Teaching in Korea

I teach elementary and middle school students – basically kids aged 7 to 15. Some of the younger kids are just learning the alphabet and with some of the older youth, I can have a conversation about North Korea doing missile tests. It’s a broad spectrum and I think that it’s the best thing for a first year teacher as it shows you the full range of what teaching English as a second language entails. That being said, teaching English in Korea is quite different from in most other countries from what I have read and been told, and it varies significantly from hogwan (academy) to hogwan.

Most ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers here will tell you that they enjoy teaching but don’t like the system, especially if they work in a hogwan – although there are some who don’t like teaching at all. As for me, I love teaching. I have fun teaching the young ones, although when they have decided to not pay attention and generally act like children, it can get a little annoying having to be the heavy. I lost count after 1,349,674 of how many times I have said “Be quiet”, “Sit down” or my personal favourite “Be quiet and sit down”, after which the students always add “please” which is funny. But I also know that even when I play the heavy, my students like me – and not just because I give them stickers.  How do I know? They often give me little presents like gum, candy, a french fry, some dry ramen (and I always eat it too, even the Korean chip that tastes like puke – just one flavour, the shrimp ones are nice) or tell me about the ‘bad’ behaviour of other teachers. Everyone seems to love confiding in me (my other foreign co-workers don’t get the confidences), it must be my honest face 🙂 But for all that it is satisfying watching a student who you started out teaching the alphabet, speak in sentences (simple ones yes, but still sentences), I have found that I enjoy teaching the older students more. So I have found yet another job that it isn’t for me – elementary teacher. I swear, I am going to find my dream job through eliminating the ones I don’t like…

Most of my co-workers and other foreign friends don’t like teaching teens, especially middle school students (13-15 years) but that’s the age I enjoy the most. I like the bit of attitude, the emerging personalities, the interesting conversations that they bring up. That being said, I would probably be a horrible middle or high school teacher at home because a lot of our conversations wouldn’t be allowed. In my conversation classes I have talked about which movie stars and singers are handsome/beautiful, computer games (we’ve covered this topic to death – I know a lot about the popular games here), movies and TV shows, shopping and my one famous class where the boys explained male masturbation to me (click for that post if you missed it, it’s funny). Okay so most of the topics aren’t taboo but can you imagine having a 30 minute conversation about handsome guys at home. The point of conversation classes is to have conversations so we talk about whatever the kids want to talk about. That is not to say that some of the conversations classes don’t cover more intellectual topics, I have also talked about North Korea doing missile tests, whether North Korea and South Korea will ever re-unite, America, the Middle East, Canada and the more mundane topics of sports, school and food.

But for all that the teaching is fun, the system isn’t. Now each hogwan is different – there are so many books, directors, and teaching philosophies that it’s impossible to make any sweeping statements but I know that all my friends have had problems to some degree with the system. In my case, my problems have all been minor, petty things with the hogwan itself and frustration over the system. This frustration came to a bit of a head about a month ago when we were told that we weren’t suppose to get the students to do any written work, that the director wanted to always hear either our voice or the students in our classes. The “we” in this case is the foreign teachers at my hogwan. Which basically meant that he wanted us to be CD players and not teachers but that is one of the main problems of the system here. Reading and speaking are considered the key things to learn, with grammar coming third – it is different in public school where grammar is key (students attend school during normal hours and private academies like where I work later in the afternoon or evening) . Comprehension doesn’t matter which is bullshit. What is the point of teaching a kid to read if he doesn’t understand what the bloody hell he is reading – sorry for the cursing but I feel very strongly about this. I have been a very bad employee and have continued to do a lot of the written exercises. For example, page 30 will have a short story and page 31 will have questions about the story – all the answers can be found in the story. I still get them to answer the questions because it forces them to truly read the story not just recite it by memory.

That leads me to my second beef about the system – a lot of teaching revolves around memorization. I know that I am not a formally trained teacher but that is the worst way to learn anything. I have so many students that can “read” – more like recite – the passage in question but have no idea what it means. If you don’t understand what you are reading than you aren’t reading. It’s not the kid’s fault, it’s the system’s.

My third problem is the daily testing – if you are always studying for tests, you get really good at taking them but what do you actually learn. They forget what we did last week because it’s no longer important – they are too busy studying for the next test. Don’t get me wrong, testing is definitely necessary but not daily – especially daily memorization tests which just proves that two wrongs don’t make a right.

The good news – I only have one month left to be a CD player. The bad news – I am going to miss a lot of my students and fellow teachers!

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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