Thursday, December 27, 2012

Teaching in Korea

There are so many things I have to say on this matter (and I haven’t blogged in a really long time) so I’m going to try to keep this as focused as possible.  My apologies in advance for the many tangents that I am going to have on this one.

First and foremost, teaching in Korea is in no way comparable to teaching in America for a million reasons. First, the majority of us are teaching at hagwons (after school academies – think Sylvan Learning Centers for the upper middle class). These in no way compare to the intensity of public school teaching in America. They aren’t supposed to.  Also, we are hired more as cultural representatives/well-behaved local celebrities than English grammar teachers.  I don’t know anyone that teaches grammar actually.  Most of us teach speaking and/or writing.  Why do we teach these subjects?  Because it encourages (read:forces) our students to talk to us and practice/learn proper pronunciation and conversational English. We are hired to be entertainers, encouragers and paradigm shifters with a bit of experience in crowd control. We are hired to be the face of the cultures that they only read about in books and see on TV. We are the all singing, all dancing teachers of Korea.  But we are teachers and have the opportunity to be amazing ones within this construct.  If you embrace that, you will love your job.  If you don’t, best of luck to you. It’s gonna be a rough year.

Second, nothing about Korea is real life.  That’s what makes it so great.  Some people decide to make a permanent life here and that’s awesome. Some people can barely finish out their initial year contract.  When I first came to Korea, I knew that my job was going to be a lot less stressful than a position at home, though truthfully, I had no idea just how low stress my job really is.  It’s cushy.  (My greatest stress is when my movie doesn’t download fast enough and I’m bored because I only have one class that day.  A lazy person’s dream this is. Sorry, tangent.) When I came here, I knew this was getting my feet wet with classroom experience to help me decide if I really did want to teach when I came home. It’s done exactly that.  I love this job. I was born for this.  In the 2+ years that I have been here, I’ve been able to learn so much about teaching – what methods work for me and what doesn’t.  How to work best with each age/personality type. Proactive management of difficult students. Time management. In the classroom, not life. I still am less than proficient in time management of my own life. *focus, Amy*  Here, the only life dramas that you have will be largely self-induced.  We are extremely overpaid and have no rent or real bills to worry about.  I pay two bills a month, and honestly, if I pay them two months too late…no one cares. (Not that I would ever do that.  *awkwardly looks down*)  Korea is a happy bubble mostly.  You can shut yourself off from the devastating news from back home, financial stresses are rare, and there is always something interesting or fun to do if you are willing to search it out.  Point being: outside distractions seldom interfere with your work here.  I never had that at home.  Maybe you did?

Recently though, it has occurred to me how this is different in a whole new way.  It’s safe. The whole country is remarkably safe in comparison.  Yes, bad things happen but they are far less frequent. (According to a quick, non-thorough Google search,) no one here has ever lived extreme school violence in Korea.  Students and teachers don’t have to have monthly safety drills to prepare just in case. (Interesting tangent: in two school shootings in America, the shooter was a Korean student.) I feel like teaching here probably resembles the 1980s in the pre-political correctness era and before the rapid increase in school shootings.  I remember when Columbine happened. I was still in high school.  I remember when Heath High School in Paducah happened.  I have friends who were there to witness it. Whether you attended these schools or just remember fearing going back to school the next day in another state far away from it all, all of our lives changed with these incidents. But none to the degree of those involved in the most recent occurrence.  But this isn’t about that.  You don’t need me to write a blog about that.

Let me better illustrate my point because I’m not doing a very good job.  The last two weeks in my movie classes, we’ve watched Home Alone.  (It’s hugely popular here.) While, annoyingly, it did teach my students a few new four-letter words, it also contains insane violence and you regularly hear “I’m gonna kill that kid!” and similar speech.  It’s quite violent, disguised in comedy.  It’s what makes 80s/90s movies so classically hilarious for both children and adults, while the movies now, well, aren’t. People didn’t have a reason to be sensitive about that back then, but they do now.   We’ve also been writing essays this week. Detailed essays about warriors in combat and the AK-47’s, nuclear bombs, and hand grenades that they, my students, would want to use in these battles.  Most of these classes are comprised entirely of 7th and 8th grade boys.  This was right up their alley.  They taught me about so many guns and weapons that I have never, ever wanted to know about.  Students here run around the halls with their version of “Charlie’s Angels” weapons, shooting each other and a teacher or two along the way.  No one thinks anything of it.  It’s kids being allowed to be kids.  In my classes, we talk about nuclear war, terrorism, the infamous serial killers of the world, suicide, religion, gayness and sexuality. (We even talked about Macaulay Culkin’s drug/suicide watch and why the media thinks that it’s okay to print that stuff.) Anything they want to talk about, I’m more than happy to discuss with them. Over the last 15 years, that’s been stripped away from schools in America.  Because it’s had to be.

No one here blames the violence in video games when bad things do happen. No one hear blames a lack of God in schools or public places. And in my observations, with both of those factors playing a large role in Korean society, violence against others is so rare. People here are taught respect for themselves, their family, their culture and their community. We watch Christmas movies and the students that don’t believe in Christianity still enjoy the movies and laugh along.  We talk about the Big Bang and evolution and those who do believe in Christianity still participate in the conversation and recognize the importance of learning this.  I could go on and on, but again, this wasn’t the point of this blog.  But the point of this specific paragraph is that people here are taught respect from a very young age.

The end point of this blog is that teaching in Korea is absolutely nothing like (I assume) teaching in America to be.  With both good and bad facets, this can be the best job you’ve ever had if you let it be.  Without political correctness, without mandated state testing requirements, and with the freedom to discuss anything which interests your students (or you), you can be the greatest teacher any of these students have ever had.  If you want to be.


  1. Of course 8th grade boys want AK-47s!! I totally wanted one when I was that age. I still kind of want one :)

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I can't imagine what it must be like to teach at a public school in America now... first it was gang violence, and now the NRA wants to give teachers guns?? Sure, what could possibly go wrong.

    Korea may be behind the times in many ways, but yes it's very safe!

  2. So very true. Great observations.

  3. Hi I’m a freshmen in an american university and I was wondering about working for an international school in the future. In your opinions what do you think would be the best subject to specialize in as a teacher? I’m currently thinking about pursuing EFL (English as a Foreign Language) but I’m seeing that many international schools are taught all in English or only accept English speaking students. What are the job outlooks for that subject area?