I’ve been living and working as a Guest English Teacher (GET) in South Korea for nearly two years. It’s been an incredible, life-changing journey, and the best decision I’ve ever made. This list of 10 don'ts for teaching abroad in South Korea will help you if you're planning to teach here any time soon.
I won’t go into cultural details such as the importance of bowing, or making sure to give and receive everything with two hands. Instead, I’m going to focus on things I’ve personally experienced, or observed, in regards to teaching in a public school in Korea.
Before you commit to finding a program for teaching abroad in Korea, read these tips!
1. Don’t Ask About North Korea
South Koreans are used to the shenanigans of the North, and they appear quite indifferent when it comes to anything relating to it. The only time you’ll hear about North Korea is when you talk to anyone from home.
Is North Korea a threat? Yes. Do the vast majority of South Koreans feel threatened? No. So, don’t let Kim Jong-un stop you from considering a teaching position in South Korea.
2. Don’t Complain About Everything
Venting is healthy from time to time, but don’t feed the fire of negativity. You’ll become engulfed in its flames and get burned if you do. Choosing to teach abroad means there will be differences you’ll have to deal with, and frustrations you’ve never experienced before.
The roller coaster of cross-cultural experiences can go up and down at any moment. Hold on for the ride. It’s worth it. You chose to get on in the first place.
3. Don’t Give Candy Out On the First Day of Class
Or, ever. They may take advantage of this, and demand candy for every lesson after. Think about it. If you’re teaching in a public school in South Korea, chances are likely you’ll have hundreds of students. Even one piece of candy for each student every once in awhile gets expensive. Trust me. I teach over 800 students every week. I made the mistake of providing sugar too soon.
Candy is a great incentive. Use it as a special treat for students to attain through an individual reward system. Give stickers or points as an alternative. Korean students love making everything a competition. They’ll be just as excited about a sticker if they can win it.
4. Don’t Spend All Your Time With Other Foreigners
Chances are you’re thinking about teaching in South Korea because you want to experience a different culture, and perhaps learn another language.
While it’s important to spend time with other foreigners while living aboard, it’s also the easy thing to do. Sometimes you need to be surrounded by familiarity, and talk with someone who understands. That’s okay. Just remember your initial intentions for coming.
If all you want to do is meet other awesome travelers in South Korea, I’m not going to stop you. I’m just saying be open to having Korean friends as well. You’ll realize they’re just as awesome, and have many of the same thoughts, attitudes, and aspirations. Language doesn’t have to be a barrier.
5. Don’t Give Yourself Excuses Not to Learn Korean
Your students, co-teachers, and Korean friends will appreciate any words you can say in Korean. After almost two years here, my elementary students still get excited when I say something as simple as annyeong haseyo ("Hello!").
Unfortunately, I haven’t taken my own advice. The ability for me to speak Korean has hardly improved since the day I arrived. Being immersed in it helps, but I’m only able to have very basic conversations–enough to be polite.
6. Don’t Think You Can Change the System
You’re probably not going to change the world singlehandedly, just like you’re almost certainly not going to change the educational system in South Korea.
Koreans study. A lot. Classroom sizes might be larger than what you’re used to. Attitudes about work may be different. South Korea’s educational system isn’t perfect. Neither is the system where you’re from. Changes will happen, over time, through partnerships built upon trust and understanding.
Building relationships, and encouraging others to be the change seems much more sustainable than coming in as the outsider with all the “right” answers. Try to understand why things are the way they are, and collaborate with your Korean coworkers to make change happen.
7. You don’t Know Everything, so Don’t Act Like You Do
You’re seen as the English expert, but that’s only because you’re a native speaker. I’m willing to bet your Korean co-teachers, and even some of your students, will know more about the ins and outs of the English language than you do.
All of those grammar nuances that seem normal as Norman to you now might prove difficult to articulate. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been caught in the middle of a lesson by a question I couldn’t answer.
Admit to not knowing everything, and ask for a little time to research particular questions. A big part of teaching is relearning how you learned.
8. Don’t Assume South Korea is a Developing Country
It’s not. And it’s changing just as fast as you can say kimchi ten times. You’re not going to be living in a hut, you don’t need to pack enough toothpaste to last a year, and you won’t be too far from Seoul no matter where on the peninsula you live and work.
South Korea is one of the Asian Tigers, a term used in reference to the highly free and developed economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. It's enjoying one of the fastest growing market economies in the world today.
9. Don’t Make All Your Own Teaching Materials
That would be a waste of time. There are so many resources available for teaching abroad, specifically for teaching English in South Korea. Hop on the coat tails from the teachers who've done it before. You may have access to an abundance of materials left by previous GETs, from co-teachers, or in textbooks.
All you have to do is dig a little to take advantage of this handy time-saver. For more teaching-related advice and information, check out Barry Fun English, Lantern Fish, and Waygook. Be sure to read up on tips for making lesson plans, and avoid underplanning.
10. Don’t Forget to Pack a Sense of Humor
Living and teaching abroad is all about experiencing the most ridiculous, awkward, and hilarious moments possible. Laugh at yourself, at your situation, and at those around you. Laughter will get you through even the toughest days.
It's ok to be frustrated, but don't get stuck in this bog of impatience for long. This is especially important in the classroom. Students have an uncanny ability to know how you're feeling and thinking. So smile.
Like any experience in life, teaching abroad in South Korea will be what you make of it. I absolutely love my job. In what other capacity could I be a cook, a cleaner, a dancer, a singer, a hugger, an encourager, a storyteller, and a radio announcer in the same day? Don’t just take my word for it. Find out for yourself!