I remember, back when I first started applying to Korea, I was keen to do all the research I could to make sure that, when I got the job I didn’t inadvertently do anything terribly wrong and offend a million people in the process. In the end, I had to stop looking things up: my brain was over saturated with information and I realised there was no substitute for getting boots on the ground and adapting to the reality, not what I was reading on a screen a million miles away.
THAT being said, I’m going to share here what I feel could be the most useful information for navigating your new workplace once you get to Korea. Of course, as a public school teacher, this is going to be far more useful for those applying to public school positions through EPIK or similar avenues.
I’ve split this post into five categories, so you can skip ahead to what interests you, or just keep on scrolling.
I’d like to point out, before going any further, that what follows is predominantly based on my experiences, and those of my friends. Every school is different, and you never know what your school and co-workers are going to be like!
I considered what to title this category for a while; attire, attitude, behaviour, appearance… None seemed to fit. And then I landed upon presentation. Yes, I know I’m an English teacher, but boy do words like to make a bid for freedom at the most inopportune times. I put presentation first for one, very simple reason: It’s the easiest thing for you to control. Get this down, and it’s one less thing for you to worry about.
NOTE: For the social graces expected by your Korean co-workers, head on down to the Co-Workers category.
The most invaluable piece of advice I was given was to smile. When you see other teacher, smile. When you see the kids, smile. When you principle is talking and you’ve no clue what is going on, smile. When your lesson goes wrong and you don’t know what do do, smile. Smile. All the time. If in doubt, smile. It’s magical.
Yes. I am putting slippers before clothes.
There have been stories on the grapevine that have reached my ears about teachers who didn’t wear slippers inside school. It’s the norm. Everyone does it. Don’t question it. Get with the program.
You have no need to worry about getting your own in the beginning. Schools always have a billion and one pairs available for guests, so you can schlep around in a pair of those till you’ve worked out what other teachers are wearing, and what you want to wear yourself. Once you’ve decided what will work for you, head over to your nearest store or log in to Gmarket. All your slipper needs are there from the simple, to the fluffy ones for winter.
Personally, I wear Birkenstocks. They’re super comfy and offer a ton of support. I currently have a closed toe pair, but aim to invest in a single strap pair on my return in 2019.
OK. The big one. With such conflicting accounts on the internet as to what you wear to school, what do you pack?
My advice, is to start formal. It’s always easier to work your way down into more casual clothes than it is to work up into more formal ones. Think about your personal style and build a wardrobe for yourself. If you’re a jeans and t-shirt kind of person, morph that into trousers and shirts, for example. Take it up a notch. Give yourself a uniform of sorts.
Every school is different, and you can’t really gauge what you can wear until you get there and see what standard the teachers in the school set. I’m writing this wearing jeans and a basic long sleeved tee. Clean and neat. Nothing too formal, it’s an average day. Many of my co-workers are in the same. Some days, I’ll dress up a little more, because I feel like it. This is as basic as I get. A friend of mine is more often than not in sports gear of some sort: it works for him, with his school.
You will need to make sure you have an outfit that works for open class days, graduations and school pictures. All the teachers, GET’s (Guest English Teachers) and Koreans alike, have a go-to outfit for these occasions. BUT as you don’t always get advanced warning, I recommend dressing in such a way that if things are sprung on you last minute, you’re not going to be feeling under-dressed.
On skirt lengths. Legs aren’t as risque a thing to show in Korea. In my first school, there was one Korean teacher who had legs for days, and wore short skirts. She paired them with lovely blouses, or jumpers in winter, and looked very stylish. So they’re OK, but take your lead from your Korean co-workers. Some schools will be more conservative than others, and expect you to keep your skirts longer.
On shoulders and cleavage. Keep shoulders covered and cleavage to the bare minimum. I work my way around this in summer by favouring kimonos: I’m covered, but cool. I’m also an avid wearer of the basic Zara vest/tank top. They are not all equal, some scoop a little lower than others, I have just grown used to pulling my kimono closed. Everybody wins. Just keep it modest, I would say.
On tattoos. Keep them covered, unless you’re school has said otherwise. Or just keep them covered anyway.
On accessories. I have multiple ear piercings that no one bats an eyelid about. I can’t speak for anything else, but I believe they’re a case by case basis, though I feel that another other visible piercing, bar a nose piercing (at a chill school), would be frowned upon and removal will be asked for – also a possibility with the nose. As for jewellery in general, you’re good to go!
With your presentation out of the way, you can spend time working out what to do about your lessons.
- THE TEXT BOOK
I came from and English teaching job where we had no textbook, and made everything in house, to a job where everything was based on a textbook – and I arrived before they did away with compulsory tests for elementary students.
I have come to appreciate the textbooks as a great foundation for English lessons, on occasion having great activities, but they definitely need to be supplemented. More on that later.
The textbooks come with an accompanying CD-Rom and teachers manual/handbook. In the early days, I relied heavily on both, before I got into the swing of things and worked out what activities worked and what I could drop.
The CD-Rom has it’s benefits, sure, and is greatly appreciated on the days you are sick as a dog with no voice, but it also has it’s problems. The intonation in recordings is sometimes off (I assume because lines are recorded separately with no context), some of the phrases are really textbook (i.e. not always used by native speakers) and the time given for students to repeat is, as times, not long enough. To bring it back to the positives, some of the games and activities in the books are really rather good!
The teacher’s manual (at least for the textbooks I have used) give a full script of each lesson, in Korean and English. What is more useful, for me, are the transcripts of all the recordings on the CD-Rom.
The CD-Rom also has a ton of supplementary printable resources and worksheets. I’ve never used them myself, but from what I’ve seen, they look pretty good!
- SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIALS
This aspect of the job takes time, regardless of whether you’ve taught before Korea or not. You need to get a feel for your school, your students and, of course, your co-teacher(s). Then you can dive in and start making your own materials or adapting what’s out there on the world wide web. There’s enough desk warming time in the day to be able to come up with whatever you like! As long as your resources tally up with the key words and expressions from each chapter, anything goes (as long as your co-teacher is on board).
PPT games are always fun – the students love them – but I would recommend keeping their use to a minimum. Over use them, and your classes will begin to expect them, or if technology decides it’s going to take a wee break for the day, you need to have things prepared that use more old-school methods.
I prefer to go more hands on as often as I can. I want my students to push their imaginations and creativity as much as they can. I love being able to give them a creative outlet in the classroom and make English fun, whether that’s a board game, a craft project, or an interactive worksheet.
Overall, I love making my own resources – this blog really speaks for itself. If you’ve made it to this post, I hope you find the other posts on this blog useful, or at least a good read!
Another useful resource is KorShare. After waygook decided it was going to demand a subscription before you could download any resources, KorShare came the go to. I don’t use it often, but when I’m caught short or lacking for inspiration, I’ll head here. The materials are fabulous, easy to find, and in general KorShare is a much nicer site than waygook ever was.
This section is more anecdotal, but the over-riding theme is: anything that makes your life easier. You never know what personalities you’ll come up against, and this is trickier for me to write as the overwhelming majority of my experiences have been awesome.
- FIRST IMPRESSIONS & GREETINGS
One of the easiest ways to give a good first impression to your new co-workers, is saying hello, every morning, in Korean. In my first school, I had to go and pick up the key for the English classroom every morning from the main teachers office (교무실), and I was often the one returning it at the end of the day. This is where the Vice Principal hangs out. So every morning and afternoon, I’d pop in, bow, and say my good mornings and my goodbyes. In Korean.
Similarly, if you’re walking down a corridor and you see another teacher, bow and say hello (again, in Korean). If it’s the Principal or Vice Principal, definitely bow and say hello. It doesn’t have to be the deepest of bows, after all it’s not a gesture that comes easily to many of us, but you’re in Korea now. Do it. When in Rome, and all that!\
Frankly, the biggest annoyance over the whole thing is when you go to bow and bust out the Korean, and the Korean teacher waves at you and bust out the English, you end up employing the awkward bow-wave. But what the hell, it’s the thought that counts, and the gesture itself, whatever habit you slip into, is what matters.
But still, always bow for Principal and Vice Principal
- MAIN CO-TEACHER (HANDLER)
This is the person who (should) meet you on your first day, and the one who handles your paperwork etc. If you have any problems, or anything you need to discuss, they’re your first port of call.
Generally, they are also an English teacher, but that is not always the case, in which case they are more of a handler. My first “co-teacher” (CT) was more of a handler. We taught one class together, as she was a home room teacher. The English teacher was also a contract teacher, and as such couldn’t be my official CT, despite her being the one with whom I taught most.
How the CT’s are assigned depends on the size of the school as much as anything else. You either get lucky, or you don’t, but remember if you end up with a trickier individual, that puts more onus on you to make the effort.
As GET’s (Guest English Teacher’s) we are all, pretty much, marching to the beat of the same drum. We have the same contracts, we know what is expected of us. The interpretation on the Korean side of things is a little more hazy – again coming on a school by school basis. Ultimately, we’re the guests, so take your lead from your CT, but know your contract, just in case!
- CO-TEACHERS (TEACHING)
So you have your main CT, who you may or may not teach with, and then you have your regular CT’s. They could be dedicated English teachers, or they could be homeroom teachers. It depends on the size of your school, and the number of English teachers on the staff.
My first school was smaller. In the first semester I was there, there was 1 English teacher, and myself, meaning I spent 50% of my classes with homeroom teachers, many of whom spoke little to no English. In the second semester I was there, it went up to two English teachers, one who became my Main CT, and the contract teacher. This meant that all my classes were taught with a CT.
Then I moved schools. My first two years in my new, much bigger school, all my lessons were taught with CT’s (three Korean English teachers and myself). However, the student population in our school has been steadily rising and where there used to be 5-6 classes per grade, there are now 7-8. Now I teach exclusively with homeroom teachers.
I have to say at this point that not all my CT’s, across 5 different schools, have been good. One in particular went so far as to not allow me to say words such as “tomato”. As a Brit, my pronunciation is, obviously, different. I’m all about teaching both, as the English speakers of the world have a million different accents, but this one teacher was of the ‘American or Nothing’ school of pronunciation. Nor did I care much for their teaching style. It happens. But I learnt from them nonetheless. I learned how I didn’t want to teach. I observed the students reactions, looked to see what they struggled with. Ultimately, though, those days weren’t happy ones. Luckily it was only my second school for one semester.
It happens. Sometimes you draw the short straw. But it’s not the end of the world. The teaching positions rotate every March when a new school year begins, and it’s worth holding out for.
This was an awful lot of backstory for the point I am aiming to make, which boils down to this: You never know what kind of co-teacher you’re going to end up with.
If they’re open to your ideas, great. If they’re not, make things anyway, you never know when they’ll be useful. If they love you, awesome. If they’re not your biggest fan, it’s no biggy. Whether you get on or not, respect your CT and be polite.
Who’d have thought this could be a contentious subject, but even if none of the following comes to pass, it’s best to have an awareness of the in’s and out’s.
Unless you have dietary requirements that stop you from doing so, eat lunch with your co-workers, at least initially. If nothing else, it’s a great opportunity to get to know and make bonds with your co-workers.
It is also possible to eat school lunches whilst avoiding what you don’t like, or eating a little less. Talk to your co-workers about the menu, show an interest, be adaptable in what you do and don’t eat. It creates
Sadly, not all school cafeterias are equal, but that’s luck of the draw.
Hoesiks, or staff dinners, are an important part of Korean life.
Even if you don’t want to. Even if you feel awkward. You’re part of the team now, so show up, eat what you can, smile, nod, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
Sometimes, hoesiks can be a laugh, sometimes not so much. Sometimes the alcohol is flowing, sometimes not so much.
When it comes to drinking, follow the Korean standards as best you can. Hold your right arm with your free hand as you pour, and hold your soju glass with two hands. Drink facing away from the person beside you who is oldest (if you know). If you don’t have all this down, don’t sweat it, but if you are clearly making the effort, it will be appreciated.
A lot of the time, what happens after the hoesik depends on whether you’re male or female. To my knowledge, it is generally more likely that the men carry on for the 2nd, 3rd or (heaven forbid) 4th round. It’s less common for the women. Not to say they don’t. Once again, this very much depends on the school, and of course the age and stage of life of the teachers (i.e. if they have kids).
I have found there are two times of day where teachers will come together for a coffee and a snack. The morning 20 minute break, and after lunch.
Snacks are a communal thing. A story that has resonated with me since my first year in Korea boiled down to this: Don’t bring a banana as a snack for work. You can’t share it. If you bring something, be prepared for everyone to tuck in.
You may have noticed, if you’re a long time reader of the blog, that I’m a baker. When I bake, more often than not I bring the fruits of my labour to school to be shared by whoever rolls through our office. I get all the benefits of stress baking, and my co-workers get all sorts of exciting cakes to try. This year I made them a traditional Christmas cake, from scratch, marzipan and all. They loved it. It was so new and unique for them.
Now baking might not be your thing, but bringing in some fruit, some biscuits or cookies, or snacks in general will always be much appreciated.
On coffee. Coffee is a big thing in Korea, and these wee paper cups will become a constant in your daily work life. Many Korean’s associate coffee with break time, not the stimulant that may or may not be pivotal to the start of your day it has become in the west. As such, the coffee industry has boomed.
There are many coffee brands in Korea. the main ones being Kanu and Maxim, and they both bake a wide variety of stick coffee’s from plain black, right through to lattes. You can find these in any supermarket. They’re not that bad. Not the best, but not bad. If you find a favourite, and find that your school doesn’t have it, bring your own. If you’re not a coffee drinker, there’s usually tea floating about. If there isn’t, bring your own.
As with lunches, get involved. Hang out with your co-workers. Bonding with your colleagues, as best you can depending on the personalities in your school, is one of the most valuable things you can do.
Just a few bits and pieces of extra information…
- KOREAN SURPRISES
The plans will change. They will change on the day. Sometimes, you might not know till you rock up to class and the homeroom teacher sends you packing. Don’t take it personally. It’s totally normal.
Korea will challenge your flexibility, and mould it into a skill – if you let it. To be able to teach on the fly is very useful. I recommend always having back-up activities up your sleeve, and never underestimate the power of Pictionary or Hangman.
- OTHER GET’s
I didn’t know any other public school teachers until 8 months into my first year; all my friends were hagwon teachers. I was nearly the difference between me staying in Korea, or leaving. Then I found them: the one’s who were like me. I cannot tell you the difference it made.
Having friends, in general, is vital. Having people who you go to for a chat about whats happening at school is just as important. Other people who are in the same boat, who can offer an alternative perspective, made all the difference to me.
So those teacher’s meetings the Offices of Education have; go to them. Even if it’s just to make friends, go. You won’t regret it.
If you made it to the end of this mammoth post, I salute you!
If this has raised more questions than it’s answered, please feel free to fire a question my way in the comments or send an email.
If there’s anything you want further clarification on, again, comment or email.
If you get to Korea and there are still things you want to know, don’t be afraid to drop me a line!