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Teaching Abroad – An American Perspective of Korean Education

International Education Series

By: Sophia Viglione

When you travel, you tend to meet other travelers: it’s arguably the best part of exploring a new place. I found this to be true when I met other Americans while teaching in Italy. After our time in Italian classrooms, one of my fellow teachers, Christine Crews, accepted a job teaching English in Seoul, Korea. A native of Toledo, Ohio, Christine moved her life to Seoul in August, 2013, where she worked for a full year. She taught English as a second language to 6-13 year-old students full-time at a private, specialty school. Almost exactly a year after Christine returned stateside from Korea, I sat down with her to ask her about her experience in Korean schools. Here’s what she said:

What was it like entering the culture of the Korean classroom initially?

CC: One difference that struck me immediately was the achievement standards. The expectation was that everyone should be able to get an A and perform perfectly. It was difficult as a teacher to help your students meet that standard.

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For instance, I had twin students for the year that I taught there. If they didn’t get the same score, it was a big deal. I had to talk to their parents because they wanted to know why their scores weren’t uniform.

The emphasis was on the scores over actual learning was difficult for me to get over. The important part was that the students appeared to be learning. It was all about the appearance, rather than their actual learning of the English language.

Can you explain more specifically how the focus was on what you called, “the appearance of learning”?

It seemed like the administration was constantly assessing, “What does it look like to the parents? Does it look like we are teaching English to the students?” For example, they won’t hire people who don’t look like Americans because they are afraid of how they look to the parents.

Also, the schools were serious about the students sitting perfectly because all of our classes were video-monitored and we never knew when parents were watching.

I would get notes while I was teaching that said things like. “This parent watched your class and thinks that this student shouldn’t sit next to this student. Or you sat down too much. Or you spent too much time at the board.

Were group work and educational games allowed even though the parents sometimes watched you teach?

Yes! We did a lot of pair work. In phonics classes with really young students, the communication was really difficult because they knew no English and I knew no Korean. I basically had to act like a clown at the front of the room in order to communicate with them successfully.”

 In this class, I would split them into two groups and have them all stand in the middle of the room and play a game where they had to compete on letter recognition. I got multiple comments from the school asking about whether or not everything was ok because they thought it seemed too chaotic for actual learning.

What is something Korean schools do better than U.S. schools?

Almost all students go to private English schools after public schools, but other than that they can specialize in whatever subject they want like mathematics, art, sign language, ballet, etc. That was kind of cool because I had students who were really into different fields. They got to cater their education much more than American students. The specialized schools are very common and they allow students to form relationships with all different types of people. The students get to branch our socially more than just in public schools.

What is something funny that happened while you were teaching in Korea?

My favorite story is from the class that I taught for the whole year. The second semester of teaching them, I had an unusually chubby, jolly, sweet, student. Even though it is unusual to be overweight in Korea, the other students never made fun of him. One day, we got all these new workbooks for a new curriculum. I was passing them out, and the [overweight] student comes running in, sits in his chair, and a carton of milk in his backpack explodes in his back pack. We all laughed together, and I helped him clean it up. A couple of weeks later, I taught a lesson on personal narratives. After the lesson, I sat at my desk to read them, and I read a narrative by this student by a student called “Splash Milk.” Via the personal narrative, I find out the milk was already two days old when it exploded. Every class from them on, we continued to laugh because I had to help him open his book because his book was stuck together by dried milk.

Did you experience culture shock in the classroom and how?

Yes, students in Korea had different concepts of what constituted cheating. They often copied off of one another and were not admonished by the Korean teachers.

 Also, I sometimes had really frustrated students who would say things like, “you should go home to your home country.” That was tough, but I got over it. In the classroom alongside my students, working with through culture shock wasn’t as big of a deal, but it was more difficult with my bosses and administration. 

Can you tell our readers something intriguing about South Korea?

I think Korea is underrated. It has such a fascinating history of being oppressed by China and Japan, and coming out on their own. And now they are really emerging in business and education. They have 100% pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Post 1950s/Korean War, they had nothing, but now they are thriving. The city is huge and modern, the food is amazing, the subway system is great, the night life is fun, and it is truly a hidden gem. Tourism hasn’t really picked up yet, but I would totally go back. You can go hiking in the mountains in the middle of the city. An hour outside the city, you can have great seafood and go the beach. In the middle of the city, a river runs through and you can go picnicking. It’s a really active city, too, which is awesome. There are ancient palaces amidst skyscrapers. The architecture is so interesting because it is so obviously Asian, but also mixed with the Western world. It’s definitely up-and-coming. There is always something to do and discover. Also, the Koreans are so curious about the outside-world because they have been so isolated in the past. They were called the “hermit kingdom” for so long, and they are really interested in breaking out of that isolation.

Would you do it again? 

Absolutely! I don’t have to hesitate about that answer. I absolutely recommend teaching abroad or studying abroad. I can’t stop saying good things about Korea and how that year affected my life. There is no experience I can compare to arriving in a location where you are the ONLY person in an entire place that is Western. It’s so disconcerting to so starkly be a minority, but it makes you grow. For example, our concept that staring is being rude is very American. I’ve never been stared at more than during my time in Korea, but that helped me to care less about other peoples’ opinions. Overall, I have to say that my time in Korea had ups and downs for sure, but was overall a year of laughs.