A Day In The Life Of An English Teacher In South Korea

by Lindsay Shapka in ,


The weekend had disappeared quickly, too quickly, and when I opened my eyes, I realized that the fluttering in my stomach meant that it was Monday and even if I wasn’t entirely prepared for it, my official first day as an English teacher had arrived.

On my way out the door, I couldn’t help taking one last glance in the mirror and a long deep breath to try and settle the butterflies in my stomach. We had been told that our school had a ‘white-collar’ dress code and were reminded that even though we were working abroad, dress standards for work were higher than for travelling. I had taken great care in selecting my first-day-of-school outfit, hoping that to convey a scholarly air of confidence that by no means did I feel.

I really hoped that children couldn’t smell fear.

Michelle (my roomie/travel buddy) and I had spent our first full week in South Korea not teaching but observing our colleagues’ classes, soaking up their teaching and discipline methods and bombarding them with non-stop questions. The school we worked for, ECC, was a well-established, well-known academy that had English schools all over the country. It was associated with YBM, an internationally recognized corporation in the field of teaching English as a Second or Foreign language and I was excited and relieved to see, during my observation week, that this meant I would have unlimited resources at my disposal. The cozy, cramped teacher’s office was packed full of textbooks, flashcards, lesson plans and other teachers willing to give advice and help.
When researching teaching English before I left home, I had come across more than a few horror stories from past teachers. Some gave accounts of being thrown into a classroom within the first few days of their arrival with no training, preparation time or resources. Prepared for the worst, it was a relief when I realized that my experience would be different.

I had spent three hours the Friday before preparing for my first week by utilizing these resources — reading over lesson plans, photocopying worksheets, organizing flashcards and filling up my new fifth limb, a teal plastic basket, with supplies. Mr. Kim (my boss) did not want us leaving the classroom for any reason, and to prevent the need to he insisted that we carried our plastic supply baskets with us at all times. They were well stocked with essential teaching tools like crayons, felt pens, pencils, pens, rulers, white board markers and erasers. After a few months of teaching, mine was also covered in shiny stickers and filled with trinkets — gifts from my younger students.

We were required to be at the school at least one hour before the start of classes, so I arrived at 2 pm to finish some last minute, first day preparation. The late afternoon start time was due to the fact that we worked at a hagwon, or an after-school private school, that students attended once they had finished their regular public school classes.

I had eight classes to teach on my first day. All classes were 90 minutes long, but were split in half with a 10-minute break in between. Forty minutes were taught by Korean teachers who covered grammar and sentence structure, while in my forty minutes I covered the conversational, pronunciation and applied part of the lesson. In true Korean style, it was an efficient system that gave the students a chance to learn English from both the perspective of a native speaker and from someone who had already faced and conquered the challenge of learning it as a second language.

From 3 pm until the end of the day, the bell ruled our lives (and still haunts my dreams).  A 10-second song that would play to mark the beginning or end of class, it was at just the right pitch to involuntarily make my jaw clench. Students used to hum the song during my lessons, apparently hoping that through an act of sheer will it would ring for real, freeing them from the four walls of learning (or prison, depending on the student).

As the first bell to signal the beginning of my teaching career played, I tried to quash the feeling of impending doom growing inside me as I joined the other teachers filing out of the office and into the chaos of students who had gathered to help carry supplies to class.
Some of the more curious ones walked up to me and boldly asked, “Who are you? New teacher?” and then, not waiting for my response, ran away giggling.
Taking a deep breath, I started chanting my new mantra in my head, “Never Show Fear. Be the Biggest Personality in the Room.” Advice from a fellow foreign teacher, I repeated it over and over until I arrived at my classroom door.

I felt instantly transformed when I touched my new, fresh tipped black dry erase pen to the board and wrote “Lindsay Teacher” across its white expanse for the first time. (Weird, I know, but that is how the kids addressed us.) At least I did until I turned around and realized that I had a class full of curious children staring at me expecting me to unlock the secrets of a foreign language for them. I never really knew how long a minute was, until that first class when I suddenly had to fill forty of them.

Not having had any practical experience in the classroom before being in South Korea (respect to all teachers everywhere), I was terrified during each and every one of my classes that my new students would suddenly stop laughing with me, and start laughing at me. I spent the majority of my first day in constant fear, waiting for someone to stand up, point at me and call me a fraud. (Though, I was oddly comforted by the fact that I probably wouldn’t understand what they were saying because it would be in Korean.)

By far, the most exciting moment of my first day was naming a student after my best friend.
In keeping with the idea of complete immersion, unless they strongly object, South Korean students do not use their given names while at English school, but use English names that their teacher assigns them. The majority of students keep the name that they receive on their first day at a hagwon and identify with it for the rest of their lives. If you have ever meet a South Korean exchange student in North America named James or Susan, someone like me probably gave them that name on their first day of English school.

Most of the South Korean teachers looked to the foreign teachers to come up with names for new students, and all of us approached the naming process in very different ways. Some of us used names of characters from favorite books or movies, while others (like me) used the names of friends and family members from back home. It was great fun to call my best friend and tell her that I had just named a small South Korean child after her — the gift that keeps on giving!

We didn’t have completely free reign over the names that we doled out however, my school was rather conservative and any name that Mr. Kim deemed too foreign or strange sounding was not acceptable. Ben, a teacher from Indiana and a close friend, pushed his limits one month by naming some of his students after characters from the play Les Miserables. Cosette and Fantine, while being perfectly nice names, are not the easiest for a seven-year-old to pronounce or spell even if English is their first language! Names like these were tame however, when compared to the ones that a teacher at a nearby school was handing out. He had decided to name his students after musicians — Jay-Z, Eminem and Tupac. Imagine a South Korean exchange student introducing himself to a fellow classmate at Harvard University as Jay-Z. So wrong.
A few months into my teaching career, being diplomatic (and after running out of family members), I started giving my new students a choice. I would write a few names on the white board, say them out loud and let the nameless student pick what they wanted to be called. I figured that if this was a name they would potentially identify with for the rest of their lives, they should have the right to choose it themselves.
I had to be careful how much freedom I gave these students of pop culture to choose though, or I would risk ending up with a classroom full of male and female Harry Potters.

Learn more about teaching English in South Korea here.