Interview with a Korean: Sunny Park on coteaching
In this week’s post, I interviewed Bak Hyeonseon, or as she prefers to be called, Sunny Park. An elementary school teacher and Korean native, Sunny is here to give us a Korean perspective on coteaching and the NSET-coteacher relationship.
Anthony taught with Sunny for six months and thinks she’s just swell. When not editing his blather to seem articulate, Anthony enjoys reading the wikitravel pages for places he hasn’t been to… yet.
Sunny is an elementary school teacher in Seoul. When she’s not helping hapless foreigners, Sunny likes reading and spending time with her family.
[note title=”Other Resources” align=”center”]For more general information on teaching in public school check out our guide, “4 Things to Understand about Public School“.
For some good advice on coteaching and the NSET-coteacher relationship, check out these links:
Anthony: Sunny, thanks for speaking with me today. To get started, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?
Sunny: My name is Sunny Park, and I’m 38 years old. I was born in Korea and grew up here, but I also spent 6 years living in Canada. I have about five year experience teaching – in Korea only – for four years of which I taught English; and for the last year I have had the experience of coteaching with native English teachers.
Let’s talk about being a teacher in Korea: How did you become an Elementary school teacher?
To be frank with you I was born into a poor family; I had many brothers and sisters and my family was not wealthy enough to educate all their children at an expensive university. Their financial burden was great, and since I was the youngest child I had to pay for my own education.
When I graduated from high school I had very little money and so there were very few options. In Korea it is very hard to get into an education program, but my marks were very good. Education students are very competitive and it’s hard to get a place among them, but the universities themselves are quite cheap.
So you’re saying it’s hard academically to get into an education program, but it’s not very expensive to go to those universities.
Right. All the national universities (which offer education) are run by the government, so there are many scholarships and grants available. It is also heavily subsidized.
Do you think yours is a very common story? Do you think many teachers might have come from a similar background?
[blockquote align=”right”][Teaching] is no longer considered as prestigious a job[/blockquote]Many decades, maybe 30 years, ago it was quite common among poorer families in Korea to want to go to a national university or a teacher’s university, but it is changing now – it is no longer considered as prestigious a job, and other university programs are becoming better and better. Nowadays people want to get a job at a big company rather than with the government.
So what is it like being an elementary school teacher in Korea?
At first it was not that hard, you know. I had enough time to get used to the job and find out what to do. There is also less pressure on a new teacher to take on more responsibility – to become a supervisor or run programs – than there is on a middle-aged teacher, so it was easy.
Now it is more difficult because the parents are more demanding and the administration wants more from us teachers. It’s very different from twenty years ago.
So, right now you are teaching English to a regular class – you are a specialty English teacher – and then you are also coteaching with a Native-Speaking English Teacher (NSET). How did you get that position as a coteacher?
I am working in Seoul, where education is taken very seriously, and it is quite stressful. I trained as a Science teacher, but in Elementary school you are supposed to be able to teach any subject, and the school needed English teachers. No one wanted to do it, so they were going to pull names out of a hat – but then I volunteered. That’s how I became a coteacher.
[blockquote align=”center”]No one wanted to do it (be a coteacher), so they were going to pull names out of a hat – but then I volunteered. That’s how I became a coteacher.[/blockquote]
Wow, that’s quite surprising. I think a lot of foreign teachers probably assume their coteachers are assigned the position for their English skills, but it seems not. What does your coteaching job entail? What are your coteaching responsibilities, both in and out of the classroom?
I teach grade 6, but in Korea students learn English from grade 3 onward, and their ability levels can vary greatly. When teachers come from other countries at first they aren’t familiar with the English levels of their students, or the local English curriculum. In the classroom I make sure the lesson is at an appropriate level and takes into account what they’ve learned in earlier grades. I can also tell more easily than the native teacher when students aren’t understanding the lesson.
Obviously I also help to conduct the lesson.
Outside of the classroom I plan the lessons with the coteacher, but I also help them with anything else they need like making phone calls or arranging for deliveries or anything like that. I also help them communicate with the principal or vice-principal and the administration office.
So what do you think is the most difficult part of being a coteacher?
Working together in the same classroom is very hard. When I started working with my current coteacher we spent hours working on the lesson plan and dividing up what I would do and what she would do, and it was very difficult to decide on who would do what things and for how long.
[blockquote align=”left”]it made me very embarassed.[/blockquote] I know her now, and we understand each other better, but at first it was very difficult – sometimes in the lesson she would speak very fast and I would ask her to repeat what she said because I didn’t understand it, but she would just say, “oh, forget about it, let’s move on to the next part” and it made me very embarrassed.
That a Korean is working with a foreigner is not the point – any teachers working together in the same classroom will have a lot of difficulty unless they can work together well as a team.
Alright, so what advice would you give to foreigners coming to Korea with regards to dealing with their coteachers.
Maybe expect the Korean coteachers not to be native English speakers. Also to understand that the coteacher will often be nervous to speak English or be embarrassed in front of them. So I would advise new English teachers to speak slowly and clearly so that your partner can understand and you can work well together.
OK, that’s very good advice. Alright, that’s the boring stuff done, how about some other topics? Under travel: have you traveled around the world very much?
Not that much, but I did spend two months in India.
Oh wow, what brought you to India?
Well, I had a hard time in college, working very hard but with little money, so after I graduated and I had a job I wanted to travel. So the first chance I got I went to India.
This was around 2000, and it was quite a culture shock for me: Everything moves very fast, and nobody knows who you are or where you’re from – it was totally different from Korea, and I really liked it.
OK, so within Korea, what would be your best weekend trip?
If you’re in Gyeonggi province or Seoul, then Gangwon province is just 2 or 3 hours east on the bus. There are loads of beautiful mountains and beautiful beaches there.
What would be the best beach in Gangwon province?
Either Sokcho or Gangneung, they’re both really good. You can easily get accommodation in the town without any need to book ahead.
OK, nearly finished. Quick Questions: What is your favorite western food?
I like bread, especially wholewheat bread like you can get in the west. It’s really hard to find good bread in Korea.
Oh yeah, I could eat nothing but bread and I’d be perfectly happy. And your favorite Korean food?
I really love noodles so ramyeon is great, but it’s really not healthy – there’s too much salt. I also love kalguksu, the cut noodles with clams – but if I eat a whole bowl in one sitting it gives me indigestion…
Haha, yeah I’m sure it does. OK, when you fly to Canada, what is the one Korean thing you have to have in your bag?
It might sound weird but gochugaru – red pepper powder. You can get it in Canada but the flavor is different. They make it in my hometown, and there are no chemicals or extra flavors, and that’s what my mother made kimchi with. I can’t make kimchi without it.
Sunny, thank you very much for your time, those are all the questions I have! You’ve been great.
What has your coteaching experience been like? Fun? Friendly? Disastrous? Tell us about it below, or feel free to ask us a question about coteaching, or just teaching in Korea in general.