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.

Jake Hollingsworth

Jake Hollingsworth is an American English teacher and writer. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Jake was a bank teller, restaurant manager, and barista. When he finally got his head on straight, Jake married his best friend and two weeks later took a 15 month honeymoon to Asia.
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