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Thoughts and Suggestions for Teaching in Korea(2008 Essay Contest)
Thoughts and Suggestions for Teaching in Korea(2008 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:05     View: 2635  

Thoughts and Suggestions for Teaching in Korea


By James D. Edwards

Mokpo Sanjeong Elementary School


When I first entered the classroom four years ago, I must admit that I was a little intimidated by the situation. It only took a moment for me to remember the type of kid that I was: rotten, obnoxious, and inattentive. I seemed to think that every one of my students would be like I was. However, I quickly came to realize that the situation would be much different than I expected.

After I found my strengths and discovered my weaknesses, I realized that I could be a fantastic teacher. I had always considered myself to be a “kid at heart,” and I never thought it would help me so much in the classroom. The ability to have fun and educate at the same time is what truly sets a good teacher apart from an exceptional one.

Also, I realized that my knowledge of grammar and my inherent ability to make such a subject bearable combined to allow me to perform well as an educator. Either students want to learn or they do not. Sometimes it can be a nearly impossible task to change that. However, if a teacher can try to make the subject fun or at least bearable, it can create a world of difference.

Often I find that students who begin learning filled with apathy can transform themselves through unwittingly learning. After you establish that the student’s ability is improving, and you demonstrate it to the student, you can actually see the interest in learning English blossom. It is one of the more rewarding aspects of the job.

My experience has allowed me a wealth of knowledge about teaching. In public schools, we are required to teach a set curriculum. However, this does not mean that we cannot supplement the material with handouts, worksheets, puzzles, and activities that will enrich and educate the students above and beyond the basic curriculum. The first thing I do every morning is evaluate the day’s lessons and see what activities I think will be most beneficial to the students.

For example, if the lesson is more speaking oriented, I might prepare a worksheet that is writing intensive. If the lesson is more about writing, maybe the worksheet will involve and encourage reading comprehension. Also, I always have puzzles involving the unit’s vocabulary available. I find that puzzles do wonders with respect to vocabulary absorption, word recognition, and writing ability.  These also allow me to keep the students occupied while I provide individual attention to students who need it.

Korea has a culture of mixing public school with private supplementary education. The learning and educational process in Korea is quite competitive, and it affects the classroom in many ways. It is easy for an English teacher to identify the students that do attend private English academies. I try to make sure I do not give special attention or unfair benefits to those students. It is important for a teacher to treat all of his or her students equally. Otherwise, that teacher is performing a disservice to himself or herself and all of the students he or she teaches.

The combined effort of a public school teacher supplemented by a private academy can create a great atmosphere for learning English. However, not every student has those opportunities. I teach in an older area of Mokpo, where private English academies are scarce and parents with the resources to afford such schools are less likely to exist than in more affluent areas. Therefore, I find that I am often the sole connection to the English world for many of my students. This places a burden on me to do my best for those students who do not have the advantage of supplemental English instruction.

Occasionally, though, teaching in Korea creates uncomfortable circumstances. One of the major cultural differences a newcomer might find is that Korea lacks a multicultural population. As English teachers, we all come from countries with large and diverse populations. In Korea, you will find the opposite.

The result of this circumstance is at least two-fold. First, the obvious… We look different than your typical Korean. You will often hear comments about the size of your nose or the “smallness” of your face. For some students, the curiosity can become too much. While staring is a constant and the majority of students know the boundaries, the occasional vulgarity presents itself. It rarely happens, but unfortunately does happen, that a student will treat me like an animal. He or she might grab a piece of hair and pluck it from my head. Another student might stick his or her finger in any number of places on my body. This is a result of lack of knowledge about foreigners, but it can be offensive and distasteful.

Also, the introduction of a non-Korean into an environment deeply rooted in Confucian principles can be troublesome for the children. Children in Korea are taught to respect their elders. Usually, they do. As foreigners, particularly ones that do not speak Korean, we often find ourselves outside of the Confucian scale. Many children are confused about whether they should respect us as elders, treat us as equals, or look down upon us. The best students will respect you. The worst will look down upon you.

As a teacher in this situation, I must say it can be trying. It is always important to remember that at the end of the day, we are dealing with children. By definition, children are immature, ignorant, and na?ve. We cannot allow ourselves to become distraught or angry with the children. We must set a good example and be positive with them. I think that we take for granted the fact that we grew up surrounded by such diversity.

Curiosity in children should never be stifled. A child wants to stare at my nose? It does not bother me any more. Why? Well, maybe mine is the first large nose that student has ever seen. Maybe if he stares at my nose for a few seconds, he will let the next teacher he meets slide without that humiliation. All in all, I would say that the classroom environment is as much for the students’ education about different and foreign people as it is the students’ English education.

Overall, my experience in Korea has been outstanding. I feel like I am having a positive influence on my students, friends, and host country by being outgoing, knowledgeable, and polite. Being a great teacher requires a lot of patience and understanding, and I think that those qualities are as important as any for having a positive experience in Korea. The lessons learned in the classroom are as important for me as they are for the students.



Professionally, I can say that many new teachers often fall prey to the same mistakes time and again.  Knowing these mistakes can be a great way to prevent them.  More than a few well educated and professional teachers have made these same mistakes, so I think it is vital to share them with new teachers as well as experienced ones.





Mistake 1: Misunderstanding the Job


             As an English teacher, you may feel that the curriculum you are given is insufficient for you to teach the students to speak the English language.  That is indeed the case.  Simply put, we are not here to teach students how to become fluent in English.  To do so would take more resources than you or the education system can provide.

             What we are here to do is to teach the students the basics.  By that, I mean that we are here to teach children how to communicate in the most basic form in a language that is completely and totally different from their own.  Most foreign teachers come from countries where they are required as children to study one of the Romantic languages.  In those classes, we are taught so much more than what we believe Korean children to be taught of English.  We use that comparison to quickly dismiss our lessons and programs as inadequate.

             In doing so, however, we fail to realize that such a comparison is nothing more than a fallacy.  Romantic languages and English share almost the exact same alphabet and grammatical structure.  Many of the words in English come from Romantic languages.  Phonetically, the languages are quite similar.

             Korean children are being asked to learn a language that so far removed from their own that it would take thousands of hours to bring even a modicum of fluency to a student.  The alphabet is completely different, and the phonetic make-up and grammatical structure of the languages vary to an almost immeasurable degree.  It would take the average student a lifetime to become fluent in a language so different from their own.

             We are here to introduce them to our language.  If it were feasible to create a goal of fluency in the English language program, it would be created.  However, expecting students who spend less than two hours per week with a native speaker to become fluent is nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream.  We can do our best, and teach as much as we can to the best of our abilities, but we will never make the students fluent in English on our own.


Mistake 2: Doing Too Little


             If you ask a teacher who has been a part of the English education program in a public school for a while, most of them will say that they find the program lacking in several areas.  I do, as well.  It does not include phonics classes.  There is no writing until fifth grade, and then the writing part of the curriculum only includes two or three words per lesson.  Many of the voice actors on the resource discs lack proper pronunciation.  These are all flaws, but there is no bigger mistake a teacher can make than to fail to recognize these mistakes and supplement the materials accordingly.

             I have heard horror stories about foreign teachers who simply live and die by the book and resource material.  That is a grave mistake, and any teacher who does that is doing a serious disservice to his or her students.  Most foreign teachers teach fewer than twenty classes a week and are required to be in the building for forty hours.  What do you do with your time?

             Would you be pleased if your doctor came in to perform surgery ill-prepared?  Of course, you would not be.  As a teacher, your job entails preparing for your classes.  That includes finding the flaws in the lesson materials and supplementing those materials in a manner that will help your students achieve the most educational value.  A good teacher will do this for every lesson and every class.

Let me show you an example of what I mean.  The fifth grade English materials cover simple past tense verbs.  The lesson is entitled “What did you do yesterday?”

The goal for the lesson is for the students to be able to ask simple questions in the past tense, such as “What did you do yesterday?”, “What did you see there?”, and “Did you have fun?”  The students should also be able to use simple past tense phrases such as “I went to the park.”

In this lesson, there is also a subtle introduction of a few prepositions.  “With” is used often, such as “I went to the park with my brother.”  How did I supplement this lesson?  I added the preposition “at” to my discussion and materials.  Most of my students never attend private academies, so their only source of English education comes from my classes.  Adding that simple preposition is significant in that it allows them to expand their ability to convey information.  They can then add information regarding where the event took place.

It may not seem like a large improvement on the provided curriculum, but small improvements do a world of wonder over time.  I often cite the lack of writing as a flaw in elementary English education, so I always supplement my lessons with a writing worksheet or puzzle that allows the students to write the alphabet or read and identify the letters.  As I noted earlier, the difference in the alphabets hinders the students’ ability to learn new words, which is why I find it imperative to have the students both read and write as much as possible.

A teacher who does too little does not help his or her students in any way.  If you do too little, the students will learn only what is printed in their books and on the resource discs.  They will also find English class to be boring and repetitive.  This will lead to a loss of efficiency and a lower level of English ability across the student body.  Doing too little in your classes is a serious mistake.


Mistake 3: Attempting Too Much


             At best, we meet each class twice a week.  Each class is forty minutes in length.  In the end, you will probably find that the time allotted for English is far less than what is needed for your students to achieve any reasonable level of fluency.  If you care about your students and want to help them improve their ability, you may be tempted to try too much in class.

             By “trying too much,” I mean that a teacher may be tempted to try to teach the students too many things in one lesson.  For example, a teacher may try to teach the past continuous verb form in the aforementioned lesson about the past tense.  It is absolutely true that a fluent speaker will need to learn the past continuous at some point, but you cannot expect to teach thirty students two verb forms in just over two hours.

             By attempting to do too much, you may find that you do far less.  Often, such attempts lead to confusion among the students and a lower comprehension of the main topic of the lesson.  Students may learn less of the past tense if they are confused by the addition of the past continuous, for example.

             The English curriculum has its flaws.  However, it also has its benefits.  It reminds us of our purpose, which is to teach basic conversational skills to students with little chance to practice and use such skills.  You will find that several of the lessons are vague and lacking, but some of them are not.  We should be diligent in our attempts to teach as much as possible. 

After all, we are hired not to be robots, but to use our knowledge of the English language to further our students’ understanding of the language.  Trying to bring them to fluency too quickly, however, or attempting to teach the students too much in too little time only serves to undermine the intended purpose.  You should always do more than the lesson provides, but you should never do so much that the students lose their comprehension of the original topic of the lesson.


Mistake 4: Heading to a Gunfight with Empty Guns


             Would you eat at a restaurant if the cook did not know the recipes?  Would you take a bus if the driver did not know the directions?  If not, how can you expect to be a good teacher if you do not know what you are teaching?

             Each and every teacher in an English classroom should know everything about their subject matter.  If you are teaching a lesson about the present perfect verb form, or using verbs as nouns (gerunds), then you should take the time to do a little research beforehand.  If you have never taught before, let me promise you that you will be asked some of the most obscure and random questions during your tenure.  You will know the answer to most of these questions.  Yet, it never fails that someone, at some point, will ask one that you do not know.  Or, you may know the answer, but not understand why or how to explain the answer.

             Take some time to become familiar with grammar terms.  More importantly, make sure you understand grammar rules.  There are many sites on the web devoted to nothing but English education, and many of them have glossaries and examples to help you.

             There are no jobs on the planet that require no training or continuing education.  This is no exception.  We are to be well versed in the workings of the English language and to be available to both students and staff alike.  Students expect you to be knowledgeable.  Coworkers demand that you be knowledgeable. Save yourself a few headaches, and be knowledgeable.


Mistake 5: Fail to Understand the Age Level of Your Students


             Whether you teach elementary or high school, knowing and understanding the age level of your students is a fantastic way to ensure that your lessons are as adequate as possible.  However, the younger your students are, the more important it becomes to avoid this mistake.

             As I mentioned before, being knowledgeable about grammar is important.  However, how do you explain what adverbs are to children who have not learned what adverbs are?  How do you explain prepositional phrases to students who have never learned the intricacies of their own language?

             Telling a student that using the word “at” before the name of a place explains where something occurs is much different than having a grammar lesson regarding prepositions of place with a third grader.  Think about it.  When you learned the word “at,” did you just pick it up or did someone teach it to you with a grammar lesson?  Sometimes allowing children to simply use words correctly will help them learn the usage much more efficiently than explaining to them why it works.

             Also, trying to teach a second grade class in the same fashion you would a sixth grade class is both unreasonable and impossible.  Those young children will be bored to tears, and they will let you know it.  I often hear about teachers who go crazy trying to control a group of young children while teaching them something that they have no business learning.  If those teachers knew the level of their students, they would know that young kids like that have to be a part of the class, and you have to keep and maintain their attention for as long as they are in the classroom.

             In the end, you will find that understanding the age level of your students will provide a huge advantage to both your ability to educate and your mental well-being.  It may take some time, especially for new teachers.  However, being observant and trying new things will ensure that you learn quickly.



             New teachers are going to make mistakes just like the ones listed above, but they should not let it bother them.  The only sure-fire way to learn is to make mistakes and learn from them.  Teaching in a foreign country to students who rarely understand you is trying enough.  Combine with that the fact that the new teacher probably will not speak their native language, and you have a recipe for stress.


             However, I assure you that it does not have to be stressful.  It can be both fun and educational for the teacher and the students alike.  They should have faith in themselves, take the good with the bad, and learn from others who know more than they do.  And, above all, they should ask for help when they need it.  There are plenty of resources out there to make their lives easier if they are not afraid to ask for it.


             Welcome to Korea.  If you are flexible and open to new ideas and experiences, then welcome to the best job you will ever have.  If you are closed minded and simple, and expect everyone to adjust to your cultural views while doing no adjusting of your own, you are going to be miserable.


Hopefully, you came to this wonderful country to experience a new world and view a different perspective on humanity.  That comes with the admission price of open-mindedness.  You may find that, at times, you disagree with the things that happen around you.  You may say, “Back home, we…”  You aren’t in Kansas anymore, and remembering that will carry you a long way.


I have found the Korean people to be both warm and caring.  However, the Korean culture is quite different than our own.  As guests, we must respect that culture and do our best to abide by it.  It will surely be trying at times, but in the end it will be a much more rewarding experience for all involved.



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