Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Korean elementary schools: English teaching life advice and info

When I started teaching elementary English in Korea ten months ago through GEPIK, I really had no idea what to expect. I went in knowing close to nothing about the work environment, and feel that the knowledge I've gained since then would be helpful to others making the move to teach here.

So in no particular order:

Experience varies by school/co-teacher

First, I'd like to point out that your teaching experience will depend on your school and co-teachers. I was constantly surprised at how different my experiences were compared to my friends' who were also teaching in Gyeonggi-do through GEPIK. During the fall, some were bored teaching only 20 classes a week, while I often felt overwhelmed, taking work home in the evenings because my 26 classes came out to 9 different lesson plans each week. My co-teacher wanted quality games and activities for each one; she didn't like using the book's CD-ROM.

Some friends taught in a beautiful "English Zone", with so many materials and technology available (like a laminator and color printer!). I was in a plain classroom with chalkboard and a TV hooked up to the computer. We had glue sticks, scissors, crayons, and markers.

I was warned before coming to Korea that I would have to sing in front of my coworkers at a school dinner. Pick a song and learn the lyrics, because when you go out to dinner everybody will get drunk and they'll make you sing.  Well, there never was a welcome dinner for me.  In March (my seventh month here), we had a welcome dinner for the new teachers this school year, and singing was not even mentioned. So basically, you'll just have to find out what your school/workload/co-teachers will be like once you get here.

Frequent schedule changes

Your weekly class schedule will change all the time. You'll prepare for a class, get everything set up, and then the bell will ring and no students will be there. Sometimes your co-teacher will tell you ahead of time, but usually you won't find out until the day-of (more likely at the time of the class). In my elementary school the kids had "special events" all of the time. School violence prevention, science day, special reading activities. Half the time my co-teachers didn't even know what the event was, just that the English schedule would change. Just know that this will happen, and realize that it's often last-minute notice for the Korean teachers as well. Nobody's out to get you! Besides, it usually means a cancelled class and more prep time!

New school year means new teachers

I knew that the Korean school year began in March and ended in February, but I had no idea that there were new teaching assignments each year. Korean teachers will only work in the same school for about 2-5 years. Due to the turnover each year, teaching assignments change. However, they aren't decided until mid-late February, giving teachers only a week or so to move their entire classroom and prepare for the next school year. 

One of my co-teachers from the fall was assigned to teach music during the next school year, so my English co-teachers changed. This gave the new school year a completely different feel. It would have been nice to know ahead of time that this was a possible scenario. If you aren't a fan of your co-teachers when you begin in the fall, know that it could change come spring. Likewise, if you have the greatest co-teacher ever, appreciate him or her while you can because it could end come March.

The schedule is also likely to change when the new school year starts. I had an after school 5/6 class that met for an hour and a half each time. There was no curriculum, so classes took me a long time to prepare. I decided to use my "deskwarming" time during spring break planning for the spring semester. And then the new school year started and I found out that program was run by a grant, and my school didn't receive the grant this year. No 5/6 after school class. Whoops, time not well-spent. But now you know, right?

Cold in Winter

As a Wisconsinite, I didn't pay any attention when my co-teachers told me it would be cold in the winter. Psh, I've lived through enough Wisconsin winters; this can't possibly top that. But the thing I didn't realize is that when I'm inside a public building during the winter in Wisconsin, it's heated. But inside Korean schools in the winter? Nope. There's not enough budget to turn on heat to a comfortable temperature.

We started using small space heaters back by our offices in November. I'd never remembered my hands being so cold before! Cold to the touch, always, they were now. I wore leggings every day to school under my pants, left my winter coat on all day (as students and teachers will do), and wore arm warmers/glove types of things. And don't get me started on when teachers open the windows. Yes, it's really cold out, everyone is cold, yet for whatever reason teachers often open the windows during the winter for "fresh air" or something. Unnecessary, in my opinion, but open windows in the winter seemed to be a common phenomenon among my Korea teacher friends.

Then one day we had an Open Class with parents, and all of a sudden heat was blasting out of vents in the ceiling. Oh my gosh, they have heat?! I was so surprised. And we're using it to look good when parents come?  A few days or a week later, we started being allowed to turn on that same heat for a few hours in the morning, and then it would be off for the rest of the day. It was controlled by the front office downstairs. So again, just know that this will likely happen! You'll survive, and you'll gain a greater appreciation for indoor heating as a result.

No toilet paper in bathrooms

This one might be unique to my particular rural school, as none of my other teacher friends in Korea have experienced this. However, in my school there isn't toilet paper in the bathrooms. They do have the single dispenser up on the wall outside of the stalls, but it's always empty - never filled. So I bring in toilet paper from home and leave it near my desk, ripping off sheets every time I walk down to the bathroom. It's just a small inconvenience that I've since adapted to, but different from all of my previous work environments.

TVs in Korean classrooms

All classrooms I've seen here have a TV that's hooked up to the classroom computer, and they're heavily used. The two most common uses in our English room were PowerPoint presentations and the textbook's CD-ROM.

O = Yes, X = No

During a third grade class on my first week in Korea, my co-teacher handed me a red marker and had me go around and check the students' writing activity they'd just completed. I wasn't sure what exactly she wanted me to look for or how picky to be with handwriting. I saw a spelling mistake on one, so naturally I circled the word. Rookie mistake.

I quickly learned that in Korea, circles are good. O's are Korea's green light, their gold star. If you do a writing section correct, your teacher will draw a huge circle right over the question, the line often cutting words down the middle. And boy do those students crave circles.

If something is wrong, the teacher might put a small check mark or X near the mistake for the student to fix. And I was so used to check marks being good things! 

But I soon adjusted to Korea's X/O culture. For many book activities as well, students will be instructed to make an O with their hands if the statement is correct, or make an X if it's incorrect. X's and O's.

New writing lines

When I learned handwriting in elementary school, we usually had writing guides that looked like this:

Two solid lines with a dotted line in the middle. So in the fall during a third grade class, my co-teacher had drawn the lines on the chalkboard and asked me to write the answer as we went through each word with the class. I began to write "pink" on the first line:

Imagine my surprise when she stopped me and said "Oh, no," and immediately grabbed the eraser. "Write on this line," she said, while pointing to the dotted line. Huh?

It felt so wrong, but I wrote:

And that was my introduction to the writing lines that Koreans use with English. They use four lines instead of three, so that letters like "g" and "j" have a guide for how low to make them. Here's an English notebook from a student so you can get a feel for the four lines:

Oftentimes that pink line is dotted, the four lines looking like this:

Jessica Teacher

The kids will call you "First name Teacher", for example: "Jessica Teacher" was my predecessor. It wasn't as surprising because when I taught in Spain, the students also call you by your first name, or they just shout "Teacher" (and they do the same in Spanish, "profe!"). But I had the students here in Korea call me by my last name, "Ms. ~".  If anything, it's a cultural lesson because you never address a U.S. teacher by their first name, nor "teacher".

School Messenger

Rather than email, your school will use a messenger system - back to the good 'ol days of AIM. From the contacts menu, you can see if teachers are at their computer or out of the office, which is helpful if I was going down the hall to talk to my co-teacher, or to the principal and vice principal's offices for attendance sheet signatures.  Expect to get many messages every day (sent to all teachers), accompanied by a loud sound to notify you of incoming messages.

Some advice: Don't just ignore all of the messages just because they're in Korean. Take five seconds to copy and paste the message into Google Translate. The translation will never make a lot of sense, but you'll get the gist of the content of the message, which helps when your only source of information is your co-teacher. My first co-teacher was really good about telling me things, like schedule changes and school events, but not all co-teachers are made equal.


My first week, while messaging one of my co-teachers, she wrote back " ^^ " to me as a message. And later another. What did this mean? Was it just to notify me that she'd read my message?  What the heck is ^^?! Later I learned that ^^ is a happy face, like :), so it only means good things. Expect to see this and use it and love it.

Use Google Drive

The programs on your work computer will probably all be in Korean. Navigating around Word/PowerPoint is much more challenging when all of the pull-downs and buttons are in Korean, so I did all of my school work in Google Drive. If you don't already use Drive for your personal stuff, I recommend starting now, as it'll be very useful while teaching in Korea. You can access your lesson plans and presentations from any computer, so no need to carry around a flash drive. And it's easy to use, all in English!

Also, a friend of mine lost everything when a teacher updated her computer or installed new software. Everything since day 1, erased. So if you use Google Drive, you'll never be in that terrible situation.

Don't forget to make your documents A4-sized in Google Drive, then they'll fit correctly when you print, since Korea uses A4 paper. (File --> Page Setup --> Paper Size --> A4. Then click "Set as default" if you want each document to automatically be A4 size).

Have you taught or are you teaching elementary English at a public school in Korea? What advice/info would you add to this list?
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