Teaching English in Korea can be challenging but also rewarding. Whether you are teaching at a public school through EPIK (English Program in Korea) or at a private language school (hagwon), you will encounter situations that might appear at first to be somewhat peculiar. The following guide is meant to serve as a primer for you so that when you do encounter these situations, you can react in an appropriate manner. Once again, this guide is not the final word on all things that you will encounter while teaching in a public/private school. Nonetheless, it should be of some use to you while living and working in Korea.
Things to bring to school
If you are working for EPIK (i.e. the public school system), you will in all likelihood, have to work with more than one co-teacher. But within that group there is usually one co-teacher that will be “assigned” to help you, typically because they are the youngest in the department. Treat this co-teacher nicely. She (at the elementary and middle school level, it more often than not, will be a she) will be the teacher that helps you get an apartment and cell phone, update you on what’s going on with the school, translate what you say to the principal, submit documents on your behalf, and a whole host of other things. She is really indispensable to your success, the pillar that supports you. And you know what else? She isn’t paid anything extra for helping you become settled in, teaching you the ropes, keeping you updated on the schools events and festivities, and so on and so forth. Of course, it should go without saying that you should treat all the other co-teachers you work with in a polite and respectful manner.
Once per semester, you might have to teach a special English conversation classed called an “open class.” Both public and private schools have open classes but for different reasons. Open in this case, means open to the teachers in your school, the parents of your students, and the other foreign teachers from nearby schools. For public schools, this class is a chance for your school to “show off” and “wow” the teachers from the other schools. Hence, some people refer to it as an “open show” rather than a class, as there is greater emphasis on making the lesson really stand out. This is an important lesson not so much for you, but for your co-teacher who will be teaching with you. Having his/her peers, in addition to the principal, vice principal, head teacher, parents, and not to mention other foreign English teachers watching him/her teach is extremely nerve wracking. Thus, the pressure here isn’t really on you so you need not be too worried. After the open class is over, you will usually have a follow-up discussion with your co-teachers, the other foreign teachers in attendance, and the other Korean teachers. This is a good opportunity to get some pointers, pick a teacher’s brain, hear suggestions, get feedback as well as make some new friends. For private schools, an open class serves as mainly a marketing function. Parents of children are invited to the school to see what and how their children are being taught. It is a way to reassure the parents that their children are in good hands. Don’t sweat it too much. If you dress well, speak in a clear manner, and let the kids have some fun the class should be fine.
Teaching native-Korean English teachers
In some cases, you will be asked to go to a different public school to teach English conversation classes to native-Korean English teachers. These “lectures” are approximately 100 minutes in length, structured any way you want. You will be asked to submit a lecture topic beforehand (not a lesson plan, although you might also want to have one handy just in case your principal asks for it). You might be scheduled for one lecture or two lectures during your first contract. These classes typically start around 4:30 and finish around 6:10. Once again you are free to teach anything that you like. Common topics include pop culture, American holidays, pop songs etc. Some native English teachers choose to do “free talking” which is basically a group discussion on everyday topics. Free talking, if done right, can be an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involve. Unfortunately, most native-English teachers approach free talking with little in the way of preparation, and it shows. We suggest that you have a list of topics prepared so that the conversation can proceed with some semblance of order. Also, bear in mind that, although the native-Korean English teachers will be teaching professionals, their conversational ability will be less fluent than your own. It would be ideal if you are able to speak in a clear manner, at a speed slightly slower than your natural talking speed.
Things changing with little notice
This is one of those things that happen from time to time. You show up to teach a class but are told that class is cancelled for today. Or you show up to class and are told that you have to teach something different. Don’t take it personally. Your co-teachers are not out to get you; neither are they ignoring you. In most cases, they are finding out about these changes on the day of as well. Other times, you will be asked to submit all your lesson plans for that semester within two days. Don’t fret. You can just make rough lesson plans and fill in the details later. Or in some cases, you can just make up lesson plans and teach something entirely different. Thus, enforcement is not really strict and you are usually given considerable leeway with regards to what you want to teach. These requirements are usually handed down by the Office of Education and your co-teachers have no ability to change things. So, just be flexible and go with the flow.
Hiking in Korea
Hiking can be considered the unofficial national past time in Korea. With approximately 70% of the country being mountainous, it is not surprising that hiking is an extremely popular sport. This is evident by the plethora of hiking gear stores that line the downtown areas of many big cities. It is also not unusual to see people decked out in full on hiking gear walking into posh department stores. So…how does this affect you? At some point or other you will probably be asked to go on a hiking trip – either with your Korean friends or as part of an outing with the teachers at your school. These hiking trips are meant to be a way to build friendships, socialize, and of course stay healthy. These hiking trips tend to be day trips that start in the early afternoon and last until early on in the evening (unless they are overnight trips). If your school is fairly large, they will typically rent a luxury bus (no yellow school buses!) and drive all the teachers to the hiking area. Depending on your health, the hike itself could be a breeze or quite strenuous, although your school will normally select hiking routes of moderate difficulty.
A quick word on hiking gear: it’s not necessary to buy the latest and greatest. Certainly, you can do as the Koreans do and spring for the top end hiking gear. But name brand hiking gear will tend to cost an arm and a leg, especially in Korea. Foreign brands like The North Face will have prices much higher than their counterparts in the US and Canada. But honestly, buying top flight apparel isn’t really required, unless of course your money is burning a hole in your pocket. All you really need is a pair of running shoes, a backpack, and some athletic pants. If you do plan on going hiking more often, we strongly suggest you pick up a good pair of hiking shoes. On the trail, a good pair of hiking shoes is indispensable.
Mastering drinking culture
This is one of those topics that cause people to grin from ear-to-ear in delight or roll their eyes and groan. Drinking is a serious part of socializing in Korea and you will find that many teacher gatherings will involve that age old social lubricant: alcohol. The local firewater here is called soju. If offered a drink, pick up your glass with both hands as your co-teacher or principal pours you a drink. Once he is finished, you should also pour him a drink using both hands as well. Observe how others do it and you’ll get the hang of it in no time. The catch is, if the gathering is on a school night, you are expected to be at work on time the next day, regardless of how much you drank the night before.
Singing Rooms 노래방 (Noraebang)
At some point in your teaching contract you will be invited out to a noraebang. This is usually after dinner has finished (accompanied, more often than not, by some alcohol) and so it will be later into the night. A noraebang is a literally a “singing room” and it is where Korean people go to sing songs. There is a wide assortment of Korean songs on tap although most places will have a large selection of the more popular English pop songs as well. When a song is chosen, it will start playing on the TV screen with the song lyrics scrolling horizontally at the bottom. The lyrics are usually accompanied by background videos that may or may not match the song in question. Choose a song and start your warbling. It is better to choose your own song than have a song chosen for you that you have no idea how to sing. After singing, wait for the artificial applause and see how accurately you sang the song (you will be given a numerical score out of 100).
Consider your participation in a noraebang something akin to a rite of passage as well as a fun way to bond with the teachers at your school / Korean friends. While in a noraebang, you can order food and drinks from the menu as well.