Teach Abroad

What It's Like Teaching Students in South Korea

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Paige Kenzie
Topic Expert

Paige lives in Seoul, where she teaches English part-time to Korean professionals.

What It's Like Teaching Students in South Korea

South Korea is a pastoral scene from a painting full of rich flora, angelic children, and adults who know the difference between present continuous and present perfect tenses. OK, while the former is true (seriously, Korea’s landscape is breathtaking,) the latter isn’t.

Just as in other countries, some children want to throw scissors at their friends and adults don’t have infinite time to perfect their English. As a former EPIK elementary school teacher and a current adult English instructor in Seoul, I have experience with both age groups and others in-between. But, I’ve found that while Koreans are no more perfect than other students around the world, Koreans are extremely dedicated to their studies and are a joy to teach at any age.

Considering teaching English in South Korea, “The Land of Calm?” Decide which age group is best for you before making your move. Doing so will better both you and your students’ experiences inside of the classroom and out.

Teaching Children in South Korea

What It's Like Teaching Students in South Korea: Teaching Children

Most of the English-teaching jobs available in South Korea are for teaching children in schools from kindergarten through elementary school, which is fantastic news because Korean kids are adorable. But before you jump in, there’s a few things to keep in mind.

English teaching jobs with children in Korea will vary depending on your area and the age of your students. For example, kindergarteners through third-graders usually adore sing-alongs, but fourth-graders might roll their eyes if you YouTube, “Baby Shark.”

And, while first-graders in Gangnam might ask you in English about your hobbies and your hometown, first-graders in rural areas might not know their ABC’s. In short, you should keep your lesson plans flexible for various English levels until you’re familiar with your student’s needs. Here are a few other important things to keep in mind:

Korean Kids are Overworked

Korean kids work hard during public school and often have to go to one or even two hagwons (after-school academies) afterward. While the real educational race doesn’t usually start until middle school, even elementary students have full schedules. Unless you incorporate games, songs and crafts into your lessons, your kids will doze off or doodle Pororo in their notebooks. If the students look really uninspired, try incorporating K-Pop and videogame references into the lesson. For example, a lesson on English phone etiquette is much more interesting to middle schoolers if they can pretend they’re talking to EXO, not their mom.

Establish Rules & Be Patient

Although discipline in Korean elementary schools used to be strict, nowadays (especially in Seoul) there’s an emerging attitude that, “Kids should be kids.”

While you shouldn’t let bad behavior go, you should remember that your expectations likely differ from their homeroom teacher’s. Be patient, continue to give reminders, and follow through with punishments (or, better yet, reward systems.) Sparkly stickers work well with 3rd grade and under, while point systems work best with older Korean children.

In addition, if you’re teaching public school or very young students at a hagwon, you might have a co-teacher. However, what your co-teacher does and your relationship with your co-teacher will depend. While some co-teachers want to divide teaching time in the classroom, others are there only for discipline and translation, and some don’t even bother showing up. Before moving abroad, ask your recruiter or your school questions about co-teaching so there won’t be an surprises.

Have Flexible Personal Space & Boundaries

Like children in any country, Korean kids love attention. Younger ones want to hold your hand, give you lots of hugs, and share their food with you. Plus, as a foreigner with traits different from their own, they’ll be extra-interested; I’ve even heard stories of young students “petting” foreigners’ arm hair in amazement because their parents don’t have arm hair. Depending on how dear you hold your personal space, this can be endearing or extra creepy. In addition, be prepared for “intrusive” questions, such as the following I’ve really been asked by Korean kids:

  1. Are you married?
  2. Why aren’t you married?
  3. How old are you?
  4. Are you a Christian?
  5. How much do you weigh?
  6. What’s your blood type?

While these types of questions might be off-limits in your country, these questions are quite tame for Korea.

Top Opportunities to Teach Children in South Korea

Teaching High Schoolers in South Korea

What It's Like Teaching Students in South Korea: Teaching High Schoolers

While elementary and middle school students often equate English learning with fun and games, high school students equate school with the life-changing Suneung test, or CSAT.

This means that high school students are often stressed out, but teaching them can be even more rewarding than teaching children. They’re young enough to appreciate a good laugh and old enough to have self-control. Check out some of the most important things to remember when teaching high school students below.

To Korean High Schoolers, Exams Equal Pressure

As I mentioned above, high school students are under immense pressure to do well on their college entrance exams. This exam is taken at the end of their third year, and it can determine the rest of their lives. A good CSAT score can mean getting into a good college, and in turn, landing a great job; a bad score, however, often equates with familial disappointment.

Because of this, high school students are often stressed and overworked. While you’ll still have to focus on grammar, spelling, syntax and other less-interesting aspects of English during your lesson, high school students will appreciate it if you maintain a relaxed learning environment to help them manage their stress levels.

Your Students Might Be Shy

Unlike students in the U.S. and elsewhere, many older Korean students won’t speak unless spoken to first. Therefore, a “free conversation” class won’t flow well without extra guidance. While you might be tempted to call out students to answer questions if no one is raising their hand or answering your questions, it’s best not to single anyone out. Instead, incorporate partner and group activities to get high school students talking.

And as mentioned in the previous section on teaching younger children, you may or may not have a co-teacher by your side in the classroom. If you have a co-teacher, your job might be limited to speaking-lessons only. If this is the case, ensure you incorporate lessons that vary from the usual grammar lessons they might have with the Korean co-teacher. Role-play, have students draw an English comic, or assign a simple culture presentation to keep things interesting.

Say “Yes” to Extra Duties

Culture and duties will vary from school to school, but for the best relationships with your students and coworkers, be ready to say, “okay!”

From speaking tests to sporting events, extra duties might pop up now and then. While you don’t always have to say, “Yes,” agreeing to lend a hand is the best way to be “part of” the school and not just working for it. While this piece of advice goes for all ages, it’s especially true in high schools, where the entire school is working together to prepare its students for exams and university.

Top Opportunities to Teach High School Students in South Korea

Teaching University Students & Adults in South Korea

What It's Like Teaching Students in South Korea: Teaching University Students

If the idea of singing songs and reading, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear,” isn’t for you, you might consider teaching adults. From teaching university students to CEOs to retired grandmas with extra time on their hands, teaching adults is exciting. However, it’s also perhaps the most tiring. Unlike the usual morning or afternoon time slots teaching children and high school students entails, teaching adults almost always requires accepting a “split-shift” schedule. Read on to learn more about split-shifts and other things to keep in mind when teaching adults below.

Prepare for Split-Shifts

Because adults usually have full-time jobs already, they can’t come to class in the middle of the day. Therefore, your own English adult teaching schedule might be split into morning and afternoon shifts. For some teachers, this shift introduces a well-needed long lunch break in the middle of the day that includes time for the gym and self-care. For others, it leaves them with little time left to explore South Korea.

In addition, many adults like to take classes on the weekends, so usually some Saturday teaching hours are required. While a split-shift with Saturdays might seem like a schedule made by Hades, the tradeoff for teaching adults, is enough to tip the scales for some.

You Might Need to Teach Job Specific or Business Language

Often, adult English classes are “free conversation,” for adults to spruce up the English they learned during school. For others, English and job-related jargon is vital to keeping their job or getting a promotion. Depending on your school, you might teach business English, nursing English, banking English, or other English specific to a job market in South Korea.

You Should Dress Professionally

If you teach children, you’ll be advised to wear something modest, put-together, and not-too-nice (in case of paint spills, marker smudges, and maybe boogers.) While high school teachers should update their wardrobe, too, adult English teachers especially should have a professional wardrobe. You don’t want to go into a 1-on-1 lesson with the CEO of a major company looking like your just rolled out of bed. Collared shirts and ties are the norm for men, and dresses or nice skirts and blouses are acceptable for women.

Top Opportunities to Teach Adults in South Korea

While you might be eager to get to South Korea to explore the mountains, the cuisine, and the soju, it’s important to first carefully consider which age group best suits your personality and teaching style. A stressful teaching job with the wrong age group for you won’t make Korea any less beautiful. But, teaching the right age group in the right teaching opportunity will only enhance your experience.