On Teaching English to Children in Korea

Call it a hunch.  Call it intuition.  Maybe some kind of creepy 6th sense.  Whatever it was, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the folks at Buseok Elementary School believed in me.  The privilege (burden) of educating the next generation of Koreans was placed on my shoulders.  Thousands of young minds were in my care.

Actually it was more like 53.  But still.

The first hint that my principal placed an inordinate amount of confidence in me as an English teacher was the sound of the door slamming shut behind me.  Except for the 14 sets of beady little eyes staring back, I was alone.  For the first time.  In a foreign country.  12,000 miles from home.  Alone.  To say I was shoved into the classroom kicking and screaming would not be far from the truth.

Not 24 hours ago my wife and I were fresh off an airplane and standing outside Incheon International Airport awaiting the director of the recruiting agency through whom I had secured employment for the following 12 months, and now we found ourselves in the middle of the countryside in the tiny rural farming community of Buseok.  This was my first time outside of the United States, and the swirl of Korean conversation around me caused a bit of light-headedness.  My burps were reminiscent of the fish, seaweed, and kimchi I was served for lunch only half an hour ago, and I was still not quite myself after the standard medical examination for foreign workers I had undergone that morning.  Blood was drawn.  Not my favorite activity, as this procedure generally causes me to squirm like an embarrassed school girl.

But the door to my classroom shut nonetheless.  (I could have sworn I heard a dead-bolt fasten from the outside.)  I was given simple instructions: Teach.  But…

What grade is this?
What do these students already know?
Is there a textbook?
What about a curriculum I’m to follow?
What time does class end?
Wasn’t a co-teacher promised in my contract?
Is it too late to rethink this?

There exists a common misconception when it comes to foreign English teachers and their students.  It may seem painfully obvious, but never underestimate a Korean school teacher’s ability to miss a small snippet of common sense, which is: I speak English…my students do not.  It would seem easy enough to understand.  But alas, it was not.  Because of this lapse in communication (I thought I made it abundantly clear in the interview process that I was an American, and as such we would have a bit of a language barrier) my days were spent dealing with alternating versions of the following scenario.

Teaching English in Korea

Imagine if you will…

…15 Korean kindergarten children burst into your classroom.  No kindergarten or English co-teacher to be found.  Immediately, the children commence swinging from anything they can secure a grip on.  Your classroom resembles a monkey cage at the local petting zoo, full of hungry, irritable primates.  By some stroke of luck, you manage to get everyone in a seat and somewhat hold their attention.  You begin to recite the alphabet when you notice a little boy in the back of the classroom, preoccupied to say the least.  You stroll casually to the back, trying your best not to alert everyone to the problem, and conclude that the blood covering the lower half of his face is the culprit.  Now, for the record, you don’t care in the least when one of these little hemorrhoids is bleeding, but you reason with yourself that if he’s determined to bleed, it would be better that he do it outside of your classroom. So you lead him out, at arms length of course, to the office where another teacher inquires of the aforementioned blood. You should have guessed: he was picking his nose too vigorously.

You return to the classroom to find the remaining children huddled around the trash can.  One boy is digging furiously with tears in his little eyes.  You peer in to see what he’s looking for, but see nothing but crumpled paper.  You look again, praying you find something significant so order can be restored (relatively speaking).  Nothing.  Suddenly he spies it…a magnet.  Nothing special.  As generic as they come.  But it’s his, the one he came to class with, and all is well again.  Until you spot two boys in the back of the room, laughing hysterically.  Boy A is standing behind Boy B.  Boy A has his finger extended and is poking, nay, jabbing it into Boy B’s…ass.  Seriously.  And by the sound of things, this activity is the most fun either of them has had in a very long time.  You take another handful of your already thinning hair and pull it out…for the third time today.

Dr. H. Douglas Brown, professor of TESOL at San Francisco State University, author of multiple textbooks, and widely accepted as an authority on the subject, states that “short attention spans come into play when children have to deal with material that to them is useless, boring, or too difficult.”  It would necessarily make sense to put me in a classroom with 15 Korean kindergarten children with no interpreter.  The moment Dr. Brown refers to above, at which the children are confronted with material that to them is useless, boring, or too difficult, coincidentally is the same moment I open my mouth.  The children were apparently expected to hear my English, sense and accept the lifelong importance of acquiring the language, mull over future international business dealings, and process the connection with their own language.  I might as well have been teaching the lesson with a series of rhythmically ordered farts.  It would have all sounded the same.

30 Comments

  1. Waegook Tom on July 17, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Hahaha oh god, kindergartens are the WORST. I had to work at one for 8 weeks and it was hell. The students didn’t have a clue what was going on and proceeded to climb up the bookcases and throw chairs at each other. Parents complained the book was too easy, without knowing any English themselves, and seeming oblivious to the fact that their child could barely pronounce, “hello.”

    I got lucky with my main school, but kindergarten…NEVER again.

  2. Waegook Tom on July 17, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Hahaha oh god, kindergartens are the WORST. I had to work at one for 8 weeks and it was hell. The students didn’t have a clue what was going on and proceeded to climb up the bookcases and throw chairs at each other. Parents complained the book was too easy, without knowing any English themselves, and seeming oblivious to the fact that their child could barely pronounce, “hello.”

    I got lucky with my main school, but kindergarten…NEVER again.

  3. Maggie on July 17, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    I teach a few kindergarten classes and they aren’t so bad. After they learn the routine and learn that you’re the boss, they will be easier to manage! Notice I say easier…it’s still rough but just laugh and don’t take yourself (or them) too seriously. Good luck!

  4. Maggie on July 17, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    I teach a few kindergarten classes and they aren’t so bad. After they learn the routine and learn that you’re the boss, they will be easier to manage! Notice I say easier…it’s still rough but just laugh and don’t take yourself (or them) too seriously. Good luck!

  5. Jake Hollingsworth on July 17, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    They’ve definitely gotten easier to manage!  My first few days with them were one of those “you’ll look back at this and laugh” situations…which I definitely have.  

    Maggie and Tom…are you teaching in Korea?

  6. Jake Hollingsworth on July 17, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    They’ve definitely gotten easier to manage!  My first few days with them were one of those “you’ll look back at this and laugh” situations…which I definitely have.  

    Maggie and Tom…are you teaching in Korea?

  7. Andi Perullo on July 18, 2011 at 8:39 am

    I love that pic of you with the precious kids!

    • Jake Hollingsworth on July 19, 2011 at 8:07 pm

      Thanks.  Yes, they’re “precious”….sometimes.   Did I read that you live in Charlotte?  We’re from Greenville (SC).  My brother is living in Charlotte now.  Thanks for reading!

  8. Andi Perullo on July 18, 2011 at 9:39 am

    I love that pic of you with the precious kids!

    • Jake Hollingsworth on July 19, 2011 at 9:07 pm

      Thanks.  Yes, they’re “precious”….sometimes.   Did I read that you live in Charlotte?  We’re from Greenville (SC).  My brother is living in Charlotte now.  Thanks for reading!

  9. Michael on July 18, 2011 at 11:00 am

    Although I haven’t taught children, I know the feeling of frustration while teaching. Looking back at it now, it was funny and interesting.
    Great post Jake! Thanks for posting on AOB.

  10. Michael on July 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Although I haven’t taught children, I know the feeling of frustration while teaching. Looking back at it now, it was funny and interesting.
    Great post Jake! Thanks for posting on AOB.

  11. Turner Wright on July 19, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    It really is trial by fire teaching in Korea, isn’t it? Nice story.

    • Jake Hollingsworth on July 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm

      Yes!  Sink or swim.   You’re teaching in Uljin?

  12. Turner Wright on July 19, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    It really is trial by fire teaching in Korea, isn’t it? Nice story.

    • Jake Hollingsworth on July 19, 2011 at 9:06 pm

      Yes!  Sink or swim.   You’re teaching in Uljin?

  13. Elle on July 22, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    I have just started researching teaching abroad.  I have worked with Kindergartners for the last 10 years so I think I will be able to handle that aspect of it pretty well.  It’s the language barrier and the potential culture shock that I’ll have a more difficult time with.

    • Jake Hollingsworth on July 26, 2011 at 2:11 am

      Kindergarten children who don’t speak your language are a whole different animal…good luck!  Hopefully you’ll have a native co-teacher with you.  That makes a world of difference.  I was promised one in my contract, but that never materialized.  BUT, that makes for a better story!  Thanks for reading.

    • Dish on November 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm

      Elle, I was actually quite surprised at the lack of culture shock I had after getting to Korea. It’s not as different as you may think it is. I actually had more culture shock after coming back home. Good luck in your research, it’s an amazing experience!

  14. Elle on July 22, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    I have just started researching teaching abroad.  I have worked with Kindergartners for the last 10 years so I think I will be able to handle that aspect of it pretty well.  It’s the language barrier and the potential culture shock that I’ll have a more difficult time with.

    • Jake Hollingsworth on July 26, 2011 at 3:11 am

      Kindergarten children who don’t speak your language are a whole different animal…good luck!  Hopefully you’ll have a native co-teacher with you.  That makes a world of difference.  I was promised one in my contract, but that never materialized.  BUT, that makes for a better story!  Thanks for reading.

    • Dish on November 6, 2011 at 2:10 pm

      Elle, I was actually quite surprised at the lack of culture shock I had after getting to Korea. It’s not as different as you may think it is. I actually had more culture shock after coming back home. Good luck in your research, it’s an amazing experience!

  15. Dish on November 6, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    I taught in Korea for 2 years and I miss it everyday. I even miss the nose picking and the dongchim’s (which were banned from my classroom haha)

  16. Dish on November 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    I taught in Korea for 2 years and I miss it everyday. I even miss the nose picking and the dongchim’s (which were banned from my classroom haha)

  17. Jim on November 27, 2011 at 12:21 am

    Just for anyone reading this in the future, not all kindergartens in Korea are like this. I work at one where all my kids read at a 2nd grade American level or higher. All of my kinder kids are able to fully express themselves in both English and Korean and have no trouble comminicating. It may be the exception to the rule, but these kind of kindergartens do exist.

  18. Jim on November 27, 2011 at 1:21 am

    Just for anyone reading this in the future, not all kindergartens in Korea are like this. I work at one where all my kids read at a 2nd grade American level or higher. All of my kinder kids are able to fully express themselves in both English and Korean and have no trouble comminicating. It may be the exception to the rule, but these kind of kindergartens do exist.

  19. Jake on January 29, 2012 at 7:09 am

    Thanks for reading everyone.  

    Just FYI, this story was written to make you laugh.

    Thanks again!

    jake

  20. Jake on January 29, 2012 at 8:09 am

    Thanks for reading everyone.  

    Just FYI, this story was written to make you laugh.

    Thanks again!

    jake

  21. Maximuz on January 12, 2014 at 8:55 am

    I second this, having been here for 4 years.

  22. Maximuz on January 12, 2014 at 9:04 am

    My first year in Korea, I was very scared to teach Kindergarten. After the first year teaching, I really don’t see myself teaching English to anyone else. Kindergarten, to me, is the absolute best. I’ve heard stories like this before, but I must say that it really depends on the job you get. My first year was more hands off with a “figure it out, I’m busy making money” attitude (much like this story), but my last three years have had amazing training and a wonderful support system.
    Currently, I teach Korean 5 year olds, which is equivalent to American pre-school (3-4 yr olds). Although people say that there is a language barrier, at that age, students can’t speak much in Korean either, thus absorb WAY faster than older kids would. I totally understand where you are coming from Jake as these kinds of places do exist (in large numbers), but I would hate to discourage anyone from pursuing, what is in my opinion, the absolute greatest and easiest age group there is. Even in my first school, after a few weeks, the kids were under control.
    Much like Jim said below, students in our school also read, on average, at a 2nd or 3rd grade reading level by the time they finish kindergarten. In fact, the top student reads at a 2nd semester 4th grade level.
    Nice read and thanks for this hilarious story :).

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