First Time Teacher's in Korea: Some helpful points

Printer-friendly version
Last weekend I randomly met up with a newcomer to Korea. He has been here about half a year and teaching down in Jinhae, which is near Busan. During our visit he expressed to me some difficulties getting use to teaching in Korea. Certainly some of the points he made were exactly how I felt when I first started teaching, and I couldn't help but see how far I have come. Recently he posted this on his Facebook:

"I'm not sure if I'm making any positive impact on my students...I wish I knew how to be a good teacher, but also a better human being. I don't think there's a book out there that teaches you both. I sense many students don't want to be here learning English. By the time they get to my class, they are too tired and don't want to learn. They have no idea how good they have it here. Not until the
y face some hardship. ... Sometimes I think I would be better off being in a place where underpriviledged children would really want to be educated. Sometimes being in a modern society can dehumanize anything worth humanizing. It's hard to be in a classroom when no one really wants to be there and learn. I don't care what culture I'm in, I don't tolerate disrespect from anyone. I'm a teacher, not a circus clown either. I do have some integrity for my profession."
*As you read keep in mind that I'm not an expert on all this, just someone with five years experience and also keen to observation. ;)

Main difficulties:

I. Feeling like a Clown:

I think for most new teacher's in Korea one of the very first things you notice in your classroom is that the students will not treat you like a true teacher. Depending on your school, this would apply to most classes where the age is under middle school (and possible high school). Students here, for the most part, see the foreign teacher as someone to play with and not treat the same as a Korean teacher. Unless you have experienced it already, the students will straighten up and put their heads down if a Korean person walks into the room, which often times leaves you feeling pointless. In this case you end up feeling like a clown or entertainer, and not a teacher. (However, after you build up your management style the students will end up respecting you will see down further)

II. Lack of respect from students:

You walk into your classroom, or the students come in and the bell rings. They are mostly speaking Korean, not sitting nicely and not really "ready" for class. You say, "Sit down, be quiet, let's get ready!" And a few do, but most do not. Throughout the class kids continue to talk or act up when told to straighten out. Generally you feel not respected as a teacher in front of your students.

III. No training

Depending on your school and program you might receive a few days of training and observation before actually starting. But typically you don't experience this when you first teach in Korea. If you are part of the EPIK, GEPIK....etc entourage then you will end up going to orientation a few times. However, in my experience those events don't really prepare you for what realistically happens. All in all, training someone costs money and schools and governments will not go out of their way to shell out quality training. They hired you mostly for your background and native-speaking abilities. Not really on your accounts of teaching abilities. However, these days they are hiring "qualified" folks for the job. Even still, I think the general lack of training is a main complaint from new teacher's here, whatever your background may be.

Solutions, tips and ideas:
Now that I have brought up some main points about the top difficulties of first teaching in Korea, I would like to express ways to get use to it and improve yourself. Again I'm no expert, but would like to reassure you this job is possible.

I. Let go!

For one let go of taking your position here so seriously. Yes you are an important person and your an adult and should be treated like one. But the more you fight to be recognized as such and in a serious frustrated manner, the less your going to win. I hate to say this but you should delve into being the "clown". You don't have to end up acting like a fool or berating yourself in front of your students but finding your humorous and silly side will help.

The people who should really take you seriously at your school are the one's in managerial positions, like your hagwon boss or school Principal. When you are in the classroom let the seriousness go and try to find ways to make it a fun experience for the students. I'm telling you as soon as you start going with the flow you will end up getting their respect.

II. Constructing your "teacher self"

If you have come to Korea with little or no experience teaching, or no experience around children then of course you aren't going to get this right the first few months. Teaching in South Korea (especially with the younger crowd) is mostly about classroom management. In between the "Sit down!" "Everybody look, look at me!" you will be doing some actual teaching. I would say for your first few months research and figure out your style of classroom management. There are several well known techniques such as sticker charts (or stamps), stars next to names on the board, or group competition.

You can use sites like to find great resources on management that works for teacher's in South Korea.

After you have down some kind of management system you can start to sense who you are as a teacher. For one your tone of voice should change in the classroom, in pitch but also in how you pace what you say. These kids are learning English as a Foreign Language after all, and you will need to accommodate to their listening levels.

Next see what you can do to make your lessons fun and enjoyable to both you and the students. If you are teaching from a set curriculum and have all the materials and books, then find ways to turn things into games and activities. Don't just have them read all at once together, try something called "popcorn" reading where they take turns.

There are an amazing amount of ways to make the classroom fun, but depends on you and the energy you have to bring to your classes. I for one couldn't keep up what I do for 8 straight classes, which is why I don't teach at a hagwon. But all in all, you need to embrace your teacher self and see what works and doesn't.

III. Network and get inspired

I agree that schools should do a better job of training, but also constructive oversight throughout the year. When a boss says, "One student dropped from your class. I might have to fire you" is something I don't think will motivate teacher's to do better.

I've come to realize that as expats we need to train each other. That is why I'm a part of the KOTESOL organization to get tips and feedback from other experienced teacher's. Even though most of the people in this group are University teacher's I think their advice can go a long way.

Also I use to get tips and ideas that have been quite useful. Generally though talk to other teacher's but don't just gripe about your situation. Get ideas and talk about what works and doesn't. We are a great resource to each other.


I know not every new person here has issues with their teaching job, and jump into the classroom all giddy and ready for action. But for the most part figuring out ways to get the students participating and having a good time should be something we all strive for. I hope some of these tips I expunged will help you see that you are a valuable person here and can really do so much besides just sitting at your desk and delegating tasks to students. Get up! Have fun with your students, cause they have a lot to give in return.


Koreabridge - RSS Feeds 
Features @koreabridge     Blogs  @koreablogs
Jobs @koreabridgejobs  Classifieds @kb_classifieds

Koreabridge - Facebook Group