It’s strange to think it’s been four years already. Looking back to when I started, I was a greenhorn! When I arrived to teach for Avalon, I thought the school would be similar to US schools… I was wrong. I had little knowledge of how the South Korean education system, both public and private schools worked. I knew South Korea had a reputation of being very test-heavy as far as the goal of their education system. Students – especially middle and high school students – here seem to study constantly, trying to gain the highest score on whatever test, class or assignment they have. The kids here are sweet, but very bookish and a bit naïve about places, people, events and other things outside of Korea.
I came wanting to change things, but what can I actually do? This is a very traditional educational system, one where the teachers would lecture and the students would just listen. I had come from a system where teachers would engage the students in discussions about various topics related to the class, working to expand the students’ overall knowledge base. If I asked my students about some major global event or world leader, I would often be met with blank stares. As a newbie, I would get frustrated a lot during my first few months. Well, needless to say…
I’ve learnt a few things along the way
The first thing I learnt, was that change doesn’t happen overnight. I would try to teach my kids little bits of information about other countries and world events. I hoped to inspire my students and drive their curiosity about places outside of South Korea. I have been asked numerous times by students, both new and old, where I’m from or if I have a girlfriend. I’ve given the same answers to my students as many times as they have asked, and would be annoyed every time they’ve asked. It seemed like they had a form of short-term memory loss. Later on, I realized that they’re kids and forget stuff easily.
Behavioral problems will always exist. I had students would drive me up the wall with their behavior, and would take said students into the director’s office. I had hoped he would call their parents or give them detention; instead he would give them a short pep talk about getting along and whatnot, but it didn’t really change anything. I would try different techniques such as extra homework, making the student leave the classroom, or talking to the Korean teacher. The third option would usually work, but some students will always be a handful (even for the Korean teachers). I learnt that punitive techniques sometimes work, but positive encouragement and genuine care go further.
You won’t be able to reach every student. I’m sure like myself, nearly every teacher hopes that every student will learn and understand the material they’ve been taught. And that every student will be in some way thankful for it, well tell you right now it’s a lofty ideal but not realistic. In learning a second language, some students will pick it up better than others; some will always struggle and hate learning something they’re not as good at. Knowing that not every student I have taught will be proficient or even somewhat conversational in English, makes me question my ability as a teacher. Remembering that learning a second language is difficult and that some students may never learn beyond the basics, is hard to do.
Be there for your students whenever they need you. I can’t stress this enough; students have all kinds of issues facing them with school problems, personal problems, parental issues, etc. I’m not saying they students will always talk to their teacher about their problems, but if they want to, be an ear for them. There have been a few times where a few students would come into my room before or after their class and talk. Sometimes, we’d discuss serious things and other times silly things. No matter what the subject, being there for your students is important. I hope my students have been positively impacted by me in some way, even if their English skills weren’t as high as their peers.
I can’t say I’ve been the greatest ESL teacher, but I have tried to improve myself as one each year. I still try do to it. After these four years, I can seriously think about making this into a career. I feel like I have a voice in this area of teaching, and I hope to explore it more as the years progress. One chapter has closed, another one will open soon.