I taught English in South Korea for a year. It was a wonderful experience, one I wouldn’t trade, but I had a few problems there, and I’d like to share some tips that might help others going to teach Engllish abroad.
First, my schedule was daunting. My university offered both day and evening classes, and I taught some days from 8:30 am until 10:15 pm. Needless to say, I was exhausted. Also, most of my classes were big; my Freshman “conversation” classes had forty-five students in them. It’s hard to have a conversation, or even small groups of conversations, with that many people-especially when they all speak the first language well, and feel rather silly speaking to their friends in English.
I suggest that you be flexible when you go. Be prepared to adapt to the situation you find yourself in. Where I taught, I was one of three English teachers, and I was the new one. Therefore I got the worst schedule. Besides teaching seventeen hours of regular classes, I got the “special class” that met four times a week at 8:30 am. It was a conversation class open to students at all levels and faculty and staff too. There were no books, no syllabus. I just had to wing it, come up with different topics and activities each day. I never got to know the names of all of the students in this class, because attendance was not required; some came regularly, others not so much.
One thing I suggest in such a situation is, don’t feel that you have to learn the names of all the students. It’s a waste of time. You want to be friendly and comfortable, but when the cast of characters is different every day, and the names are not familiar, it’s too difficult. One thing I did with my freshman class was to assign English names. Some ESL teachers believe this is not a good thing to do; they think it’s disrespectful of the students’ culture. But when you have forty-five rambunctious students-and my freshmen were-with names like Jung Soo and Seon Jun, Hee Duk and Duk Hee-it’s pretty hard, at least it was for me, to keep them straight.
Learn Some of Their Language
And by the way, all these names were written on my attendance sheets in Korean characters, or hangul. It’s very worthwhile to learn these characters before you go. I believe there are 23 of them, and they are phonetic; once you learn the sound of each letter, you can sound out any word. (It’s good, too, to learn some common phrases in Korean–hello, excuse me, I’m sorry, I don’t understand, thank you and how much is this are good for starters.)
When I asked my Korean freshmen if they would like English names, toward the end of the year-and I did ask them before doing it-they were thrilled and excited. They couldn’t wait to tell me the names they had chosen, and they all wanted their own name. If two people chose John, for example, one would immediately choose another name. I had only one student who preferred to be addressed by his Korean name, and that was fine, too. But our class became more fun when the students had new names and with them, new identities. And for me, it was so much easier to remember their names, and thus distinguish them.
Another good thing I did, to calm my freshmen, was to learn the Korean phrase that meant “Be quiet.” Second semester I finally gave up trying to solve all my problems by myself, and I went to see my Korean colleague, and told her about my unruly, undisciplined class. She taught me these words: “Cho yeong I hae,” and told me to say them when the class was noisy. I did it, and it was like magic, the way they settled down and looked at me as if I were suddenly someone they could relate to. After that I taught a grammar lesson to them in which I not only taught English prepositions and their placement, but compared them to their Korean counterparts and their placement in the sentence. Again, my students were impressed. They began to like me and to listen to me. I should have done it earlier, but I didn’t figure out a lot of things right away.
A Bag (or Flash Drive) Full of Tricks
I also want to suggest that you familiarize yourself with the website Dave’s ESL Cafe. (You’re bringing your laptop, of course.) This website contains many useful things for ESL teachers, from job listings to lessons you can do at a moment’s notice, without much preparation. This kind of thing is very useful when you’re teaching in a foreign country. When I first arrived at my Korean university, they told me that the textbooks I had chosen for one class weren’t available, and I’d have to just go without or find something else; classes were starting. Luckily I had some lessons I could use, and I just started in with those. Everybody needs that kind of thing. Whether it’s on your computer or in your briefcase, you need a bag of tricks, just in case the materials you want and need aren’t there.
I was lucky that time because I soon discovered that they had a set of English-language-learning videos, a series called Family Album U.S.A. that I had used at home and liked. It was a little different, though, in that the accompanying student books weren’t available, so I had to make copies for them, and it wasn’t always as easy to make copies as it had been at home; I had to go to another building, and I had to limit the number.
Don’t expect unlimited copying, and don’t expect everything you’re used to at home. On the other hand, my university did have good computer facilities, and some classrooms set up with TVs. The only problem was, the instructions for the monitor at my desk were all in Korean, and complicated. I always had to have a student help me with the technology, and sometimes it took valuable class time. Korean students are very helpful, though. Let them do things like turn on the machines, erase the board, and carry your books. They’re used to doing this for teachers. I had a student assigned to clean my office for me every week! It’s nice. It’s also a way to get to know some of them.
If you want to use pictures in class, bring those. Don’t do what I did. I cut out some pictures from a Korean magazine to use in my class. I handed out pictures of people from the magazine, and I asked my students to give them names and make up stories about their lives. They laughed. These were pictures of famous Korean singers and actors. Why make up names and stories when they already knew them?
If I hadn’t been so embarrassed, I could have had them teach me some Korean popular culture then. I wasn’t flexible enough. I could have said, “Okay, then tell me who they are, and what kinds of songs they sing and movies they’ve made.” Oh well. Hindsight is twenty-twenty.
Staplers and Other Staples
You might also bring a stapler and some paper clips. In the United States, paper clips are everywhere. If you work in an office, they are plentiful. They’re on your desk, and usually on the floor too. You see them on the staircase, and often on the street. Not so in Korea. I had a hard time finding paper clips, and one time, when I asked my Korean colleague for some, she asked, “How many?” “A few,” I replied. She went to the office and came back with exactly three.
Another thing I wished I had brought was an English-English dictionary. It was amazing how many times this same colleague would ask me the English word for something, and I’d have a hard time coming up with it. She’d ask things I didn’t usually think about or say, like the name of the place in the doorway where you first put your foot down. Do you know it? Threshold.
Your dictionary might be on paper, or it might be electronic, but make sure you have one. Also, an atlas is a good thing to bring along. People will ask you things about your own country that you don’t know. Again, you may find all of the information you need on your computer. It’s been ten years since I went to South Korea. I didn’t bring my own, didn’t even have a laptop then.
I would also suggest bringing a few paperback novels to read. You will probably have times when you are alone, with nothing to do; this is great reading time! You will probably be excited about the exotic new culture you’re living in, but also want some reminders of the one you are familiar with; some good books will help with that.
In my Korean apartment, I was lucky enough to have a TV. Many of the programs were in English, though some were things I would never in a million years watch at home-Hollywood Squares, for example. I watched BBC News, and I also watched the local Korean news and tried to pick out a word or two. I watched the North and South Koreans reunite in the spring of 2000, and it was very emotional to see musicians from the two countries play together, coming to the stage holding hands. I watched American movies sometimes, with Korean dubbing. It was amusing to hear people like Danny De Vito and Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking Korean. There were also American movies in English on Korean TV. I saw Terms of Endearment for the first time in Korea, and I really enjoyed it.
Movies and Games Make Great Teaching Tools
Speaking of movies, they are great teaching tools, for listening, pronunciation, vocabulary, cultural comparisons-everything. I suggest bringing a DVD or two when you go to teach English in Korea or any country. In the program where I taught in the United States, we used movies often. And of course, students love them. Some I have used are: You’ve Got Mail, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, Catch Me If You Can, and Big Fish. Choose a movie that will have universal appeal, but also one that you like, since you’ll be playing it a lot.Once you have made vocabulary lists and cloze exercises (a short listening text with blanks) for one movie, the process is the same. Of course, you may not know whether your school provides a TV and DVD player, but if they do, movies are great language teaching materials.
On a simpler level, I have one final suggestion. Bring games. You can find simple games for ESL teaching online, and also in textbooks. Make a collection for yourself, and use these often in your classroom abroad. One of my Korean students taught me a simple one that I’ve used often. It’s called Speed, and all you do is prepare index cards with vocabulary written on them. Students take turns going in front of the class and trying to get the other students to guess as many vocabulary words as possible within a short, timed segment. (So bring index cards and some kind of timer.)
Other simple games are Hangman, where a student (or you, the teacher) puts a certain number of spaces on the board, and students have to guess letters; when they’re wrong, the little stick figure gets another limb. Remember?
Another one I like is Concentration. You have a set of cards, or papers, turned over, and students take turns choosing two to turn and see if they match (matches can be exact words, or words with definitions). If they make a match, they get another turn.
There are many more games. You can vary these games by doing them individually or in teams, whatever works. These, plus movies, are the best ways I know to keep students’ attention.
I taught English in South Korea for a year. These are the things that worked for me. You’ll discover your own materials and techniques, and you’ll have your own priceless experiences. You’ll find many more suggestions on the web. But I hope that some of my suggestions will help you in your teaching, at least at first.
“Going to Work in South Korea? Lose Ten Pounds!”
“These Scenes from the Movie You’ve Got Mail Will Make a Fun Lesson for Your ESL Class”
Dave’s ESL Cafe