I had a wonderful year teaching English in South Korea. I would recommend the experience to anyone looking for an interesting work and cultural experience. However, I had serious problems in some of my classes. I learned to use creativity in dealing with these problems. I also, and perhaps more importantly, learned to ask for help.
Classes Like a Circus
My freshman conversation classes in Korea were often like a circus. I should have asked for help long before I did, but I was ashamed, and I thought I should be able to fix things myself. One of my male colleagues kept his classes in line by making them do push-ups. That was a bit extreme, I thought, and just not my style, so I found alternative means of getting the students’ attention.
I Asked for Help, and I Got It
When I finally told my mentor about the problems I was having with discipline, she was extremely helpful. She told me that I was not alone. The freshman classes were very immature, and even their Korean teachers were having problems with them. She gave me a Korean phrase to use, “Cho yeong i hae,” which meant, “Be quiet!” When I used that phrase, the students actually took notice, were impressed, and obeyed—at least temporarily. She also suggested I talk to the department chair. I did so reluctantly, but the results were worth it. He talked to the students and made them understand that it was time to shape up.
I Tried Something New
Also, in one of my Freshman conversation classes, which, for lack of a better term, I’ll just call the “terrible one,” I did an experiment of my own. I asked them if they’d like English names. Many of my colleagues in the United States thought it was demeaning to give foreign students English names, so I hadn’t wanted to do that, but my students jumped at the chance. The day I brought in lists of boys’ and girls’ names for them to choose from, they were more engaged than they had ever been. All but one of them chose an English name. For them it was fun; for me it was a way that I could really know my students. It was just a lot easier for me to remember John, Katy, and Linda than their Korean names, and it helped with order in the class. One student even asked if he could be called “Bruce Willis.” I gladly gave him that name in exchange for his cooperation in class.
In General, Koreans Are Kind, and They Want to Help
On the plus side, the students in Korea do a lot of the work that teachers are expected to do in the States. They always rushed up to erase the board for me after class, and they always offered to carry my books and other equipment. I needed the students to help me with technology in the classroom (at that time, a listening console, a tape player, and a VCR), since everything was written in Korean characters on these things.
A student managed the English department office, and he was polite, soft-spoken and always helpful. Also, his English was good.
Some of the students who had been to my U.S. university on a summer exchange were assigned to take care of me, and they did-organizing field trips on weekends for me and the other American teacher.
And the mentor I’ve mentioned did everything possible for me, showing me around, introducing me to everyone, explaining what to say and do in every new situation. She took me shopping for food and a coffee pot when I first arrived. She took me to the bank and to the dentist when I needed one. She enlisted the help of the American teacher who had been there for a while to show me how to buy train and bus tickets, and how to know when my stop was coming.
If you are thinking of teaching in South Korea, remember, don’t hesitate to ask for help.