The New Year is always a great opportunity to personally reflect on the previous year, but it is particularly important for me as a teacher. This is mainly due to the fact that I started teaching back many years ago in December in South Korea. I have now been teaching English in some capacity for over 17 years and have many fond memories. So where did this all start me?

I was really forced into TEFL in South Korea in the winter of 2005, as I had been job hunting for six months after graduating and had failed to secure any form of employment in the UK. As I was married to a South Korean national, it seemed fitting that we try our luck in her country. We packed our things, shipped them to the other side of the world, and then caught a plane to Seoul. It seems another time entirely.

In the classroom during Halloween with young learners in Anseoung, South Korea.

I arrived in this exotic country, with absolutely no knowledge of Korea, an undergraduate degree in International Business, and renewed enthusiasm to secure employment, doing what I could to support my young family. Anyone who has had the opportunity to travel to South East Asia would particularly understand that the only field that is really available for arrivals – particularly in the early 1990s and 2000s – was to teach English to young children. I was able to secure employment almost immediately with a private language institute (also commonly known as a ‘hagwon’), which was completely different to what I failed to achieve back in the UK for six months.

When first starting teaching in South Korea, I was based in a very small town (about an hour and a half away from Seoul) where I felt like the only foreigner there. Most jobs in the local area for locals were working in factories or in local convenience stores. Back in the winter of 2019 (prior to the pandemic), I recently met up with my boss and had a chance to see how the town had changed. It is now completely different to how I remembered it, with many new towns popping up. Many of the rice paddy fields have now gone now and it resembles more of a small city rather than a remote town.

Anyhow, when I first started teaching children in the winter of 2005, I had no certificate in English language teaching other than completing a weekend course, prior to my departure to Korea, which barely gave me the necessary skills or confidence to teach. However, I bought Grammar in Use, spent all evening planning my first day of classes, and felt like a nervous wreck upon entering the classroom. After a few weeks of planning, and getting used to my new adopted country, I refined my lesson planning, having realised that I had six classes of lessons per day and could plan one lesson per day.

This one lesson could include a variety of tasks within 50 minutes and usually my first lesson would involve elementary students with my final class being with intermediate learners. I could cover the same topic, have the worksheets all prepped within 30 minutes and have an idea of what to do in each class by grading the difficulty or activities. And that was my introduction to English language teaching in South Korea.

A whiteboard filled with flashcards and vocabulary.

After fourteen months of teaching young learners, I really wanted to take my teaching to the next lesson and decided to undertake a CELTA at the British Council in Seoul. The whole process of applying can be a separate post, but I remember starting the first day after commuting a couple of hours to the centre. The CELTA Tutors were incredibly supportive and patient to all trainees, and I still keep in touch with them.

Now fast forward 17 years and I am now based in the UK teaching a range of classes – EAP, Business English, General English, IELTS Preparation to name just a few. I have met many students, taught thousands of hours to both young learners and adults, received many gifts from students, and had the chance to make many new friends. This career has been very rewarding with highs as well as a lows.

Nevertheless, here is to another 17 years.