Yesterday was the end of the first semester and today is the start of our summer camp period before we finally get to take our first holiday here in Korea! Seeing as we’ve finished the first half of the normal school year I thought I’d look back on the last few months as an EPIK teacher and share my thoughts. Some have changed from when I first arrived and I am certain they will change again the longer I’m here but for now this is where things stand; this is a long one!. *Disclaimer: this is from my own experiences in a small, rural town. As a EPIK teacher in another city you may have different experiences, leave a message if you want to add anything!
Firstly I have to say that as an EPIK teacher I have a great job. Coming from a school where extra commitments were par for the course for no extra pay and vague acknowledgement, to be in a teaching environment where my teaching and work hours are so explicitly set out is fantastic. If I work over the hours in my contract I get paid, end of story. This job is also about teaching. Every day I am either teaching lessons or preparing for the next lessons; there is very little admin that I have to do. I’ve had numerous conversations with teachers, in SA and here, that say teaching seems to be more about completing admin and less about actually teaching; as an EPIK teacher I can confidently say that my job is about teaching. I am forever grateful to my co-teachers who have to do the admin in my stead.
All my schools have wanted me to stick very closely to the textbook which unfortunately doesn’t allow me to bring to much of my own creativity to a lesson but it create a very clear teaching routine. The textbooks on the whole are very useful resources, the have a clear visual layout and have level appropriate activities for the students. Sometimes the instructions use language that is far too advanced or the activity is so bizarre you have to wonder what the author could have been thinking but if you use your common sense the textbook can always be used to create a meaningful lesson. I wish I had the same kind of textbook when I grew up learning Afrikaans, maybe I would have applied myself a little more! I have also learnt that the students go mad for ‘Go Fish!’ (I have some great TEFL go fish cards at one of my schools), bingo and dominoes.
My opinion of the students has changed to a degree. I still feel that the students here are somewhat more driven and teachable than those back home but there are other obstacles. The main one is Hagwan; extra schooling that most Korean students take part in. Hagwan is generally seen by parents as more important than school so the respect for traditional schools is apparently dwindling. These extra lessons also mean that children are out ridiculously late doing further learning and they are exhausted when they get to school. In middle school it is a constant fight to stop students going to sleep. This can get very frustrating and it happens to all the teachers. I have had incidents where I have woken a student, he looks up at me and immediately puts his head back down to go to sleep again. This is possibly one of my biggest frustrations which is also exacerbated in the current heat wave. As always though there are students who are absolute gems and try hard; these are the students who make teaching worthwhile. I do feel though that the system of schooling is putting too much pressure on students. I think it would be fascinating to teach in Finland, where the country is actively lowering the school hours and see how the systems compare.
Co-teaching is a bit of a mixed bag. I have personally not had any bad experiences with my co-teachers, all of whom are lovely people who have gone out of their way to help me, but I have heard several horror stories! I won’t include those in this post as I want to keep this to my own experiences. What I do want to include about co-teachers though is my thoughts on the relationship. Essentially the Korean teacher is the boss, he or she is higher in the academic hierarchy but there is definite potential to develop quite close friendships. Regardless of the relationship between EPIK teacher and co-teacher I feel that our place EPIK teachers is to give our co-teachers the utmost respect. I don’t know if I would want to look after a foreign teacher dumped on my lap in SA but the teachers here do and they often have to look after us in their own time. I would be lost without my co-teachers.
The computers at schools here drive me utterly insane! I had a rant on facebook about this a while back but here it is again in case someone didn’t see that. There are numerous security systems on the school computers which can cause several things to happen. Flash drives rarely work as they should. If you are lucky you will find a computer that will accept your drive but I’ve had everything from not allowing me to copy from, or save work to, my drive, to not even allowing me access at all. The best solution is to keep your work on a cloud. The other problem is I have had 3 computers that won’t allow me to save literally anything. I sat and worked on a plan for 2 hours and hit save. Nothing. Nada. Could not save no matter what I did. For a country that is one of the top in the world for technology this just blows my mind.
The focus on American English can also get very annoying. I understand that American English is the most likely form the students here will encounter and I try to alter my pronunciation but when the language is blatantly wrong… One example is calling a tortoise a turtle. Really? They are significantly different biologically. Also, seeing the resources that previous EPIK teachers have left before me, there is a tendency to teach an American cultural superiority which I believe is wrong. We need to teach English and expose the students to a variety of English cultures but I think we also need to affirm their own culture and develop the English around that so they can talk to English foreigners about Korea.
On the score of resources, at every school I teach at it seems as if each successive teacher has decided to recreate their own laminated flashcards and worksheets; to hell with what was there before. I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t bring new, fresh ideas but to reinvent the wheel every time? not only is this a waste of paper it is also a waste of time. If you are new to this, first see what your previous teacher has left and then if something is missing make it, don’t just make it because ‘you want to leave your mark.’
Before we started teaching there were numerous orientations meant to prepare us for what was to come. Unfortunately, like most teaching theories, I have found that none truly captured what to expect when I started teaching here. We were given huge generalisations and most situations we were shown were in such a sterile environment that it was pointless. The orientation is a very necessary part of the process but I’d say take it with a pinch of salt. Be ready to improvise until you find your feet. The textbooks are fantastic resources even if they can be lacking in certain areas.
To close I’d like to point out that teaching a foreign language is difficult; there is nothing to fall back on. Funny quips and anecdotes you can use in class that shares your language will just be met by blank stares. If anyone who reads this is thinking about doing something like EPIK, please just take note that it is not some magical dream that you will float through. It takes a lot of real work. If you feel like you aren’t working you really need to reflect and ask if you are actually teaching the students anything. I would not change coming here but I feel that to not acknowledge the difficulty of the work is negligent. As you read in my opening paragraph I do really think I have a great job but don’t mix up having a great job with having a holiday; it is still work. If you want to come to Korea be prepared to work very hard and try learn some of the language before arriving!
This post has gotten too long so I will do a different post for my thoughts on living in Korea; stay tuned!