Tips for Being a Successful Native English Teacher in Korea

For those first getting their start teaching in Korean public schools, the job can seem pretty straightforward: teach the textbook, be nice to everyone, and that’s that. In a perfect world, that would be all you needed to know. However, often foreign English teachers can meet with a variety of challenges, frustrations, or ambiguities that can seem like hairpin turns in what had appeared to be a straightforward path. In this article, we’ll go over some of these items and, while we can’t promise any solutions (our lawyers won’t let us,) we hope that, at the very least, it can shed some light on things, and reduce stress and confusion.

Esoteric Work Dynamics

At first glance, there’s not much more to Korean schools than planning, teaching, test making, and record keeping. However, there’s really a lot more below the surface that can be worth knowing about.

First, know that Korean school teachers and Native English Teachers (or, NETs) have some major differences. Being a Korean teacher requires passing a very competitive test, often working long hours, and receiving considerable compensation and benefits for their job (much more than NETs receive). For this reason, it’s worth noting that your job is often viewed as less prestigious than that of your Korean counterparts. At the same time, more emphasis is placed on the afore-mentioned test rather than knowledge of pedagogy, so it’s quite possible you might be better-trained in cutting-edge teaching techniques than your Korean co-workers.

And along those same lines, there are other things going behind the scenes. For example, not all teachers are of the same rank. Some of them are “temporary teachers,” and, though they might work for several years at the same school, have undergone less training and receive less pay and fewer benefits than their counterparts. Meanwhile, there exist two entirely different systems of hierarchy: teachers and administrators, with personnel from each group having different superiors to report to. This can sometimes lead to tension between the two parties.

Finally, it’s worth noting that public schools have certain curricula and educational goals that are set forth by the provincial government. You may have noticed that, in your school, teachers seem to place emphasis on certain aspects, such as doing projects, teaching culture, and giving presentations. This is not subject to the teachers’ whims; rather these are requirements they must meet. A list of educational standards can actually be found online, but it is difficult for foreigners to access themselves.

Basic Survival Tips

A lot of these might sound like common sense, but even the most seasoned among us sometimes need a refresher on the basics. Here, then, are a few tips to keep in mind that can go a long way towards getting your contract renewed:

  • Always be on time.
  • Dress professionally; appearance is extra important in Korea!
    • This doesn’t mean you have to wear a suit every day; thankfully most schools have pretty relaxed dress codes. However, don’t get too relaxed—stay away from shorts and t-shirts and dress nice for the first day of classes.
  • Always try to look productive.
    • You’ll likely have lots of free time, and it’s okay to watch some YouTube once a while, but also try to look busy sometimes, even if you’re not.
  • Remember basic courtesies: greeting your co-workers, offering assistance with assorted tasks, etc.
    • You don’t have to be saccharine, but know that small gestures can go a long way.
  • Solve problems at the lowest level.
    • Although the East sometimes values indirect approaches to problem solving, you should always respect the chain of command—going above someone’s head when you have a problem is considered even ruder than in the West!

Balancing Conformity and Individuality

They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease … but sometimes it just gets replaced! Remember that Koreans look at the community first and the individual second, and demanding special consideration will make you seem problematic. However, there are times when it’s okay to demand special attention! While there’s no definite guideline for this, issues of health or personal/religious convictions are usually instances when one should stand his/her ground.

Choose Your Battles Wisely

Further on the subject of proverbs, one we’re particularly fond of in the West is, “If you give someone an inch, they’ll take a mile.” … That’s “centimeter and kilometer” for our metrically inclined friends. In any case, we Westerners can sometimes be an argumentative sort, and one could claim that’s worked pretty well for us! … But it can also get us fired. As we’ve seen above, though, there are times when, if we don’t stand our ground, we’ll get trampled underfoot as well. So sometimes it can be of benefit to think carefully about where and when it’s worth arguing, and look at the big picture. It’s recommended you keep your contract in mind: If your workplace is costing you personal time (outside your 40 contractual hours), money, or health, it’s a good indication it’s time to say something.

Dealing with Test Questions

Let’s shift gears for a moment. One challenge NETs often encounter, and which often throws a variety of unexpected curve balls their way, is exam question confirmation. It’s common for both teachers and students to approach native English instructors with difficult, often abstruse, questions and issues for these tests. This is because much of Korean secondary education hinges on these examinations. Here are some tips for dealing with tests.

  • If a student comes to you with a test problem, make sure you consult with their English teacher before giving the student an answer. This can help avoid potential conflicts with that teacher.
  • Keep the teacher’s needs in mind. Often there needs to be a certain number of “difficult” questions for stratification of grade levels. At the same time, remember that teachers have to deal with angry parents when a son or daughter misses an A because of a misplaced preposition!
  • Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know a certain grammar rule. Your job is to be an expert on native English usage, not on grammar. That being said, and time permitting, it’s recommended you take the opportunity to do a little research on the issue at hand, and broaden your grammar knowledge for future questions.
  • Don’t be surprised if someone comes to you for input, then doesn’t heed it. It could be they were looking for you to back up their (wrong) argument rather than seeking genuine advice. In the event someone disagrees with you, remember to choose your battles wisely.

Student Discipline

A big source of stress for NETs (and all teachers, really), is dealing with unruly students. As educators it’s certainly our duty to try to help as many students as possible, and it’s well-worth honing our skills for managing students. However, once again, one should always look at the big picture and keep a few realities in mind. First, remember that foreigners are outsiders on the fringes of the Korean student’s worldview and, as such, you can expect students to put less stock in your approval and advice. Second, it’s not really the NET’s job to discipline students in the first place. This is the co-teachers’ duty. So again, expat teachers are encouraged to try their best, but shouldn’t take it too hard if their efforts don’t meet with the success they expect. When NETs do take on the task of enforcing discipline, working with homeroom teachers or co-teachers to implement a system of rewards and consequences often meets with good results; however, this requires a certain level of organization and cooperation from co-workers.

NETs might also notice an unusually large amount of sleeping students in secondary schools. This occurs for several reasons, one of which is a culture stemming from students spending long hours in hagwons, after-school programs, and more. Another reason is that more emphasis being placed on test scores than in-class attitude combined with the existence of a baseline passing score for certain classes, means that students often don’t see any extrinsic value in paying attention in class.

Things Worth Teaching

On to a more positive topic: There are many things besides conversation and grammar NETs can teach Korean students. Here is a list of skills they likely won’t learn from anyone but you!

  • Names (Korean and foreign): This is a very basic skill that often “slips through the cracks” of a Korean student’s English education. Few of them know proper methods for spelling and writing their own names in English (capitalization, syllable placement, etc.), nor do they know how to implement foreign English names (putting “Mr.” or “Ms.” before the second name when addressing someone in a formal situation, usage of middle names, etc.).
  • Reviews vs. reports: Korean students tend to be adept at writing book reports, but get very little practice in the way of expressing their opinions about something they’ve read or experienced.
  • Story writing: Though elementary school students sometimes get a chance to practice creativity, the focus on test-centered English during secondary education causes this skill to dwindle. Encouraging students to write small stories—even only a paragraph or two—can be a great way to promote creativity.
  • Numbers and money: Yet another item that often gets overlooked. Many students still struggle to talk about numbers when they reach high school. You can help them with this important communicative skill.
  • Life and study skills: While many students are apt at “studying”—that is, doing exercises out of a book—many of them lack proper academic skills such as note-taking, organization, or paraphrasing skills. You might want to try to work some of these into your teaching, if possible.

Conclusion

Nothing in life is ever as simple as it seems. The basics of being a Korean NET are only the tip of the iceberg. Although one can easily navigate a strait with only what they see on the surface of the water, a little knowledge of what lies below can make the going much easier. Hopefully this information was of some help in your journey.

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