Tips for Newbies Teaching in Korean Universities
I’ve just finished my 8th year of teaching in universities in South Korea and when I compare my first shaky semester as a naive newbie to now, it’s almost astounding the differences in my teaching and classroom management styles. Anyway, here are my tips for newbies teaching in a Korean University. They’re the ones that I wish someone had told me when I was just starting out:
#1: Students Levels May Be Lower than you Think
Your students will likely not be high level. While they may have an impressive range of vocabulary, they’re often extremely weak in actually using it and basic grammar points will need to be reviewed, again, and again, and again.
#2: Take a Rest, My Students
University is a party-time for Korean students, between Sooneung (university entrance exam) Hell and selling their souls to Samsung or Hyundai. You should adjust your classes accordingly; if you make them too hard with too much homework, the students will be unhappy. Give a little bit or homework and a few tests so you can have some self-respect but don’t stress too much about making it like a university class is “back home.”
#3: Pay Attention to Attendance
Never trust the students to “check” the box for their own attendance. They will lie and cheat for their friends so you need to personally do it. Trust me- I’ve been down this road before.
#4: I’m Sick Teacher! What Gives?
Don’t accept Kyeol-gung-wons (absence excuse papers) for minor things like colds. Reserve it for the serious such as a car accident/brain trauma/close family member’s death.
(Even more awesome life in Korea tips: How to Thrive in South Korea: 97 Tips from Expats
#5: Just Chill Out and You’ll Be Much Happier
Korea is a Bali-Bali (fast-fast) last minute kind of culture. Lots of decisions will happen just in time with regard to classes and schedules and housing. Don’t worry about it and just go with the flow because if you stress out about it, something terrible might happen to you by the end of your year, like all your hair falling out. I guarantee it.
#6: Korean University Students and Cheating
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, or 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.
#7: Class Sizes Matter (Consider when Taking a Job)
Before accepting a job, perhaps the most important question to ask would be, “What are the class sizes?” I’m not sure I would ever take a job with very large, multi-level classes. This was the reality in my first semester and it was extremely difficult. Now, some of my classes are down to 10 students and the difference is astounding because I can actually get to know my students as individuals and see them actually improve their English skills.
Tips for Newbies #8: Simple is Better
Syllabi, tests, activities, grammar points. Everything really. Just think simple.
#9: Paperwork, Stay on Top of It
Keep on top of the paperwork. Input attendance into the computer each week. Enter grades into your spreadsheets as you get them. Have at least a couple of weeks lessons planned ahead of time when working in a Korean university teaching English.
#10 Get a Hobby!
Your teaching impact does not equal your self-worth. You’ll have some terrible classes and students that don’t hate your class. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, or a terrible teacher. Get some hobbies and friends and learn to leave your teaching behind you at the end of the day.
For some more tips on how to make your time in South Korea as awesome as possible, you really need this book: How to Thrive in South Korea: 97 Tips from Expats
Got a University Job? Here’s How to NOT Get Fired
Over my years working in Korean university, come contract renewal time, I’ve seen plenty of people bite the dust for various things. However, all these reasons can be boiled down to “professionalism,” or lack thereof. Just think about it this way: it’s basically your job to keep as long as you’re a reasonably competent person and it’s more about how NOT to lose your job.
#1: Look the Part
I have coworkers who wear jeans or cargo-shorts, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap to class. In a land where appearance is everything, this is the fastest way to not be respected by your students, or your bosses. Even if you think that your boss works on the other campus and she’ll never find out, trust me, many Koreans on campus will know who you are, even if you don’t know them.
#2: Lay Low
Don’t stir up trouble and just spend your time flying under the radar. Try to have no negative contact with your bosses. The fastest way to get fired at my uni is to start accusing the other foreigners of things, so that the Koreans have to deal with stuff they’d rather not get involved with. UNDER THE RADAR!
The other part of this is to volunteer for some extra things, especially the ones that won’t cost you too much in the way of time and effort. For example, reviewing some textbooks for the upcoming semester. It might take you an afternoon to do this.
You don’t want to fly under the radar for the positive stuff!
#3: Go to Work Social Activities
That said, you should be sure to attend any and all work social activities such as dinners. I mean, I always had a really fun time at them because who doesn’t like free food and drink, right? I sure do.
But, some people would skip them for whatever reason. The result? Our bosses didn’t really know them at all, and if cutbacks ever came around, I have a feeling that these ghosts would likely be the first ones to get the cut.
#4: NEVER Cancel Classes
The other fastest way to get fired is to cancel classes. Yes, people do check and so unless you’re actually sleeping overnight in the hospital, you should do as the Koreans do and come to class. At least put in a token 30 minutes, take attendance and then send the students on their way.
#5: Make Your Classes Awesome
Plan for your classes and make them interesting, helpful and fun. Student evaluations really do matter. Speaking of awesome classes, check out ESL Speaking Activities for Adults. Or, this book filled with interesting, engaging and student-centered ESL speaking activities: 39 No-Prep/Low-Prep ESL Speaking Activities: For Teenagers and Adults.
You can check out this short video below for more details about putting your students at the centre of the class, exactly where they should be!
Not sure how to teach? Consider taking a TEFL certificate of some kind to bone up on your knowledge!
#6: Be Careful with Social Media
Watch what you do online on sites like Facebook with regard to saying bad things about your students, university or coworkers. Yes, people really do check. And yes, people have certainly gotten fired over things they did online.
At my first university, one of my co-workers went on Facebook and started doing all kinds of crazy things like calling his students stupid and saying other disrespectful things about them. He didn’t get his contract renewed.
#7: Boundaries: Get Some!
Have appropriate boundaries with your students. You are their teacher, not their friend. Never have physical contact and even avoid being alone in your private office with a student. NEVER invite students over to your house and if you go out for dinner or coffee, be sure there is a group of at least 4 or 5 students.
Why Don’t I Ever See My Boss in a Korean University? Is this a Problem?
Okay, so you’re teaching in Korea at a university and are left entirely to your own devices as far as what to actually teach. Is this a good thing, or bad thing? It depends on you and your outlook on things, but find out all the details about this reader question here, along with tips and tricks for how to thrive in this kind of environment.
Newbies to teaching in a university in South Korea: this is the article for you!
“At my uni I’ve been completely left to my own devices and whichever curriculum I develop is completely up to me. Having no supervision or a certain textbook that I’m required to use is great in many ways but also a little unsettling in others for a newbie. Do you have any advice as to how to handle this situation?”
Some Thoughts on No Supervision at Work and Tips for Newbies
Thinking back to my own experience of this many years ago, I do indeed remember the kind of unsettling feeling. The, “Oh crap! What do I do now?” There quite literally was nobody in administration who cared what I did in my classes.
I walked into the English office at my first university job, expecting to be handed a textbook with a syllabus, as per my experience teaching at Korean hagwons.
However, this was certainly not the case at all. Quite the opposite in fact as they expected me to be the expert in all things English teacher. I pulled something together and it eventually got better and better from then on. Here are a few of the things I did at the beginning before I landed on my feet and built up a resource of teaching materials and courses outlines, etc.
Coworkers are your Best Resource
Everyone likes being the “expert” and I’m sure they won’t mind answering your questions (just like I don’t mind answering reader questions). If you don’t have a shared teacher’s office, and rarely see your coworkers, send out a group email with your questions and I’m sure you’ll at least get a few responses. Or, find (set-up) the Facebook group for English teachers at your university.
Offer to take a couple people out for lunch and pick their brains. It’s going to be your best resource by far.
I remember back to that first semester. One of my coworkers saw me floundering in the teacher’s office and gave me a copy of his syllabus for a couple of the classes we shared. It was a serious gift! Another teacher and I used to commute together and I used that time largely to pick his brain about what to do in class with regards to management, grading, etc.
Tips for Newbies: Relax and Chill Out
Administration at universities in Korea generally have low expectations. Just show up to class every week, give some tests, input attendance and final grades, come to meetings, and don’t sleep with the students. Really. It’s not so difficult to do an acceptable job.
The foreign teachers who get in trouble are the ones that cancel classes, have “interesting” relationships with the students, are hated by the department secretary or their coworkers, or who just don’t do, or are late with the paperwork.
Now, of course as a professional teacher your own expectations for yourself should be considerably higher than just scraping by, but don’t stress about curriculum and stuff. No one else is. Just do your best. Nobody actually expects that much of foreign teachers in Korean universities. Whether or not any learning actually happens sometimes seems irrelevant. As with many things in Korea, it’s all about appearances.
No Supervision at Work? Use the Internet!
Do some searches online for things like, “writing class university Korea syllabus” or “freshman English university Korea.” You’ll find that many teachers post their syllabus online and this can be a valuable resource for you. It can serve as an excellent basis for what you do, and you may even wish to copy and paste large parts of them.
Just remember this #1 tip: Simple is better. If you teach freshman English, your students will probably be lower level than you think.
Ask be sure to ask questions on the Foreign Teachers in Korean Universities Facebook Group. The people there are really nice and the admin is a cool person (it’s me!)
Have your Say about Tips for Teaching in a Korean University
Do you have any tips or tricks for teaching at a university in South Korea? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear your top tips for newbies.
Also be sure to give this article a share on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter. It’ll help other newbies, maybe like yourself find this useful resource.