What to Expect: Teaching in Korea

This was originally written for my replacement teacher. There’s so much information on what to look out for when it comes to bad hagwons, but if you’re at a good school then you should be focused on doing your job well. My school was a good school. I’ve added photos. Naturally experiences will vary, but hopefully this information will give ideas to people on what to expect when it comes to teaching and how to handle those situations once they arise.


Disclaimer: All the following images after post entitled “Trouble Students” are from their respective owners via Pinterest and Google. Please click on the images to be directed to the original source. All other images belong to me. Please link back or give credit. Thanks.


In terms of schedules, changes can be abrupt, often without notice. So, if it happens, don’t be alarmed. This will happen often, especially at peak Testing times. (There are four testing times, I believe) Students will be often in and out of your classes during their winter and summer vacations. Other times they have switched academies. 

Unless it is a Special class like 특 (Teak meaning “best”) students in lower level classes will be absent sometimes. Other teachers will tell you not to worry about keeping the students up to date. Just remain focused on teaching your classes and let your English co-teachers worry about all the other matters which will include but are not limited to attendance and discipline.  

Summer/Winter Vacation

During student summer and winter vacations, the work schedule changes. Your work hours will change from (afternoon-night) to (morning-afternoon). As a native English teacher, you are not expected to be there as late or as early as the other teachers. However I was always at least an hour early regardless of whether or not I was actually performing any work-related task. (I count reading Classic English novels as keeping my skills up though. Others may disagree) I was also there a great deal earlier because I lived further from the school and took the bus to and from the academy. If I took a later bus I ran the risk of being late and thus looking unprofessional.

Book Systems

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The current books being used are from a company called, “Beyond Advanced”. This academy was using Seoil Systems but changed to this new program. The books for the Elementary students, grades 1-6, are from this company. Those books are called, “Beyond Basic”. Each book has several units of study, usually four or five. These books are expected to last for 2 months. You will notice that this may seem like an awfully long time for the study of one book, but in terms of student speaking ability, they are (extremely) lacking when compared to their English Reading and Listening abilities.

For the students there is a great deal of memorization. You must check their comprehension. Often students, like Jacob from 4P, may seem like he has strong comprehension skills, but is actually just really good at memorizing information. So if you have extra time in your classes, either talk to the students about subjects related to class material, get to know them personally, or check their understanding.

In the end, these are only suggestions. It will be your class, your students, and regardless of what they may have learned before with me, students possess the capability to adjust to other teaching style. (If any of this sounds snotty, I apologize. It’s kind of my writing style. )

*EXTRA NOTE: The students’ parents purchase these books. Unfortunately, not all of the purchases are made at the same time, so you WILL run in the problem of having to teach classes where a few students if not a majority of them will not have the class material.  

*****This is incredibly important. Sometimes, you will not be in possession of the books that you will need to teach.  You will either have to do without or share with another teacher. This can be frustrating, but comes with the territory. You will definitely learn to adapt.

The Notebooks

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Before I used to keep track of my classes this way, but the black notebook (left) ended up having too little space to write progress notes. The evolution to 22-26 separate notebooks, separated by weekday and class ended up having too much space, especially when certain classes became merged or taken out altogether because the level, as well as student difficulty (behavior), was determined too “low”.  In one class, I had two students walk out during class. Later the class was reviewed and taken out of my schedule for the above reasons.

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One Notebook is for Elementary Classes and the other is for Middle School classes.

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Notebooks I made for my replacement so that she/he can keep track of the students. Because classes change so frequently, its best to keep track of each separate class by class name rather than by time or day.

I am leaving you with several notebooks. The Black notebook (top left)  with the multi-colored tabs is how I kept track of my classes in the beginning. Whew, that was back in the day! The smaller notebooks with the handwritten post-it tabs are how I evolved to keeping track of all my classes currently. For my middle school students I used to have a separate notebook for every class. Eventually there were too many notebooks and come examination time and after the testing period, classes, room numbers, and students would change and then the notebooks which were only really keep track of the students and what they did that particular class, were just too much. If you have a different way, that’s great! (T_T) I was terrified in the beginning, but now this new method works fine.

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The large notebook with a clear cover with a bear, elephant, and rabbit on it, is a notebook I decided to use (very late into my teaching) to keep track of student progress. It is only a general record of the students’ level of speaking (my personal opinion only) and their behavior according to the date when recorded. It’s only consists of information about Elementary students.

I found it unnecessary to record the middle school students’ progress. High level students, 3특 or 1특, don’t really need to be kept track of and for lower level students, M (2M1, 2M2) the progress is snail-like, so trying to prepare for these classes, encouraging interest in speaking English, and keeping the multitude of students in these classes under control and on task were my main concerns. I often found it difficult to find a mixture of being both strict yet friendly.

However, do not allow the students, especially the lower level ones to take advantage of you and get you off track. It’s good to answer their questions, but don’t let them take it too far, or up too much of the class time. Some have done it to me to distract me from getting them to do their class work. So, what may seem like innocent questions and curiosity can actually be calculated manipulation. This sounds terrible, but I can’t think of another term at the moment.

Trouble Students


This refers to students who are trouble (in class) but very well may be so at home. These are the students whom disrupt, interrupt, and don’t stay on task in your classes. Get their Korean names immediately. This has worked for me though may not work for you. I usually call out the student by their Korean name, not English one if they’re acting up. If the pronunciation is wrong, they throw a fit. If the pronunciation is correct, the students may try to engage you in saying all their names and teaching you random Korean. This will probably waste class time and repeat itself every class. If possible, just keep a mental note of the student and let the co-teacher in charge of the class know.

If a student is being very difficult, get another teacher immediately, before it goes on too long. (Chances are they will be guilt-tripped into being a good if not quiet student. Other times they will be hit. Not by you likely. Some teachers may encourage you to hit the students, but as you may or may not know punishment by hitting the students have been outlawed, at least in public schools. Like other Korean laws, traffic laws especially, there is a lack of reinforcement. If a student is merely being uncooperative such as keeping silent, sad to say but ignore them for the time being, especially if the other students are focused. That student is wasting his parents’ money. However, gauge whether or not a student is just being shy or uncooperative. This will become very apparent. Trust your intuition.

My inability to speak Korean prevents me learning things that I would learn about the students just by listening to their chatter with one another. It was also easy to forget that some of these students can/do have some major issues whether at home or school. Remember your own boundaries as a person and teacher. You can only do but so much.

I’m not going to count students who have a low level of participation as “trouble makers”. This is because there will be times where just getting the “clowns” to calm down and stay on task will be enough to contend with. It’s possible that it will not get easier your first year here. You will probably be the first foreigner (foreign-looking) they have ever met and thus a major source/resource of curiosity. In fact your celebrity status may not cease even outside the educational environment. Regardless of gender, there will be inappropriate questions. If you are uncomfortable, feign ignorance. Eventually students will give up asking. If you are a woman, male students will chide one another and “protect” you so to speak. This is what happened in one of my cases.

Selective Mutism

The Queens Speech: Heated Debate-Selective Mutism

One of our students has “selective mutism”. This is only my guess. I don’t actually know her condition. Other teachers know the situation. Don’t fret, she’s extremely bright, but just doesn’t speak. You will most likely have her as a student. Chances are if you do, don’t worry as she usually has the best comprehension in the class. Try not to put the spotlight on her. I think it would be difficult for her to speak to any teacher, not just a native English speaker, because of how often the teachers, especially at hagwons, change. This can be difficult to accept because you are the speaking teacher and it is your job to work with the student to improve their language skills. However, there is nothing you can do short of spending an extraordinarily long time with this student to gain their trust. This would take years which unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to do so.

Student Pronunciation

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There is a great deal of difficulty, across the board with all ages and levels, with “r” and “l” sound, also with “p” and “f” sound. These sounds get confused with one another. Drill them out of this habit. If there is another way, a more effective way, please do so. Student intonation also needs work because of the differences in language structures. The Korean sentence system is basically S + O + V. So, V comes after S, O.” This can also be flipped around in several cases unlike English where if things were flipped it would incur several rules to be used in order for it to be a grammatically correct sentence.

You’ll notice often in my notes that words like “pronunciation” among others are misspelled and my notes may seem sporadic. I explain why in my handbook about “Observations about English as a foreign language and other details“ I had a photocopy printed out just in case you were interested in this. I often just kept writing in spite of numerous misspellings because my handwriting is often small and large black blocks would distract me as I write. I’m like “Monk”, the detective, except not about spelling.

Class Merges

Occasionally for some reason there will be two classes merged into one. These students will probably come from 2 completely different grade levels, different ages, and naturally different books. You’ll be expected to manage as best as you can. This is rarely happens but when it does hopefully you won’t be surprised. 

Other Related Topics

Gender and Hostility

Your gender is definitely going to affect your stay here. As a woman, as you may already know, you will receive a great deal of curiosity from male and female students alike. Lots of questions, especially personal questions including height, weight (which is pretty taboo usually X_X). Don’t be afraid to let the students know that in U.S. or U.K that socially it’s a bit inappropriate to ask those questions lest they meet other foreigners and do so. I think most foreigners have pretty much gotten used answering these kinds of questions while living in S.K.

Depending on what you look like, especially if you’re blond, you will get heaps of attention, though much of it is not likely to be dangerous, some of it may be IMHO negative. Don’t be too friendly and don’t just give out your number. I had a friend do that and the guy called her 10 times. She blocked his number several times, but each time he called from a different number and then found her workplace. So an innocent encounter may endeavor some unsavory consequences. A man in general should be fine, unless he looks like a soldier and then with some U.S military tensions and bad stereotypes he can run into some “name-calling” or “provoking” but otherwise he should be fine. As a man, when in doubt wear a suit.

Students are going to touch you. Period. No “ifs” or “maybes”. They will touch you. Some of them will hit you regardless of being male or female, your position as a teacher and theirs as a student, and seniority. This shouldn’t happen with older students, but can happen. It’s just not as likely because by that age, they should have learned better. This will happen because of curiosity, situations will arise because you are foreign. DRAW those boundaries. I don’t think I can repeat that enough. No, do not just let it slide. I’ve adjusted to many things in Korea but “lack of personal space” was not one of them. I didn’t have as much of an issue with this because I’m Asian, at least with students. Other Koreans were another story.



Expect people to randomly want to buy you drinks and talk to you when you are just going to work. My experiences have been extremely different as I am Asian and I kind of blend in here. (T_T)  It has been both a blessing and a curse. There are just some of those days when I would have like a cold drink on a hot day too! But I digress, when I’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed, I don’t want to be stared at the live long day. You and your spouse will probably have an experience akin to being a celebrity and on some days that is just going to feel fabulous. Other days, whew, not so much.

There was a time when my friends and I were lost and we asked for directions from a mother and son. Five minutes later, she drove up in her car and offered us a ride to help us find where we supposed to be going! Another time, I asked if someone could help call a taxi for me and five church-heading ladies offered me a ride home. There are going to be people go the extra mile to help you out. Other times you might get reactions like, “I’m so over seeing foreigners. What else is new?” There are also some comparatively negative reactions because native English teachers have the bad reputation as well as hagwons for being parasitic. The government unlike the U.S. does not pay for elementary, middle, and high school education. Instead the burden of tuition falls squarely on individual families. (I may be wrong on this, so if so please tell comment)

Getting Settled In

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A couples’ apartment is about this size, maybe a little smaller.

Someone will help you set up your info at the bank account. Make sure you have your passport on you for at least the first 2-3 weeks. Often in the beginning months, one of the directors will ask to see your passport and at some points the reason will not be explained to you unless you are anything like me, and had that quizzical look on your face and then muddled explanations followed suit. This was a new school that hadn’t had a native English speaker before, so I was really hesitant to trust these things to a school that didn’t have a repertoire of former Native English employees. Lucky for you, I’ve tested the waters and everything’s been great. You do get paid on time. If for some reason you don’t, call the school’s phone number or let another teacher know and your salary should be paid immediately the day of your inquiry or at that moment. They want to keep you happy as and stress-free as possible.

Setting up an account at the bank, probably NongHyup 365, should only take about 45 minutes for two people. Expect many of your mornings to be shanghai-ed so you can be taken to the immigration center, the hospital for the medical exam, the bank, and training on the job classes. Afterwards, they’ll buy you lunch before going to work.

Dress Code (Legs, Legs, and more Legs)

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Effective as of Sept. 26.2012

       You aren’t allowed to wear jeans anymore. I think the more dressed up you are, the more impressed they will be with you. Being fashionable and stylish will give you the image that many people have of Americans from television shows. You’re selling an image, not just teaching. `

         Depending on your age a fairly casual style is alright. Because you are a native English teacher you aren’t held up to the same standards as other teachers whom are usually dressed in dress shirts (church shirts in the summah! *___*) and suits. As long as you’re really fashionable, you’ll be great! Mind you, no cleavage.

Here in Korea, you can show as much leg as you want but upper chest exposure is an absolute “NO” for women, especially foreign women. If you’re out with your hubby and other foreigners and you can’t hide it at all if you have ample bosoms, you should still be okay. Suncheon is not Seoul, where the cleavage rule seems just a little bit more lax.

Other Foreigners

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There is a Facebook page, just look up Suncheon. There should a whole horde of foreigners coming in at the same time as you which offers you plenty of opportunities to form some great friendships. People usually meet at popular English-named bars like Elvis. That I’ve seen very few go to Boston. Mind you there are two Boston bars, one in Jorye-Dong down the street from the Homeplus. San Antonio, the go to bar before has closed. Jorye-Dong is known as the Bar-night life area. Homeplus is like Wal-mart on crack. It’s fabulous! It’s a one stop shopping extravaganza but expect to drop a very serious penny (once you step in. For regular supplies it’s best to shop at a general supplies store like DAISO. However their supplies are more limited and depending on where you live, Homeplus may be closer. There are two Home Plus(es) and one Emart. Emart is the most popular option which is why the Walmart franchise never got a foot here in the Korean market. Emart pretty much stuck it’s foot out and tripped Walmart from ever entering the country.

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However, you can find full length towels there, blankets, and comforters. Winter here even in the southern part of Korean is no joke. Once, I came to work and people asked me what was wrong. This was because I felt like my face had been frozen still!  I was positively freezing the whole Winter here. It doesn’t snow much here, so no Wintry Wonderland like the ones I was used to back in the ole’ U.S of A. Come Christmas Time it did feel like something was missing. The few times it did snow here in Suncheon, it didn’t stick and was more like icy rain falling.

On the subject of rain, it does rain a lot in Korea. Probably not as much as tropical countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, which are my parental homelands, but enough to go through 3 whole weeks of weekday-rain weekend-sun of feeling like a child cooped up in the house for 5 hours of rain, singing “Rain, rain go away….the old crazy drunk is snoring and vomiting on the sidewalk… outside my apartment”. A popular drink here when it rains is Rice Wine, Makoli. It’s also good for stamina too. Or so a lady told me when she was buying it for her husband. O_o (Whoa TMI)  

Learning Korean

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It is not necessary. It will actually be difficult to learn because if you make a mistake in Korean, you will not be corrected and many people will want to try their English speaking skills with you rather than vice versa. With some it could be a two-way street where you could help each other, but most often it will be one-sided. You will also probably have little to no time learning/studying Korean. Unless you plan on wanting to speak conversational or advanced Korean, it is not necessary to learn to read Korean either. I learned because I thought it was necessary. (I like puzzles too.) I also didn’t need to learn any Korean even while using the bus as transportation. I simply memorized the stops and the route visually.

The directors of quite a few hagwons also strongly discourage Native English teachers from using Korean at all in the classrooms. Unless you are explicitly directed not to, or aren’t sure, it’s always best to ask. I have learned that even learning a bit of Korean has made my communication a little bit easier. The students see that I am trying, so they also try their best to communicate with me. This only applies to certain situations and certain classes though.


 These can be found in detail in the notebooks I left for you. Students will not let you take their picture, so I am not able to give you a yearbook-esque journal of who’s who. Believe it or not,it will get easier once you’ve settled in. I definitely recommend keeping your

own journal of student names and then writing down the traits that best stand out to you.

At one point I was asked to make “special lessons” for students that I would see everyday since my regular middle school classes were omitted because of testing. This is a sample of what I did. I bought journals (with my own money T_T) and gave the students a topic to write on. This also encouraged discussion about the topic. I made sure the students were comfortable with asking me questions about the material or communicating if they felt uncomfortable about anything (school-related or otherwise). We were speaking about vacations once and a student told me she didn’t want to speak about it anymore. I changed the topic and continued class.

So making sure your students trust you and feel comfortable is (IMHO) the most important aspect of being able to teach any subject, but especially languages well. It’s important that the students know that they won’t be laughed at or mocked and while you as a person can FEEL this way, it needs to be proven to them through your actions. Be it through using a gentle voice, or what I do, lean down to hear the very quiet students when they speak so they don’t have to be put in the spotlight. This is difficult to do though because then the whole class will be up in a ruckus.

For Sample Lessons, see here. The only photos that belong to me are those taken of the class books and my notebooks. All other photos are courtesy of Pinterest.

One thought on “What to Expect: Teaching in Korea

  1. Pingback: Sample Lessons | TOO MUCH A.I

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