Experiences of an English Language Teacher

Top 10 Tips for Teaching in South Korea

Our last blog contribution was from Kim Ooi about teaching in China, but in this blog post we are now looking at teaching in South Korea. Jackie Bolen has taught English in South Korea and she is offering 10 top tips for surviving as a teacher in this country. She offers advice with regards to understanding the culture more and also provides some invaluable insights to living and working in this wonderful country. So, if you are considering teaching in South Korea, look no further and read more about it here.

The Top 10 Tips for Teaching in South Korea by Jackie Bolen

#1: Korea is a Shame-Based Culture-Keep this in Mind When Teaching

Koreans will feel shame for many things: appearing smarter than others (or less smart), appearing less well-dressed, not doing homework when everyone else did, doing homework when everyone else didn’t, having weak second language skills, etc. The list goes on. You always have to keep this in the back of your mind when teaching in South Korea. Here’s a tip to get you started off on the right foot in the classroom.

Never put students on the spot

Always give students a chance to practice something with a partner or small group before you pick an individual student to answer. I’ll usually give that small group a “heads up” if I’m planning on choosing them to answer the question in front of the whole class. They’re usually happy to, as long as they have a chance to figure out the answer beforehand.


#2: Think Carefully about How you Discipline Students

In most cases, if you need to discipline someone, do it outside the classroom 1-1. Students in Korea seem to respond far better to this than calling them out in front of the class. I think when it’s 1-1, they see you as a real person with feelings, instead of a teaching robot.

The other positive is that there doesn’t have to be a winner or loser. Both you and the student can get on the same page and be winners together. In front of the class, it can get pretty confrontational and shame plays a big part in the whole thing.

#3: Cheating is Not a Serious Thing

Cheating (cunning as they say in Konglish) is not such a serious offense in Korea as it is in the Western World. Most students think nothing of plagiarizing something off the Internet for a written assignment, copying off their friend in the few minutes before class starts, or bringing a cheat paper to the test. Heck, I’ve even had students try to cheat during 1-1 speaking tests with me!

So give assignments and tests that minimize this and you won’t have to deal with it. I do exclusively speaking tests, with groups of 2-4 students in my office. There is no possible way for them to cheat (without me noticing!) and I simply don’t assign the “workbook” as homework. If I have a writing class, the bulk of the students’ grades are made up of things they have to write during class time, from a list of random topics which I’ll assign on the day.


#4: Get a Hobby, or Something

This one is actually a tip for teachers in any country! Your teaching impact does not equal your self-worth. You’ll have some terrible classes with terrible students. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, or a bad teacher. Get some hobbies and friends and learn to leave your teaching behind you at the end of the day. It’ll make for a far more positive experience in South Korea.


#5: Give your Class a Grade after Activities

It can be challenging to teach monolingual classes. The challenging thing is getting students to speak English, when it’s super easy for them to just speak Korean! This is almost always what you’ll be dealing with in Korea, where everyone speaks Korean as their first language and one person (you!) speaks English. One thing that has helped me over the years is this simple tip.

I “rank” classes in group activities such as a survey. It’s surprisingly effective, at least in Korea and it can help turn a bad class around if used consistently. I will write an arrow on the board:

  • terrible———-> good———-> excellent

At the end of the activity, I will rank the class according to how they did. If excellent, I will say things like:

I loved how you all spoke together 1-1. You all wrote your partner’s answers in English. I heard almost all of you speaking in English. Pat yourself on the back! Awesome!

If not excellent, I will give suggestions for how to improve. Something like: I heard many students just speaking Korean…that’s a waste of time, we are here to improve our English. Remember: 98% English please! Next time let’s get good instead of terrible! Can you do it?


#6: Get out There!

It’s pretty easy to just stay in your city and go to the movies, Starbucks, or the expat bar with your friends. I get that. Those things feel familiar when you’re new to Korea and experiencing culture shock. But those are not the awesome things about Korea.

Get outside and explore! See one of the beautiful temples nestled away in the mountains. Go hiking-Korea is a paradise and there are trails basically everywhere. Check out the beaches-my favourites are the ones up in Gangwon-Do by the DMZ. Take a road trip. Go to the Boseong Tea fields. See some dinosaur footprints. Check out Busan-it’s my favourite big city in the world. Rent a bicycle and ride around Jeju Island.

Although it is a bit of effort to get out there and do things, it’s always worth it. Seriously. I’ve never regretted getting out of the city, away from the concrete jungle. Korea is a beautiful country with lots of peaceful spots out in the mountains, fishing villages and countryside.


#7: Drink Less than Other People

People in Korea, locals and expats alike love to hit the alcohol hard. But, nothing good comes from getting wasted 3, 4, or 5 nights a week. Sure, it’s fun but you’ll get to the end of your year or two and realize that you actually have nothing except fuzzy memories of soju shots and hangovers.

Do something awesome with your time. Study something. Take up a new hobby. Join a book club. Learn some board games. Exercise. Start an online course. Build a website. Write a book.

Whatever it is, just do it. Drinking is most certainly a waste of time, but I’m not being all Judgey McJudgerton here. I like drinking too and I’ll usually end up having a few beers or a few glasses of wine on the weekend. It’s just life here. However, I don’t do it all the time and I usually leave before getting totally wasted so that I can do something that I really love the next day instead of nursing a hangover. My favourite hobby is waking up really early on Saturday morning and going for a long hike while listening to some podcasts. Getting wasted on isn’t exactly conducive to this.


#8: Learn a Bit of Korean

I’m not talking about putting in the time and effort to become fluent. Korean is not exactly a useful language once you leave Korea so it’s kind of a waste of time unless you happen to be married to Korean.

What I am talking about is learning how to read, and knowing a few basic things to get yourself around town in style. It’s pretty easy to get a basic grasp of survival Korean so put in the effort. A the very, very minimum, learn how to read. Even this will open up lots of doors when traveling, or eating out in restaurants.


#9: Make your Home a Real Home

When I first got to Korea, I was all about frugal living in order to pay off my student loans. I went way further than I should have and didn’t buy anything. I should have spent the 50 bucks to get that used bicycle. Or, the bit of money to get a cell-phone. Or, taken a taxi home instead of always leaving early to take the bus. Or, an oven so I could have cooked more of what I wanted to.

What I’m saying is this: Make your home in South Korea a real home. It’ll go a long way towards making your life in South Korea awesome and you’ll have a much happier year, or few. Set yourself a budget of say $300 once you get your first paycheck and go out and buy some stuff that’ll make your time here happy. It’s a year, or two of your life, after all!


#10: Remember, it’s all About Relationships

A key difference between the Western world and Korea is the value placed on things like contracts. In Canada, Europe, or the USA, a signed and sealed contract is the gold standard. If you break it, there are consequences. If there are changes to it, both parties must agree.

While you will sign a contract with your employer before you start teaching in Korea (it’s a requirement for immigration), it’s not actually so important. Your school may, or may not actually follow it. The most important thing is your relationship with your boss. If they like you, they probably won’t rip you off. And they’ll also go out of their way to make sure you have a fantastic year. So do whatever you can to maintain a good relationship with your boss. Do an extra thing or two at work. Be helpful and kind. Say hello every morning. Be good to the students. Smile. Bring in some snacks. Little things go a long way!


About the Author

Jackie Bolen (www.jackiebolen.com) lived in South Korea for 10 years, teaching in hagwons and universities. She now resides in Canada, but fondly remembers her time there and misses Korean food terribly. You can read more about her experiences at her blog, My Life! Teaching in a Korean University (www.teachinginkoreanuniversity.com). Jackie has also self-authored many books and they are available to purchase via Amazon below.

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1 Comment

  1. Barbs

    I have been teaching in Korea for a year and this is still very helpful. I read it every so often, and it reminds me of things I must remember and work on in classes and in life.

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