What to expect when you’re expecting (to teach English in South Korea)

Since becoming an English teacher in this weird and wonderful place called Korea, I’ve received quite a few messages from people who are interested in doing the same. I supplied them with all the boring practical information about finding teaching work in Korea. But what I haven’t shared in any great depth are the more interesting quirks of school life here. So here is the first installment of what to expect when you’re expecting (to teach English in South Korea)…

A note on context: I teach at an all girls’ middle school. The students are around 12,13 and 14 years of age.

You will find yourself saying ‘hello’ and ‘hi’ about 50 times a day

It starts when I bump into the first gaggle of students in the morning, walking to school. They wave and say ‘Hi teacher!’, and I plaster a smile on and say ‘Hello!’ even though I really want to stick my earphones in and ignore them until I start to feel human (at around 11am). It continues with the ‘hi’ guy and the ‘good morning’ guy – the Korean school equivalent of the Schuh employees who stand at the entrance to greet you and make you feel generally uncomfortable.

And it continues throughout the day, until ‘hello’ and ‘hi’ don’t even seem like real words anymore. Try saying ‘hello’ aloud repeatedly to yourself. It’s very weird.

Korean students are also a master of what I like to call the ‘annyeonghaseyohello’. This is when I’m walking along with a Korean co-teacher and the students say ‘Hello’ and wave to me, and say ‘Annyeong Haseyo’ and bow to my co-teacher. It’s quite a beautiful maneuver.

Still, I don’t think I could ever get sick of all those lovely smiles, waves, ‘hello’s and ‘hi’s all day long.

A sign for Gaya Girls’ Middle School, where I teach

Nobody will tell you anything

Being the youngest of four children, I’m kind of used to being the last one to know anything. But being a Guest English Teacher in Korea is in a different league altogether.

It’s quite well documented that plans often don’t fall into place until the very last minute in Korea. And if you can’t speak Korean, you won’t find out until somebody is arsed translating for you. Which usually isn’t until they absolutely have to. And maybe not even then.

In my second week of teaching I arrived one morning to be told I had to teach an extra class later that day – a class group I’d already taught that week, so I didn’t have a lesson plan to use for them.

This type of situation can be understood in terms of a phenomenon called the ‘Korean Surprise’. During my training, a brilliant speaker called Bridget Maret told us that there’s two ways to deal with it. You can moan and groan like a baby, which will change absolutely nothing, or you can shout ‘KOREAN SURPRISE!’ in your mind, and imagine confetti pouring down on you.

The parents are coming to watch you teaching today: KOREAN SURPRISE, confetti everywhere!

You’re going to a staff dinner tonight: SURPRISE!

You arrive at school to find it’s closed and nobody bothered telling you it’s a day off: GOOD KOREAN SURPSRISE!

Source: Gavin NG

The kids aren’t all obedient little Hye-Mins (bear with me)

One of my ‘You’re not in Kansas anymore’ moments happened during the eight day EPIK (English Program in Korea) orientation. We were shown a video about a Korean student called Hye-Min. When I looked around to see if anyone else was laughing (Hi, I’m Hye-Min and this is my friend Clee-toris) not a single mouth was twitching.

More to the point, Hye-Min is a 16-year-old high school student in Seoul, who endures quite a punishing schedule in order to realise her dream of becoming an elementary school teacher:


It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of kids like Hye-Min, and the idea that Korean students were anything but polite and studious hadn’t occurred to me.

Fast forward to my first time teaching the second grade. They weren’t tired or stressed out; they had a LOT of energy. In they came, shouting, screaming, running around the room and beating the shit out of each other. While the first and third grades ‘Oooh’ed and ‘Ahh’ed at the fun graphics I made of K-Pop stars modelling the target language, this crowd didn’t give a shite. Nor did they care about the conversation activities I had spent ages making. I wanted to scream at them ‘I can already speak f***ing English, I’m doing all this for you ungrateful d***heads!’

How they go from lovely little angels in first grade to absolute demons in second grade, I don’t know. But one of my co-teachers told me, tongue in cheek, that North Korea won’t invade the South because Kim Jong-un is afraid of South Korean middle school second graders. I would well believe it.

Students will fall asleep in your class, and you won’t even be offended.

This applies to the Hye-Mins of the school, most them in the third grade. They go to school all day, then they go to private academies called Hagwons, and they stay up till god knows what hour trying to get their school-and-Hagwon homework done. In short, they’re wrecked. A Korean high school student made this  helpful summary:


I feel really sorry for these kids, because they don’t really get to be kids. But I can’t change the Korean education system. And I can’t say to the parents; ‘You should go easy on little Su-Min, her health and happiness are more important than her grades. I never had to go to another school after school and sure didn’t I turn out grand!’ I can’t do any of those things, but I can let students put their head down and have a snooze during English class, if that will make getting through the day a little bit easier.

Everyone will know when you do a poo in school.

Okay, this is a bit of an exaggeration. But school toilets and public toilets generally tend not to have any toilet paper in them. When out and about, this means always making sure to have a packet of tissues handy. In school there’s a few bog rolls in the staffroom, and you have to tear a bit off whenever you go to the toilet. I’ve never know discomfort quite like the first time I had to unwind a huge wad in preparation for a number 2, hoping nobody was looking at me.

While we’re in toilet territory, some people might be surprised that most toilets in my school (and most older schools) are of the squatting variety. I usually use the ‘western style’ toilet when there’s a free one, but squatting isn’t that bad once you get used to it, and it’s more hygienic too.

Flushing toilet paper also isn’t a thing in my school, as the plumbing in older buildings can’t cope with large amounts of bog roll. Instead, toilet paper is put in bin beside the toilet. And not even a discrete sanity towel type of bin, but a flimsy little plastic basket without as much as a bin liner. The sight and smell of this container of bodily excretions is to be avoided – especially first thing in the morning.

You will feel incredibly lucky, and maybe a bit fraudulent

Of course, this only applies to those of us who aren’t ‘real’ teachers. It’s not very hard to get a job teaching English in South Korea. By virtue of being a native English speaker and having managed to complete a degree in any discipline, you meet the basic requirements. Of course other qualifications, such as a masters, CELTA or teaching license can make you eligible for higher pay, and you can’t get into public schools in Busan without a minimum of a masters or CELTA.

The first time a student called me ‘Clare teacher’, I felt very strange. I wanted to say ‘Don’t call me that, I’m not a teacher – I’m just a fraud!’  I’ve found that the best way to deal with this psychological block is to remember that my students deserve a real teacher, so that’s what I have to be. Learning on the job isn’t easy, but thankfully I have plenty of resources – the internet, my EPIK (English Program in Korea) training, all my friends who have teaching qualifications.

When the going gets tough and I feel like I’ll never be a good teacher, I try to remember this worksheet that fluttered out of a text book I opened on my first day:

'I dreamed about adult's life. When I became an adult I was a teacher. I taught many students, they respect me. And I love them.'
‘I dreamed about adult’s life. When I became an adult I was a teacher. I taught many students, they respect me. And I love them.’

I am incredibly lucky that I get to live this child’s dream, without going through the terrible stresses she will have to experience. So my goal is to do the very best I can, and not waste any time wrapped up in fear and self doubt.

About Clare Hartwieg

My name is Clare Hartwieg. I come from Ireland and I'm a GET (Guest English Teacher) at a middle school in South Korea. So far I love Korea. I love the fast pace of life, the food, the bright lights, the warm and generous people – I even love my job! Please follow my blog and share my posts if you are interested in hearing about my adventures in South Korea!
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