Notes From The Field: Codi Thompson in South Korea

For this post, we chose to highlight a huge demographic of ESL students: young learners.  One of the strongest TEFL job markets at times is South Korea, and the overwhelming majority of TEFL jobs there are with kids, ages K-12.  Codi Thompson, a BridgeTEFL CELTA course graduate was willing to share her experiences as a kindergarten teacher in Seoul, South Korea.

How does the Korean education system differ from the American education system?


The children go to school year round here with only a one week break in the summer and one week break in the winter.  Most K-12 students go to private schools, called Hagwons, at least part of the day where class sizes are no larger than twelve students per class.  Starting around elementary school most students are often in school from 9 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. with a few hours of homework once school is over.  A lot of the students also go to school every other Saturday, also.  Students work very hard their K-12 years, but once they get to University they get to relax – it’s very opposite from the United States.

What has been the most difficult cultural adjustment for you as a teacher in Korea?


The general agreement seems to be that working with children is much harder than working with adults, and I agree.  I thought that it would be easier; however, I work with ages three to six years old and they are still learning how to speak their native language, so teaching them English is that much harder.  Adults have a preconceived notion of what I’m talking about if I show a picture or try to convey an emotion, but children are still learning all of those words in Korean.  Also, you do not have to discipline an adult who wants to be in the classroom and wants to learn, but a classroom full of preschoolers is a completely different story.  Finally, I was sick for about the first two months of working here because my immune system was not used to being around children who do not know to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze.

You were a CELTA course graduate, often thought of as a certificate for adults–how has that certification aided you in your work with young learners (if it has)?


Taking the CELTA made me feel more prepared to be a teacher.  I felt like I actually knew what I was talking about, and it got me comfortable teaching in front of a live audience.  The little tricks you pick up along the way during the class, such as using pictures as much as you can in your lesson to help further illustrate your point, is extremely helpful.  Also, working with different cultures and backgrounds during teaching practice made me feel more prepared and confident when working with students.  A huge help, especially with the small children, is asking the concept check questions and being able to give clear and simple directions.  All of this I learned from taking the CELTA course.

What types of assignments do you think work the best for your young students?


Because I work with such young students I have found that singing is the most effective way for students to remember certain English words or phrases.  With the four to five-year-olds we spend a class period chanting and singing songs.  For instance, if we’re learning “Wheels on the Bus” I will get a toy bus, point out the wheels, people, door, etc, drill them on the vocabulary then sing the song.  We sing the song a few times that class period, then the next time I have them we re-visit the song and I’m always surprised at how much of the vocabulary and the lyrics they remember.

The language barrier can prove to be a big roadblock in teaching at first.  I have found that the hardest parts of teaching with a language barrier is when disciplining and giving directions.  The children know when they have done something wrong, and they know when they get caught; however, all I can really make them do is say “I’m sorry”, and ask the other child who is in tears if they are OK.  It’s harder when I do not see what happened and no one can explain it to me.  If the situation is bad enough I just have to get a Korean teacher and they sort it out.  Also, giving directions has proven to be a challenge; however, I feel more prepared with having a CELTA and going through the training.

What have you learned from your students?


I have learned that I have more patience than I ever thought I possessed in my body.  You cannot get mad and hold a grudge against a five year old.  I know it sounds silly, but some days the children can get out of hand and you feel frustrated and want to scream; however, the moment passes quickly and the child forgets that he/she did anything wrong, so you have to learn to let things go quickly.  I also learned that your lesson plans will not always go your way at all.  I have made lesson plans that I thought the children would have a blast with, only to see that they are either bored or confused.  You constantly have to have a backup plan or an alternative way of teaching a lesson.  Finally, I have learned that some days you really do not have control over a group of children.  There are days when kids are just plain antsy and unfocused, and trying to get them to focus on a worksheet or reading is impossible; therefore, you should have some sort of educational game that gets them moving and enables them to shout out answers.

What advice would you give a new English teacher considering moving to Korea to teach English?


I would say definitely go for it!  Korea is a fantastic and very safe place to live.  The perks of the job are outstanding: a great salary and a free apartment (except you pay your utilities and phone bill each month). You get 50% of your health care paid for, and the pension that you pay into each month gets matched by your school.  When your contract is up you get all of the money that was put into your pension plan.  I would also say do a ton of research on teaching in Korea.  You need to decide if you would rather work at a private or public school, and you need to research the pros and cons of each place of employment.  Also, before you accept a job at the school make sure you do a lot of research to see how they are financially, and make sure you talk to a foreign teacher who is currently working there.  Ask them how they like the school, if there are any problems, etc.

What do most westerners not know about Koreans that you wish they did?


This little list of more things you need to get used to while living in Korea:

  • If you go into a little locally owned clothing shop you will most likely not be able to try on clothes.  They will have fitting rooms; however, if you are foreign, no matter how skinny you are, they still will not usually let you try on clothes.  Westerners have more curves than they do, and they’re afraid you will stretch out their merchandise.  Don’t take it personally; they do it to the thinnest of people.

  • Koreans usually live at home until they are married.  If a woman in her 30’s has a good, steady career going and her family moves far away, she will quit her job and move with her family.

  • If you do not look Asian they will stare at you.

  • You must bring your own tissue to public bathrooms.  Most shops and restaurants are in one building, and they all share the same bathroom.

  • Koreans do not mean to be rude, but they will say or ask things that seem more forward than a Westerner is used to.  For instance: you are really big (as in fat).  How much money do you make?  Why aren’t you dating someone?


What is your favorite Korean food?


I love Korean BBQ, yukkyejong, and kimbap.  When you eat Korean BBQ you sit at a table with a built-in grill and you order different kinds of beef or pork and you grill it at the table.  Yukkyejong is a spicy soup with beef, bean sprouts, egg, onion and other vegetables with a soybean paste broth.  Kimbap is a lot like sushi with the rolled rice covered in dried seaweed; however, inside the roll there is often a radish, carrots, ham and egg.  This is a very easy and cheap snack (about $1) to eat on the go!

How does getting paid to teach English in South Korea sound? It’s time to taste the flavors and experience the culture!

Read this post for tips on getting a TEFL job in South Korea. 


This post was written by Matthew Clark.