seoul's Lotus Lantern Festival and the Damyang bamboo forest were among my favourite excursions. I would highly recommend these trips, and many others. One of the great merits of living overseas is experiencing a whole calendar year's worth of cultural events, seasons, and festivals.

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