Navigating the Teacher – Student Relationship in Korea (Part 2)

In Part II, Amanda Segal, an expat and world traveler, continues with her thoughts and experiences of navigating the teacher – student relationship in South Korea.

Culture shock and cultural curiosities often come together. Regardless of the reaction, it’s always good to hear from someone who’s been there before. Originally from Glen Ridge, New Jersey, Amanda  is currently living in small town South Korea teaching English to high school students. While not representing the Western world, she enjoys making people laugh, going on spontaneous trips, taking long walks to new places, and going to the movies just to eat the popcorn. She blogs at:

The Arrival Store - Amanda SegalMaintaining authority in the classroom is always the hardest part. Though more experienced teachers may give different advice, so far I’ve found that the easiest way to maintain authority while still building good relationships with my students is to be strict about staying on task in class, but also ask for their feedback, their likes, and theirs dislikes. This way I can create activities that are tailored to their interests. I think most students will be far more attentive if they feel that you are actually listening to them, and not just talking at them.

On that note however, when it comes to teaching, suspend your expectations and be very patient. Lessons you thought would take 20 minutes might take up the entire class. Preparation is key, but no matter how thorough your lesson plans are you still might get stuck or finish too quickly, so plan to be flexible. I like to always have an extra game or easy activity ready in case I need to pass the time. Korean students are shy and for the most part have been taught English in a very systematic way that does not encourage much spontaneous conversation or creativity, but everyone loves a good game.

Note: If you are teaching middle or high school students, you will hit culture barriers immediately in trying to do activities that involve acting out emotions or creative work. The Korean education system is based on memorization and repetition, thus the idea of writing a creative essay or performing an action is completely foreign to them (no pun intended). I recently went to a workshop where a teacher described how confused and distraught her middle school students where when she tried to get them to play Charades. They could not understand why or how someone would act out arbitrary emotions, and were extremely embarrassed by the game.

Though you can’t reverse a lifetime of deep-set cultural values in one year, let alone one class, I find it helps to provide students examples everything that you want them to do, even if it makes you feel a little silly and makes you break out of your shell as well. Have them imitate you or someone else. For example, when trying to get my students give speeches, I first had them watch and imitate President Obama speaking. Having a model made it easier for the students to practice their speaking skills and it made a funny game for the class. And of course I started by doing the first impression! The key point: if you’re not interested in what you are doing, your students won’t be either.

Outside of the classroom you will probably find yourself in a different working environment from what you’re used to at home. As I emphasized in my last post, some of the same rules still apply: make a good first impression, be on time (early), and act professionally.  However you may see some things that wouldn’t fly at home, such as sleeping in the office. Koreans work extremely hard. You’ll find students sleeping in class and teachers snoozing at their desks (I’ve even heard of schools that have couches where teachers can go for a brief repose). I’m not saying to bring along your pillow and blanket everyday for a mid-afternoon siesta, but if you close your eyes and lean back for a few minutes every once in a while you won’t attract much attention.

Though this may vary by school, public school teachers will frequently hear the term desk warming: this means long periods of time spent at your desk with not much to do. Though it may sound wonderful, I’d suggest finding ways to occupy yourself and keep busy (like writing a blog for instance). While many public school teachers will simultaneously surf the internet, myself included, desk warming is a good time to gather teaching materials and prepare lessons. Classes often get cancelled and switched around. It’s always good to have lesson plans, or at least game ideas, tucked away for unexpected happenings.

Though it may seem cliché, if you think back to the best teachers you had growing up, it’s more than the likely that they were the always prepared, confident, and enthusiastic about their job! All of these things are also important for maintaining a good student-teacher relationship, not just in Korea, but anywhere in the world you decide to teach.