A Day in the Life of a TEFL Teacher

My day usually starts at a leisurely 10 o’clock with a bowl of Rice Krispies and a quick scan of BBC News; it’s finally sunny in England, and a school in Essex has banned triangular flapjacks because apparently they’re dangerous when kids throw them at other kids’ faces. Oh England. Then I drag myself, still bleary eyed, to the gym and after a quick shower and lunch I get ready and set off for work.

I’m late leaving for work, as always. I run for the bus, as always. I politely laugh at the bus driver’s joke about me running for the bus, as always. Whilst my journey to work is pretty standard, you can guarantee that once I arrive at school no two days are the same. That’s one of the best things about this job. Tears, laughter, singing, shouting, and even the occasional nosebleed, you never know what the day holds in store.

Work starts at 1.30pm with an hour to prepare our lessons for the afternoon, which we usually put to good use discussing last night’s episode of The Walking Dead or our plans for the weekend (even on Mondays!). Before we know it the kids are pouring out of the elevator in a flurry of Pokemon cards and sweet wrappers. The bell rings and classes begin.

To start the day I have a class of 7 year olds and a Disney-themed textbook, not quite sure who enjoys it more to be honest. They have only been learning English for 6 months but they are doing really well. Except for one. The windowlicker. Seriously, I wish I was kidding, I walked into the classroom a few weeks ago to find him actually licking the windows. Moving on…

Now for science class with my 8 year olds. We used to study Geography, but this term we’re on Science, which is probably for the best after that little mix up with the Nile and the Amazon. Today we’re studying push and pull forces and how things move. Have a slight accident involving a choo choo train and one of the kids’ front teeth. He’s fine though. It was wobbly anyway.

At 4 o’clock the first lot go home and the next influx of kids arrive. For me it’s my brand spanking new, so-cute-you-just-want-to-grab-their-cheeks-and-smush-them 5 year olds. They only started learning English 2 months ago so the lessons mostly revolve around practising the alphabet, singing Brown Bear and trips to the bathroom. While these classes can be quite challenging and require a lot of patience and mime skills, they are definitely the most fun and they are extremely rewarding. And did I mention how cute the kids are?

Half time nourishment arrives in the form of a box of Krispy Kremes and an orange juice. Korean parents are exceptionally generous and barely a week goes by without donuts, fruit, ice cream or coffee. Must do an extra 10 minutes in the gym tomorrow.

Next up are my favourites. I probably use that term too much but these are my favourite favourites. They’re 9 years old and they were my very first class when I arrived in Korea nearly 2 years ago. I walk in the classroom to lots of cuddles and after a thorough, sometimes brutal, evaluation of my hair and outfit choices of the day (fortunately it’s a thumbs up today!) we can get down to work.

Now it’s time for my class of five 14 year old middle school students. This is another of my favourite classes and I genuinely look forward to teaching them. They’ve been learning English for about 7 years and they’re really interested in Western culture, especially music, movies and Emma Stone. I’m barely through the door when they ask me if I’ve heard ‘the latest American song’ which turns out to be ‘Kiss Me’ by Sixpence None the Richer (released in 1997), before treating me to their best rendition.

My last class of the day is a torturous 50 minutes with a group of 16 year olds who are going through their quiet, moody stage and literally won’t even answer yes or no questions. Their attitude probably isn’t helped by the fact that this week we are studying the spread of deserts in Africa. Scintillating stuff. At 9 o’clock the bell goes, and not a moment too soon, and that’s it for another day. Home time!

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You know you teach English in Korea when…

…despite having no kids of your own you still get called ‘mum‘ five times a day.

…hearing ‘nice to meet you‘ from kids you’ve been teaching for over a year makes you want to cry.

…’magic‘ becomes a valid answer to any question.

…most lessons resemble a game of charades, and you’re actually getting pretty good at it.

…you’ve given up trying to explain that dragons and unicorns aren’t real.

…you feel so proud when you hear a kid talking to their friends outside the classroom and they use an expression that you taught them.

…there’s always one child who was obviously allowed to choose his own name. In a classroom of Toms and Sophies, there’s Chocolate.

…you’ve perfected the ‘shut up and sit down‘ glare.

…you’ve given up caring when your students tell you that you’re having a bad hair day, that you’ve got dark circles or that you have ‘soju face‘.

…there is nothing more heartbreaking than planning what you think is an amazing lesson, only for it to fail. Spectacularly.

…when trying to explain some of the finer nuances of the English grammar to a bunch of 6 year olds you’re met with the same expressions as if you were teaching them the laws of astrophysics.

…every time you hear ‘so-so‘ in response to ‘how are you today?‘ a little part of you dies inside.

…your English actually starts to get worse.

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Teaching English in South Korea: Hagwons vs. Public schools

South Korea’s education system has a global reputation for being rigorous and fiercely competitive, but also very successful, churning out thousands of highly motivated and hard-working students every year. In fact a recent league table of the best education systems in the developed world placed South Korea second, with 82% of high school graduates going on to study at university, the highest rate in the OECD. For a country that in 1945 had an adult literacy rate of just 22%, that is an incredible achievement.

So, having decided that you want to come and teach English in South Korea, one of your next decisions will be where you want to work. While there are a few highly sought after opportunities at international schools and universities, the vast majority of jobs are either at hagwons (private after-school academies) or at state-run public schools.

What is the difference?

Hagwons are privately owned schools, usually part of a franchise, and they are run for profit. They range from kindergarten through to adult learners, but most are elementary school students who go to a hagwon after finishing their day at public school. These academies are fuelled by South Korea’s drive for success and thirst for knowledge, and only the students whose parents can afford the fees enrol, which leads to some debate over academic elitism. The curriculum is set by the school or the franchise itself, and the teaching materials are provided for you.

Public schools however are run by the Korean government’s Ministry of Education. There are no fees and attendance is compulsory for children over the age of 6. The main public school recruitment programs are EPIK, GEPIK and SMOE, and they cover elementary, middle and high schools. While there is usually a set curriculum the foreign teacher should do all their own lesson planning. Just as a side note, Seoul’s Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) is gradually phasing out employing native-speaking English teachers by 2014, meaning that the only jobs available in the city will be at hagwons.

Both types of school have the same set of requirements, and both offer very similar contracts, including accommodation (or a housing allowance), a return flight ticket and an end of year bonus.

Hagwons

The pros

I’ve been working at a small hagwon in Incheon for 16 months now and I absolutely love my job, I have very little reason to grumble. Unfortunately the internet is full of horror stories about teachers being conned out of money, fired without warning, or turning up to work one afternoon to find the place boarded up. Please don’t think all hagwon employers are like this! Obviously the stories must come from somewhere, but my friends and I have only had positive experiences here, so don’t write hagwons off just yet.

Hagwons in general have much smaller classes than public schools, my largest class has just eight students. This not only makes controlling the classroom a lot easier, but it also gives you a real chance to bond with each child, which to me is invaluable. An added bonus is that all the students in the same class tend to be at roughly the same level of English, which isn’t always the case at public schools.

Working as an English teacher at a public school you should expect to earn around 1.8 million won (£1065) per month, whereas hagwon employees take home between 2.1 – 2.3 million (£1250 – £1360). However, wages at both types of school can vary slightly depending on what you studied at university and how much teaching experience you have.

Hagwons tend to employ more than one foreign teacher at a time, while public schools usually have just the one. While you’re not guaranteed to be best buds, it is somewhat reassuring to have someone else there, to bounce ideas around with and just generally whinge at on those rough days.

The cons

The one thing that I wish I could change about working at a hagwon is the pitiful amount of holiday we get. The average seems to be around 10 days a year, but some only give national holidays. Other possible downsides include the possibility of doing overtime or working on Saturdays. My one piece of advice would be to read your contract thoroughly (several times if necessary!) before you sign it to fully understand what will be expected of you.

Another fairly common gripe about hagwons is that they are businesses. The students’, and therefore the parents’ happiness is crucial. This is something that you will need to get your head around because if, heaven forbid, one of those little cherubs isn’t entirely happy, you will hear about it!

Due to the fact that hagwons are generally attended by students after they have finished at public school for the day, the working hours can seem a little bizarre at first. Most hagwons don’t start until 2 or 3 in the afternoon and can finish classes as late as 11, although most stop around 9 or 10. If you’re not a morning person (like me!) this might suit you quite well, and seeing as most English teachers are employed by hagwons the chances are your friends won’t be finished until then anyway.

A typical kindergarten hagwon classroom

A typical kindergarten hagwon class

Public school

The pros

At a public school you will get almost twice the amount of holiday time that you would from a hagwon, which corresponds with the slightly lower salary. Public school teachers usually receive around 21 days a year, split between Christmas and the summer, giving you plenty of chance to go off and explore Asia.

Another plus of public school employment are the regular hours, and only having to work on weekdays. Most schools run from around 8.30 til 3 or 4.

The fact that public schools are state-run provides a certain degree of security. There is no chance of being paid late, not being paid at all or being fired with no reason, which unfortunately are risks you take if you work for a hagwon. 

Upon arrival in South Korea all public school teachers have several days of orientation. This gives you chance to meet other foreign teachers, and be introduced to the public school system. If you work at a hagwon there’s no guarantee of having much time to find your feet before starting lessons. I arrived in Korea late on a Thursday evening and I started teaching classes at 9.30 the next morning!

This could be a pro or a con depending on who you end up with, but all foreign public school teachers have a Korean co-teacher in the classroom with them, to help keep control and to translate. This also means that the workload is split between two people. Some foreign teachers find having a Korean teacher with them to be invaluable in large, lower level classes. However, the students may come to rely on the Korean teacher too much and you might find yourself being ignored.

The cons

Another one that could be a pro or a con, depending on your point of view, is ‘desk-warming’. At a public school you are paid for a set amount of hours per month, and you are expected to be at the school for that time whether you are teaching or not. So there may well be mornings, afternoons or even entire days spent sitting at your desk, playing on your phone or watching films. While getting paid to do nothing might sound great, a lot of people actually find it mind-numbingly boring, and a waste of time.

Larger class sizes, often between 30 and 40 children per class, can make it harder to build up relationships with the students. Also, in public school classes, although the students will all be the same age their levels of English may vary widely.

There are certain limitations when it comes to applying to public schools. You can state a preference of ‘city’ or ‘provincial’, but you have no more say in the location than that.  Also, they tend to recruit only twice a year, in February and in August to tie in with the Korean semesters. Can you wait that long?!

A typical public school classroom

A typical public school classroom

There’s no obvious choice as to which type of school you should go for, it really just comes down to personal preference and what you want out of your time in Korea.

“Teacher, you were eaten by a crocodile?”

Another day at school, another gem from my elementary students. Today one little bright spark asked me, in all sincerity, if I had been eaten by a prehistoric crocodile. 110 million years ago.

We were talking about fossils, and in the book was an article about a huge crocodile fossil, found in South America. That should have been her first clue right there; I’m very clearly not from South America. Secondly, the fossil dated from 110 million years ago (I’m trying not to take that bit as an insult).

The book went on to explain that the crocodile was 21 feet long, and its jaw alone measured 5 feet. The students didn’t really understand how long 5 feet actually was, so I told them that as I am just over 5 feet tall, the length of the crocodile’s jaw was the same as my height.

That was when I noticed one kid staring at me with a mixture of confusion and concern. “Teacher, you were eaten by a crocodile?”.

I made the rookie mistake of responding with sarcasm. “Yes. Yes, I was”. I instantly regretted it as her expression changed from confused to horrified.

“Teacher, did it hurt?”

Oh. My. God.

“Teacher, firebomb spelling?”

I have spent the last couple of weeks teaching my 8 year olds about the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’. At least, I thought I had.

We finished the chapter by making posters to show what our needs are and what our wants are. Rather predictably the girls drew cutesy teddy bears, ice cream sundaes and roller skates complete with lots of pink hearts and smiley faces.

The girls’ poster…

I was in the middle of helping the girls draw an ice cream sundae when one of the boys piped up “Teacher, firebomb spelling?”. I was just about to spell it out when I suddenly thought ‘What?!’.

I looked at what the boys had drawn and I saw guns, knives, arrows…and a hamster. Slightly concerning.

…and the boys’ poster!

Where did I go wrong?

Year 2 in South Korea

I remember it like it was yesterday. Sitting in Frankie and Benny’s at Birmingham Airport tearfully saying goodbye to my parents over a lemon and lime. I assured them, and myself, that this would only be for one year, and it would fly by. My mum replied that we didn’t know how we’d feel in a years time, it might not be just one year, and that it was absolutely fine if it wasn’t. Still I insisted that it’d just be the one year.

Turns out mums really do know best. Who knew?

We recently decided to extend our stay in Korea for another year, and are in the processing of re-signing at our current schools. It was a surprisingly difficult decision to make actually, in some ways harder than deciding to come here in the first place. So far it has been over nine months since I last saw my wonderful and incredibly supportive family. I am counting down the sleeps until I go home for Christmas (161 to go!), and I miss each and every one of them like you wouldn’t believe.

However, we only have two months left of our initial twelve month contract and I am nowhere near ready to say goodbye to this fascinating country and the experiences it is giving us. Every time I look at the BBC website I see various doom and gloom headlines, not only about the UK, but also about Europe, and I can’t help but wonder what we’d be coming home to.

Currently South Korea just has more for us; independence, a stable job, and good money combined with a good lifestyle. All of that compared to England’s measly offering of living with our parents (I love you Mum and Dad!), working in the village pub, breaking into my childhood piggybank just to fill my car with petrol and only going to the cinema when it’s Orange Wednesday? Sorry England, but Korea wins this round. Hands down.

R.I.P. Mr. Grasshopper

As any one of my family and friends will tell you, I don’t cope well with insects. If it has more than four legs, I don’t want to know. Unfortunately for me, there are a fair few creatures that have more than four legs scuttling around Korea at this time of year.

I’ve already had to contend with several cockroaches, a monster of a stag beetle (don’t listen to what Nathan says, it really was 12 centimetres long), and that’s not even including what I’ve eaten.

This all brings me to the story of Mr. Grasshopper. Yesterday, one of my co-teachers came in to tell me that there was ‘a big, green bug’ in the computer room. There it was, lurking next to one of the speakers. I think it was a grasshopper, maybe a cricket, I’m not really sure what the difference is, but we’ll call it a grasshopper. Whatever it was it definitely had more than four legs.

I called some of the boys in to see it, and I won’t lie to you, I did spot an opportunity here to convince one of the kids to take their new friend outside meaning I wouldn’t have to go near the thing myself.

The boys weren’t the least bit fazed by it, and the poor thing was passed from one sticky little hand to another. In fact, one of them wanted to keep it for show and tell and another tried to put it in his mouth. What the obsession is with eating bugs here I will never know.

Apologies for the poor photography, I only had my phone on me and the kids were moving quite a lot!

I ran to grab my camera from the teachers’ room but by the time I got back to the classroom the kids had all gone back to playing with their Lego. No sign of Mr. Grasshopper. Hmm.

Mr. Grasshopper’s Lego house

Me: Where is the bug now?

Kid 1 (without looking up from his Lego): Trash can.

Me: What? Why is it in the trash can??

Kid 1: It’s dead.

Kid 2: Dead.

Kid 3: It’s killed.

Kid 4: Very dead.

I looked in the trash can (damn Americanisms) and sure enough, there he was, lying crumpled at the bottom of the bin. So that was the end of Mr. Grasshopper. A dignified burial among pencil sharpenings, sweet wrappers, and tteokbokki sauce. R.I.P. Mr. Grasshopper.

10 reasons to teach English in South Korea

This blog post is largely a spectacularly unsubtle hint to my baby brother (he just turned 20 but he’ll always be a baby to me!) to come to Korea when he graduates next year, but also for anyone else who is considering something like this.

Obviously there are dozens of reasons to come to South Korea, but here are my top ten…

1. I’m sure many people would try to disagree with me here, but Korean kids are the cutest in the world. Fact.

2. The gifts. Whether it’s Teacher’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Pepero Day or just Wednesday, the kids are constantly bringing in presents from their parents. Ice cream, donuts, coffee, cosmetics, fried chicken, a packed lunch for every field trip, the list goes on. In fact, one of my kids just gave me a beautiful Pandora style bracelet from his holiday in Hawaii this week!

3. Having recently graduated from university in a recession struck country, there is something to be said for the financial deal that Korea offers. The demand for native English teachers is very high, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon so there is a reasonable degree of job security here. Most contracts will include a relatively high salary, free rent, 50% of your medical insurance, and a return flight from your home country.

4. You’ll never receive so much unconditional love from kids…unless you have your own that is…and maybe not even then.

5. Everyone spouts the same old line about wanting to ‘experience a new culture and broaden their horizons’, but it’s true. Yes, it’s a challenge. Yes, sometimes it is difficult. However, South Korea takes you out of your comfort zone but without having to give up hot water, constant electricity and white wine. Korea has one of the world’s fastest growing economies along with the world’s fastest internet speeds, so you won’t have to give up many of your home comforts here.

6. It’s a great starting place to explore other parts of Asia during the school holidays. With China and Japan on the doorstep and the delights of South East Asia just a few short hours away on a plane, South Korea is an excellent base to travel from during your time off.

7. Living in Korea you do sometimes feel like a celebrity. Kids wave at you in the street, people give up their seats for you on the subway and you’re forever being given freebies. Take today for example, casually wandering around the Incheon Landing Operation Memorial Hall on a kindergarten field trip. I was looking at the armistice signed between the North and the South when a security guard sidles up to me, leans in, and whispers ‘Can I ask you a question?‘. I laughed nervously, glanced around to see where my co-teachers were, and asked him what the question was. He said ‘your hair looks like silk. Can I touch it?

8. Sounds boring I know, but an experience and a commitment like this genuinely does look good on a CV. Apparently.

9. Cheap booze. Well, cheap lifestyle in general really. Granted, it may not be a decision-maker but most waygookin are liars if they say this isn’t a reason to love Korea. Koreans embody the ‘work hard play hard’ mentality, and when in Rome…well, it’d be rude not to.

10. It’s better than working in McDonalds.

‘My Family’ by Colin, aged 8

One of the many things I have learned from teaching is that kids are, at times, unpredictable. However, when I asked my class of 8 year olds to draw pictures of their families last week, this definitely was not what I was expecting!

Most of the children drew pretty pictures of their families standing outside a cottage, surrounded by rainbows, flowers and hearts.

But not this one. Oh no. This one drew something a little different.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, but I’m not entirely sure which words this picture is saying…