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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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.

TEFL Dinosaur Comics

I realise that there are several versions of this circling the internet at the moment, but here is Wonderland’s little contribution! Seeing as they’re penned by 12 and 13 year olds most of them centre around dinosaurs fighting, killing each other and just being stupid!

T-Rex: I am scared of many things but also others are scared of me!

I don’t know why!

T-Rex: Wow! It’s a lovely house!

T-Rex: This house is such small for me. But I want to get in!!

Utahraptor: He’s such bad!

T-Rex: I can’t get in!!!

Utahraptor: You are the one who scared my brother!?

T-Rex: Hugh?

Utahraptor: Go away you big moster!

T-Rex: Waaaa!

T-Rex: Yummy food over there!

People: Wow!

T-Rex: Black holl!

Utahraptor: Ice!!

Utahraptor: Ice beam!

Museum for 10 years

People: WOW!

T-Rex: There is a horrible human there in the house!

T-Rex: Oh gosh! It’s coming out! I’ll crash it!

T-Rex: I think it’s a bug?

Utahraptor: What’s that?!

T-Rex: Hmm?

Utahraptor: Wha…what’s that?

T-Rex: It’s a bug I think.

Utahraptor: Let me see. No! It’s just a toy!

T-Rex: Oh my! I think I’m crazy it’s not moving at all!!!

T-Rex: Nowadays I’m too fat so I’m fasting. But I’m hungry.

T-Rex: So I will eat human meats.

T-Rex: Hey you! Go out in here.

Utahraptor: Here is my territory.

T-Rex: Then fight!

1 hours after

T-Rex: Ha ha!

Utahraptor: Oh my god!

T-Rex: I am crazy monky dinosaur. I will destroy a village.

T-Rex: Ha ha! Grrr

T-Rex: Uga uga!

Utahraptor: Ha ha ha!

Person: Oh my god!

Utahraptor: Such a foolish

T-Rex: Who said me foolish?!

T-Rex: You?

Utahraptor: Yes!

T-Rex: You will go to universe!

Utahraptor: Please rivive me!

T-Rex: I don’t want to rivive you! Ha ha! Such a crazy

Utahraptor: A

T-Rex: I want to play with friends!

T-Rex: Hey! Let’s play together!

T-Rex: What! ….. you!

Utahraptor: No I don’t want to play with you!

T-Rex: Can you play with me?

Utahraptor: Yes I can.

T-Rex: Really? Okay.

Utahraptor: Now I have to go now.

T-Rex: Bye! Bye!

T-Rex: I will ditroy the house!

T-Rex: Hhm…and then I will eat the house!

T-Rex: Okay! Yeah!

Utahraptor: I want to do too!

Dinosaurs: Grahhh!

T-Rex: Let’s go together and distroyed the house!

Utahraptor: Ok! Let’s go!

T-Rex: Wow!

Girl is distroy the …

T-Rex: I want to destroyed the house.

T-Rex: Oh there is it.

T-Rex: Emm. Ha ha. I will destroyed the house.

Utahraptor: Oh no, my house (cry)

T-Rex: I will destroyed your house.

Utahraptor: Okay, but let’s play.

T-Rex: Ok. What kinds of play?

Utahraptor: Let’s play hiding. You find me okay.

For long time

T-Rex: Where are you? And where is the house. Oh, no.

T-Rex: HELLO

T-Rex: AKK

T-Rex: AKK!!!

T-Rex: I’m sorry

Utahraptor: AKK!

T-Rex: I’m sorry

Utahraptor: AKK!!

T-Rex: Why are you say AKK?

T-Rex: Yum! Yum! The candy is very sweet! Yum.

T-Rex: Oh no! Ouch! I think I eats so much candys!

T-Rex: Grrrr. Im very angry. I want to punch this house.

Utahraptor: Don’t do that!

T-Rex: Why! Im angry

Utahraptor: Look you do this and person is dangure

T-Rex: Ok! Thank you

There dinosaur

Dinosaur is scary

Dinosaur smash the house

Dinosaur is two

Dinosaur is fighting

Green dinosaur are win

There is a dinosaur

Dinosaur roared

Dinosaur was chasing a white dinosaur and he didn’t know he squash the house

And he was surprise

How dinosaur knows what is it!

And dinosaur squash a house one more time

T-Rex: I’m hungry.

T-Rex: There a prey.

House: Oh my god!

Utahraptor: Who are you?

T-Rex: I’m scary dinosaur.

Utahraptor: I’m super dinosaur!

T-Rex: Where is the prey?

6 months in Korea

It’s exactly 6 months since I hopped on that plane and left England’s green green grass for South Korea. As with many English teachers out here, there was so much I thought I would have achieved by now; paid off my student overdraft, become fluent in Korean, seen most of Korea and half of east Asia, decided whether to stay for another year or not, grown to love kimchi, the list goes on.

Well, despite all of my grand predictions the truth is I haven’t done any of those things (sorry Mum and Dad!). No, I’m not fluent in Korean, but I can get by and I’m doing a weekly language exchange, so maybe I will be in another 6 months (ha, who am I kidding!). The furthest I’ve got from Incheon is Seoraksan on the east coast, and the furthest I’ve got from Korea is Tokyo; I really didn’t bank on this job malarkey getting in the way of my travel plans. Still not made up my mind for sure about renewing, and I absolutely cannot stand kimchi.

Without wanting to get into the whole smushy ‘I’ve grown so much as a person‘ spiel, I genuinely feel that I have learned a huge amount over the last 6 months.

Turns out that despite me insisting to my Dad over Skype a couple of weeks ago that I’d like to see him try to teach a bunch of 5 year olds English for the first time in response to a quip about not having a proper job, teaching really isn’t so difficult. Of course, I felt differently 6 months ago. I was absolutely petrified walking into that classroom for the first time; what if they don’t like me, what if their parents don’t like me, what if I accidentally teach them swear words.

By the time I’d got my head around teaching kindergarten I was faced with the dreaded 13 year olds. Flying them around the classroom like Superman and giving them Angry Bird colouring pages probably wasn’t going to wash with them. Time to actually impart knowledge. But that’s when the pressure really kicks in. Just how much about the quirks and exceptions of English grammar do we really know? How many times can you be told that, ‘teacher’, you’re spelling ‘favourite’ and ‘colour’ wrong before you start conforming to Americanisms? And why can ‘-ough‘ be pronounced in a multitude of ways?

Anyway, with a few minor mistakes along the way, mostly in the Geography department, both the students and I have got through the last 6 months largely unscathed (except for that incident with Ryan’s front teeth).

I’m sure there will be many more learning curves to come over the rest of my time in Korea, however long that may be, but it’s all part of the fun right?

You know you live in Korea when…

1. Kimchi comes as standard with every meal, even fried chicken or pizza.

2. It’s not unusual to see an 80 year old man playing with his iPad (or more likely his Samsung Galaxy tab) on the subway.

3. Likewise, seeing your 7 year old students with iPhones is not unusual either.

4. You forget how to use a knife and fork.

5. Going out for coffee costs more than going out for dinner.

6. You bow to everyone when you meet them, even fellow waygookin.

7. You use scissors to cut your food.

8. It’s perfectly normal to carry toilet roll around in your handbag.

9. Traffic lights don’t apply to drivers turning right. Even if there’s a pedestrian crossing.

10. The concept of personal space no longer exists.

11. You can’t remember the last time you saw a red car, a yellow car, or a blue car, in fact any car that isn’t black, white or silver.

12. You’ve realised that there’s no point trying to get the kids to stop saying ‘so-so’ in answer to everything.

13. You start to speak Konglish (usually just adding -uh to an English word, like bus-uh, or Homeplus-uh)

14. Being asked what your blood type is, and then being given an assessment of your personality, is not uncommon.

15. You find yourself absentmindedly humming the subway song.

16. You regularly get soaked when brushing your teeth, having forgotten to change the tap from the shower setting.

17. Seeing teenage boys sitting on each other’s knees on the subway no longer seems strange.

18. You can use a unisex bathroom and think nothing of it. Even if there’s a urinal.

19. You no longer feel concerned about the group of 9-year olds eating instant noodles in your local mini-mart at 10pm on a Sunday night.

20. You can use a squatter.

21. You know not to use a red marker pen when writing a kid’s name on the board.

22. You’re no longer confused in the elevator when the fourth floor button is replaced with an ‘F’.

23. You automatically cover your mouth when you laugh.

24. It’s near impossible to find a birthday card.

25. Seat belt? What seat belt?