Experiences of an English Language Teacher

August Teacher Interview: David Harbinson

David been teaching English in Daegu, Korea since September 2007 and began his teaching career straight after finishing university. He spent a year teaching English to elementary and middle school children at a private academy, before moving on to Wall Street English in 2008. David spent two years as the Program Manager of the Daegu branch, but recently stepped down so he could focus on other things. He currently teaches at WSE on a part-time basis and in 2012 completed an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL with the University of Leicester in the UK. He investigated the motivation of adult Korean language learners for his MA dissertation.

1. Could you please let our readers know how you got into teaching?

I started teaching EFL in 2007, almost immediately after I graduated from university. During the first two years of my undergraduate degree, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but between my second and third year, I spent 3 months travelling in Australia, Thailand and Vietnam. I loved the experience so much, that as soon as I landed back in the UK, I was already thinking about my next trip. One night in January 2007, I was supposed to be writing my dissertation, but got a bit sidetracked looking into what jobs I could get that would also allow me to travel and live in other countries. I came across this thing called “TEFL” which sounded intriguing, and after a couple of hours of research, I had decided that was something that I wanted to do. The following day, I went to the careers office at my university and found out that the university offered the Trinity TESOL course during the summer. I finished up my university degree and then went straight on to the TESOL course. Two months later I was in Daegu, Korea, in my first job.

2. What advice would you give those that are wishing to go teaching in South Korea?

I would start by saying research is key. It is relatively easy to get a job teaching English in Korea if you are a native English speaker; all you need is an undergraduate degree and a clean criminal background check. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy to find a good job. Quite often I hear of teachers with ‘horror stories’ about their jobs in Korea. Therefore, it’s important to find out as much as possible about the job before you accept anything. I always recommend asking for the e-mail address(es) of at least one current teacher and one non-native teacher. If you can speak to them on the phone, that’s even better. A lot of the time you need to use your intuition. If something doesn’t seem right about the school, don’t be afraid to decline the job offer and move on to the next. If a school is taking too long to reply, or they are being vague about some of your questions, then that could be an indication of potential future problems. I remember when I was applying for my first job, I was in the UK and so eager to get over to Korea, but I read up about potential poor experiences from various online sources. I did quite a few telephone interviews and was offered a number of jobs, but none of them felt quite right. The academy I eventually worked for was fantastic, and I couldn’t have wished for a better first job in Korea. The final thing I would mention, especially for people who have never lived in another country before, is that the culture in Korea is a lot different from the culture in the UK and the US, for example. It sounds obvious, but I’ve met a few people in Korea who complain about things which are ‘done better’ back home. This always astounds me. As an example, one of the things that you will probably have to get used to is doing things (in Korea) last minute. You might only get told about a meeting or something that you have to do at the last moment and be expected to do a good job. While you might not be used to that style in your own country, it is typical of many things in Korea. The opposite side of this is that when you want something doing, it usually gets done quickly. You can order something online on Monday, and expect it to arrive the next morning.

3. What teaching opportunities are available in South Korea?

I have only worked at private academies, called hagwons in Korea, since I first arrived in 2007, so I only have experience with these. I think that most of the ELT jobs in Korea are working for these academies. The majority of hagwons operate between the opening hours of 2-4pm until 9-10pm, so you will be teaching students who are being taught in an afterschool setting. Hagwons typically offer the least amount of vacation each year, usually 10 days along with 12-14 national days off. There are also opportunities working in public schools (at all levels). I don’t have experience working within public schools, but from what I understand, the number of vacancies in public schools are slowly decreasing as the Korean government wants to have more non-native English teachers delivering the curriculum. They typically offer a bit more vacation each year, and you will be working with a Korean co-teacher. Both hagwons and public schools are good options for new and inexperienced teachers. Then there are university positions. Some teachers in Korea regard these as the best jobs, and they can be highly competitive. It would be almost impossible for a new teacher to land one of these jobs, and even experienced teachers who are outside of the country would have a hard time getting into universities to teach English. The pay is often comparable, or sometimes even slightly less, than hagwons, but some of the university positions offer up to 4 months paid vacation a year. Many of the people I know who have been in Korea for a long time work at universities.

4. Could you tell us of a memorable lesson?

Working at WSE, I feel I am very fortunate in that I have some really great students. The majority of the classes I teach are in very small groups of just 2 or 3 students, so I really get to know my students. Over the last 4 years, I have had so many great lessons, and this is mainly down to the students, who are so eager. I’ve also had my fair share of lessons that haven’t gone so well. I think one of my most memorable lessons happened one Saturday a few years ago. It is memorable not because of the lesson itself, but of something that happened outside. I work on the sixteenth floor of a building in downtown Daegu. The class was with two students and both of them seemed very tired. At the beginning of the class, one student had asked me what the expression “pigs might fly” meant, which I explained. We started the lesson and both of the students seemed tired and not very interested in the lesson. We struggled along for about 15 minutes. Then all of a sudden I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. It was a helium balloon shaped as a pig floating by the window. I guess a child had let go of it from the street below. Both students and I cracked up with laughter, especially considering the student’s question from earlier. You couldn’t have timed it better. Anyway, the “flying” pig relieved a lot of the tension in the class and the rest of the class went by perfectly. The whole thing taught me the importance of humour in the classroom, and even difficult classes can become easier with a bit of laughter.

5. I can’t believe it is August and we are almost heading into the remaining four months of the year.  So do you have any plans for 2014?

I have just started experimenting with WordPress and using it as an LMS (Learning Management System). I‘m currently using a plugin called LearnDash. Over the next few months, I hope to develop a website using LearnDash to offer online lessons and quizzes for English language learners. On the personal side of things, my wife and I are expecting our first baby in November, so I am sure I will be pretty busy at home.

6. How would you describe your ideal young learner?

I don’t have a great deal of experience working with young learners, so my opinion may not be the most informed. But I think that for me, the best young learners are the ones who are willing to try and speak, even if they are wrong. I’ve noticed that children tend to pick up languages a lot easier than adults, and if they try, they soon find that they can use the language well. One of the reasons that I left my first job in Korea was that students were going to school at 8 in the morning, working all day and then coming to the academy to study until 10pm. That last class of the day could be a real struggle as the students arrive exhausted and unwilling. So, if I ever were to go back to teaching young learners again, I think it would have to be with students who got enough rest during the day.

7. What do you believe is important when learning a foreign language?

I think there are a lot of important factors when learning another language, but for me the most important one is time. It takes so much time to learn a language, whether it’s your first or second. Every now and again I see an article on the internet about how long it takes to learn a foreign language, and while some of the estimates vary, the majority agree that it takes a really long time. Learning another language is not like any other subject, you can’t just memorize a load of facts, you need to allow yourself time to acquire language. One of my favourite quotes is from Zoltan Dornyei, who describes a language class as the only class where students are forced to “babble like children”. The reason is that learning language is a natural process. I am a big fan of Noam Chomsky, who believes that the ability to learn a language is innate. So when it comes to learning a new language, the first thing you need to realize is that it is going to take a lot of time. Once you can understand this, then you can set yourself appropriate goals, and you won’t get disappointed when you can’t speak English like had you expected after six months’ intensive study.

8. What are your opinions of electronic dictionaries?  Do you love or loathe them?

I neither love nor loathe electronic dictionaries. I think that they have a place in the learner’s ‘toolkit’, but think that learners need to know when and how to use them. I very rarely use, or allow, my students to use their dictionaries in the class because I like to get them to try and explain the meaning, and together we can figure out the meaning. However, I have found on a few occasions that I think I have figured out what the student is trying to say, only for the student to come to me after the class, with a different word in their dictionaries. I think there are some times when getting the right word is essential, and if a student can do that in a few seconds with their dictionary, I don’t see the harm. However, when they want to use their dictionaries in class to find out every single word they don’t know, it begins to hinder fluency.

9. What advice would you give to new teachers that have just completed an undergraduate degree and want to get into English Language Teaching?

If teaching English is something that you would like to spend at least a couple of years doing, I would strongly recommend taking a good TESOL course. The CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL seem to be the two brands that are most easily recognized around the world. In order to complete the course, you need to do a minimum of 6 hours observed teaching, which, if you have never taught before, can be invaluable. For some countries, especially in Europe, I think that the TESOL certificate is essential, whereas in South Korea, for example, it’s not necessary, and some employers won’t even know what it is. It is quite expensive, around $2000, but very worthwhile in my opinion. It could be much cheaper than travelling halfway across the world just to find out that you are not cut out for teaching. I’d also recommend the book “The Practice of English Language Teaching” by Jeremy Harmer. I think that this book is fantastic, and includes so much useful information. I have three copies; one for home, one for work and one that I keep in my car – just in case.

10. Finally, what is it like being taught by you?

You’d have to ask my students to find out the real answer! But the one thing that I always try to do is spend a few minutes at the beginning of my classes getting to know the students. About their jobs or future career plans, and most importantly why they are studying English. Then, using that, I try to adapt the class and tailor it to their goals and personal situations. At WSE it’s very easy to do because of the small class sizes. So, I like to think that my students leave the classroom feeling as though they have gotten something out of it that is very relevant to them.


  1. Jack

    Great interview. I would love to know more about the website that you have/are creating. Could you post the link?

  2. David Harbinson

    Hi Jack. Thanks for your comment. I have one website that I created last year with discussion lessons based on news. http://www.EnglishNewsLessons.com. I've been quite busy over the last few months so haven't been able to update it as often, but from next week I will have more time. At the moment the website is just one I've created with HTML, but in the next few months I'm hoping to update it to a WordPress theme and include a students' area where they can login and do online activities related to the articles.

    I also recently created an English Tips blog that is using WordPress and at the moment has limited quiz fuctionality. englishtips.davidharbinson.com It's my first time experimenting with any kind of LMS and so I'm trying to take baby steps.

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