Thoughts on Teaching Abroad in Korea

By Cathy H - 7:47 PM

Today officially marks the end of my teaching for a year, and I have to express my honest opinions specifically on teaching abroad in a foreign country, me having taught in Korea. When I first signed up through the TaLK program, I was very ready to face extremely "rural" environment, being shantytowns and cows and empty fields. Throughout orientation, we were told repeatedly that it was really the luck of the draw if your situation was going to be good or not depending on your school. Also, that these kids were mainly impoverished, unfortunate and very eager to learn. And it was pretty much the opposite for these reasons. 

a) most students had smartphones and dressed fairly well: their parents drove pretty average cars and seemed to be working in business when I expected them all to be from poor farmer families. Definitely much more priveleged than advertised, in my school anyway.

b) they are not unfortunate: probably 80% of students go to "hagwons" or afterschool classes to improve in school subjects, forced by their parents.
c) most of them did not want to learn english: Korean was spoken all around, minimal effort was made especially for low level students and the younger students.

CONS of Teaching Experience & General Life:

1) 80% of them do not make an single effort: Their are the exceptional students that are always attentive, and the low level ones that are blatantly disrespectful or cannot even utter the alphabet. I'm a little annoyed by the fact that a majority of our orientation was focused on wishy-washy things like child psychology, intrinsic students motivation, the ~*rewarding feelings of teaching*~, magic tricks, extravagant projects etc. these were probably 80% intangible and to be honest, I didn't use anything I learnt in orientation except for some simple games. There is no way to sugarcoat this, but some of these students are atrociously misbehaved in every aspect. They bully other students, do not clean up after themselves, go through my personal things and computer, and know full well a foreigner can do nothing about it due to lack of communication. I was baffled at the lack of basic rules instilled in these students such as keeping hands to themselves, pushing their chair in, doing what the teacher tells them etc. There was a grand total of one classroom management course being taught to us during orientation, and that involved intricate reward system which I didn't even attempt on  my students because first, it is incomprehensible and they would not respect it. Thankfully, homeroom teachers started sitting in my every class to help with classroom management. Even then, they were allowed to just chatter and not participate. I really thought due to Confucianism ideals, students in East Asian countries would be very respectful and eager to learn. I heard stories of teachers in Thailand, Taiwan, China etc. that had pretty diligent students but I have to be honest, I did not have a good time with teaching these Korean students 80% of the time. The 20% that actually want to learn and give their all are overshadowed by the undisciplined students that are pretty much nightmare material. It was pretty traumatic at some points witnessing fights, shoving, crying, and trying to force a few English words on them.

2) Reliant on a single "Mentor Teacher": I was assigned a "mentor teacher" that basically helped with all errands, paperwork, Unfortunately, some do not speak fluent english like mine which made it very hard to communicate. Though I fared pretty well by myself, there were times when I wish I could just speak Korean to the staff instead of me being seen as the clueless foreigner. Fortunately, I liked my mentor teacher alot and had a positive experience with him. Others may not have been so lucky.

3)Emphasis on Hierarchy and Status aka ALWAYS FREEZING: I was told from day 1 to always bow to my vice principal and principal. I had to do a legit 90 degree bow and greet them in the most formal Korean. It is a cultural norm, but I found out the other day that schools here don't turn on the heat in wintertime with the exception of the principal's office or secretary office. It annoyed me to no end that students are constantly freezing, the hallways are cold, teachers are allowed sparse heat. What happened to "everyone is equal"? The fact that my heater gets turned off 2 or 3 times within a few hours duration is very upsetting to be honest. How are employees supposed to work comfortably without heat in the winter and air conditioner in the summer? Where is the professional standard? And teachers,students are more inferior to the office people and heads of the school? Students always bow to the principal and anyone older than them, but they are probably some of the worst behaviour humans I've ever seen. Korea is centered around respect to elders and "saving face" but I don't think there is any intrinsic motivation behind these gestures other than they have to. In North America, we just wave hello or good morning but it is very rude in Korea to elders. Why than, are some of these students so terrible and without manners? It is a country where people are always wearing a mask. 

4) Selfishness and lack of public manners: This is true for the old people especially, because they feel more entitled than everyone else to push to the front of the line or shove on the bus or subway. People are spitting everywhere, always budging, and honestly if you are a stranger to them Koreans treat you like you're invisible. A friendly hello or conversation? Never. They are very self centered and always taking selfies in front of mass groups of people too, or checking themselves out, their are even mirrors in the toilet when you bend down. It is a little too superficial and people are obsessed with themselves. 

PROS of Teaching Experience & General Life:

1) Teaching on some good days: my favorite class, Kindergartens are so unlike the rest of my students. They sit patiently, repeat every single word and are very disciplined, ready to participate. It was a very enjoyable experience teaching them, because they actually learned. Also, I love making crafts with the younger students. These hands on activities are interesting and stimulate learning, especially for the girls because they love crafts

2) Lack of Tax and Tip; a night out and eating out everyday hardly breaks the bank compared to back home, it is very cheap and "service" is given aka. free food just for ordering in their cafe or restaurant. Life here, whether from shopping to movies to traveling and food are very cost efficient.

3) cafe and dessert culture: I never knew how many ways Bingsu could be served until I came here, everything from Mango to Chocolate to a whole half honeydew melon. The cafe's here are themed and creative, with many animal cafes and good drinks. It was become a norm to spend whole days at the cafe doing work with friends and having a good time. 

4) Ease of meeting up with friends: as a english teacher, one is likely placed with other foreign teachers in their towns. I have 5 other english teachers within 5 minute of me since we are from a very small town. The bond is very good and meeting up, or having movie nights happens often because we can all share our struggles and experiences in a foreign country, bonding through that.

5) Ease of traveling: In my time here, I',ll have traveled to Bali,Cambodia,Thailand,China and pretty much every province in Korea except for a few far off ones I've had no interest in going to. Our program offers cultural trips that take us to different places, and since Korea is close to South-east Asia- trips are easily planned on holidays. One of the most rewarding experiences here was the amount of traveling I got to do. 

6) There is always something to do: Unlike Vancouver my home, with just one downtown and a few clubs- every big city in Korea has multiple downtowns that literally have everything to do at night. It is never,ever boring and the cost aspect of it allows for many exploration days. 

Overall, my experience here has been positive but negative at the same time. I would say 60% positive 40% negative.  Like every new place, the initial illusion always wears off and you are left seeing the true color of the country and people. No place is perfect. But Korea has given me alot. I leave with no regrets as I have accomplished many things, and I am looking forward to going home and starting the next chapter of my life from this point forwards. 

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