Tips for sanely teaching English in Korea

Having moved to Korea several months ago for my job, I’ve made some observations about teaching English in Korea that I feel worth sharing. I teach 3rd through 6th grade at five different elementary schools in Gochang, a small city inside of Jeollabuk-do, and after having a few months of teaching under my belt, I feel I’m in a good spot where I can offer some advice for starting teachers to get their semester off on the right foot. Let’s start off with some tips to keep in mind for planning your lessons with these crazy kids.

Your Lessons

  • English should be fun: Don’t add to everyone’s stress levels by making learning English a daunting task; realize that many students will feel discouraged or uninterested in English through no fault of your own, and simply focus on making lessons fun by incorporating games, songs, or activities where everyone gets to participate and feel like they learned something. Extra points if you can make it engaging by choosing songs the kids are already fond of, or making team competition games a frequent part of your lessons (and who knows, maybe throw a League of Legends reference in there now and then).
  • Use the free and often underutilized textbook materials: Don’t forget about using the activities and flashcards in the back of the textbook if they fit your lesson, even if they’re about a different topic from the one you’re teaching that day. Even if they’re not intensely relevant, you can always use them for review. I found plenty of flashcards, images, and activities there and they were incredibly applicable to my lessons.
  • Be willing to improvise: Because it will probably happen a lot. The coteacher steps out when you need classroom management the most, the projector stops working, or the kids are at way too low a level for your planned lesson. Being willing and able to modify your lesson on a moment’s notice if the need should arise is at the top of the list of useful skills for this job.
  • Learn about your students: You may be the only one who asks these incredibly pressured students about their daily schedule, or sympathizes with them for being so busy (as Korean children and teenagers tend to be). If you combine this with calling them by name, they could very well learn to really respect you. Calling a student by name can also help with classroom management.
  • Don’t take challenging students’ behavior personally: If a student is being challenging (note: not “meddlesome” or “bad”, as these words can often make you feel negatively toward the student), don’t take it personally. They would try to act out with anyone so long as they thought they could get away with it. Korean students are pushed very hard in all aspects of their lives, and are often pressured to pretend things like free time or the opposite sex don’t exist in favor of studying harder. Teachers and adults here regularly forget (or choose to ignore) that they’re growing kids just like we all once were, so these stressed students may try to act out whenever they think they can.

You

Now onto person number one: you, and some main things you should know.

  • The observation: There will be one time during one lesson when your class will be observed by a small panel of people. This will be announced weeks in advance, and you will be able to choose which class they observe. The results go to help decide whether your contract will be renewed (if you choose to renew it). You don’t have to freak out about this; it isn’t as scary as it may sound. Remember: you choose the class, and you’ll be given quite a few weeks in advance to prepare for it – and I recommend doing so as closely with that class’s coteacher as you can.
  • Your sanity: Though I wouldn’t call teaching English in Korea an arduous job, it can be rough if you don’t have a regular plan or routine down with your students. Have a song or game that begins and one that ends each lesson of yours; this will make your work life much easier. This song or game is actually more for drawing attention and setting the mood of class rather than to explicitly learn more English. It can be as simple as a hello song and a goodbye stretch routine.
  • Be okay with the fact that not all lessons will go over well: Not all lessons will be great. Some may end up being a total miss with your students. This is completely normal; just try again and use what you’ve learned to make a better lesson next time.

Between getting used to all the cultural differences and getting settled in Korea, your teaching job shouldn’t be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Teaching English in Korea can be fun; just remember that learning it should be, too.

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