Top 5 Tips for Public School Teachers in Korea

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Teaching in public schools in Korea

Co-Teaching in Korean Public Schools

I recently attended the Kotesol International Conference 2015 and went to a presentation by Annie Im about Co-Teaching between Korean English teachers and Native English speaking teachers from places like Canada or the USA in Korean public schools.

I’ve never taught in a public school in Korea, but I’ve had plenty of friends who have and the stories they tell make me curious about what it’s like on the inside. From what I hear, there is often a lot of conflict between the Korean teacher and the foreign teacher, so I wanted to find out what that’s all about and how people could avoid it.

Anyway, here are my top 5 tips for public school teachers in Korea, based partly on her presentation, and partly on my own thoughts.

You are Coming into an Existing Environment

The school is already functioning very well without you, so when you go into a public school you need to be respectful of this. You will not be able to change the school culture within your first few months there. Instead, try to fit in, observe and find spots where you actually can make a difference. Focus on that.  The foreign teachers I know who went in with the attitude that they knew everything there was to know about teaching English didn’t do well and often crashed and burned.

Be Proactive

Ask for the school calendar so you can find out important days and holidays for yourself. It’s on the school’s website and yes, it’s only in Korean. Yes, this means you should learn basic Korean and figure this stuff out instead of bugging your co-teacher all the time. The more things you can figure out for yourself, the less annoyed your co-teacher will be! They might even have some energy and time to help you out with the really big stuff if they’re not helping you with the small things.

Public School Teachers in Korea: You’re at the Bottom

You are quite literally at the bottom of the pecking order. And your co-teacher who is looking after you is probably the second lowest. You got dumped on them because nobody else wanted you. Your co-teacher likely has no power to do things like get you out of desk-warming days or give you permission to go to the bank during school hours. Don’t hassle them about this.

What’s Teaching in a Korean Middle School Like?

Nothing is Free at your Public School

The cookies and snacks and pizza you’re always eating probably aren’t free. The other teachers are paying for it. The school trips you’re going on aren’t free. There is a fund that pays for it. The markers you’re using maybe aren’t free either. You need to ask about this stuff and again, be proactive.

Ask your co-teacher about it and find out how you can contribute your share. Never, ever demand things such as school supplies, but instead politely ask about how you could acquire them and whether or not there is a budget for it.

Reciprocate and Be Thankful

Your co-teacher isn’t getting paid extra to look after you. They’re just doing it because someone forced it on them. Every nice gesture they make towards you is simply because they are kind and not because they have to do it. Always remember this and be sure to reciprocate with even a small gesture.

Help them with designing the classroom, cutting out stuff, take them out for lunch, grading multiple choice tests, photocopying, making a PPT, crowd-control during their class, etc. etc. The list of stuff you can do is endless. Be proactive and find ways you can make your co-teacher’s life easier. They’ll appreciate the gesture, if not the actual help.

Public school teachers in Korea: I think you’d probably do well if you followed these tips!

Public School Teachers in Korea: What Do You Think?

Any tips for doing well when teaching in a Korean public school? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!

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  1. Concerned Teacher In Korea

    I’m sorry Jackie, but this article really rubs me the wrong way. While I agree with your initial tip about acknowledging NETs are coming into an established, functioning academic environment and a different culture, the other points were really a miss for me.

    I do strongly believe NETs should learn basic Korean and try to be as autonomous as possible, but painting us as obnoxious children whining to our CTs about trivial things is an image I find rather offensive. While I do try to operate as independently as possible and only ask my CTs after I’ve explored all of my opinions, I don’t think we should be shamed and chastised for needing help with basic things we’re unable to yet do on our own. It’s really frustrating for us too. In fact, I can promise you it’s far more frustrating for an NET to be in a foreign country where they don’t speak much of the language (and are finding struggles with something as simple as feeding themselves in a restaurant because they can’t read the menu) than it is for the Korean teacher to quickly lend a helping hand. I appreciate that Korean teachers are busy too and we should do what we can to help them out, but belittling how challenging it can be as a foreigner in a new country doesn’t make that transition any easier. I don’t find this advice to be either positive or productive.

    I also disagree with shaming us further by saying we’re at the “bottom of the totem pole”. Maybe this hasn’t been your experience, which would be unfortunate and I hope isn’t the case, but I’m actually respected by my Korean CTs. I am treated as a professional because I conduct myself like one. I look to them for advice and ways I can improve my teaching with them, and they in turn look to me as well. While in one instance I’ve had the “lowest” CT assigned to help me, it was also because she was the second best English speaker in the school. The best English speaker was already managing nearly everything else at my school, and excluding this second CT, no one else spoke English. At my other schools, my CTs have all in fact been heads of the English departments or, again, the best English speakers available at the school. I’ve developed great relationships with my CTs and they’ve been happy to go to bat for me on those rare occasions where I really needed it. I’m always there to lend them a hand where I can too; it isn’t a one-way street. Again, to paint the NET/CT relationship as some massive burden on the Korean CTs not only makes new NETs feel completely unwelcome, but further perpetuates the negative stereotype that NETs in this country are merely puppets and entertainers instead of “actual teachers”. As someone who is disgusted by this stereotype and always happy to work hard to prove it wrong, I find that latter bit particularly offensive.

    Furthermore, I think it’s fairly safe to assume we’re all adults here and are aware of the fact that things in life aren’t “free”. Again, we are not children so I’m not sure why this article seems to assume we will behave as such. I’ve always offered to pay (sometimes even insisted and won out) and offered to chip in. This is because my parents raised me to have manners and I can function independently in society, not because I’ve been taught great life lessons by higher Korean culture and was uncivilized before coming here. Whether it’s Korea or a western country or somewhere else entirely, we should all be acting this way. It has nothing to do with Korea and Korean culture, and suggesting otherwise is a slap in the face, implying this is the first time westerners have encountered the concept of being a responsible, considerate adult.

    I also take offense at the implication that our CTs essentially resent us and view us as a burden. I know for a fact that (at least some) Korean CTs in fact ARE paid additionally for the responsibility of managing the paperwork and duties associated with an NET, so even if they “didn’t want to help us” (because we’re terrible and awful waygookins, and how dare we want to set up a cell phone one time so we can keep in contact with them, or need help translating at a hospital on the rare occasion we get ill and are scared and can’t communicate, right?), saying that we’re some forced obligation with zero compensation is inaccurate. I have one “main” CT, but I’ve developed many great relationships and good friendships among my coworkers–and at my current school, I’ve only been there for two months! It doesn’t take long. As a result, I have multiple people I can ask for help if I do find I need it, not just one poor sap. This point is also quite insulting to Koreans, as it paints them as heartless and nasty people with no understanding or grasp of the world outside of Korea. My CTs are very kind, caring, and understanding people who have in fact offered me help many times before I even ask. I’ve even been offered help when I didn’t even need it simply because they were looking out for me. They’ve given me an incredibly warm welcome, and to see them and other Koreans widely generalized as otherwise is both disheartening and personally angering.

    I appreciate that you’ve been living in Korea for a decade and have had a wide range of experiences here, but I find this article to be all-around negative and a very poor introduction to what teaching is for potential NETs. I understand and fully agree that the pretentious foreigners expecting to come here and “revolutionize” the Korean education system should stay at home, but this article reads as a total beat-down on those coming in with an open mind and hopeful heart as well. There are better, more positive ways to write the same points that you were attempting to get at without putting all the blame and shame on NETs, and making the Korean teachers out to be ungrateful, exclusionary and closed-minded. You could potentially argue that I took your article too personally, but I have multiple other foreign friends here who have had very similar experiences and enjoyed their time in Korean because they’ve come in with a mindset and attitude similar to mine. While my particular examples are anecdotal, the overarching points I’m making are not.

  2. To the concerned NET above.

    I understand how the article itself can be offensive as it generalises NETs as a nagging kid who just can’t adjust to a new environment. I also disagree with that because I have seen many NETs who are actually passionate about their job and proactive. But you must understand that many of them are just there to spend some time in Asia and make some easy money.

    First of all, you must understand that Korea is not a foreigner friendly nation. It has changed a lot recently but it has been like that for past several millennia and it can and will take several centuries for them to be fully opened. When they see foreigners, they will be excited and fascinated by someone different but they all have uncertainty in their mind. You may argue with that but really think about it.

    And yes, you are at “the bottom of the totem pole”. In Korea, you must have a degree from a college of education and pass a certain praxis test in order to be a teacher. So they have their own community going on. Of course they respect you and they appreciate what you are doing if you are professional enough but they never consider you as one of them. And guess how CTs are hired, they are the ones that couldn’t ass the praxis for several years so the school just hires the ones that speaks good English to teach English and take care of you. So yes, technically, the teachers that are “officially” hired don’t consider CTs as one of them either. This can also be seen from the paycheque. An average NET gets paid about 2M. An average CT gets paid 2.2M. An average “teacher” gets paid 3.7M+

    Well. I’m not implying that all NETs are just bludgers but you must admit that people like to see bad things first. Thats why they cut all the budget for NETs in Seoul and other big cities are trying to cut the budget too. I have met several talented NETs who are enthusiastic about ESL education and I really do appreciate what they do. But you have to remember that this article is a suppose to be a “tip”. I understand how it contains negative contexts but don’t get too offended and just try to get the tips that you needed.

  3. Hi~
    I’m Annie Im. =)

    Most of the points mentioned above were not meant to be condescending towards the NSET nor paint the Korean teacher in a negative light at all. The points were derived actually from my good experiences. I’ve had both good & bad and as I reflected back on the good experiences I tried to formulate my points around what I personally did and what I felt during my experiences. I had explained during my presentation that I had been unthankful & demanding when I first came to Korea and it wasn’t until I had a great co-teaching relationship that I realized, ok these are the things I did differently.

    Also, the bottom of the totem pole thing was meant to show the hierarchy in a public school system with the principle, VP, head teachers, dept teachers, office ladies, the NSET. How all information has to be either be passed up or down through these channels and in my experience sometimes my requests were either embarrassing or difficult for my co-teacher to have to bring up to the principle who is regarded with much respect in the public school system.

    My Korean teachers and I are still friends and we still keep in contact. I had several great co-teachers and one that I got very close to shared with me these burdens she felt. We had a mutual understanding and that’s why I suggested reciprocating (but it your own way to your own capacity).

    I definitely agree there are those that already know all this stuff and have had a similar great experience in Korea. It makes me happy to know that~ I guess I just hoped my experiences + suggestions would help those who might wonder how can I make this a little bit better (if they were in a bad situation). I also had a teacher feedback form + example of lesson plans as I felt like one of the reasons why my good experiences were from the fact that I always had a lesson plan.

    Hope this clarifies any misunderstandings with my suggestions. They weren’t meant to be negative at all. =)

  4. Jeri

    I am a public school teacher and I have to pay for those “snacks” that are “free”. I pay 30,000won per month for my group of teachers to have snacks in our office. I pay 50,000won a month for the school trip and special occasion fund. Remember that every school has different expectations would be a better point. Some expect money, other don’t, but they all expect respect.

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