I’ve been teaching in Korea for just over 15 months now. 15 months. Where does that time go?
To me, it still feels like I’ve only just arrived and that I’m only now starting to discover what Korean culture and society is all about. When I talk to people back home, though, they’re in disbelief that it’s “only” been that long. They say it feels like I’ve been gone forever.
When I was into my 15th month of living in Mexico, it was February 2013 and I’d just finished my job as an English teacher at a language school. I had 6 weeks to get my stuff together and then I was flying home.
I’d made that decision and was happy with it.
15 months into my life in Korea and there are no immediate plans to leave.
I’ve now spent more than a year living in each country and, while I probably should be saving these posts for my 17 month mark (because that’s when I finally left Mexico), I’m impatient and would rather talk about these things now.
When other foreigners here find out I that I’ve lived and taught in another country before, a few of them are curious about how things compare.
So, I thought it’d be fun to do that here. This post is going to be the first of a two-part post on the teaching aspect of my experiences. Then I’ll be doing a 3rd post all about life in either of these places.
Of course, you should bear in mind that these are just based on my experiences. Not everyone is going to go through the same thing and feel the same way.
Anyway, let’s get started. For now, I’m going to talk about the one thing that makes me love being a teacher:
The biggest difference between my teaching job here in Korea and the one in Mexico is who I taught.
In Mexico, I worked at a language school, teaching adults. These were either people who needed to learn English to help with their jobs (a lot of businesses in D.F. arrange English classes for their employees), to help them apply for university abroad, or just because they wanted to learn it.
About 90% of them were Mexican. But I also taught a few Colombians (the most beautiful accent ever for a Spanish learner’s ears), a Venezuelan (who had some incredible stories) and a group of Brazilians.
All of these people paid for their classes and wanted to learn English (a teacher’s dream!).
I was lucky that about 95% of my classes were either at a pre-intermediate, intermediate or advanced level which meant that communication was easier and every topic could generate a good discussion. (Though I do remember a few students getting frustrated over not being able to communicate their thoughts on the upcoming presidential elections as clearly as they’d like to.)
When I think about the kind of teacher I was, I cringe a little.
I’d gone straight from my teaching course into this job and I knew very little about what I was doing. Obviously, teaching is something that only improves over time (hopefully), but I still think back on how little I must have known and feel sorry for my students.
I loved them all though. They always made me feel comfortable and needed and like I was doing something right (ha!).
The only feedback I got from them was that sometimes I could be a little strict.
Here in Korea, I teach at two high schools. My students range in age from 15-18. Until I started here, I hadn’t been near a secondary school for more than 10 years.
Not much has changed.
There are the ‘cool’ kids and the ‘nerdy’ kids. There’s bullying and there’re strong friendships.
My students can be hard work sometimes but, overall, they’re the reason I’m still here. They might not be eager to learn but most of them get on with what I give them.
At first, it was hard.
Going from teaching adults who were willing to learn to teaching a group of teenagers who honestly couldn’t give a fuck was overwhelming. I was really unprepared.
It took me a while to get into the groove here but, now, it works. I’m not expecting miracles. I’m grateful for every moment that I can grab their attention and choose to focus more on positive praise and instilling a little bit of confidence in them.
The students who choose to come to after-school English and the winter/summer camps are the ones I enjoy teaching the most. They have no fear when it comes to learning and are always willing to get involved.
I guess you could say that there’s not a huge similarity between my students in Mexico and my students here.
The students in Mexico were adults and able to discuss topics you don’t dare go over with school children. I taught people who were passionate about things and always willing to try new techniques and share their opinions.
Even though most of my Korean students are eager to hear about new things from across the world, our conversation is pretty limited because they can barely string an English sentence together. (The same goes for me when it comes to speaking Korean.) Not to mention that the education system here is incredibly different.
Here, students are used to being talked at for 40-50 minutes at a time. They’ll memorise what they’re told so that they can pass the tests. In the west, discussion is encouraged so that students can really think about what they’re being taught, reflect, and apply it to real-life situations.
Sometimes it can take a while for my students to open up to that way of learning and to not be afraid of being creative and using their own ideas. Some of them end up looking absolutely mortified when I pose a question that has no right or wrong answer.
One similarity between teaching in either country, though, is also one of the biggest rules I set for myself as a teacher: Never socialise with my students.
In Mexico, I’d get invited out for a drink or two with my students after evening classes. I always refused until our course was over and I was no longer their teacher. The same went for Facebook. A few sent me friend requests and I made sure to keep them pending until the course was done.
How can you remain authoritative in class when people have seen you after a few drinks? Or when they’ve seen your old university pictures on Facebook of your boobs falling out of your top as you crawl along the road back home with an empty bottle of beer in your hand?
I just couldn’t do it. I preferred to keep the professionalism going until I was no longer their teacher.
Well, I’m from the West and we all know that there are boundaries with children that you just don’t cross over there.
Here, it’s pretty common to see teachers and students getting together outside of school. It’s also pretty common to see teachers and students hugging or touching each other in a friendly manner.
Back home, you can’t touch a student. And that’s pretty much how I like to keep it here.
(I say ‘pretty much’ because my female students have taken to hugging close to me and putting their arms around me when they see me in the halls now.)
I respect the teachers who are willing to be figures in their students lives in and outside of school but I just can’t.
Even a lot of the foreign teachers here have been known to socialise with their students during weekends and holidays. More power to them.
But me? I’m more like …
I even had to pull one of my coteachers aside and ask that she not reveal my exact address to the students again when they asked where I lived.
Overall, whether I’m talking about the students from Mexico or Korea, though, I can’t complain. My students made – and still make – me smile and are the reason I’m still teaching.
Sure, if I had to choose, I’d probably say that I prefer teaching adults. But that’s only because they were willing to learn. I’m lucky that a big chunk of my teenagers are just as willing to impress and do well these days so things are getting better.
I couldn’t imagine teaching anyone younger though. I honestly wouldn’t even know where to begin with middle schoolers, elementary kids, and the dreaded Kindergartners.
I have so much admiration for the teachers who work with young kids.
A lot of my teacher friends say it’s easy. It’s just a lot of songs and dancing and repeating words over and over.
I’d probably be too strict though and end up making the kids cry.
(Coming up: Part 2 of my Teaching in Korea vs Teaching in Mexico post will talk about the big differences between my roles at the schools in either countries, as well as my (lack of) responsibilities.)