Archive for category School



Right, your 12 months as a teacher in the Republic of South Korea are nearly up. Enjoy yourself?

I’ve loved it. The way of life for an English teacher here, provided you’ve got a modicum of open-mindedness, adaptability and enthusiasm, is unbelievable. Essentially, after the initial settling-in period, my daily routine consisted of talking to cute children who see you as some kind of celebrity; while at night I would eat cheap and delicious food and meet friends I’ll remember for life. I know it’s supposed to be a small world but it’s gonna be sad to be on the other side of it from so many amazing people.

Aw! So what’ll you miss?

The people I’ve met. The students. The food. The culture of eating together with friends over a couple of hours, sharing different dishes – and the prices in restaurants that facilitate this. Being famous, and a novelty. Korean hospitality (read: free food and drinks from strangers). The opportunity to practise another language daily (I should have made more of this). Having a job. Nights out when it seems like 75% of the foreign population attend. Melon ice lollies. Cheap public transport. Soju. Noraebangs. Girls thinking I’m handsome. Ajummas and their fashion sense. Harmless illogical behaviour, like the ajumma fashion sense. Being so close to the beach. Never having to worry about stuff being stolen. Couples and families dressing the same. Not wearing shoes at work. Underfloor heating. I’ll miss the city, Ulsan too. I don’t think you can live in a place you’ve had such a good time in and not miss your surroundings when you leave.

So why are you leaving? You must have something pretty decent lined up back home!

Nothing, actually. Having spent a year in a completely new place, in hindsight you can paint almost whatever picture you like of the experiences you’ve had, depending on whether you focus on the positives (see above) or the negatives. However, the reality of day-to-day living can be pretty different from this. For example, I’ve had enough of the job here. That’s not to say I’ve had enough of teaching, or these particular students, or even teaching in Korea – but I’ve spent too much time standing at the front of classrooms saying things like “oh! We wear our shoes in the house” or “at the drugstore, go straight three blocks”. When applying for the job a year ago, I’d often reassure myself that I’d be fine as there would be a Korean co-teacher with me at all times, but in fact I’ve enjoyed the times when I’ve been alone – when I can actually teach – the most. Maybe it’s misplaced youthful ambition, but I feel like I’ve got more to offer the world than being a puppet.

There’s also the small matter of Elizabeth leaving, and my friends and family back home.

Right. So after a year of teaching, you’ve concluded that you like it, but don’t get to do enough of it. Apart from listen and repeat exercises then, what won’t you miss?

Being scared to ride my bike on roads. People spitting everywhere. Adults giggling after every sentence spoken to me. Not being able to buy clothes or shoes. Strangers making zero effort to understand my attempts at speaking their language. The haircuts. The bureaucracy and hierarchy. The weather! C0-workers ignoring me at lunchtime and having to fight for every conversation. K-Pop.

K-Pop! Really? C’mon, you must have a favourite song.

You got me…

Favourite Korean food?

찜닭 (jjim dak) – chicken, veg and noodles in a spicy, soy-y sauce.

This is fun! Favourite student?

I can’t do that! Can I? Perhaps one from my after-school class, who would write me messages on all her worksheets, teaching me Korean – “teacher, Korea say apple 사과!”. Or the 6th grade boy who greets me every time with “Joseph! Long time no see!” and then proceeds to tell me everything he’s done in the last few days. Or the the student who wrote me this:

I want one of those! I wanna move to Korea! Would you recommend it?

Definitely, and especially if you like to challenge yourself. I was pretty nervous about whether I was cut from the right cloth to be able to teach, but I wanted to push myself to do it. I’m still far from being the perfect teacher (in my opinion, that’s impossible, but that’s another conversation) but I’ve learned that common sense, enthusiasm and giving a damn about your students form a pretty strong basis for doing the job more than adequately.

The challenge also comes from adapting to a new country and way of life. Korea does things differently to the UK – from obvious things like the language to those you might not automatically think of, like forcing me to come to school today, where I’m writing this, when there’s not a single other teacher in the building – and it would take a whole year to think of and explain them all. But that’s part of the fun, learning while you live and work. I just hope my students have learned as much as I have!

Any regrets?

No matter how far I got with it, I’d always think I could have got further with learning Korean. As it is  I didn’t even get particularly far, and I regret not putting a bit more effort in. I’m also pretty jealous of all my Western friends who have taekwondo belts now too. Nothing serious though!


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Last Day of School


How time flies. I’ve got 80 minutes left of my last day of regular school, after which all that will stand between the end of my adventures in Korea is a bit of deskwarming and two weeks of summer camp. This morning I was whisked into the broadcasting room to deliver a live goodbye speech to every student via their classroom TVs. I even slipped in a bit of Korean, but I’m unsure whether it was understood, or even noticed. The day’s been a bit of an anti-climax as I haven’t had any classes since Wednesday and I’ve been seeing kids for the last time since the beginning of last week. Grade 6 have written me a lot of goodbye letters: all are very cute, most make sense, about half contain email addresses and/or phone numbers, a few are professions of undying love and one is from “Lionel Messi”. Grade 5 did the same, only theirs are copied from a template and hence identical, significantly reducing their sentimental value.

However, we did have a few tearful goodbyes in our last-ever after-school party lesson this afternoon. Children have a tendency to nod and feign understanding even if they haven’t got the slightest idea what’s going on, so when I told them at the beginning of the lesson that it was to be our last together, everyone nodded and “ahhhhhhh”d in unison.

“What month is it?”
“How about next month?”
“Good! In August, Joseph-teacher will go home to England”.
*Wide eyes*.
“So today is our last lesson together. Final class. Finished”.
“Teacher, today vacation”.
“Yes, so I will go home”.
*Pause*. “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

Our ‘party lesson’ consisted of pass the parcel, musical statues and laughing at photos from when Mum and Elle came to watch a lesson. Then, when it was time to leave, and I’d given them all their little acrostic poems (Lisa Is A perfect Student! Nana is Always happy, Never Angry. Lily, I Love You!), they started to cotton on that something was different. My co-teacher explained that this was the last time we’d see each other. Ever.

“Teacher, you go 영국 [England]?”
*Pause*. “Wehhhhhh?”
“Because my family is in England. I miss them”.

And then it hit me too how sad it was. I managed to hold back the waterworks – just – but some of these lil’ guys I’ve seen every school day since September. Since none of the teachers really talk to me, they’re my best friends at school. We don’t share secrets or talk about our relationships or have sleepovers, but I really am gonna miss them.

Here are some of those photos.

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It’s dawning on me how close I am to the end now: only three Mondays of regular school remain; and two paydays. Yes, that’s how I measure time, in Mondays and money – two ‘m’ words firmly at opposite ends of the ‘how good stuff is’ spectrum. Their alliteration is perhaps not something I would’ve noticed before but I think like a teacher now, and having spent five hours of each week for the last 10 months with my group of 6 and 7 year olds sounding out words I’m now really good at phonetic spelling, and I’ve been hardwired to inwardly and appreciatively doff my metaphorical cap in the direction of any outstanding orthoepic occurences.

Attitudes are changing at school. By this I’m mainly referring to students’ attitudes towards a particular co-teacher; a particular co-teacher’s attitude towards me; and, circuitously, my attitude towards students. I think a lot of relationships begin with tentative feeling out, cautious attempts to ascertain stances, viewpoints, beliefs, tastes, reactions to certain situations, senses of humour – the nature of the other party. Such gradual exploration I have witnessed in the lessons I co-teach with one particular guy, all fifth grade classes and one sixth. They’ve had 16 weeks together and the students’  repect and cooperation has declined in direct proportion to the amount of time being taught English. I’ve been trying to work out recently if their Korean teacher hasn’t noticed, doesn’t know what to do about it or just doesn’t give a damn. His attempts at discipline are sporadic, half-hearted and seemingly random. They’re also unfair, because he’ll allow the same group of kids to get away with the same kind of behaviour for weeks and then suddenly turn around and punish them for it.

His lessons are all wrong and the students control them: any textbook work he just finishes in silence by himself (often incorrectly); each class consists of at least one game (something that should be a reward) and 5-10 minutes of whichever one of the Spiderman films the students ask for on the day; he allows students to walk around during class, sit on each others’ laps and throw screwed-up bits of paper at each other – if he decides to punish more than one student at a time he’ll  send them to a table at the back of the room where they sit together and chat, if he tries to remove kids on their own they just tell him no. He’s cultivated a classroom environment in which kids can do what they want – and they know it. Since this has happened gradually as students have realised they can get away with more and more I have little authority and it’s often undermined – I confiscated a tipex  that was all over the desks and my co-teacher returned it immediately to the culprit. I’ve offered suggestions outside the classroom more than once, but these have been ignored.

He’s anolder male, and his attitude towards me has become more stereotypical. He’ll often get me to do his photocopying, return his lunch tray to where it gets collected from (our canteen’s being renovated so we get little lunch boxes delivered), or other menial little chores that are too worthless to argue about or question.

It’s a peculiar situation though, because I like the guy. I struggle to hide my contempt when he asks me to do something that really should be his job to do, but otherwise we get on when not teaching together. He grows little plants in the English room, and he gave me one to take home the other day. He leaves little sweets on my desk when I’m out of the office (that’s another thing – his overuse of candy in the classroom). He responds to every powerpoint I present with a smile and an “awesome job, can you save PPT my computer?”. I talk to him about weekends, holiday plans, feelings about Korea, progress with Korean than all my other co-teachers put together. He just seems to lack a good deal of common sense. I hate it when people feed their dogs at the table and then slap them on the nose for jumping up at mealtimes when they suddenly decide its wrong or for begging when guests are round, and that’s kind of what he’s done with these kids. The vice-principal walked in to one of his lessons the other day (I wasn’t there) and observed how ridiculous it was – now he’s been warned about his teaching and he seems to realise something needs to be done. Hopefully things can change, or both these students and their next English teacher are going to have a horrible time when they meet next year.

My attitude towards teaching is changing too. In these lessons I feel really bad for the handful of kids who sit quietly, earnestly listening to what you’re trying to teach, so I’ve been focusing on them, chatting to them rather than chastising others during revision or individual work time. This has extended to my other classes too, for better or worse: when I introduce a topic I spend my time having conversations with the interested students and inviting questions, rather than trying determinedly to coherce every last person into another listen and repeat exercise. Instead of games where teams have to repeat a textbook phrase for points (“Nami is stonger than Jinho”) I’ve been doing quizzes or debates (“who would win in a fight between Spiderman and Batman?” Spiderman, because he is stronger”). I know I should aim for maximum participation but I feel like the kids do enough mindless repetition when I’m not there, and practise of “real” conversations with a “real” foreigner is priceless.

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It is going to be boiling in August. It’s going to be sick. Long ago I confined my warm workwear to a dark corner of my wardrobe and already I’m starting to get jealous of the students who dress in shorts and sleeveless tops for school. I’ve been to hot places before but none that have ever required me to stand up and do stuff for most of the day; this morning it took me until lunchtime when I returned to my desk in front of an open window to stop sweating. Luckily children are pretty smelly themselves, so as long as I can conceal any damp sweat patches that materialise I shouldn’t get ruthlessly bullied by them – it’s just all my co-workers I’ll have to avoid for the next 3 months.

Meanwhile, at the weekends when I’m able to wear slightly airier clothing we’ve been managing to enjoy the sunshine by spending the last couple at the beach in Busan. Last weekend Elizabeth and I were sitting on a bedsheet on the sand playing cards and eating grapes we were accosted by a group of probably 25 middle-aged Koreans. They conducted the most efficient whirlwind of a picnic I’ve ever seen: in literally 10 minutes they all arrived, unpacked dozens of trays of food, summoned us over to forcefeed roe and soju to us (laterally for photographs in a variety of poses), took some snaps of each other rolling around in the sand, packed up and then left. This generosity and conviviality shown to foreigners is characteristic of groups of picnicking locals  and one of my favourite things about living here.

It doesn’t seem too long ago when the dry, biting winter here threatened to cut into any enjoyment of time spent outside but it’s amazing the difference a few short weeks can make – and they have been very short, whizzing by now. It’s almost as though I wake up on Monday mornings, robotic and bleary-eyed, and then the next time I take a minute to reflect it’s Thursday. Incredibly, I occasionally feel a bit panicky that I won’t have time before I leave Korea to eat my lifetime’s fill of kimchi. This particular week has whizzed by with a very, very polite Korean man lurking behind me for many of my lessons, whispering apologies in my ear. Every morning he knocks the softest of knocks on the English office door before it opens to reveal legs and the hairy crown of a head, and as they retreat I realise it’s a human form bent double, muttering honorific salutations. This is how this man greets his co-workers, the principal, the dinner ladies, the students – if he’s married I bet this is how he greets his wife, children and pet pink chihuahua too. He looks to me in lessons for permission to speak, to press play on interactive English CD ROMs and to pick his nose too. One co-teacher has been absent from work all week and this is the guy they found to replace him – as if to say “look Joe, you’ve been getting complacent. You appear to be adapting too well and too quickly to the quirks of Korea, here’s a little something to throw you off a bit. Good luck”. Well Korea, you’ll have to do better than that.

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No Rest for the Wicked


Since the new school year started in March, I’ve had lots of new roles and responsibilities here at school. Today is a test day (meaning no lessons, which is why I’ve got the time to write this) and before settling down at my desk for a taxing day of surfing the internet I went to fill up my water bottle at the other end of the school. From every classroom I could hear a recorded, robotic voice saying things like “number one: the pencil case is under the chair; number two: the computer is on the desk”, or “Hi Jiho, how’s it going? Great, Minho. How about you?”. I then realised the voice was mine. All this week I’ve been arduously recording the English listening tests that the students are taking now. Each lasts about 20 minutes, but thanks to a combination of our poor technologcial resources and our inept editing skills they have to be recorded in one take, so a single, simple slip of the tongue means the entire process has to be repeated. Reading words off a sheet clearly, slowly and in order is one of those things that’s so easy it becomes hard, like playing table tennis against someone who loops returns back to you at half a mile an hour, and it seems like every spare moment I’ve had this week has been spent speaking into one of those Britney Spears headset microphones.

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School Tension


I’m going to present what happened in as objective and factual a manner as I can muster, and I’d love to hear your opinions on this.

I’ve been applying for jobs back home to start once my contract here ends, and in mid-March I was informed about an assessment day that KPMG wanted me to attend on 11 April, a Wednesday and a public holiday here. I thought there wouldn’t be much chance I’d be able to get the time off work, but I decided to test the water and ask for two days, Thursday and Friday. This was granted by my vice-principal so I looked into flights, but there were none leaving after work on Tuesday that would get me into London early enough on Wednesday morning, so I asked for the Tuesday off as well. This too was okayed and I booked flights from Seoul on the Tuesday morning. Read the rest of this entry »

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Short Stories II


A few more extracts from the weird, wacky and wonderful (see story #3) world of Korea.

Slave Labour

I feel like I’ve gotta start with this one, as I find it the most ridiculous. Hopefully it’s not too indicative of what other Native Teachers’ experiences have been like, but given the commitment to hierarchy and harmony here I’m not so sure. In a setence: my principal wanted me to teach one extra after-school class every single day for a monthly salary of 50,000 won (or roughly £1.30 an hour); I didn’t. The problem stemmed from the fact that I can’t speak to him about any issues I may have (hierarchy) and my direct superiors and his subordinates won’t say no to him (harmony). Over the last few weeks and months there’s been a prolonged struggle about this, via various middlemen, that has gone something like this: Read the rest of this entry »

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An Update


As I near the midway point of my year-long contract here in Korea, it’s difficult to tell how fast the time has gone. On the one hand, when I have been stood in a classroom during the non-teaching part of the first of seven identical lessons, watching the school leavers video of some unsuspecting American child, it has felt like the weekend is a lifetime away – let alone August 25. Incidentally, that’s what I spent Thursday and Friday of last week doing: the sixth graders “graduate” this month and one of their final English lessons consisted of learning about the differences between the ceremonies here and in the USA. I’ve no idea where my co-teacher found the video of “Daniel O’Hare’s Elementary School Graduation”, as it only had about 100 plays on YouTube when we watched it, but I decided not to ask. On the other hand I think of the new native teachers who will be arriving in Korea for their orientation around now; remember how unused I was to my new lifestyle; reflect on how much I’ve learned – and it seems like the previous six months were spirited away with a click of the fingers. Read the rest of this entry »

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Winter Camp


Winter Camp’s over. YES! The past 14 teaching days, since January 2, have basically consisted of a lot of hard work and will culminate tomorrow in a “closing ceremony” day of song and drama performances from the students. ‘Camp’ is probably a slightly misleading thing to call what is just English lesson after English lesson after English lesson – there are no tents, no ghost stories, no melted marshmallows round a burning bonfire – but despite this and despite the fact that other native teachers will collect their January paychecks having sat in front of their computers for three weeks, I’ve enjoyed it and I think the kids have too. But that doesn’t mean I’m not glad it’s finished.

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School on a Saturday


This weekend I had to go in to school on Saturday morning. In addition to my contracted 22 hours of lessons per week I teach a group of first and second grade students five times a week, after school has finished. Most native teachers that do this get paid a basic overtime rate per hour, but my pay is dictated by however many students sign up for the classes and on Saturday a big after-school fair took place where teachers could advertise their programmes. Otherwise, I might have protested more than I did at only getting one lie-in that week, but I decided I’d probably have a better success rate if I actually showed my face.

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