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With both hands (2008 Essay contest)
With both hands (2008 Essay contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:12     View: 2063  

With both hands : Survival skills for foreign teachers living in South Korea. 


Juksan Elementary School 

Courtney Dicmas


When I stepped into the quiet sunshine of Incheon International Airport a year and a half ago, I thought I had landed on another planet.  All around me, beautiful Korean women and men flew past in shiny high heels and silver business suits, whispering into their cell phones.  I remember smiling and talking excitedly with a woman named Kyong Hee, and then promptly falling asleep during the car ride home with flowers in my lap.  So much has happened since that day, and I am very excited for this opportunity to share the knowledge, survival skills, and experiences that I have gathered.  I hope to share some useful information that may help improve relations between foreign teachers and their Korean co-teachers, and ultimately improve the quality of education the kids of South Korea will receive in the future.


Survival Skills

             There’s no one way to find your groove in Korea as a foreigner, but there are a few things I wish I would have known before coming here. Creating a happy relationship with your school and your Korean co-teacher is, to me, the number one factor that will determine the amount of joy in your Korean existence.  Here are some tips that I’ve picked up along the way.


v     Throw a pizza party for the teachers with your first paycheck.  (Or randomly if you’ve already been here for a bit).  It will be the best 30,000 won you’ll spend in Korea.  It will show your school that you are grateful for your job and it will help weave you into the fabric of the community.  It will also be remembered down the road if you need help or support from your school as time goes on.


v     Give gifts ? especially small ones for no reason.  If you are making a cup of coffee in the office, offer one to the secretary and whoever else is around.  It’s a respectful and all around cool thing to do.


v     When you’re out to dinner with the teachers, accept soju from your Principal.  Take the shot glass with both hands while he pours.  Then, turn your shoulders away when you drink.  Roll the rim of the empty glass on your napkin to clean it and offer to pour one for him with both hands.  Say “Kum-Bay!” for Cheers!


v     Take breaks from Korea.  When you start to feel burned out ? take a mental break from Korea.  Try cooking your favorite recipe at home. You may have to substitute some ingredients.  (Some fajitas have squid in them, right?)  If you feel lonely, call up a friend and do something you like to do with friends back home.  Give yourself permission to take the invisible pressure of living as a foreigner in Korea off your shoulders for a bit, and remember ? you’re a visitor here.  It doesn’t have to make sense for you to enjoy life here.  Why do Koreans decorate their pets?  Who knows?  I think it’s hilarious.


v     Try not to lose your cool.  Plans change at the last minute all the time here.  Once you accept this, your quality of life will improve immensely.  Classes get cancelled for random reasons.  You get put on the loudspeaker announcements your first day of school ? it happens.  You get invited out to a mandatory dinner when all you want to do is go home and sit in your pajamas.  If you start to get frustrated, write it all down, call a friend, go for a run ? and let it go.  Korea is 4,000 years old ? you are probably in your twenties.  Take it nice and easy.  Get a donut and a green tea latte, reboot and try it again tomorrow.


v     Respect yourself and your needs.  It’s true that saying “no” isn’t really an option for a lot of Koreans in the workplace.  Especially when it comes to accepting dinner, social invitations, or extra work load.  Be honest with yourself.  If you really don’t want to do something, talk with your co-teacher about it.  Find a good way to phrase it together.  It’s much better to say to a respected superior that you are committed to your current students and therefore (insert task here) will lessen the quality and energy in your classes right now, than just saying “No”. 


v     A little politeness goes a long way.  When asking for things at school like vacation time or permission to try a new teaching method (I taught an experimental arts immersion class my second contract) it’s best to present it as “What do you think about this?”  Never go directly to your principal or superior ? it’s very inconsiderate.  Brainstorm with your co-teacher (maybe over some ice cream popsicles or ddoekbokki you bring as a gift).  Talk about something else first, “How’s your day going?  Are you enjoying teaching these days?”  Then ask, “Can I ask you about something?”  Coming right out of the chute and asking about money, bonus pay, time off etc…can come off as rude.  Never underestimate the power of politeness.  It can change an answer from “it’s not possible” to “Oh, I can do that right now!” in a matter of minutes.


v     Don’t be afraid to show who you are!  If you like music, share it with your students while they’re working on a worksheet or a project in class.  If you like sports, take 10 minutes and play soccer with your students after school.  It will take some time, but it feels really good when you start to let bits of yourself shine through the language and cultural barriers.  It creates continuity in your home life and your Korean life.  It also helps ease homesickness and makes Korean life make more sense.


My experience in adjusting to Korean customs…

It hasn’t always been easy living here.  It’s a very humbling experience living in a country where you absolutely cannot blend in.  When I first came to Korea, I was painstakingly cautious around my colleagues at school.  I never blew my nose in public.  I kept my hands out of my pockets.  I covered my mouth when I laughed.  I didn’t know how to speak any Korean, so I couldn’t order food and I couldn’t read anything.  I had a lot of funny shopping experiences ? coming home with food I didn’t recognize and accidentally buying toilet cleaner instead of laundry detergent.

I was always terribly nervous while dining out with the teachers, because I didn’t want to offend anyone. Six months through my first year, however, I became incredibly lonesome and homesick.  I realized I wasn’t letting anyone really get to know me.  In a way, my desire to fit in as quickly as possible, actually kept me from having any genuine interactions with my Korean co-teacher, and my students as well. It wasn’t Korea that wasn’t willing to get to know me; it was me who was afraid to reach out to Korea.


Overcoming cultural barriers

I was tired of feeling lonely and living only on the surface of my life here, so I decided to trust my heart and give it a shot.  If you can’t get out of it, why not get into it, you know?  I started bringing my guitar to school, and playing music for the kids during class, and playing for the teachers during coffee breaks in the staff room.  I asked the lunch ladies in the cafeteria for the recipes of especially tasty lunches.  I learned the Hangeul alphabet and began to study Korean.  I started playing soccer with some of the kids after school.  I even ran the 100m dash with a group of Korean moms for our school sports day.  After I crossed the finish line they gave me about 10 gallons of laundry detergent.  (Take THAT, toilet cleaner!)

This is when I really started living my life.  Things exploded from the dull black and white of trying to survive Korea, to the fabulous bold color of really enjoying my life here.  It hasn’t always been easy, but Korea has given me the courage to step completely outside of myself, and shine for exactly who I am at the same time.


Thoughts on improving English education

I feel that working towards cultivating positive relationships between foreign teachers and their Korean colleagues is one of the best possible improvements that can be made to English education in South Korea.  If there is harmony between the foreign teacher and the Korean co-teacher, the students can sense it and benefit from it.  It creates a relaxed, open atmosphere that stimulates creativity, inspires confidence and engages the students’ imaginations.

I have observed that young Koreans are under a lot of pressure to do what’s expected of them.  I have seen this in the classroom, even at the elementary level.  Intense academic competition coupled with high standards of excellence has the split effect of creating really brilliant young people who are frightened of looking silly and making mistakes.

However, I believe that making mistakes and looking silly is an absolutely essential part of learning a new language.  Playfulness leads to innovation, and innovation leads to mastery when it comes to language learning.  To equip young Koreans with the tools and language skills to create a brighter future, we need to encourage and nurture playfulness. 

One way to approach this is to use a great warm-up at the beginning of each class.[1]  A good warm-up wakes the kids up and sets the tone for the entire class.  It can be a short game, or a song, or some dancing around the room, as long as it gets them out of their seats and switches on the lights upstairs.  Once the kids are all lit up and ready to go, that’s when the magic really happens.  You can actually begin to see how they put things together and add new information to their worlds.  It’s one of my favorite things about teaching, and is definitely one of the reasons I have fallen in love with Korea.


What I love about Korea

I love Korea with my whole heart.  I couldn’t have survived, though, without my Korean co-teacher, Lee Ji Sun.  She is fabulous and funny, brave and wise.  I hope I can become half the teacher that she is.  I love my school, and all the warm-hearted, goofy and excellent teachers I have the privilege to work with each day.  I love the lunch ladies at my school who wink and give me extra kimchi because they know how much I like it.  I love the incredible positive energy I feel coming back at me when I step in front of a classroom full of kids, and being tackled with hugs when I arrive at school in the morning.

There is so much beauty in Korea.  I love the shape and innocence of the landscape, and the shiny, techno beat-pounding magnificence of Seoul. I love heated floors, and the comfort of eating while sitting down on the floor in a restaurant.  I love walking arm in arm with Korean friends and eating off of each other’s plates.  The food here is fabulous.  If I catch a cold, all I need is a bowl of steaming kimchi chigae and I’m right back on my feet again.  I love the gorgeous, full, orange moon when it rises above the mountains outside my rural apartment, and all the cricket songs beneath my window.  I love the farmers in my town who cheer for me when I go jogging.  I love that I step forward now with open arms into situations that would have sent me running a year ago.

             Looking back at that moment when I stepped off the plane into the stiletto foot traffic, I almost can’t believe how much has happened since then.  It is such a privilege and an honor to be invited to come to such an amazing country and teach its young people.  I don’t even know where to begin thanking Korea for taking such good care of me.  I hope that this essay encourages foreigners who are thinking about coming to teach in Korea to really engage with their co-teacher and find a happy harmony there.  If both teachers feel free to bring their varied strengths to the table, the students will be able to unlock knowledge from both parts of the world equally, securing a brighter and more globally-minded future.  The world is changing every single day, and I am absolutely honored to say that I’ve hokey-pokey-ed with the next generation of our world’s leaders.


Thank you very much for your time!

[1] Please see the attachment for my homemade list of warm up ideas!
















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